Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Today we celebrate the third Sunday of the Easter season. This Sunday is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the focus of the Gospel Reading in particular, as well as the other readings and propers, speak of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. On the other hand, The traditional Latin name for this Sunday is Misericordias Domini. These words come from the beginning of our Introit and they mean “the mercies of the Lord”, or as our ESV translation puts it, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” This opening line of the Introit in its entirety is words from Psalm 33 which remind us that “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5b). This is what our Good shepherd delights in doing—spreading the steadfast love and mercies of the Lord to the whole earth. So, as we look at what it means for Jesus to be our Good Shepherd, we know that filling the earth, and indeed each one of us, with the steadfast love of the Lord will always be at the top of his priorities.
2. We are quite familiar with Jesus’ statement at the beginning of our text: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11a). This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most beloved images of our Lord in all of Christianity. And so we are used to seeing many familiar artistic depictions of our Lord as a shepherd, we are used to encountering congregations who have named themselves after the Good Shepherd, and we know that Psalm 23, which depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is by far the most well-known and well-loved of all the Psalms. We love to think of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. But in our text for today, Jesus breaks down any pre-conceived ideas we might have about what it means to be a good shepherd by showing us that he is at times also the surprising shepherd.
3. The first place we see Jesus as a surprising shepherd is in the second half of verse 11, when he says: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11b). Now, this sounds nice and noble until you really think about it. What kind of a shepherd does this? What kind of shepherd sacrifices himself for the sheep? This is a puzzling question for a couple of reasons. First, most shepherds who raise animals do so for a reason. Whether it’s to feed their family or to make a living, there is a reason for what they do. To put it crudely, the sheep are a means to an end. That’s not to say the shepherd doesn’t care about the animals, but the idea of a shepherd sacrificing himself for the sake of the sheep is a crazy idea. No shepherd views his sheep as of greater value than his own life. But this is where our Good Shepherd, Jesus, is different. He does view the lives of his sheep as of more value than his own life, which is why he is willing to sacrifice himself for their sake. But this leads to the second reason why it would be crazy for a shepherd to sacrifice himself for the sheep. Even in this case where the shepherd values the life of his sheep more than his own life, it’s still crazy for him to sacrifice himself. Why? Because he is the one who cares for and protects the sheep. If the shepherd is dead, who is going to lead the sheep to pastures and watering places? If the shepherd is dead, who is going to protect the sheep from wild animals and predators? Quite simply, if the shepherd is dead, the sheep will also be dead in short order. This is why it’s surprising that a shepherd who calls himself “good” says that he lays down his life for the sheep.
4. Jesus’ claim in this text that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep is also surprising because there is another character in this text who is very real and of concern. In verse 12, Jesus mentions the wolf who comes to snatch and scatter the sheep. Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the identity of this wolf is no mystery. The wolf is the devil whose chief aim is to snatch and scatter our Lord’s flock so that they might not experience the joys of eternal life with their shepherd. As Saint Peter tells us in his first epistle, the devil very much prowls around like a ravenous predator seeking to devour the Lord’s flock. Jesus knows this too, which is why it is surprising that he says he lays his life down for his sheep. Little good it would do the sheep if the shepherd is killed because after the shepherd is killed, the poor sheep would be utterly at the mercy of the wolf without a single hand to defend them. The only deliverance for the sheep would lie in the shepherd killing or driving off the wolf. But surprisingly and paradoxically, it is through the laying down of his life that our Good Shepherd drives off the wolf. It is by allowing himself to be overcome by the wolf that Jesus delivers his sheep from that wolf. The reason for this is Jesus is not like a regular shepherd. He is a shepherd without equal and without comparison. He is the kind of shepherd who not only lays down his life for his flock, but as the verse immediately following our text makes clear, Jesus is also the kind of shepherd who after laying down his life, he “take[s] it up again” (John 10:17b).
5. The nature of Jesus’ behavior as our Good Shepherd is surprising. He behaves in all sorts of ways that we would not expect. We see and experience Jesus’ surprising behavior in many different ways. We expect and look for a leader and deliverer who saves through strength of force. Yet our Shepherd lays down his life to give us deliverance from our enemy. We expect and look for a God who will give us good gifts and bring us into his family through mighty and miraculous means. Yet our Shepherd uses ordinary water poured on our heads to give us his Holy Spirit and to bring us into his family. We expect and look for a provider who will feed and water us with the most extravagant of meals. Yet our Shepherd offers us his own body and blood to eat and to drink through ordinary forms of bread and wine so that we might be nourished and sustained in body and soul unto life everlasting. We expect and look for a God who will speak to us directly in a voice from the cloud or in divine revelation. Yet our Shepherd uses the words of ordinary men to speak his life-giving word to us. The behavior of our Good Shepherd is quite surprising in so many ways.
6. All of this shows us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like we expect it to look. Our Lord doesn’t work in the ways that we might expect him to. We see and experiences this every day in the Church, as we’ve just discussed, so why don’t we expect it in our every-day lives? In our every-day lives, when it’s time to make a big decision, we want God’s plan for our lives to be revealed in grand and spectacular ways. Yet our Shepherd gives us guidance through ordinary Christian brothers and sisters and then gives us the dignity to make our own decisions from there. When we are experiencing some particular physical need, we expect God to meet that need in exactly the way we desire. Yet our shepherd often asks us to live with physical pain in this life as we await the joy and healing of eternal life. When it comes to the Lord and his kingdom, our expectations are often all wrong. We pray, “Thy will be done”, but what we really mean is, “Thy will be done according to my expectations and standards.” Here’s the thing, when there’s a difference between our expectations of God and reality, the problem is not him, the problem is us. It is important for our growth in the Christian faith that we set aside our selfish expectations and embrace the fact that our Lord works in his kingdom in unexpected ways. He has proved this definitively in Jesus, who has laid down his life for us so that we might be forgiven and restored to the flock. And so, as we grow in Christian maturity, we learn to recognize the surprising ways in which our Good Shepherd fills the earth, and indeed each one of us, with the steadfast love of the Lord. We learn to set aside our expectations and trust that the one who has laid down his life for us is there by our side to guide us through this life until the full and final will and kingdom of God come among us on the last day.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.