Shepherd and Sheep
John 10:1-10 (Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25)
Fourth Sunday of Easter – Series A
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen
The fourth Sunday of Easter is also known as the Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings, prayers, and hymns all serve to focus on one of the more comforting and understandable images that Jesus gives to show us what He does for us. Comforting and understandable, that is, if you know what shepherding was like back in biblical times, and what a shepherd actually does. Something most 21st century Wisconsinites have little to no experience with. And we cannot forget the fact that not even the original hearers of Jesus really understood what Jesus was telling them even though they had plenty of first and secondhand knowledge of shepherding practices. John records for us, “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Which leads to the necessity of the Holy Spirit to allow us to understand the Scriptures and to have faith in what Jesus, the Good Shepherd has done, and continues to do for you each and every moment of your lives.
This is why we prayed in the collect of the day, “Almighty God, merciful Father, since You have wakened from death the Shepherd of Your sheep, grant us Your Holy Spirit that when we hear the voice of our shepherd we may know Him who calls us each by name and follow where He leads.” Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit giving us faith we are deaf to the voice of the Good Shepherd and will instead follow the thief and robber to our destruction and death. But through the workings of the Holy Spirit we are given faith that trusts in Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Faith that trusts what He does and follows where He leads.
What does the Good Shepherd do? Where does He lead? Well, what does any shepherd do? A shepherd takes care of those animals, those sheep, which are entrusted into his care.
Sounds simple right? How hard can it be? You give them the basics, food, water, shelter. They are animals so they don’t need clothing or anything like that. So, it must be easy right? Wrong. How many of you have a dog, or a cat, or some other pet? Most of us, right? How easy is it to take care of one or two pets? You feed them, water them, give them a place to stay and that’s it. Oh, and you do need to clean them and clean up after them. You should probably interact with them, playing with them so that they don’t get bored and cause trouble. You also need to watch out for their health because they can’t tell you when they aren’t feeling good. You need to keep them safe from dangers like cars on the road and fleas, ticks, and other parasites. You need to make sure they aren’t wandering off and causing problems with someone else or putting themselves into dangerous situations. You need to train them, and discipline them from time to time. Now multiply that work for one or two pets by ten, a hundred, a thousand. Despite their less than flattering reputation, it’s not so easy to be a shepherd is it?
Why is all this necessary? Why does it take such hard work to take care of God’s good creation? You got it. We live in a sin-filled, sinful world where everyone and everything wants to play God and so chaos and trouble abound. And you know where all this sin comes from. You, me, every human since Adam and Eve first disobeyed and rebelled against God. And so the world that we were created to take care of follows in our foot steps and disobeys and rebels against us, their caretakers, their shepherds, just as we have disobeyed and rebelled against our creator, our Shepherd. Causing no end of trouble, threats, violence, and death for us to take care of and guard against.
How well do we do as shepherds? Well, let’s see. Is everything and everyone entrusted into your care perfectly safe and happy? No? How about generally healthy and content? Some of the time perhaps, but usually not. If it were so, would we be growing so restless and upset at the ongoing Safer at Home orders, and the increased uncertainty as to when we can go back to our lives as we want them to be again? The latest statistics show that the death rate of all living things is 100%. Other statistics and experience shows that all non-living things will eventually break, decay, and crumble away. So much for our taking care of creation as we were created and given to do.
The solution to all of this is not, as some would suggest, simply have more training and trying harder at taking care of creation. Keep in mind that when God created Adam and Eve and placed them into the garden of Eden to take care of it, He gave them all the knowledge that they needed. God always gives us the skills and tools necessary to accomplish what He calls us to do, even though we may not think so. Adam and Eve had everything necessary to tend the garden and take care of all creatures on the earth. Until they stopped listening to the voice the Good Shepherd and instead listened to and followed the voice of the thief and robber. That voice told them that they could be free from God, free to be god. A freedom that comes with an unbearable price, complete and certain separation from the love and goodness of God, a time spent in the evil and chaos that our sin creates, and an eternity condemned to hell.
The solution is God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth intervening by coming into His creation and giving us the Good Shepherd, not to show us how it is supposed to be done and then having us try again, but to do all that is needed to save us from the mess we have made, a mess that causes that 100% death rate.
The Good Shepherd is of course the one who is speaking in today’s text, Jesus Himself. In fact, He states this clearly in verse 11 by saying, “I am the Good Shepherd”, putting today’s text into context.
Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep who enters by the door because His motives are loving and kind. He comes to His sheep, calls them by name, and is confident that they will follow Him because He is their shepherd and they are His sheep. They know that He will do everything that the shepherd is supposed to do so that they can live. They know that their Good Shepherd will lead them through the valley of the shadow of death to His green pastures where we will not want, for everything is provided and everything will be very good once again, just as it was in the days before sin entered into the world. The Good Shepherd, Jesus, did this by doing another thing that shepherds are supposed to do, sacrifice himself for the sake of the sheep.
In the world of shepherding, not only is the shepherd supposed to take care of the sheep, he is expected to give whatever it takes for the sheep, including putting himself between any danger and the sheep. If this meant that he was hurt, or killed, that was what was expected and required of the one tasked with shepherding the sheep.
Elsewhere Jesus speaks of the difference between a true shepherd and one who is but a hired hand. The hired hand, when facing danger and the possibility of death will quickly say, “I didn’t sign up for this” and leave the sheep to the wolves. The Good and true shepherd when facing danger and the possibility of death says, I love my sheep and will do all that is needed to save them, even dying for them. And die for the sheep the Good Shepherd did. Jesus died for you, me, and all of His sheep so that we can be saved from the dangers of our own sin, from the jaws of death, and from the lies and deceit of the devil, who would have us follow him or anything else but our Good Shepherd.
But as we take such joy and comfort in, the fact of the matter is that Jesus did not remain dead. A dead shepherd is no longer able to take care of the sheep. But a risen, living Shepherd can not only continue to take care of us, His sheep, but can also assure that death is no longer a real threat. Though the death rate for now remains at 100%, the resurrection rate of all who believe in Jesus is also be 100% because Jesus has paid for all sins, and forgiveness is yours.
While a lot more could be said on this, I want to make sure that I touch on two other important topics today. The first is what Jesus means when He says He is the door, and the second is what do the sheep of the Good Shepherd do?
After describing the role of the shepherd, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
To understand what Jesus is saying here it is helpful to understand another common shepherding practice of the time. The flocks were taken to open pastures by day and at night were taken to sheepfolds. The folds were generally surrounded by stone walls and had only one narrow opening, barely wide enough for one sheep to get through. Once all the sheep were in the fold, the shepherd would literally become the door. Placing himself in the narrow opening, sleeping there to keep the sheep inside safe and sound and the predators away from their meal. By doing so, the shepherd would be laying down his life for the sheep, staying in place until it was time to call them back to the pasture.
This is what Jesus has done for us. He has laid down His life for you and me and taken it back up again. He is the door to heaven. The only way for us to get in is through Jesus. And the only way through Jesus is by His gracious and loving forgiveness, which allows us to find the pasture that we need while keeping us safe and secure.
Which brings us to the final point. What do God’s sheep do with the abundant life that Jesus has given us? Well for that we turn to the first reading appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday and see what the first Christians did in Acts 2:42. ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ In other words the sheep of Christ focus their lives on learning about God, the apostle’s teaching, worshiping God to receive His gift of forgiveness, the fellowship, receiving the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of the bread, and to praying for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs, the prayers of the church and our own private prayers.
But notice that they did not do this in secret or privately. Rather, as Luke continues in Acts 2, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The sheep of God, including you and me, are called by the Good Shepherd to receive His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. We are then sent out to praise God for all that He has done, speaking the good news of a Good Shepherd who has laid down His life to forgive you and give you life, so that all the sheep of the world may hear of Jesus. We do so trusting that the Holy Spirit will use the gospel that we speak to work faith when and where He wills, adding to the numbers of those who are saved by Jesus who is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world and at the same time the Good Shepherd Who came to give you life. Amen.