Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep.
The 23rd psalm is one of the most cherished passages in all of scripture, and is certainly the best known passage in the Old Testament – and for good reason. In writing this psalm King David, who spent his youth working as a shepherd, drew on his experience as a shepherd to describe who God is, what God is like. “The Lord is my shepherd,” David begins. He goes on to describe the Lord God as a shepherd who makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us to still waters in order to restore our souls. The Lord God is a shepherd who accompanies his sheep, who is powerfully present with them even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death so that they would fear no evil, for his rod and staff, his power and might, comfort them. The Lord God is a shepherd who gives his sheep an abundance of life, such that their cup overflows. The Lord God is a shepherd who pours out his goodness and mercy upon his sheep all the days of their lives, and gives us the promise that they will dwell in his house forever! In this beloved psalm, cherished by Jews and Christians alike, David describes the Lord God as a shepherd, as a good shepherd.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus comes along and says, “I am the good shepherd!” Jesus is making a claim to his divinity. He is this God David has described! He is explaining that he has come to do all the things David said the good shepherd would do. He has come to restore our souls, to walk with us in the valley of the shadow, to make our cup overflow, to give us his goodness and mercy, to prepare a place in his house for us to be with him forever.
But then Jesus says something shocking. Jesus has not only come to do all the things the good shepherd of David’s psalm would do. He has come to do something else as well. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus says. While the hired hands run away when the wolves come to snatch and scatter, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
My family and I have taken several trips to Yellowstone National Park, and one year we remember fondly as “the wolf year.” That year we saw wolf cubs playing in a meadow. We watched one wolf howl to its mate until the mate came trotting out of the forest to join it. We also found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam, which, in Yellowstone, usually means there is some cool wildlife to look at. As we crept along, we eventually saw what everyone was looking at. A couple of wolves were on a riverbank right near the road with their snouts buried in the carcass of a deer. We watched them tugging at the deer’s flesh, their white fur splattered with blood. As park rangers and ranchers and shepherds know, wolves steal and kill and destroy. They are beautiful and fascinating creatures, and they deserve a place in the ecosystem, to be sure, but that’s what wolves do. They steal and they kill and they destroy – and they particularly enjoy devouring sheep.
Jesus doesn’t say he will chase away the wolves who threaten the sheep. He doesn’t say he will holler and wave to scare them off. He doesn’t say he will pick up a rod or a rifle. Instead, Jesus says he will lay down his life for the sheep. He will offer himself to the wolves. He will let them devour him instead of his sheep. He will give up his life for the sheep.
It is a remarkable, shocking thing to say! Even the best, most caring shepherds of the ancient world knew that they would eventually bring their sheep to market! To defend your flock is one thing, but no ordinary shepherd would ever die for his sheep! But Jesus is no ordinary shepherd, is he? He knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and he lays down his life for them, Jesus says. And the Father loves him for it. Jesus is speaking, of course, of the cross.
We all face wolves in our lives that want to steal and kill and destroy the life that God intends for us. Those wolves might take the form of fear or guilt or shame or hopelessness. They might take the form of addiction. They might come in the form of worldviews that lie and deceive and devour. They might attack us in the form of those recurring sins that tug and tear at us, destroying relationships and destroying lives. These wolves take many different forms and go by many different names, but their purpose is always the same – to steal and to kill and to destroy.
We seek shelter and safety in all kinds of different places. It has been said that as church membership dips to its lowest point in American history, that politics has become the new religion for many people, which explains a lot. Or there’s always the old materialism that thinks we can find shelter and safety in products, in consumption, in accumulating newer and better stuff. Both options can be alluring, but eventually we learn that these are just more wolves with blood on their fur, only interested in what they can get out of us for their own benefit.
Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd. He knows the powers in our world and in our hearts that threaten to steal and kill and destroy the life God intends for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep so much that he laid down his life for us on the cross. He let those powers devour him so that we would go free and live. Jesus took the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so that we can find comfort in his presence with us. Jesus died carrying all our sin and guilt so we can find forgiveness and new life in him. Jesus let those wolves bury their snouts in him on the cross so that our souls would be forever restored, so that we would know his goodness and mercy, so that we would live in hope and peace, knowing that he has established a place for us in his Father’s house forever.
Because you see, Jesus didn’t just throw himself to the wolves and die. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” Jesus said. And in his resurrection we find a love more powerful than death. We find a Good Shepherd who lives still today to protect us and guide us and nurture us.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus said, “I must bring them also.” Jesus is talking about the Gentile believers here. He is talking about those outside of the original flock known as the people of Israel, the Jewish people. And so he is talking about you! Jesus Christ is your Good Shepherd. He is the only shepherd who loves you enough to lay down his life for you. He laid down his life in order to rescue you from all those powers that threaten to steal and kill and destroy. He let them devour him instead, so that you would live. They might snarl at you and scare you from time to time, but in his death and resurrection, Jesus has already defeated them all. So live in those green pastures. Live beside those still waters. Live in the joy and peace and freedom that this Good Shepherd has won for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church