Sunday, April 29, 2012
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 29, 2012)
“THE Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-18)
The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most endearing and enduring. Early on, Christians latched on to this depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd. This is especially evident in the catacombs of Rome. These were the underground burial chambers used by Christians in the first few centuries after the Church was established in that city. Walls and sarcophaguses held numerous paintings or engravings of the Good Shepherd taking care of his sheep, often with a lamb upon his shoulders.
I suppose it’s still one of the most endearing images today. Pictures of Jesus with a lamb upon his shoulders and sheep surrounding him adorn the walls of Christian homes and Sunday School classrooms. Psalm 23, with its opening words “The Lord is my shepherd,” is most often spoken at the bedside of the dying. It is probably the most common psalm heard at funerals. It is comforting to know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is with you, caring for you, watching over you, loving you, and will bear you on his shoulders through the valley of the shadow of death while you breathe your last breath.
But death is only one of many enemies that wish to pounce on us as we graze in God’s gracious green pastures of provision. The wolf is prowling around seeking every opportunity to snatch us away and scatter the flock. He attempts to entice us away from the flock with false teaching. He wants us to think that the “grass is greener” in other pastures. He tempts us to sin and plants discord and division between us and God and each other. That’s why it’s so important to know that we have a Shepherd watching over us and guiding us now and not just at our deathbed.
And not just any shepherd. Jesus sets himself apart from all other earthly shepherds by calling himself THE Good Shepherd. This shepherd is unique because he is divine. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Those first two words “I am” echo the personal name that God revealed to his people in the Old Testament: Yahweh … I AM. “I am the Good Shepherd.” God promised in the Old Testament that he himself would come to shepherd and save his people. You already heard Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd … Yahweh is my shepherd.” In Ezekiel 34, the Lord says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice … and I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David [that is, Jesus the great Son of David], and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:15-16, 23).
The Good Shepherd cares for you in so many ways. There is much that we could say here. But our text focuses on the most important way that the Good Shepherd cares for you. The most important way he cares for you is by laying down his life for you. The Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world so that you could be forgiven of all your sins.
Jesus was not a hired hand. Hired hands may be able to guide sheep to pasture, but they won’t endanger themselves for the sheep. A hired hand’s main concern is not the flock, but their pay. This is often the way we act towards others who need our care and concern. Even with the Holy Spirit ruling in our hearts, we still have our sinful nature, and so we rarely serve with perfect motives. We are always tempted to ask, “What am I going to get out of this? Will I be paid back with money? A very public pat on the back? One good turn deserves another, right? That’s only fair!”
Jesus, on the other hand, laid down his life without any expectation of payment. He gave up everything to be our Shepherd and Savior. Instead of payment, he was handed over for 30 pieces of silver. Instead of a pat on the back, he received a whip and a cross. Fairness was not on his mind. Forgiveness was. The innocent Son of God unfairly received the punishment for your sins and mine so that we could be forgiven … and no “good turns” in response will earn that forgiveness. We receive it all as a free gift.
Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Daniel Parmenter was a 20-year old finance major at Northern Illinois University. He was sitting in on an oceanography lecture one February afternoon a few years ago … not because he was enrolled in the class. His girlfriend was, though. Daniel wanted to spend the afternoon with his girlfriend. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. All of a sudden, a door in the front of the lecture hall burst open. A gunman entered and began firing into the crowd. In the end, five people were killed … including Daniel Parmenter, who instead of seeking his own safety, pulled his girlfriend to the ground and shielded her body with his own, saving her life.
Daniel Parmenter laid down his life for one person. Soldiers in battle often lay down their lives for many people. But only Jesus could lay down his life for every single person who ever lived. Jesus is THE Good Shepherd because his sacrifice was sufficient for all people of all times and of all places … not just the sheep from among the people of Israel, but also the “other sheep” from among the Gentiles who hear his voice in the Gospel so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
This is how we know Jesus and his love the best … through his sacrifice on the cross. 1 John 3:16 says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” Jesus said in our text, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep … For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” Knowing Jesus and his love centers in knowing him through the cross, where he freely, without coercion, gave his life up for us to redeem us from our sins. This is also why Jesus could say “For this reason, the Father loves me.” Jesus loved his Father and knew his Father’s love so well, that he lovingly and cheerfully acted upon his Father’s will that he should suffer and die for us.
But notice how Jesus already knew what was to come after the cross. He had the divine authority to lay down his life and the divine power to take it up again. Your Good Shepherd rose on Easter morning and is alive today to take care of his sheep … to take care of you.
You belong to him. He made you. He claimed you as his own in Baptism.
He cares for you individually. You are a member of a big flock. But he knows each of you by name. He knows your problems, your worries, your anxieties, and he is with you. He knows your sins, and he forgives you. Whenever your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart, and he knows everything.
He calls to you in his Word. There you listen to his voice and you recognize his voice. And he is not a hired hand who’s in it just for the pay. He’s not afraid of the “big bad wolf.” Jesus stared him down in the wilderness and crushed his head at the empty tomb.
Your Good Shepherd sets a table before you today where you can feast on his very own body and blood.
He doesn’t give you just enough. He gives you plenty. Your cup overflows. And out of that plenty, he calls you to share with your brothers and sisters. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
You can do this, because you have a good shepherd … THE Good Shepherd.