Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018
Jesus Is the Good Shepherd
The image of the shepherd is something most of us are used to and almost take for granted as something that goes hand in hand with Christianity. Some of us are even aware that the title “pastor” is derived from the Latin word which means shepherd. The shepherd imagery extends, at least, as far back as David, who, as you know, was a shepherd of his father’s sheep before slaying Goliath and being brought into Saul’s court. Such talk of shepherds and the Shepherd are to be found in the prophets as in the Psalms. In these writings there is a contrast set up as the unfaithful leaders of Israel are labeled as bad shepherds who lead or leave their sheep to the wolves (Jer 23). And as we love Psalm 23, we have a shining example of God being the Shepherd that leads and does the duty of a faithful shepherd as only God can do.
Our Gospel reading is set in the context of a polemic against those current leaders of Israel. Jesus is holding them accountable as the shepherds preached against by Ezekiel (34) and then refers to Himself as that Shepherd, who is gathering the sheep and will do the duty of a shepherd by leading them to good pastures and protecting them from the wild beasts. He is doing that which shepherds are called to do. He does what is necessary for the care and the safety of the sheep. For them; for us, He lays down His life.
It is hard to imagine a shepherd going so far as to give up his life for the sake of his sheep. But, that is what makes the imagery so vivid. Why would a shepherd sacrifice himself for the sake of a few sheep. It may not be easy, but he could presumably get more. But these are his sheep and he cares for them. It seems ridiculous that Jesus would lay down His life for us; that He would stand His ground and allow the ravenous wolf attack Him in order to save us. It is what sets Him apart from those other appointed shepherds that instead line their pockets at the expense of the sheep.
You are probably familiar with the great I AM statements in Johns Gospel; those statements of Jesus where He says, “I AM,” as Moses was told I AM has sends you. This is one of those instances. Jesus declares, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” It is emphatic as He claims the role of the divine Shepherd and the name of the one true God. It is not just an argument He is having with the Pharisees, it is a judgment against them. It is the reason that they hate Him and seek His death. His every word undermines their authority and ruins their lucrative gig of fleecing the flock.
But Jesus doesn’t have to use force. He doesn’t have to use hate or defamatory speech. He simply speaks the truth and His words reveal what is true. He opens the Scriptures and proclaims what has always been proclaimed, And the word binds and sets free. It condemns the evil actions of the Pharisees and it frees the sheep from oppression as they hear His voice.
I recently read and account of one that traveled to the Holy Land and witnessed, first hand, the call of a shepherd and the response of the sheep. It seems that a number of sheep from a boy’s flock were separated and subsequently rounded up for safe keeping by the authorities. The sheep were penned with a larger flock, so that they were indistinguishable from the others. When the boy arrived to claim his lost sheep, the officer demanded some proof that even one of the sheep actually belonged to him. So the boy drew his whistle from his pocket, called out to the sheep and blew his identifying tune and immediately all that he had lost came trotting over to him where he then claimed them from the officer in charge.
As Jesus says that He knows His own and His own know Him, we know from our confession of the Creed that the important part of this is that He knows us. For in the explanation to the Third Article, we state that we cannot believe by our own reason or strength but that the holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens us. As Jesus makes His identifying call into the throng we are made to hear and respond by the Spirit’s prodding. As we hear His call in the Scriptures, it is the Spirit that tunes our ear such that we hear the clear tone of the Gospel and so know our Lord. Even as we listen to His undershepherds, we are brought to discern our Lord’s forgiveness in their words.
The other sheep that must be brought also are you (most of you). These other sheep are those that are not counted among Israel. Jesus is telling them that the Gospel is broader than they imagine. His redemption is great enough to include more than just the descendants of Abraham. His flock will enfold even the Gentiles, those from other tribes and nations, even the Romans. As these other sheep are gathered in, there will be only one flock, no distinction as to where the sheep had come from, what language they had spoken or what lineage they belonged to. The only thing that matters is that the Good Shepherd called to them and they heard His voice.
It seems strange to us that the Father would love Jesus because He lays down His life for the sheep as if the Father wouldn’t love Jesus if He did differently. But it is precisely because of this identity as the Good Shepherd that the Father does love Jesus. In this love, He is the Good Shepherd. By this love, He lays down His life. It comes back to the definition of love as being sacrificial. To be known as the Good Shepherd is an expression of God’s love and to be loved by God is for Jesus to be that Good Shepherd that lays down His life and takes it up again.
And so we are. “Last week’s Epistle reading from 1 John 3, began, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Love is expressed in being identified as one of God’s own, whether as a child or a lamb. God’s love for you is expressed in His love for His Son, the Good Shepherd that loves the Father by laying down His life for the sheep. So, Jesus loves the Father by loving you and laying down His life for you and then taking it up again that He might present you to the Father as the object of His love. And this is what He does in His ongoing ministry of His Church in Word and Sacrament.
Jesus loves you. His death and resurrection tell you so.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!