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“I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
That’s Jesus who’s talking. He is the “I am.” The same “I am who I am” who spoke to Moses in the desert. “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the way and the truth and the life,” “I am the door of the sheep,” “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” “I am the good shepherd.”
He is the “GOOD” Shepherd. “GOOD” as in the beginning when He saw what He made by the power of His Word and called it GOOD. “GOOD” as in “tov.” Exactly the way it’s supposed to be. “GOOD” light. “GOOD” dry land and seas. “GOOD” fruit trees bearing fruit and vegetation. “GOOD” stars in the sky and creatures on the earth. “GOOD” man and GOOD woman. “I am the GOOD Shepherd.” Exactly what a Shepherd is supposed to be.
A shepherd is supposed to take care of the sheep of his flock. And we all know what sheep are for. Shepherds are hired to bring the sheep entrusted to their care to the market in good shape, well fed, well watered, healthy, the fatter the better. And shepherds darn well better bring as many sheep to the market as they were entrusted with in the beginning. If they were given 100 sheep to care for and one, even one, goes astray, they better get out there and look for it until they find it and carry it if they must, all the way back to the fold. Any shepherd who comes in with fewer sheep than he was entrusted with is going to have a hard time getting hired again.
“I am the GOOD shepherd.” “Of those whom You gave me I have lost not one.” (John 18:9)
But He is not a ‘hired hand.’ “The hired hand cares nothing for the sheep.” The hired hand is only interested in the paycheck and his 403B retirement program and whether or not Social Security will still be around when it comes his time to collect.
The Good Shepherd is not a ‘hired hand.’ The sheep BELONG to Him. “I know MY OWN, and My own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is not a business and it’s certainly not about personal security. This is personal, very personal. If anything happens to the sheep, to HIS SHEEP, He suffers. He suffers in their suffering. He delights in their joy. He is as personal with His sheep as the Father is personal with the Son and the Son with the Father. The good shepherd LOVES His sheep. It’s that personal.
Sadly, the sheep do not comprehend much of this. They are after all, sheep. The best that you can expect of them is that they listen to the voice of their shepherd and follow Him. The closest they come to what you might call “a relationship” with their shepherd is that they know the sound of His voice and as long as they hear His voice they feel safe and secure. But for the sheep, it’s all about what the Shepherd can do for them. After all, what does a sheep have to offer a shepherd except obey? And so He says, “If you love me you will obey my word.”
So, it’s not because the sheep love their good shepherd that the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He lays down His life for the sheep in spite of the fact that they cannot begin to appreciate the “breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (Eph.3:19). He loves His sheep simply because THEY ARE HIS OWN.
The “sheep” that Jesus us referring to is you. Not because you were baptized. Not even because you believe. Certainly not because you’re so darn cute and adorable. You are one of His sheep because He laid down His life for you. I know that He laid down His life for you because He laid down His life for the whole world. Every single one, from the first to the last, the young and the old, the conceived who are born and the conceived who are robbed of their birth, the old who are with it and the old who are without it. They’re all His and He laid down His life for all. Not because they deserve it or appreciate it. Just because He is the GOOD SHEPHERD, and that’s what shepherds are supposed to do.
It is however through Holy Baptism that it gets personal for you. In your baptism, the Holy Spirit opened your ears so that you are able recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in distinction to all others as the voice of One who loves you. Who loves you like not one else loves you.
In your Baptism, the Holy Spirit opened your heart so that when you hear His voice you feel safe and secure. The sound of His voice gives a peace which this world cannot give and that surpasses all human understanding.
He has laid down His life for the unbaptized and unbelieving sheep for sure. But they neither listen to His voice nor do they find any security or peace in it, nor do they follow Him. But you desire to listen to His voice and no other. You desire to follow Him and no other. For you, it’s personal.
Which is not to say that always you do listen to His voice and no other and follow Him and no other. We are after all, sheep. “And all we, like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way.” But even in this, you know that “when your heart condemns you, that God is greater you’re your heart.” And He brings you back and forgives your sins. And your condemned heart is filled with joy and full of confidence before God to believe, “The Lord is MY shepherd.” And I am His little lamb. It’s pretty personal.
Of all of the many analogies that are found in the Scriptures for the relationship between the Christ and His Christians, the one of Shepherd and sheep may be the most endearing.
Compared to the ‘vine and its branches,’ or the ‘cornerstone’ and the building built on top of it, this is so much more appealing. But its appeal may also be its problem. The wonderful imagery of the good shepherd leading His adoring sheep ‘beside still water’ and ‘to lie down in green pastures,’ ‘who lack nothing,’ risks missing the point that all of this takes place in the ‘midst of enemies.’ “He prepares a table IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES.” It is not through a botanical paradise that He leads us but “through the valley of the shadow of death.”
There is a hungry wolf prowling around looking for sheep to devour. “The wolf snatches them and scatters them.” The point it, the good Shepherd has not come into an otherwise safe and peaceful world to offer you more safety or more peace than you already have as though whether He came or not, life would still go on just fine. Apart from Him, you are wolf food.
Easter is not simply a happy day among many happy days. Easter is Christ’s victory over death and hell for the sake of His sheep. He has won the victory over the “rulers and authorities and the cosmic powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph.6:12).
Easter is the victory of the Shepherd from heaven over the wolf from hell and the prize is you. “I give them eternal life AND NO ONE WILL SNATCH THEM OUT OF MY HAND.” (John 10:28).
But the victory comes at a heavy price. Four times in the eight verses of our gospel reading for this “Good Shepherd Sunday,” Jesus declares, “He lays down His life for the sheep.” This is not a pretty picture of a grandfatherly shepherd surrounded by His adoring sheep. This is a terrible fight between THE Shepherd and THE Wolf. It’s a picture that is filled with pain and suffering, spit and sweat, with torn flesh and blood and death. And not of the wolf, and not of the sheep. But of the Shepherd, the GOOD Shepherd, who LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP.
If this were any other story than His Story, this would be total disaster. If a shepherd lays down his life for his sheep and he dies, he leaves them in a terrible situation. The death of the shepherd means the death of the sheep. But in this story, the death of the Good Shepherd means the life of the sheep.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Listen carefully to what He says. “The good Shepherd LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE for the sheep.” The verb is “tithaymee.” It’s in the active – indicative, not passive. His life was not taken from Him. He laid it down. Intentionally, purposefully, according to His eternal will from before the creation. “No one takes my life from me but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the authority to lay it down and the authority to take it up again.” There is nothing accidental or coincidental about any of this.
This is the victory of Easter that we celebrate. Not just that our Good Shepherd laid down His life for us. That would not be very good news for us if that were as far as it went. But He also took it up again, and He lives and reigns to all eternity. He has broken the wolf’s teeth. The Shepherd has crushed the wolf’s head, just as it is written, “and He shall crush your head.”
Now, the sheep may live in safety and security even in the “presence of their enemies.” They who are known by the good Shepherd and who know Him and His death and resurrection for them, walk through even “the valley of the shadow of death” with peace in their heart and a song on their lips, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Writing to the sheep, St. John says, “By this we know love.” You want to know what real love looks like? “By this we know love, that he laid down His life for us.” Jesus said, “greater love has no MAN than his, than that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) So, if that is the standard for love among men, what do you think it means when the GOD / MAN lays down His life for you?
John says, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” This is what it means to “follow Jesus” like a faithful sheep. He laid down His life for us. So we lay down our lives for one another. “By this we know love.” By this, the world gets a chance to see what real love looks like too.
Occasionally, we great acts of heroism when someone willingly puts himself / herself in harms way solely to save someone else’s life. Our military men and women are trained to think like this. One will willingly fall on a grenade to shield his brothers from its blast. “We ought to lay down our life for the brothers.”
But this “ought” is not restricted to those rare, extreme moments of sacrifice that require physical death. John applies this “ought” to the experience of everyday life in the world. “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?”
Maybe for some of us, the old Jack Benny skit is too true and we’d have to give some serious thought as to whether we’d rather die or hand over our money. How often do we tell someone in need that we will pray for them when the answer to our prayer has already been given to us and all we have to do is share “the world’s goods” with the one in need? “Little children, let us not love in word and talk but in deed and in truth.”
We love others as Christ loved us right in our daily life and in the particular vocations of our particular life. Husbands and wives lay down their lives for each other. Parents lay down their lives for their children. Grown children lay down their lives for their aging parents. Employees lay down their lives for their fellow employees and those who depend on the services that they provide. Brothers and sisters in Christ lay down their lives for one another in the congregation.
We are not ‘hired hands.” “Hired hands” care only about themselves. We are the sheep of the Good Shepherd. And He has laid down His life for us. He has given us everything that we need. “Our cup overflows.” We, of all people ought to show the world what real love looks like.