Monday, April 30, 2012

Sermon for Easter 4: "The Lamb is Our Shepherd"

+ 4th Sunday of Easter – April 29th, 2012 +

Series B_Acts 4:1-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

 In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

             Jesus our Good Shepherd; probably one of the most widely known and well loved, not to mention comforting metaphors in the Scriptures. But there’s a difficulty for us when Jesus says, “I AM the Good Shepherd.”
            Jesus’ words are both unfamiliar and too familiar.
            Unfamiliar because most of us have no experience with sheep.  Farmville on Facebook doesn’t count. And good luck finding any sheep at Knott’s Berry Farm. The closest thing to shepherding we know is spending time with a herd of children; you teachers and VBS volunteers know what I mean – but that’s probably more like a being sheep dog than anything else.
            But it’s also too familiar. We hear the Good Shepherd reading every year. Most people know parts of Psalm 23, if not the whole thing, by heart. We hear Jesus’ words at funerals and confirmations. That’s not all bad, of course. But there’s a temptation for us to turn a comforting reality into a cliché, not by hearing too often, but by failing to understand what Jesus says.
            Jesus comes from a long line of shepherds in the Bible; it’s in his blood. Though Jesus grew a carpenter’s son, shepherding is His true vocation. Abel was a shepherd before his brother, Cain, led him to the slaughter. Jacob tended Laban’s flock for 14 years for the sake of his bride. Moses grazed the fields of Midian before leading the wandering sheep of Israel through the wilderness. 
            Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of the shepherd-king, David. When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he’s saying is, “Psalm 23, all that Shepherd talk in Ezekiel and the prophets - that’s all about Me, I am Yahweh.”
            That’s the key to understanding Jesus’ words, that it’s more than a metaphor. Jesus really is the Good Shepherd. The Arch-Shepherd; the shepherd who defines all shepherds and their shepherd-ness. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life on behalf of the sheep.”
           That also makes him the strangest shepherd of all, the kind of shepherd most people think foolish. What kind of shepherd thinks that the life of his sheep is more important than his own? What kind of shepherd gladly and willingly throws himself into the jaws of the wolf to set his lambs free? “Go ahead, pierce my flesh. Spill my blood. Kill me; not them.” None of course, but one. Jesus Christ is your Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for you, his lambs.
            And while we like this image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, it’s offensive to our sheepish pride. It’s not exactly a flattering image. Sheep are dumb, stubborn, and prone to wandering off. Mean too: kicking, biting, head-butting for position in the flock. We’ll drink from any rancid puddle that promises refreshment - religions, philosophies, pop-Christian fads and false gospels pedaled by hirelings. We’ll nibble on any weed in the pasture that looks pleasing to the eyes, no matter how poisonous it might be. We’ll wander off alone. After all, who needs a church when you can feed yourself from the comfort of your computer or wherever?  

            The prophet Isaiah knew us all too well, “All we like sheep have gone astray. Everyone has turned his own way.” That’s the problem. A flock of one is an oxymoron. Sheep – apart from the Shepherd - are defenseless, vulnerable and dead, wolf chow. Maybe you’ve seen those Discovery Channel shows. Remember, it’s always lone sheep, the isolated Christian, who becomes easy pickings for the wolf.
            That’s why the Shepherd calls you here to his sheepfold, the Church, to hear the Shepherd’s voice. It’s also a place where the flock circles one another in defense of the prowling wolves. Strength in numbers. The sheep live for others the way the Shepherd lives for us. Christians are made to be a flock. For there are also lost sheep out in our communities and families who need a shepherd. For sheep cannot save themselves any better than they can shepherd themselves. We need a shepherd. That’s exactly who you have, Good Shepherd Jesus, the Bishop of our souls.
            What a difference from the hired hand. The hireling does not own the sheep; he uses the sheep for his own gain like a pimp. The Good Shepherd owns his sheep, purchased at Calvary’s marketplace in exchange for his precious blood.
            The hireling cares only for himself. The Good Shepherd cares for others and denies himself. When the hireling sees the wolf coming he leaves the sheep and flees to save his own hide. The Good Shepherd stays and protects the sheep; he saves others but he would not save himself. By the way, that’s why pastors are ordained and called; not hired and fired. They’re shepherds of the flock of Christ, the Good Shepherd. The hireling is selfish. The Good Shepherd is self-giving; he lays down his life for his sheep.
            Jesus contrasts himself with the hirelings so you keep your sheep ears perked up, listening to the voice of the true Shepherd. You can always tell a hireling from the shepherd by the message he brings. Listen carefully. Anyone who does not preach Jesus Christ to be your Shepherd, who bore you sins on the cross, who laid down His life for your salvation, in whom you are justified before God freely for Jesus’ sake, is not speaking on behalf of the Good Shepherd. Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
            There’re plenty of hirelings both in the church and out of the church. Gurus abound. But none are willing, able or even claiming to be your Shepherd, to lay down their life for you, to die for your sins. But Jesus is. You don’t need a guide a guru or a hireling; you need a Savior.
            For you, his sheep, the Shepherd joined his flock; he became a Lamb. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God didn’t sit on his throne saying, “Look at those poor lost sheep, I sure hope they find their way.” No. “I myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep,” declares the Lord. “I AM the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life on behalf of his sheep.” It’s in his blood.
            Jesus is the greater Abel, sacrificed by his brothers, and this time, for his brothers. He the greater Jacob, labors in agony for you, his bride, adorning you in woolly white baptismal garments. He, the greater Moses, leads his wandering sheep to the Promised Land. He the greater David, is shepherd-king of his new Israel, a new flock, his Church.
            Ordinarily a shepherd’s death would leave the flock in peril. But in Jesus’ death there’s a different outcome. Shepherd Jesus saves his lambs by dying for them
            That’s what a Good Shepherd does, lays down his life for his sheep. Every night the sheep are herded into pen. The shepherd lies at the opening of the pen for the night. That’s what Jesus means when He says, “I am the door of the sheep.” He literally lays down His life for the sheep. He lies in the door of death, and through His death, His sheep can go in and out and find pasture. Through the narrow door of Jesus’ death there is abundant life for you.
            You shall not want. He makes you lie down in the green pastures of his Word. He leads you into the still waters of Baptism. He restores your soul from death to life. He guides you in the path of His righteousness, daily dying and rising. Even though you walk daily in the shadow of death, hunted by sin and the devil, you need fear no evil. Good Shepherd Jesus has gone ahead of you through suffering and death to resurrection and glory. Your Shepherd lives and so do you. He leads you with the disciplining rod of Law and his rescuing staff of gospel.

            He anoints your head with healing oil, forgiving your sin. What a marvelous image of confession and absolution. The shepherd gives his sheep a flea bath, like corporate absolution. But he also applies healing individually to those troublesome sores and spots become infected if left unattended, like individual absolution. Forgiveness, like sin itself, is both general and specific.
            And your Shepherd gives you more. He prepares a table for you; your cup overflows as the Shepherd feeds you with his own body and blood. This Shepherd is your paschal Lamb and his altar is your banquet table.
            Here in the sheepfold, we rejoice with David, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” Like a pair of sheep dogs nipping at your heels, our Lord’s goodness and mercy will dog you until your Shepherd calls you home into the stable: further up and further in! You are kept safe in His pierced hands. And there’s no better place to be.
            That way, when the wolf comes to huff and puff and blow your faith down, point him to Jesus, your Good Shepherd. “You want me for supper? You have to go through the Good Shepherd. You want to accuse me of my sins and flaunt them in my face? Take them up with Jesus. They belong to him now.” For anyone who tries to snatch you out of the flock your Good Shepherd, Jesus simply declares: “Over my dead and risen body. I AM the Good Shepherd.”

             In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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