Good Shepherd Sunday St. John, Galveston 4/25/20
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For centuries the Church has observed Good Shepherd Sunday during the season of Easter. The Gospel reading for the Sunday is always from John’s Gospel because, of all the gospel writers, John emphasizes most frequently and most vividly the Shepherd / Sheep relationship that exists between us and Jesus. In this morning’s reading, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
There’s no question that we love and treasure the image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Artists often depict Jesus tending and leading His flock. He walks through the field, staff in hand. His sheep remain close by His side because they’ve learned to trust Him. They know the sound of His voice. He holds a lamb in His arms, shielding it from harm and danger. Those sorts of images are etched in our hearts and minds and they bring us comfort when we need it most, in part, because they aren’t based on idle speculation or longing, but, on the very Word of God. Indeed, as the Psalmist said, “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. And, yeah, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.”
The prospect of shepherding a flock of sheep though isn’t all peace and calm. From the Shepherd’s perspective, the sheep face any number of enemies, predators who desire to devour them. The sheep may not even know what enemies are out there, but the Shepherd does. So, He’s on the alert, vigilant, ready to defend His flock. He’s courageous and strong, ready to fight for His flock, even if it means He’ll have to lay down His life to protect them.
From the sheep’s perspective, there is a tendency to want to wander away from the fold, and ultimately from the protective care of the shepherd. There is a verse in one of our hymns that says, “What punishment so strange is suffered yonder! The Shepherd dies for sheep who love to wander; The Master pays the debt His servants owe Him, Who would not know Him.” The Scriptures too support the sheep’s tendency to wander away from the Shepherd, to try to care for themselves. “We all like sheep have gone astray (writes the Prophet Isaiah), everyone has turned to his own way.”
The beast, the demon, if you will, we all wrestle in life, isn’t outside of us, rather it’s inside. It’s tendency to wander away from the care of our Shepherd. Ultimately, it’s our desire for control over our own lives. It’s at the root of the classic struggle between man and God. Adam broke God’s command because he wanted to know what God knew. He wanted to be like God. God says, “I am the Lord your God. I am the Creator of the heavens and the earth. I am the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. I am the one who put the stars in the sky. I make the planets revolve around the Sun and I cause the earth to bring forth fruit and to sustain life. I am the Lord of life. I call forth the dead and the dead hear My voice, and they rise at My command.” God says all these things and more, and, in our flesh, in our old broken nature, we say, “but, wait a minute! What can I do! Why can’t I be in control?”
To confess Jesus as your Shepherd is to confess His Lordship over your life, which is ultimately to confess that, in the grand scheme of things, you are not in control. It isn’t easy for any of us to acknowledge that fundamental aspect of our relationship with God because to one degree or another we’re all “control freaks.” God, as it turns out, knew exactly what He was doing when He put the words, “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, and when He gave us the very first of His commandments, which says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” which includes the god of self.
The fact that we’re not in control of our lives is ultimately for our protection. After all, we don’t know what God knows. Our insight into our lives is, in the end, merely hindsight, whereas He knows us better than we know ourselves. “I know My sheep (He says).” And, more importantly, He’s our shepherd who lays down His life for us.
The Shepherd knows your enemies, and He knows you, again, better than you know yourself. And it’s because you have such formidable enemies, both outside of yourself, as well as, inside, the Shepherd lays down His life for you. The Isaiah passage that I quoted earlier, where he wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray. Everyone has turned to his own way,” ends with Isaiah saying, “and the Lord has laid on Him (that is, our Shepherd) the iniquity (the sin) of us all.”
And so, Jesus, the Good Shepherd calls you to stop wandering, to let go of your god complex, through daily contrition and repentance, and to follow Him. His call though isn’t harsh. It’s gentle and it’s in its gentleness that it’s so compelling. “Come unto Me (Jesus says) all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “I am the Good Shepherd (He says). I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In His grace, God has called you into His fold. In Holy Baptism, He led you beside still waters, and as that water was combined with His gracious Word, He restored your soul. Even your fear of the valley of the shadow of death is set at bay, for God is with you, His rod and His staff they comfort you. Day in and day out He leads you down paths unknown, sometimes to places unknown and virtually always to situations unknown. And though along the way it’s tempting to ask, “God, do you really know what you’re doing?” “Shouldn’t I take the lead for a while?” “I mean, wouldn’t it be better, in this particular situation, if I were in control? Though all those questions come to mind, He assures you that He has you in the palm of His hand and that nothing (neither life, nor death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor any other created thing) will ever be able to snatch you from His hand or separate you from His love in Christ Jesus.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is an endearing one. It invokes images of peace and calm, of safety and security. Having laid down His life for you, Jesus holds you tenderly, yet powerfully, in His arms, protecting you from those things that would destroy your body and soul. When sin, death and the devil threaten to steal you away, to confine you to hell, He steps forward and He says, “take Me.” “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +