The Good Shepherd

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter based on John 10:11-18

Dear sheep of the Good Shepherd: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sheep are the most helpless of animals. They are easy prey. Sheep have no defence mechanism to protect themselves from wolves or other predators. They don’t have claws or sharp teeth to defend themselves. They don’t have a shell like a turtle, spines like a porcupine, ink spray like an octopus, or stink spray like a skunk. Sheep can’t change colour to hide themselves like some frogs and lizards, nor can they repair limbs like a starfish. They’re soft and fluffy and rather stupid. It is no wonder then that sheep need a shepherd.

Sheep need a shepherd to take them to green pastures so they don’t eat weeds that are poisonous to them. They need a shepherd to lead them to still, quiet waters so they can drink. They need a shepherd to protect them from predators day and night.

What a fitting analogy for us. We also are helpless and unable to defend ourselves. Temptations surround us, and we are only too ready to fall. We are ever ready to fall victim to the predators that seek to take us: the predators of desire, greed, and selfishness; the predators of doubt, fear, and despair. We think the grass is always greener elsewhere than in the pasture to which our Shepherd has led us. We wander into our predators’ territory. We become enamoured with the ways of the world; ways which keep us from the pastures where we are fed. In other words, we get hooked by all kinds of things which do not spiritually feed us, but in fact get in the way of us reading God’s Word and receiving His gifts. Whether it is overworking ourselves, sports and other leisure activities, or even just plain laziness, spiritual nourishment just isn’t the pasture in which we want to feed. We eat poisonous weeds that are harmful to us, whether it is the lies of some television preacher like Joel Osteen or the self-help ideologies of Oprah. If there is anyone who needs a shepherd, it is us. If there’s anyone who needs protection from predators and their own propensities to wander, it is us. On top of it all, when we have wandered and got ourselves into trouble, we look around and think the Good Shepherd has abandoned us or forgotten about us, when it is really we who have wandered away from and forgotten about Him.

Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” There’s lots of artwork dedicated to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We can probably readily think of many of them: art depicting Jesus gently holding a lamb in his lap, petting its wool, or carrying it upon His shoulders; art depicting sheep peacefully grazing in lush pastures with quiet waters nearby as the Good Shepherd watches over them.

But how does such art fit into what we experience in our lives? How does this fit with what we have seen happen to us and to other sheep around us? We’ve seen predators snatch their prey. We’ve experienced loss and heartache, illness and weakness. We’ve wandered into other pastures and eaten the poisonous weeds of false teachings. We’ve seen the effects of sin in our lives and in the lives of others around us. Where is our Good Shepherd in all of this?

The answer is in our Gospel reading. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” In fact, Jesus says five times in our reading that He lays down His life for the sheep. That’s what it means to be the Good Shepherd – to give His life for the sheep.

This is quite odd, really. If an ordinary shepherd dies, the sheep are left helpless. The sheep need their shepherd. If it came down to it, a shepherd would sooner allow a couple of sheep to be snatched for the sake of the rest of the herd and for the sake of his own life. Sheep are replaceable. It’s better to lose a bit of wool than your own life, isn’t it?

But Jesus is no ordinary shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd. He gave His life to save us. He died for our sins, taking the punishment of our sins in our place. Jesus died for our sins of wandering from Him; our sins of not listening to His voice; our sins of despising His spiritual nourishment. “The Shepherd die[d] for sheep that love to wander” (LSB 439:4). The sinless Son of God gave His life in exchange for yours, despite your wandering.

But Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (v. 17) Jesus did not remain dead. The Good Shepherd did not abandon His flock and leave them helpless. He died for them, in their place, and rose again. He will not even abandon or forget His wandering sheep but seeks them out to rescue them and forgive them (Ezek. 34:11).

In Psalm 23, David points to what Jesus accomplishes as our Good Shepherd. He writes, “He restores my soul.” (v. 3) He doesn’t say that the Good Shepherd restores my health and my wealth. He doesn’t say the Lord will restore my ambitions and my happiness. We writes, “He restores my soul.”

David doesn’t write that everything will be joyful and painless. He writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (v. 4) Thus, David is saying that we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We will face consequences from our sinful actions. We will face sickness and difficulty, trials and hardships that are part of living in a fallen, sinful world. But even in the valley of the shadow of death we have nothing to fear. Jesus, our Good Shepherd restores our soul even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Your Good Shepherd has not abandoned you or forgotten you, nor will He ever. He put His name on you in your Baptism, thus you are His sheep. In your Baptism, Jesus identified you as His own.

The prophet Isaiah writes to God’s people who think that God has forsaken them and forgotten them, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Is. 49:15-16)

In your Baptism, your name was engraved in the palms of God’s hands. He will not forsake you. It was Jesus who cried out from the cross to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Jesus was forsaken for you. All of your sins were put on Jesus, and He took your punishment in your place. Jesus was forsaken by God the Father so that you will never be forsaken.

Yes, even through the valley of the shadow of death, your Good Shepherd will not abandon you. He will bring you through the valley of the shadow of death to eternal life. Jesus, your Good Shepherd, laid down His life for you, in order to bring you to eternal life with Him forever. Jesus, your Good Shepherd, laid down His life to earn forgiveness for all of your sins. Jesus, your Good Shepherd, laid down His life to give you that forgiveness by nourishing you with His body and blood. Thus you can say with David, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Ps. 23:6) Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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