The Third Sunday after Easter April 25, 2010
726, 344, 784, 436, (TLH alt: 8, 410)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”
Dear fellow members of the Lord’s flock:
Have you been to a zoo lately? Do you watch “Animal Planet” on TV? Do you have pets at home? The Lord has filled the earth with a dazzling variety of animal life for our benefit. Martin Luther’s explanation to the First Article says: “I believe that God has created me and all creatures.” While mankind is the crown of creation, it is fascinating to live here with animals, to compare them to us, and to see the differences, as well as similarities.
There are certain attributes of animals which we admire, and even use in describing one another. We may say someone has the eyes of a hawk, or is as strong as an ox. You may know someone who is as happy as a lark or as swift as a deer. But what if someone, say a family member or co-worker, called you a sheep? Would you take it as a compliment, and say, “Thanks!”? Perhaps not. Sheep do not rank at the top of the food chain or any other list that I’m aware of. Their eyesight is poor. They won’t win any races or beauty contests. They are not especially clever. If a flock were to get out of their pasture and one of them was to wander onto the highway and into the path of an oncoming semi, it wouldn’t surprise me if the rest of the flock followed onto the road and met the same fate.
Yet out of all the animals God created which one does He use to describe us? He calls us sheep, and instead of taking issue with it we can be glad. There is one circumstance under which it is great to be a sheep and that is when there is a capable, caring shepherd watching over the flock. We have the best shepherd of all in Jesus, and that relationship makes all the difference in our lives.
Did you see that difference between Jesus’ sheep and those outside His flock in His encounter with the Jews in the temple? They surrounded Him and demanded that He tell them plainly whether or not He was the promised Messiah. He already had told them both by word and action, but they didn’t listen or believe. They were just looking for ammunition to use in discrediting Him.
That is the difference. Sheep of the flock listen to the shepherd’s voice. They know and trust it. Likewise, the shepherd knows his sheep in a personal, caring way. If we saw a flock of a hundred sheep, we would have a hard time distinguishing one from another. One wooly body would look pretty much like the next. But not in the shepherd’s eyes. He doesn’t see just a flock. He cares for each sheep as an individual. He knows that one is exceptionally curious, another is timid, and still another has a sore leg and a cough.
The heart of the Good Shepherd is filled with that caring love for each of us. He has called us out of the world into His flock. He has given us ears to hear His voice by faith. He knows us better than anyone else. He knows we need clothing and food. He knows we have bills to pay. He knows every hair on our head. David wrote in Psalm 139: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:13ff NIV). The Shepherd knows how you feel at this very moment: your hurts and fears, your joys and your hopes. He knows whether you are overwhelmed and tired, or eager to meet the challenges of coming days.
It’s great to be a sheep as long as we stay within range of His voice. We need to keep listening so that His voice is not drowned out by all the other noise around us. TV commercials, movies, and magazines lure us with the call: “If you want it, go for it. If it feels good, do it!” There are all kinds of false shepherds who, Jesus says, come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. Without the Shepherd’s voice we would wander away and become easy prey for the enemy. Whether we are young or old, single or married, working or retired, may we keep listening to the Shepherd who knows and loves each of us.
Left to themselves sheep have a very limited life span. They wander off, eat poisonous weeds, become lost and exhausted, and have no way of rescuing themselves. Their lives depend on following the shepherd’s lead.
It is an apt description of us too, isn’t it? What happens when people try to find their own way through life? They end up lost and hopeless because they do not know the right answers to the life’s basic questions: “Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” The so-called wise of the world conclude that we evolved from lower life forms through an unconscious, unplanned process. Therefore, there is no real purpose to our being here, and we are going nowhere but the grave. What’s left? It’s no wonder that even people who have wealth and everything else the earth can offer end up in despair over how empty life seems.
That is why it is great being a sheep. We don’t have to scrounge for answers we can’t find. Our Good Shepherd leads us to the green pastures of His Word. He tells us that we are not unplanned evolutionary accidents, but the masterpiece of the loving Creator. He warns us about the noxious weeds of sin. He refreshes us with the cool, quiet streams of forgiveness. All that guilt which saps our energy and weighs down on our conscience was put on Jesus. He took it away by taking it on Himself.
By His death Jesus has given us eternal life. We don’t have to wait for it. He says, “A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25 NIV). We have forgiveness and peace with God now and that new life with Him will never end. We know where we are going. The Shepherd is leading us to the full enjoyment of never-ending life in the mansions of Heaven.
Follow the Shepherd. It’s great being a sheep! Follow by keeping His Word in your heart always. Make it the benchmark by which you evaluate everything else. Trust its promises because not one will ever fail. Count on Jesus’ righteousness, not your own.
Follow the Shepherd in your daily living. A little boy loves to follow his dad and imitate whatever he does, whether it’s mowing the grass, working on the car, or fixing things around the house. He stays right beside him. He wants to learn and be just like his dad. So Paul says to us: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Follow Jesus by imitating His love in everything you do: in how you treat family members, in obeying those in authority, in putting the wellbeing of others ahead of your own, in being content with what God gives, and in being kind and considerate, rather than harsh and demanding. When you are not sure what direction to go, what to say, or what to think, look to the Shepherd. Follow Him. He is the One who gives and preserves eternal life.
It is great being a sheep when there is a good shepherd. However, that does not mean that a sheep’s life is always idyllic and easy. Sometimes the sky turns black, the wind howls, and a cold rain drenches the sheep. Sometimes the shepherd leads the flock up a steep, rocky trail, when there is another one nearby which looks much better. Has the family budget ever been so tight that you had serious concerns about even covering the necessities? Have you ever lost a job, been in the hospital? Have black clouds of spiritual doubt or temptation ever built up in your heart so that you feared for your faith? Are you dealing with any of these things now?
What are we to do when all we see are problems for which we have no answers? Don’t look down. Keep your eyes on the Shepherd! Listen to Him: “[My sheep] shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” [v.28]
An insurmountable problem for us is an opportunity for the Shepherd to exercise His care and strength. The disciples thought they were surely going down to watery graves on the Sea of Galilee, but the Shepherd spoke a word, and there was an instant calm. 5,000 hungry men and only a handful of bread and fish to go around spelled disaster in the disciples’ minds, but Jesus knew all along what He was going to do. He blessed and multiplied the food so that there were 12 baskets of leftovers. On Easter evening the disciples feared that the Jews would break down the door and haul them away. Instead, the Shepherd appeared among them, and said, “Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36)
What reason do we really have to worry? The Shepherd says to you and me: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:1-2 NIV).
How can Jesus, the One who walked here on earth, who was confronted by the Jews in the temple, say and do all this? He is not alone. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.” [vv. 29-30] Jesus can do all He says and more. We can trust Him with our souls, because He is the one true God along with the Father and the Spirit. Even the valley of the shadow of death need not terrify us (cf. Psalm 23), for Jesus walked through ahead of us and came out alive! In Him we are more than conquerors, for there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from His love (cf. Romans 8:37ff).
We are not powerful lions, rulers of our own destinies. We are not soaring hawks, flying high above the sin and trouble of this world. No, we are near-sighted, stumbling sheep. Yet life is good, for we have a Good Shepherd who gives us His perfect obedience as our righteousness. He laid down His life and took it up again, that we might live forever. Let us listen, follow, and praise Him for our eternal safety. It is great to be a sheep when you are following the greatest Shepherd! Amen.
Lord, take my hand and lead me
Upon life’s way;
Direct, protect, and feed me
From day to day.
Without Your grace and favor
I go astray;
So take my hand, O Savior,
And lead the way.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.