Date: Easter III + 4/22/07
Strip away all our pretenses, our safeguards, our securities, our defenses, our illusions of safety and life and most all people are revealed for what they are: trembling, helpless, defenseless sheep. There are those employed and in positions to guard and protect us and our children including the armed forces, police, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, teachers and parents. For there are wolves out there who seem driven to only one thing, attacking, killing and eating the sheep.
On an otherwise secular university campus a wolf appeared, attacked and killed 32 defenseless individuals and traumatized the rest of the flock. Why? The only “reason” we can come up with is because that’s just what wolves do. People were quick to criticize. “If only wolves did not have teeth they couldn’t hurt anyone.” Others criticized the “shepherds” that they didn’t adequately protect the sheep. But when the remaining sheep gathered in the pen they gave their shepherds a standing ovation for they knew it wasn’t the shepherds’ fault! It was the wolf. The shepherd-in-chief of this flock we call America was even there to console and comfort and project healing and hope.
Now I know that I have stretched the metaphor of today’s scripture readings a bit. For the promises of God and comfort of the Gospel do not apply directly to all people and circumstances but specifically to people who belong to God, the people to whom God has come and made solemn covenant promises, in other words, Christians. At the same time we note that the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel were addressed to those who were rejecting Him, namely, the Pharisees. The problem is not just the wolves that can be easily identified wreaking havoc, destruction and murder at every turn, but also the wolves that sneak in among the flock in sheep’s clothing. When our Lord Jesus Christ says, “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me,” he means to teach that we his followers, his believers, his disciples, his sheep, are to listen for his voice, to believe and rely and live on his word. At the same time He also warns us against false teachers and teachings, voices other than that of our Good Shepherd that have the effect of abandoning and scattering the sheep.
Of all the animals, God created sheep to be a sign of the loving, saving relationship he desires with all people. For one thing sheep served as the sacrificial animal of the Passover. The final plague that would convince Pharaoh of Egypt to release the Israelites from slavery was the death of the first born of every household. To protect and deliver His own people from the angel of death, God commanded the slaughter of a perfect lamb and the painting of its blood on the doorposts as the sacramental sign that preserved and saved them. The Passover Lamb pointed forward to the sacrifice of the only Son of God on the cross of Calvary, the Lamb of God whose blood takes away the sin of the world and its wages of death. This is the first and most important thing, to believe in Jesus as our Savior from sin, death and hell, who purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.
In addition to serving as a sacrificial animal pointing to Christ’s sacrificial love, however, sheep also serve as an example of Christian faith and obedience. Sheep, more than other animals, have sharp hearing that recognizes, can identify and distinguish the unique voice of their shepherd to the point that they remain almost deaf to any other voices. They respond to and follow the voice of the shepherd who cares for them and leads them to green pastures and safe shelter. When we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he is saying that we are to know, identify and distinguish his voice as our unique Shepherd, follow him and, like sheep, remain deaf to other voices.
From this we are to learn that we must not only continually hear God’s Word but also hear it in a way that we may be enabled to distinguish the pure doctrine from false doctrine, philosophies, teachings and teachers.
Preaching on this text Martin Luther put it this way:
This is fundamental: Christ knows his sheep and, in turn, the sheep know Christ. It, therefore, follows that for the sake of faith, Christ alone should be preached to his little sheep, that he has given his life for the sheep and they are to emulate his example with works of love. A faithful preacher, therefore, should present nothing other to his people than Christ only, so that people learn to know him, who he is, and what he gives, and do not wander away from his word of promise, “I am the good shepherd, and give my life for the sheep,” but believe that he alone is to be esteemed as the true Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. That is what should be preached to the people, so that they may learn to know their Shepherd.
Let us therefore preach Christ alone. He is, above all, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us his sheep. By his sacrificial death on the cross the righteous wrath of God against the sin of the whole world has been reconciled so that in Christ the Father looks with nothing but love toward his whole creation. Of course that love includes tears of pity for those who reject his great gift of redemption. But for those who labor and are heavy laden and repent of their sin and separation he applies the healing balm of forgiveness, peace, love and the promise of eternal life in the resurrection. The Good Shepherd bears with you and even carries you on his shoulders when you are weak or tempted to go astray. As the Apostle Paul said it, you can be convinced and assured that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
Dear sheep of the Good Shepherd, he knows you. Both in times of national tragedy or of personal fears, troubles, sufferings and losses, He would have you know Him and that He alone is able to guard, protect and deliver you. Sometimes we just need a hug, a loving, firm embrace. In the glow of our Easter celebration, this is one of those times. In the words of an old hymn we pray:
Savior like a shepherd lead us;
Much we need your tender care.
In your pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use your fold prepare.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
You have bought us; we are yours.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
You have bought us; we are yours. [LSB 711]
“May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” [Hebrews 13:20-21].