Revelation 7:9-17 / Easter 4C / 21 April 2013 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
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 every tear from their eyes. – Rev. 7:17
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
Of all the images in the Bible, the most comforting, endearing, and enduring is that of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The image goes back to Psalm 23 and King David the shepherd-king who wrote as one of the Lord’s flock, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays His life down for the sheep, who calls His sheep by name, whose voice His sheep hear and follow to eternal life.
It is one of the great and wonderful paradoxes of the New Testament that the images of lamb and shepherd coalesce in Jesus. He is both Lamb and Shepherd, both Sacrifice and King, the one who dies and rises and the one who lords His death and resurrection over us to save us. At His birth, shepherds left their lambs in the fields of Bethlehem to worship Him. In His death He is most Lamb and most Shepherd, giving His life into Death and leading humanity through the dark valley of Death to eternal life.
“God so loved the world” – He loved the world in this way – “He sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.”
“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.”
Jesus came as God’s Lamb, the substitute for humanity under the Law, the appointed Sacrifice for Sin which all the sin sacrifices of the Old Testament prefigured and anticipated. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is how God loves the world – in His Lamb. This is how God deals with the Sin of the world – in the Lamb. This is how Sin is washed away – by the blood of the Lamb. This is how the sinner stands justified before God – in the Lamb. This is how we are sheep of the Lord’s flock and people of His pasture – by being baptized into the Lamb.
When you think of “shepherd,” you think of goodness and mercy. You think of self-sacrifice, of the shepherd who literally becomes one of the sheep, giving up his life for them, who washes them and tends them and feeds them and protects them.
Sadly, our mechanized, industrial farming and ranching doesn’t leave us much of a picture of the shepherd. The Palestinian shepherd was much different from our ranch hands and herders. The shepherd of Jesus’ day was literally a member of the flock. The sheep looked to him as one of their own. He knew each of them the way we know our pets. Their foibles, their idiosyncrasies. He gave each of them a unique name, and he had a special way of calling them so their ears would always be attuned to their shepherd’s voice. They’d never follow a stranger, but they’d follow their shepherd anywhere. Even when he would lead them through dark and treacherous valleys with the wolves watching from the cliffs overhead – “the valley of the shadow of death” – the sheep would fear no evil because their good shepherd was with them.
As comforting as the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is, it also brings a rather discomforting thought. We’re sheep. It’s one thing to sing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.” Lambs are cute. But sheep are anything but cute. They’re stubborn, prone to wander, dependent, high maintenance, and ornery. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Not a pretty picture, is it? Sheep need to be led and guided, or they will perish. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.” We need to be guarded against the wolves, warded off of the polluted puddles and the poisoned weeds. We are utterly dependent upon our Good Shepherd for every good and perfect gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and without Him we perish.
This is the end of any notion that we are self-sufficient, dependent on no one, and that we are able to fend for ourselves in spiritual matters. It’s not even true for things like daily bread, and it’s even less true for our eternal life. We are doomed, isolated in Sin, led as sheep to the slaughter. We are caught in a trap from which we cannot free ourselves and are facing a very dark and long valley called “this life” in which fierce wolves and false teachings and dangers to body and soul lurk around every dark corner.
Our old Adam takes exception to all this. We’d rather be something other than spiritual sheep. A proud peacock perhaps, strutting its tail feathers for all the world to admire. Or a sleek cat, a loyal dog, a strong horse, a bull. Really, if you’re going to run with animal metaphors, let it be anything but a sheep.
“Sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” Luther said that every reasonably enlightened seven year old recognizes at least this much about the church. The church is a flock of blood-bought sheep who hear the voice of their Lamb and Shepherd calling to them from out of their Baptism. “Follow me.” And they follow Him. They hear His Word. He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish. Death cannot harm them. The devil is no threat to them. Sin and the Law cannot touch them. They go through the dark valley of this world hearing the voice of Jesus calling them. He’s gone ahead of them through death and the grave. He’s risen from the dead, and now like a shepherd calling his sheep to follow him through the valley, He leads them from death to life.
That’s what it means to follow Jesus: to die and rise together with Him, something already declared done to you in your Baptism. It means to walk through the darkness, despair, and danger of this present age fearing no evil knowing that Christ, your Lamb and Shepherd is with you.
This week we had yet another reminder of the depravity of man and the dangers of this life – a couple of homemade bombs made out of nails and ball bearings in a pressure cooker set off in a crowd that was gathered to watch the Boston Marathon. You would think that you would be safe in the daylight in the streets of your city to watch a race and cheer on your friends and family. It was supposed to be a fun day but the darkness of Sin and our depravity intruded, as they always do. Our notions of safety and security turn out to be quite illusory. There is no safe place in this world, not even locked away in your own homes.
The aftermath of this incident was noteworthy. A city completely shut down. A man hunt. A couple of shoot-outs with police. One is dead, another in custody. The now obligatory religious service in the public square with the president serving as preacher in chief. A big infusion of Boston bravado with defiant calls to “take back our city.” Suddenly everyone seems to have discovered the words to the national anthem, and they’re now singing it out loud all together as opposed to listening half-heartedly to some pop singer mangle it. That’s a good thing. I hope it lasts.
You will recognize in all this grief at work. The grief over death, over the realities of Sin, over the fallenness of this world where no one is truly safe. We may shake our fists defiantly and yell out profanities into the wind, but like road rage, it doesn’t really go to the heart of our grief. It doesn’t speak to the senselessness of death, of violence, of evil.
In this fourth week of Easter, on Good Shepherd Sunday, the open and empty tomb stands as a kind of “war memorial” to a battle fought once for all on a cross outside of Jerusalem. There the Lamb of God, our Good Shepherd, paid the price to redeem sinful humanity, including you and me, from a horrible and eternal captivity to Sin and Death. He became Sin for us. His Death is our death. The open, empty tomb testifies that Death has lost its sting, the Grave has been vanquished. Nothing in this life – not disease, not acts of violence and terror, not disasters natural or man-made – can snatch you out of the Good Shepherd’s hand.
Exiled on the island of Patmos, taken from family, friends, and congregation, John saw only defeat, despair, and death all around him. He saw a church that was poor and fragmented, weak and scattered. He saw the forces of power and darkness seeming to gain the upper hand and triumph. But for his comfort and strength, and for ours too, he was given to see the church in her glory, white-robed sheep gathered around the Good Shepherd, their robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb. The great tribulation of this life had given way to the glory of the life to come.
That vision is yours too. It’s the vision of what is now by faith and not yet in your possession. It’s the hope of resurrection and life that awaits you, and it’s the joy of eternal life and glory that is already yours in Christ. This is the green pasture to which the Good Shepherd is leading you and has gone ahead of you. This is where “follow me” leads you:
“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 every tear from their eyes.”
In the name of Jesus,