The Good Shepherd Cares for His Sheep
A sermon based on John 10:11-18
Sunday, May 7th, 2017 – Easter 4B (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Let's see a show of hands. Who here has ever seen a sheep in real life? Alright, now who has pet a sheep before? Okay, now who has ever owned a sheep? Fewer hands, aren't there? We, in this room, aren't really that agricultural, are we? We're not cowboys. We're not shepherds. So the imagery of a shepherd might not be as rich to us as it was to the Israelites of Jesus day.
Israel has always been an agricultural society. Think of the famous shepherds in the Bible—Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons, Moses, and David, just to name a few. The image of a shepherd watching his sheep out in the field, would have been a very well-known picture to the Israelites.
That's why when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, six months before his suffering and death, he spoke to the crowds, describing himself as the Good Shepherd. And not only a good shepherd, but the Good Shepherd, the one who would willingly lay down his life for his sheep. And not only that, but six months before it happened, Jesus said that he would take his life up again! And he would do it all for his sheep.
Listen as Jesus explains how Easter Means… The Good Shepherd Cares for His Sheep. He loves them dearly. He provides for them powerfully. Our Gospel lesson for this Good Shepherd Sunday is found in John 10:11-18…
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."
Now I don't know how much you know about sheep, but to put it rather bluntly, sheep are pretty stupid. The Greek word for sheep is a pretty descriptive word. "Probaton" literally means, "forward moving thing," since that's all a sheep really knows how to do: Eat, bleat, and walk forward. And so sheep, on their own, are pretty helpless. They don't know how to evade a lion, or bear, or wolf. They have no fangs, or claws, no cunning to defend themselves from the weakest of predators. Sheep are pretty much helpless against their enemies.
In fact, sheep need just as much protection from themselves! Sheep have been known to crush each other by huddling too closely together inside their pen. If a sheep falls down and rolls onto its back, it is unable to turn itself over, but just bleats away, flailing its legs in the air, practically calling out to predators, "Come eeeeeat me!" Sheep easily wander and get hopelessly lost even when they're within sight of the rest of the flock. Sheep are completely helpless. They're just stupid, forward moving things.
So it's not really much of a compliment to be called a sheep is it? If someone calls you a sheep today, they suggest that you follow some leader or cause blindly, incapable of thinking things through on your own, and thus, completely at the mercy of someone else. How does it make you feel then, that God calls you a sheep? The Psalmist writes in Psalm 100 (v.3), "Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his we are his people, the sheep of his pasture."
Yet as uncomplimentary as it sounds, that is what we are. We're sheep. And, truth be told, it's a fitting description of us. On our own, we are defenseless against the predators that would kills us: the devil, who, "prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour," and the world around us, pressuring us to sin against God. And, like sheep, we actually do just as much harm to ourselves as those predators do.
We hurt each other, crushing each other with words that sting and cut deep. We fall into our same pet sins and just lay their flailing and crying, unable to right ourselves. And when we are on our feet, we love to wander and get lost in our sin all over again. For "we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…" (Isaiah 53:6)
In fact, we're often like the hired hands of Jesus' parable…12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
We don't show love to others, but in cowardice run the other way when doing the right thing might put harm or just inconvenience us. "If I defend a classmate who stands up for the truth of God's Word, I might get picked on! So I think I'll just keep quiet." "If I point out that a co-worker's religion is leading him to hell, we might not work so well together after that. So, I'll just mind my own business." "If I invite my neighbor to church, I'd be sticking my nose where it doesn't belong… So I'll just leave him to the wolves." And for our countless sins of abandoning others in need, we deserve to be abandoned, to be left to the wolves, to be torn apart.
But that's not what happens. Instead our Good Shepherd cared for us. He loved us with an unfathomable love!
Tim was out fishing when he accidentally dropped a 2 lb. weight overboard. But he didn't want to lose it. So he jumped into the water to go after the weight. How dumb, right! Just let it go! Buy a new one when you get back to shore! It's definitely not worth risking your life for a stupid weight!
So why—Why?!—would a human be willing to die for a worthless sheep—a stupid forward-moving thing?! After all, it's just a job! Who cares if you lose one or two? It's certainly not worth risking your life fighting a bear or wolf pack without a gun! Just let it go! And count your losses!
But that's not how Jesus felt about us. To him, we were worth more than just risking his life… We were worth actually dying for! That's the Good Shepherd's almost unbelievable love for you! Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
How much does Jesus love the sheep? So much that he would lay down his life "for" the sheep, that is, "in the place of" the sheep. He laid down his life as a substitute for us. But what makes that so special is that he's the "Good" Shepherd. And that's not "good" like, "I got a 92 on my test! I did really good!" But this word for "good" means "excellent, the very best, the real thing, the ideal, the model." By God's holy standards, only Jesus can rightly be called good—for only he met God's demand for total perfection. That's why he's the Good Shepherd. There is no other.
And though it's a bit of a mixed metaphor, the Good (or Perfect) Shepherd became the scapegoat, "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) He took our sins on himself: those sins of running away instead of standing up to defend the truth, of crushing each other, of wandering away from him time and time again. And he gave his perfect goodness to us. So, we are rescued from the wolf, the devil. We are saved from ourselves and our own sin! We belong to his flock! We belong to him! And we'll be with him in his kingdom!
Jesus loves us all that much even though there is no reason that he should. It's only by his grace—his undeserved love that he gives us dumb sheep that self-sacrificing love that took the fangs of the wolf (and hell itself) in our place!
Dear friends, marvel at such love that he has for us lowly sheep! And you can be certain that if he loved you that much when you were helpless, loveless, faithless sinners, who loved to wander from him, he surely loves you now! How much must he love you now that he's redeemed you and made you his own! You can be confident that he will provided for your every need now.
Now, someone might ask, "Who cares if he loves us if he's dead?! So what if the shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his sheep if he dies defending them? If he gets himself killed by a wolf or a bear, then that predator would suddenly have an all-you-can-eat sheep buffet!" But that's not how it is with our Good Shepherd either. Our Good Shepherd, not only loves his sheep, but he has the power to take care them because he didn't just lay down his life for his sheep, he took it up again!
He said, "I lay down my life—only to take it up again…. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." What a clear reference to Jesus' resurrection! And he said this six months before his death! This resurrection guarantees his victory! He wasn't devoured by the wolf, but ruined the wolf by his death. He wasn't defeated, but defeated every enemy—sin, hell, and death itself! And he did it all for us!
And now we can rejoice! For "we are his people, the sheep of his pasture." (Psalm 100:3) We are his own! To be called a sheep—his sheep—is not an insult then, but the most comforting truth there is. How many of you have seen this painting before? It's called "The Good Shepherd" and is painted by a man named Werner Sallman. Now look at this painting and picture yourself as that lamb, safe in Jesus' arms. Because, dear friends, that's where you are: held by him, loved by him, known by him, with every one of your needs provided for by him.
Dear friends, trust him who loves you so much that he gave his life for you! Trust him who rose again to provide for your every need! And finally, live every day of your lives in thanks to your Good Shepherd. Thank him by sharing him with others—with those sheep that are not yet in the pen. Don't run the other way, even if you are threatened socially, financially, or even physically. But show others the same loving concern that your Good Shepherd has shown to you in making you his little lamb—for your shepherd gently guides you, he knows your needs and well provides you, he loves you every day the same and even calls you by your name. Amen, dear sheep, amen!