The Third Sunday of Advent December 16, 2012
John 1:6-8, 19-29
60, 143(1, 4), 368(1, 4), 375(1-2, 5)
Dear fellow sheep—you who long for the return of the Good Shepherd:
Several years ago a friend of mine was dating a girl who broke up with him and went back to a previous boyfriend. The resulting heartache was considerable. Some weeks later, she came back to him and wanted to pick up where they’d left off. Having recovered from the initial trauma, he offered her what to spurned men and women around the world amounts to the scratching of a very deep itch: “Sorry. You only get one shot at the title.”
Some time later he began dating another young lady who, several months into the relationship, also told him she needed to get things worked out with her old boyfriend and then later came back and wanted to restart the relationship. All eager I asked, “Did you give her ‘the line’”? To which he replied, “Couldn’t. I’ve got nothing.” Not long after they were married and are now well into “happily ever after.”
Lest anyone judge his first response to be overly cold or cruel, the underlying fact is the first woman did not share his Christian faith and by her own admission would never share it. The second woman did share his faith.
The point is that there is often great value in being able to recognize something as simple as when “you’ve got nothing.” While often very difficult to do, it is nonetheless an absolutely critical element of the Christian faith.
This year the theme for our Advent services centers around the prayer that many of us were taught from infancy: “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me!” Today we acknowledge that “we’ve got nothing” by asking our Tender Shepherd to come to us—but to come, not so much as Shepherd, but as sacrificial Lamb.
Our devotion is based on the Word of God recorded in John’s Gospel account, chapter 10:
Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
These are the very words of God—words that God gave us to clarify our thoughts and to increase our understanding and appreciation for all that He has and will do for us. That our God would so bless us also on this day, we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord, Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Thus far in our Advent meditations we have asked our Tender Shepherd to come to us with His rod because we need both protection and correction. We have asked Him to come with His staff because we need both guidance and rescue. Today, we ask Him to come as our sacrifice. In this we acknowledge that we are making a rather strange request—we are asking the Shepherd to come as our Lamb.
One of the great misconceptions—if not the greatest—promoted tirelessly by the Great Deceiver is that Jesus came to earth as an example or enabler, rather than as a sacrifice and Savior. The first thing that we, therefore, need to establish is the difference between the two concepts. In other words, what is the difference between an example and a sacrifice, between an enabler and a savior?
The underlying foundation or principle of Jesus as example or enabler is that the power lies within man to save himself. If all that we needed was someone to show us the way, then the obvious “given” is that you and I have the power to walk the path blazed by our “example.” Again, if all that we needed was an enabler, then the clear implication is that you and I are the ultimate source of the power needed to save ourselves. The only thing we lacked was someone to unlock or identify that power within us.
Do you remember the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Jesus took five loaves and two small fish and used them to feed five thousand men—not counting women and children. Do you also know how the unbelieving world along with the “rational” Christian community explains away the miraculous nature of that event? They claim that Jesus did not miraculously provide all that food. Rather, the little boy who gave up the 5 loaves and 2 fish was the real enabler. They cling to the notion that it was the boy’s display of generosity and self-sacrifice that prompted the adults in the crowd to also come forward with their hidden food stores. Thus they turn a pure and great miracle into little more than a successful fund-raiser, and they demote Jesus from divine miracle-worker to very human community organizer.
On the other hand, when human beings ask Jesus to come as Sacrifice and Savior, they correctly identify Jesus as the only one who can do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. We also thereby acknowledge, in the clearest and most practical of terms, that when it comes to securing my own salvation or paying for even one of my countless sins, “I’ve got nothing.”
Understand, however, that the irony of what we are asking is not lost on Christians. We recognize full well that we are asking our Good Shepherd to come as our Sacrificial Lamb. “Shepherd as Lamb” is obviously a strange concept. We were introduced to that concept when John the Baptist called Jesus that in John’s Gospel account: “The next day (John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29). That term “Lamb of God,” in-and-of-itself, carries great irony. Even more so when we ask our Good Shepherd to be our Lamb. Some background would undoubtedly prove helpful here.
We do not necessarily hear or understand a biblical phrase today like the Jews heard it when it was first spoken. You, for example, never bat an eye when you hear something like “God our Father.” Because of what we know about Jesus and His work or reconciliation, we’ve grown up with that phrase and that concept and view of God. The Jews of Jesus’ day, however, were undoubtedly shocked to hear Jesus begin his model prayer with, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” They grew up with of a perception of God as an angry, austere, righteous Judge. What came to their minds was undoubtedly the smoke and fire of Mount Sinai. What is more, their view was absolutely accurate. Their sins had ruined their relationship. It is only the life and death of Jesus that restores our relationship with God and gives us the privilege of addressing Him as His dear forgiven children.
Similarly, when we hear something like “Lamb of God,” we don’t hear what the Jews heard—which was undoubtedly every bit as startling as “God the Father.” How? Why? Because the words “Lamb of…” in their ears indicated that whatever came next had need of a sacrifice for sin. That also meant that of all the names that could follow, only the name “God” did not fit. Every other man, woman, and child was in desperate need of a sacrifice for sin. God alone had no such need. Thus the term “Lamb of God” was not only unreasonable to their ears, it was pure Gospel. In fact, it indicated exactly and precisely the very thing we are asking of our Tender Shepherd—to provide the payment for our sins that we ourselves could never provide. “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice” (Psalm 49:7-8 ESV).
Thus the label placed upon Jesus by John the Baptist is probably the most ironic phrase we will read on the pages of Holy Writ. A close second is our request that the Shepherd—the One who tends the lambs—come to us as a Lamb Himself.
In our meditations this Advent season we have also noted that our perception of self is often very much at odds with reality. So it is that we ask our Tender Shepherd to come with His rod because we recognize that we are not able to discipline and defend ourselves. We need divine intervention to be able to see ourselves not as lions but as lambs—hose in need of protection both from outside enemies and from the enemy within. We also ask Him to come with His staff, since we are reminded that we need His constant guidance to keep us from wandering from the path of life, and His deliverance when we do stray onto dangerous ground.
So again today we ask our Tender Shepherd to live among us not only as our Shepherd, but as the very sacrifice for sin that no human being could provide in any way, shape, or form. The good news is that Jesus recognized this need. It is the very reason He entered our world. It’s the reason He willingly took upon Himself our human nature. Listen to His own words in Matthew 20:25-28: “Jesus called them to Him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (ESV).
This bit of Scripture helps us in several ways. One helpful fact we need to point out is that we are not saying that Jesus wasn’t a good example. Of course, He was and is. He is, in fact, the perfect example which is why He pointed to Himself as an example in the passage above when He said: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This was not, however, the primary reason He came to earth. If all we needed was a good example, God could have raised up other pious men and women to fulfill such a role. In fact, He did raise up other men and women that did serve as excellent examples. The list is rather long: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Sara, Hannah, Mary, Joseph her husband, John the Baptist, the Apostle John, the Apostle Paul, and so on.
All of these human beings clearly demonstrated the fruits of faith we want to emulate. They also all had their faults, but those faults are obvious. An eclectic gathering—sort of an all-star lineup—of the best of their attributes would be all that we would need to formulate in our minds if what we needed to be saved was just a perfect example of the model Christian. Clearly this would have sufficed and, therefore, just as clearly, God the Father would have seen no need to send his Son to suffer as He did. “Jesus as example” would have been redundant and unnecessary. Scripture had already provided a composite example.
The very fact that God felt the need to send His Son meant that His Son could and would do for us what could not be provided in any other way.
The same is true with “Jesus as Enabler.” The very term assumes that man has some sort of latent, inner power that just needs to be released or unlocked at which point man could then save himself. Again, how silly and how shallow to imagine that God couldn’t figure out some way to awaken us to our own potential to save ourselves, other than the abuse and murder of his Son. There is, once again, only one possible explanation: Jesus was sent to do what could not be done any other way. This fact also reveals the lie in any idea that other systems of religious conviction can get you to the same heaven that Jesus opened. How demeaning to God and to our Savior Jesus to think that God wasn’t smart enough to spare his Son all the trauma of life on earth by simply telling us to be good Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or Deists, Theists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like. Again, He didn’t do this because not one of these other man-made religions offers a viable path to Heaven. A payment for all sin had to be made for mankind. Man could not make it himself. It had to be provided for him.
This is why we ask our Tender Shepherd not only to live in our hearts and lives as the One who tends us as His sheep, but to Himself come and live in our hearts as the very Lamb of God—the One who alone could serve as the adequate sacrifice for our sins. The very heart of the Christian faith is the simple trust that Jesus did just that and that nothing can now rob us of the Heaven He has won for us—nothing, except our own rejection of His payment as full and complete.
So we reaffirm in our own hearts the words stated by our Tender Shepherd in our text: “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” [v.11] Even more to the point: My Good Shepherd has laid down His life for me. This alone is my eternal hope and confidence. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
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.