The Fourth Sunday of Easter May 7, 2006
1 John 3:1-2
277, 433, 648, 436
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
[Jesus said]: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, 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.”
In the name of our loving Good Shepherd, dear fellow Christians:
When you go to a zoo you can’t help but be impressed at the amazing variety of special characteristics God gave His creatures. There are red and green brilliantly colored birds like parrots. There are falcons with such powerful eyesight that it would be comparable to our being able to read the fine print on a sheet of paper from across the sanctuary of a church. A python snake can crush its prey to death with tremendous force.
Do you ever wish you had some of those unique abilities? Would you like to have the grip of a python, the speed of a cheetah, the grace of a soaring hawk, or the sheer strength of a lion? God does say that we are like one animal, but it is not a very flattering description. In Scripture there are dozens of references comparing us to sheep. If you have ever worked with them, you know that sheep are not especially intelligent animals. They have been known to pile up in a corner of a pasture and smother one another to death. If there is a small hole in a fence, you can count on a sheep sticking its head through and getting stuck. Sheep are not able to defend themselves either. They don’t have great strength, a vicious bite, or sharp claws. Their eyesight is quite poor, so they can’t see and avoid threats very well.
Who would want to be compared to a sheep? Yet it is a very apt picture of our spiritual condition by nature. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). How many times have we foolishly wandered away from the green pastures of the Lord into all kinds of sin and trouble? How many times do we blindly follow others without recognizing the threat to our soul? How many foolish and poor decisions do we make? We balk at going where the Lord directs and instead go off on our own. We would stumble right off the cliff of eternal death and never notice until it was too late unless the Lord intervened. By nature we are helpless, hopeless sheep.
But at the same time, it’s great to be a sheep! It is a blessed position in which to be, because we have a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” This one short sentence tells us a great deal about Him. A shepherd was not a powerful, influential person in Jewish society. No one became rich by being a shepherd. It was hard, lonely, around-the-clock work in all kinds of weather. So why would anyone do it? Some had to, because there was no other work available for them. Some, as Jesus pointed out, would do it as hirelings to get what they could for themselves without putting themselves at risk. But why would Jesus take on the role of shepherd? He didn’t need to do so. He is almighty God. He deserves the position of ruler. He deserves to be served, not to serve.
Yet, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd. With that title we see into His heart. A good shepherd willingly takes on the work of caring for the sheep, puts up with the hardships, and gives his all. He does this out of love for the flock.
Next week, on Mother’s Day we will remember and honor mothers for the self-sacrificing, unconditional love they show toward their children. They put the wellbeing of their children ahead of their own. The Lord’s love as our Shepherd is even greater than that! He says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15 NIV).
In love the Son of God came to earth as true man to live under all the requirements of the Law and to fulfill them in our place. Love moved Him to put in long, grueling days of traveling, preaching, and healing; and when His enemies persecuted Him, and His listeners either rejected Him outright or were ungrateful for His blessings, love caused Him to press on.
But no matter how strong, love usually has limits. Love might move you to loan a neighbor $100 during a difficult time, but would you sell your house in order to give $100,000 to a total stranger? Of course not, our love is not that strong. We might yell to someone standing in the middle of the street that a truck is speeding his way, but would we run out and risk our own lives to push the person away? Perhaps not.
But the love of our Good Shepherd has no limits. The hireling runs away at the first sign of danger, but Jesus never ran. He gave His life for the sheep. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 NIV). He loved us so much that He took all our sins on Himself and suffered the death and punishment we deserved.
It would be foolish for an earthly shepherd to die for the sheep. What good would a dead shepherd be to the flock? They would be left alone and become easy prey for the elements or predators. But Jesus’ death is different. He said, “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.” [v.18] In other words, Jesus’ death was not a sign of weakness and defeat. It was a victory, for by it He paid the penalty for our sin, crushed the Devil, and conquered death for us. He died instead of the sheep. He laid down His life and on the third day He took it up again. Now He lives forever as our glorified Shepherd.
We are sheep. That would be terrifying if we were all alone, for we can’t survive on our own. At the same time, we are blessed sheep for we are not alone. We have a Shepherd who loved us enough to even die for us. Through His death we now live.
If you drive by a flock of sheep in a road-side pasture, each sheep looks about the same as any other. There might be some size variation, but we would be hard pressed to tell one animal apart from another. But to the shepherd, it’s entirely different. He has such a close relationship with the sheep that he sees each one as a unique individual with its own one-of-a-kind qualities and needs. He knows each one by name. He knows which one tires easily and which one is too curious for its own good. He knows the one that becomes frightened at anything new and which one is sick. He cares for the sheep one-by-one with those things in mind.
Jesus shows that kind of care for us. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11 NIV). We are not just nameless, generic sheep to the Good Shepherd. He knows us by name. He knows every hair on our head. No detail of our lives is too small for His notice. David writes: “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord” (Ps. 139:2ff. NIV).
But the Shepherd’s knowledge of us is more than just knowing all the details. He knows all those things in the context of His love. It is the difference between the government knowing every detail of a person’s life and the knowledge of a mother. The mother’s knowledge comes from and is connected to her love for her child, and so is much more meaningful and comforting. She uses her knowledge to help her child.
Our God knows us as a loving Savior. He uses His knowledge to bless us in every conceivable way. He knows our greatest need is forgiveness of sins. By His Word He called us into His flock where we receive full forgiveness through His blood. Like a master shepherd, He knows exactly what we need for life every day. He provides us with food, clothing, shelter, and so much more and He does it in just the right way and proportion for each of us. He knows about our individual spiritual needs and provides us with the nourishing pastures of His Word in Sunday School, Bible Class, worship services, and through our personal reading and study of Scripture. We don’t need to look all over for what we need. We can count on God for everything necessary for time and for eternity.
When a violent band of thunderstorms wakes us up in the middle of the night, or unexpected bills drain the savings account, or serious sickness threatens our future, we realize how helpless we really are. When we stop to think of the Devil prowling around like a hungry lion, and using his vast power and devious schemes to attack us, and how many times we fall into temptation and sin, we can begin to seriously fear for our faith. But the Good Shepherd is beside us with His protection. He sends His angels to defend us. He gives us His Word as the perfect defense against Satan. He promises that He will cause all things to serve our eternal good.
When the sheep are exhausted, the shepherd settles them down for the night and allows them to rest while He stands guard. The Good Shepherd knows how much you can handle. He watches and knows when you reach the limit of your endurance, and when you need time to rest and recuperate before moving on. He provides that rest. It may be through the encouragement of fellow Christians, some unexpected blessing, or through the Lord removing a burden in some way. Even in death we can trust the Lord to be there with His help and comfort. David says in the 23rd Psalm: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4). With our Shepherd in the lead, we don’t have to worry about where we are going, or fear that we are just wandering around in circles and getting nowhere. The Shepherd will lead us safely through this life to our home above.
We are sheep. We have all the problems and faults that the name implies. But above all, we are blessed for we have a Shepherd who lived, died, and now lives eternally for us. We can say with confidence, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Amen.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
For He is our God
And we are the people of His pasture,
The flock under His care.
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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 (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.