A Good Shepherd for Dirty, Wandering Sheep
|"The Good Shepherd" by Thomas Cole|
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
No image of the Lord and His relationship with us strikes closer to the core of our being than the one we see as our theme for today: the image of the Lord as our Shepherd and us as His sheep. We sing about this relationship in our hymns for today: “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb,” “Have No Fear Little Flock,” and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” We hear it in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” In Revelation: “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd” (7:17). And in our text for today, John 10:27, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
Shepherd and sheep: Why do you suppose this image has such power for us? Perhaps it’s because we link them together with peace and quiet. “He makes me lie down in green pastures…He leads me beside quiet waters.” Or maybe it’s because of how we think of sheep. A number of people have sheepskins to cover their car seats. The wool is soft and clean and fresh, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Surely the animal that gave it must be like that: soft and gentle, clean and fresh, without fierce teeth or sharp claws.
Scripture tells us Jesus, the Lord, is our Shepherd, and we are His sheep. If only more of us knew how sheep really are, this might make us feel a bit sheepish about ourselves! My own personal experience leads me to believe that all it would probably take would be to help someone shear sheep one time. You see, all that thick, soft wool picks up a lot of dirt and smells as the sheep lives from day to day. What comes to us as clean and soft, starts out as filthy and full of manure. And as you hold the sheep for the shearer, the oily lanolin and smells just stick to your clothes and skin. You have to really scrub to get them off. And it takes even longer to get the distinctive odor cleared from your nasal passages.
Those who’ve tended sheep know that they have other unpleasant characteristics, too. Sheep are prone to wander from the flock. The sight of some greener grass catches their attention, and they go off until they find themselves far away. Sheep can be stubborn, willful creatures; but they’re also more than willing to just follow along in whatever direction the rest of the crowd is moving.
Still, Scripture tells us we are God’s sheep. And though we might not want to admit it, it’s a very apt description. For example, have you ever noticed how just like sheep, we have an amazing ability to pick up dirt from our surroundings? How often we find our lives are not pure and soft and white, but that we’ve managed to pick up the same unpleasant characteristics of the world around us. It might be very hard for a stranger to recognize that we’re any different. While we may not be able to help passing through the valley of the shadow of death, when we begin to walk like those who are spiritually dead, that becomes a problem. For at that point we are very much in danger of the worst sort!
With that in mind, we look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s Law. When we do, we’re dismayed by the sight of the filth and mess in our life! Instead of delighting in the oil the Lord pours over our head—and whatever good things He pours into our cup—we covet the delights of this world. Instead of trusting God to vindicate us in the presence of our enemies, we fear them, smear them, speak all kinds of evil against them, and gloat when we see them stumble. Isn’t it true? Yes, sadly, every time we gather for worship, as soon as the name of God is placed on us, we find we must confess that we are poor, miserable sinners.
As God’s sheep, we have a tendency to wander. Perhaps something hurtful is said to us, maybe even by other sheep, other people of God. Or we experience some horrible, shocking event—a sudden death we can’t possibly explain in our understanding of a loving God, a rejection by a loved one that doesn’t make sense when we’ve been committed and faithful.
Or maybe we catch sight of greener grass just over the next ridge—those worldly goods that draw us away, or a catchier sounding philosophy or religion. We wander from God’s house—become angry with Him, lose faith in Him, lose confidence that His simple Word and Sacrament are the richest table anyone could ever spread before us. And the next thing we know, months or even years have gone by, and we find ourselves alone, without Him. Isaiah said it well: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
And like sheep we can be stubborn, too. When things don’t go our way, we dig in our heels and force others to drag us along. Instead of praying, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray, “My will be done in heaven and on earth—or else.” And even when it’s obvious we can’t have our way, we decide to make things miserable for everybody else. We are dirty, wandering sheep. And so serious is our problem that God has taken a radical step to solve it. Let me use this illustration. And remember, this is a true story even though it sounds like it’s not.
Once upon a time there was a big, bad wolf who lived in a cave. And this wolf had it pretty easy. Whenever he was hungry he would just go outside and there grazing right by his door were sheep. He would eat as many as he wanted to satisfy his hunger. Day after day, the more he ate the fatter he got and the fatter he got the more he ate. It was an unending cycle. And each and every sheep knew that one day the wolf would come out of his cave and eat him or her.
Now one day the wolf woke up and went out of his cave to eat again. And right there on his doorstep was the biggest, fattest sheep he had ever seen. He couldn’t believe the nerve of that sheep to be grazing right there on his doorstep, so he let out a big scary howl that the sheep promptly ignored. He ran right up to the sheep and he blasted him with his breath. And his breath smelled bad, in fact the wolf himself smelled bad, because this wolf had a name, and his name is Death.
So the wolf tried to frighten him and he said, “Don’t you know who I am?”
The sheep answered, “Yes, I know who you are.”
“Well, aren’t you afraid of me?”
And the sheep looked at him and blinked and said, “…of you? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Now this made the wolf really angry. “That does it,” he said, “I’m going to kill you, and it’s going to be slow and painful and it’s going to be awful and it’s going to hurt a lot.”
And the sheep answered, “I know.”
Now the other sheep had gathered around to see what was going on, because nothing like this had ever happened before. No sheep had ever spoken to the wolf in that way. “Maybe,” they thought, “it will be different this time.”
But when the wolf pounced it wasn’t any different. So the sheep scattered. And just like he promised the wolf made his meal slow and painful and awful. When it was done, he belched out his victory to the other sheep. And they scattered even further. Then the wolf went back to his den.
“Wow!” he said to himself. “That was the best lamb chops I’ve ever had.” And in fact he thought it was quite strange that that one sheep had satisfied him and he didn’t even feel hungry. He went to bed. But when he got up in the morning he wasn’t feeling himself. He had a bellyache. Throughout the day it began to grow worse and worse and he began to wonder about that sheep he ate. Could it have been poisoned?
In the middle of the next night the wolf couldn’t take it anymore, because something inside of him was alive. And it was poking and prodding from the inside. Then all of a sudden there was a ripping sound and his belly was torn open. Death’s stomach was torn wide open, and out stepped someone that looked like a shepherd. Now the shepherd walked around the den and he laughed and he laughed and he said to the wolf, “Well my old foe, do you recognize me?”
The wolf recognized the voice. It was the sheep that he had eaten three days before. “You!” he said, “How could it be?”
The shepherd replied: “You kept your promise to me, you made my death painful and slow and awful, but what are you going to do about me now? You’ve got a hole in your belly that’s never going to heal. You go ahead and eat my sheep. I promise, I’ll lead them right out of your belly just as I myself have come out of your belly. That hole you have is forever.”
Now the shepherd went out the door and he gathered all the sheep together. And he said, “Look, the wolf’s going to be coming out in a few days and he’s going to be just as hungry as ever. And yes, he’s still going to eat you. But see, he’s got a hole in his belly and I’ll lead you through it just as I went through it.”
That’s the Good Shepherd who is the Lamb. When we were lost, without hope and without God in the world, Jesus wandered far from His heavenly home in search of us. He descended to earth and became one of us, though without sin. His search took Him to a lowly virgin in Nazareth, to a humble cave in Bethlehem, throughout Galilee, to Jerusalem, and, finally, on a dark and lonely Friday afternoon, to an accursed tree on Mount Calvary. There, He walked through the valley of the shadow of death on our behalf. He conquered our willfulness by yielding His own will to that of the Father—even unto death. Freely, lovingly He offered Himself up for us through the Spirit to the Father.
The Shepherd became a sheep—the Paschal Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The sinless Lamb of God was made to be sin for us. God laid on the Righteous One the iniquity of all humanity. He died in our place as a sacrifice pleasing to the Father. God accepted His fragrant offering, and Jesus was raised to life. After showing Himself alive to His apostles and followers, He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He has averted God’s wrath from us and brought us goodness and mercy and grace.
The Lamb has become our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd. He feeds us in the pasture of His Word. He leads us beside the still, deep waters of Baptism. Even in the midst of jangled nerves and troubled hearts, the Lord gives us peace with God and hope for eternity. Our Shepherd restores our soul. There are times when we feel alienated from God, as if He has forgotten us. Yet the Lord promises to restore us and renew us with His Word. He satisfies our hunger by giving us the heavenly bread and the cup of life, His own body and blood.
Through these gifts, He guides us in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name. In our pilgrimage of life, our own sinful inclinations, the world, and the devil still threaten to lead us astray. But our Lord is at work within us, moving us to will and act according to His good pleasure. God guides us past danger and temptation in our daily life because He’s already been that way before Himself. He’s already opened up a hole in our last great enemy—death itself.
Which brings us to our reading from Revelation: St. John takes us to where people are living with God in the next life. We see a great multitude that no one can count, from every tribe and nation, people and language. They are standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. And who are these people, this great multitude? They are those who have come out of the great tribulation—that is, out of the sufferings of this life, through the valley of the shadow of death. They’ve laid aside the burdens and battles, the stresses and strains of walking in the valley, and now they’re in the throne room of heaven.
What enables them to stand in the unveiled presence of God? They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). They’ve been washed in the water and Word of Baptism. They’ve been given faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, and with that faith they have received the forgiveness of sins achieved by Jesus on the cross for all humankind. Christ’s body and blood strengthens and preserves them in body and soul unto eternal life.
Think about what comfort this is. Who do you miss that has passed from this world? We often say that we just don’t know what it’s like for those who have died, that Scripture is silent, and in a really big way that is true—except for this passage. John is telling us what those departed saints are doing: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
No wonder these white-robed saints are singing with special joy: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Right now all those loved ones of ours who have died in the faith wouldn’t come back to us for anything. They have Jesus. They have everything they need. They have passed through death into eternal life.
One day, we will join them. By God’s grace, our destination is with them. But we can join in their song even now. Having been washed in His precious blood, we are no longer dirty, wandering sheep, but members of His flock. On the Last Day, Christ will return from heaven with all His holy angels. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet, the dead will be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies, and all those still on earth will be changed. And all of us who are in Christ Jesus will be gathered into one flock, united with our Shepherd and Lamb, Jesus.
As you await that great day, your Good Shepherd loves you, feeds you, leads and guides you through all the perilous ways of this life. He speaks and you listen, for by that Word He gives faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. He reassures you that no one will ever snatch you out of His hand… you are His sheep… no longer dirty and wandering, but righteous and blameless. That is to say, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.