My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
Sheep and Shepherd. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter. In Latin Miseracordias Domini Sunday. The merciful heart of the Lord. And no image more clearly captures the merciful heart of the Lord than that of the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.
Jesus was walking about the temple grounds. It was winter, the feat of Dedication, Chanukah. He was in the colonnade of Solomon, the son of David. The Son of David in the colonnade of the son of David. Prophesy and fulfillment meet. Naturally there is religious interest in Jesus. He’s created quite a stir healing the sick, cleansing lepers, driving out demons, raising the dead. He’s drawn a lot of interest and quite a following. The religious gather around Him to quiz Him some more. Are you the Christ? Stop beating around the bush and tell us plainly. We need to know whether we should invest in or not. So tell us, Jesus. And none of those clever parables and funny sayings of yours. Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah or not?
The works speak for themselves, Jesus says. So do His words. There’s no question that Jesus claimed to be the promised Messiah, the Christ. He also claimed God as His Father, that He was sent by the Father to do His Father’s saving will. He claimed that He and the Father were one, that is, one in essence.
Still they did not believe. In fact, they took up stones to kill Him. They sought ways to have Him arrested. They sought ways to get rid of Him. He was inconvenient, an embarrassment. He challenged their religious notions. He laid waste to their concept of righteousness as something earned. He challenged the very foundations of their religion. He almost seemed indifferent to the temple as He walked its colonnades. The temple which was so central to the worship of Israel. The temple with its troubled history – destroyed and rebuilt, captured and desecrated, recaptured and purified (the reason the Feast of the Dedication or Chanukah celebrated). Herod was undertaking a massive renovation of the temple, in order to earn the favor of the people. Yet Jesus seems rather cool and indifferent toward the temple. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” The temple, of course, was His own body, His flesh which He would give for the life of the world. The lesser gave way to the greater.
With Jesus, all the prophetic images coalesce and combine. Temple, priesthood, sacrifice, Lamb, Shepherd. Jesus is all of these, and all of these prepared for the coming of Jesus. He is the dwelling of God with man, the High Priest of humanity, the sole sacrifice for sin, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.
Oddly, He was rejected by those who were looking for Him. They refused to be part of His flock, they refused Him as their shepherd, and in their refusal, they were blind to who Jesus is. And so instead of hearing His voice and following Him, they took up stones and plotted to kill Him.
We’re considerably more polite. Maybe we don’t throw stones at Jesus these days, and crucifixions are long thing of the past and wouldn’t pass muster being both cruel and unusual punishment. We’re more inclined to ignore Him, marginalize and mythologize Him. Leave Jesus safely on a shelf somewhere. Out of sight, out of mind. We’re more inclined to turn our attention on our needs, our sense of purpose, our well-being, looking out for #1 (meaning me). Jesus call to follow Him is drowned out by what seem to be more urgent calls. His call to repentance is replaced by more comfortable religions that promise a better return on our faith investment than to take up our cross and follow HIm. The big proof has been offered to the world in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and still we clamor for proof, scientific proof, some clincher that Jesus is the one, the real deal, the one who will work for us.
Make no mistake about it. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian pastors that fierce wolves would come after he left, twisting doctrine, distorting grace, not sparing the flock, drawing disciples to themselves. Some would even come from within the ranks of their own. Pastors who strayed from the truth for some novelty, something different, something marketable. The same exists today. The enemies to the Gospel come both from outside and inside the Church. It may surprise us, but it shouldn’t. It was true at the time of the apostles too.
Probably the most destructive books today are not written by atheists. It’s easy to get all wound up by people who mock religion in general and Christianity in particular, people like Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.
That’s why the Church always remains an article of faith, something confessed and believed but not seen. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We believe precisely because we can’t see, and because the church really isn’t much to look at. That, perhaps, is the greatest deception of our day, that where the biggest and richest and loudest is going on, there God must be at work. But the fact of church history is that the novelties were always more popular. We are so much like sheep, everyone going in his own spiritual direction, sipping from polluted puddles, munching on deadly weeds, following wayward paths that lead to death and destruction. Or as Isaiah put it poetically, “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone has turned to his own way.”
That’s really the point of comparison with Jesus the Good Shepherd and we as sheep of His pasture. It’s not that sheep are stupid or stubborn so much as they are wandering and wayward. They are dependent on their Shepherd who leads them, feeds them, brings them to fresh and living water, tends their wounds, sets them on their feet, literally lays down His life for their life. That’s the image of the church gathered around Jesus, around His Word and Sacraments, and what Jesus is doing for us.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Holy lambs and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. That’s how Luther described the church. That would apply to us gathered here this morning. A flock gathered around its good Shepherd. And Jesus here to feed and lead, to bring us to the refreshing waters of Baptism, to restore our souls with His forgiveness, to set a table in the presence of our enemies, to anoint our heads with the oil of gladness.
He knows you, better than you know yourself. He calls you by your name. He goes ahead of you through the dark valley of the shadow of Death and the grave. He conquered them for you, so you need fear no evil. He comforts you with the rod and staff of His Word.
There is a promise. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Those cross-scarred hands of Jesus hold your life in a way that you cannot. Your hold on your life is a tenuous hold at best. A little pinch grip of the present moment, nothing more. You realize that every time you get a taste of your own mortality. A health scare perhaps, or a near accident. Or one of those “life flashes before your eyes” incidents. Or just the dawning realization that “dust you are and to the dust you return.” All you have is this present moment, and that isn’t much. One day, you will lose your grip on your life. We all eventually will, like it or not. But One does not. Jesus holds your life wholly and entirely, in a way that you cannot. He’s got the whole world in His hands. He has your life in His hands, and nothing can ever snatch you away from Him.
You see, it’s not about your grip on Jesus, but His grip on you. It’s the grip of your Baptism by which you were buried in Jesus and joined with Him in His death and life. It’s the grip of His Word doing its killing and making alive thing with you. Killing the sinner, drowning the sin, literally making a sheep out of a goat, a believer out of an unbeliever. A child of the Father, a member of the family, a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s pasture. You see, sheep don’t make a flock, shepherds do. Sheep constitute a flock, but the shepherd gathers them. And when you’ve been gathered by the Good Shepherd, you’ve been gathered forever.
On the island of Patmos, the apostle John was privileged to see and hear something few people get to see in this life. The heavenly side of worship. The liturgy of heaven. What he saw was a countless multitude waving palm branches, like an eternal Palm Sunday, worshipping a Lamb who was slain but lives, seated at the right hand of the Father, surrounded by four living creatures representing the whole created order, by 24 elders representing the old and new testament church, surrounded by countless angels.
The description of that congregation John saw is a description of the Good Shepherd’s flock, of you too in Jesus. Listen again to what John heard:
“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (What other blood do you know that makes things white?)
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes.”
That’s about you too. That’s your destiny in Jesus. That’s your life as it is held now in Jesus. Jesus is your Good Shepherd; you lack nothing in Him. And in Him, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In the name of Jesus,