The Fourth Sunday of Easter April 21, 2013
1 John 3:16-24
434, 435, 436, 783 [TLH alt. 648]
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the undeserved love of God be multiplied to you, and may you know and enjoy the peace which comes only to those who trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Sheep are stupid. People are sheep. Get the connection? Get the point?
Christians regularly refer to themselves as sheep in pleasant terms—things like “I am Jesus little lamb” and “sheep of the Good Shepherd.” When we do, I’m afraid most of the time we are focusing on the cute and sweet aspects of lambs and what we envision to be the loveable characteristics of sheep. Since most of us don’t really have the faintest idea just how stupid sheep can be, we tend to accept the label as a term of endearment from our God. While such terms certainly do convey God’s unearned, unconditional love, they are anything but complimentary.
Does this offend us? Of course not, it teaches us. It enlightens and instructs us. In the best possible sense it puts us in our place. It reminds us, for example, that we are sheep, not shepherds. In God’s eyes we are not the ones who provide and protect; we are the ones who are continually in need of both.
Today we are reminded that we are SHEEP, NOT SHEPHERDS. The text that will guide and instruct us is found in John’s Gospel account, the tenth chapter:
[Jesus said], “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
These are the very words of God, given to mankind in general, and today to you in particular. We trust God’s promise that those who hear—truly hear—His words and treasure them will receive His blessing. Asking Him to bless us through our study, we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
It is almost universally true that those who do their jobs the best tend to be taken for granted. The reason is clear enough. When a worker does a job consistently well, we all tend to assume that he or she will continue to do that job well. We have enough to worry about in life without bothering ourselves with those rare “sure things.” So we take certain others for granted. We do this with mankind, we do this with God.
We do this especially with God. Why? When is the last time God has let you down, or failed to keep one of His promises? Never, of course, not once. Which is why it is so easy to fall into the pattern of taking God for granted. We have a God who “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). That means that our thanks and our prayers will not earn us those gifts since He gives them freely to all. Yet, our God both expects and deserves thanksgiving. He is pleased with a grateful people, with thankful children.
There are certain customs and patterns that our God built into the life of the Christian to remind us not to take our God and His goodness for granted. In the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Why did Jesus say, “Give us this day our daily bread?” Why not “…this week” or “…this year?” Why, too, do Christians routinely pray before each meal? Because God wants and deserves ongoing thanks and praise. Why is that so important? Mostly, because God says so, but also because taking anything for granted leads inevitably to a sense of entitlement; and entitlement eventually leads to the notion that we deserve every good thing that our God gives us. Then whenever God, for our spiritual welfare, sees fit to give us less, we feel cheated by God. We act as if God has let us down, as though he has somehow fallen down on the job.
Today’s text tells us that just the opposite is always true. Our Savior God never fails us. He is, on the contrary, our Good Shepherd in every possible way.
It’s no wonder Jesus referred to us so often as sheep. Sheep, again, are amazingly stupid creatures. A sheep, we are told, will wander off the edge of a cliff simply because the sheep ahead of him did it. That first sheep probably stepped off the cliff because he saw a bit of grass growing out of the side of the cliff and decided to step down and help himself. Never mind the fact that there was nothing on which to step. Sheep will run from a wolf, but they’ll stop and watch as he kills the sheep that he caught, allowing the wolf to slaughter the entire flock, one by one.
That’s us. We are indeed sheep. We boldly wander out into the danger zones of our lives in search of whatever looks like the good life. We don’t stop to consider the possible consequences of our actions. We don’t tend to consider the needs of others or how our actions will negatively affect those around us. We just go where we want to go, most often oblivious to the danger. We are also herd creatures, following those in front of us right smack dab into the worst sort of calamity, and more often than not we aren’t smart enough to run from evil or from potential danger.
If there is one thing that is universally true about sheep, it is that they desperately need a shepherd—always. Without a shepherd they are easy pickings for predators and they will universally fall victim to their own foolishness. Again, that’s us. More individually, “that’s me.”
We too desperately need not only the Good Shepherd but we also need an under-shepherd and a flock. How are we supposed to choose our under-shepherd and flock—our pastor and church home? We are to do so with the wolf in mind. The wolf is Satan, and come he will. The Good Shepherd is, of course, Jesus. The Good Shepherd has under-shepherds, and the tricky part is that they also are themselves sheep. These are not supposed to be those described in our text as the hired hand. The under-shepherds are supposed to be those described in Acts 20:28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” [ESV]
The hired hand is different. He works for the wolf. Oh, he doesn’t think he does, just as Peter didn’t think he was working for the wolf when he tried to talk the Good Shepherd out of laying down His life for the sheep. Jesus had to bring the reality of the situation into focus with His, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). Peter was, at that moment, working for Satan. He was doing the Devil’s bidding. Did he know it? Did he recognize or realize what he was doing? Does it really matter? Think about it. When the under-shepherd fails his flock, does it really matter to the flock if he did it on purpose or not? When the wolf is slaughtering your brothers and sisters—or chewing on you—and the under-shepherd stands idly by, comforting you with soothing words about “choice” and “alternate lifestyle” and “tolerance and understanding” and “many bridges to God,” does it really matter whether or not he himself believes what he is telling you?
The most disturbing aspect of all this is that the problem often only reveals itself at the first sign of trouble. All is well when all is well. It’s often only when the wolf shows up at your door that the hired man abandons the flock—the flock he was supposed to be watching over and guarding with his very life. The hired hand has no desire to fight the wolf. He believes he can make friends with him. He’s been convinced—or maybe he has convinced himself—that evil really isn’t all that evil, or that the danger has been exaggerated by those who are less enlightened.
So how are we to avoid such calamity? How do you avoid the hired man? Jesus doesn’t make us guess. In the verses preceding our text He told us to listen carefully for His voice. [v.16] The sheep follow Jesus because they know His voice. This is exactly why God’s Word is so critically important to us. The true under-shepherd doesn’t speak with his own voice. He recognizes that his own personal opinions are not worth the air it takes to voice them. He also realizes that he has been given the amazing responsibility to speak with the voice of Jesus. If he does not speak exactly as Jesus spoke, “teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), he is not an under-shepherd. He is a hired hand. Whether aware of it or not, he works for the wolf.
Our course of action then becomes rather simple and straightforward: Follow only the Good Shepherd. Jesus is unique in every way, but especially in His role as Good Shepherd. Stop and consider for a moment how it would have done no good for us to have Jesus simply die defending us. A shepherd who dies defending his flock is a failure to his flock. The wolf will still destroy them. Jesus is different. He tells us that He not only laid down His life for the sheep, but He also took it up again. [cf. v.18] Jesus Christ died on Calvary, not because hired men or their master overpowered Him, but because He resolved to give up His life that we might live. He then took up His life again when He rose from the dead on the third day. There is, therefore, nothing at all left to condemn us but unbelief; that is, rejecting the sacrifice Jesus made as the full payment for our salvation. What else could condemn us? Sin? Not any more. “The Lord has laid on Him (on Jesus) the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). “There is now no condemnation for those who are (believe) in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We need never again fear death and Hell, for the one thing that separated us from our God has been removed, namely, our sin.
This is the Good Shepherd that we have. This is what He foretold in our text when He said that He would “lay down His life for the sheep…and take it up again.” [v.18] Our Good Shepherd chained the wolf. He died to pay for our sin, but then He also rose from that grave so that He might continue to protect us.
This would be enough, wouldn’t it? To have and enjoy the assurance of a blessed life after death would be enough all by itself. Jesus offers us more. When He calls Himself the Good Shepherd He is also telling us that He will never forsake us. No good shepherd ever would. Before ascending into Heaven Jesus told us, “I am with you always; to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 ESV) Death and Hell have been conquered for us, but still our Lord Jesus is our Good Shepherd.
Does that mean that life in a sinful world will always be easy? Obviously not. If you have ever taken your child to be vaccinated, or pulled a sliver out of his hand, or held her while the doctor stitched up a cut or set a broken arm, then you know that true love and caring sometimes hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot. Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Unlike human guardians, Jesus knows exactly what is best for our eternal welfare. He is our good Shepherd. The same Jesus who would suffer even death on the cross and abandonment by His Father in our place as our substitute would never allow us to suffer even a moment longer than is necessary for our spiritual good. Our Good Shepherd’s care and love never fail, they never take a moment off. Whenever we “feel” like He is far from us, the problem is us, not Him. He’s there, we just don’t see Him, or recognize Him and His loving attention for what it is.
Therefore take to heart that precious passage in Romans 8:28: ”We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” (ESV)
Having a Good Shepherd, therefore, means that we can thank our God even for the hard things He allows to come into our lives. We can thank Him while we sign for that repair bill, check into the hospital, hold a crying loved one. It means that we can thank Him with equal gratitude for the sorrow and for the joy, for the times of plenty and for the times of shortage, for the times of sickness and for the times of health.
Come what may, because we are sheep that enjoy a Good Shepherd, we can and should say, “Thank you Lord. I know that you love me and that you have something in mind for my good. While I don’t pretend to always understand, I trust you, and I offer you my humble and heartfelt thanks.”
Our Good Shepherd wants us with Him in His paradise. He will allow whatever is necessary to get us there. Be content under His perfect care. That is what it means to be a sheep and to live under a Good Shepherd. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.