Of Shepherds and Sheep

2016-04-17 Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Could there be a more beautiful promise than this? No conditions. No if/then. And he’s talking about *us*. He never asked our permission. He chose us. And no one will snatch us away.

We are Jesus sheep, and he is our shepherd. But if you stop and think about it, why “sheep”? Why not something else? We never really think about it, because we’re so used to it. After all, this is Good Shepherd Sunday. So we get all kinds of romantic ideas in our heads. Think about it – the Lord is my shepherd, he leads me beside still waters. Now, that is a peaceful thought, and isn’t that what faith is supposed to be about? Though it’s funny that a lot of the time, we don’t really feel peaceful.

Sometimes we hear “sheep” and think about obedience. My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me. If we’re disciples, shouldn’t we be doing what Jesus tells us to do? Think about the first disciples. Jesus calls some rough fishermen. Follow me. And they immediately drop their nets and follow him. They were pretty obedient, right? But what happens? They argue and fight. Jesus asks them questions and they either give him the wrong answer, or they don’t even understand the question. They deny or betray him. Point being, they’re not really very good disciples. Or sheep. And if we’re honest, are we any better?

But, what if “sheep” isn’t really a compliment at all? They’re dirty and smelly animals. They’re not smart. They don’t do much of anything but graze or get herded around, and usually not even by the shepherd. By dogs. But of course, I’ve never actually been a farmer. This is just what I’ve read about sheep. Maybe some of you have been farmers and know something I don’t. But the point here is that what Jesus thinks of sheep, and what we think of sheep, are probably two very different thoughts, and we’re not very good at getting inside Jesus’ head. But if we don’t get the idea of “sheep”, then what about the people Jesus is talking to – the Jews gathered around him in the temple. These aren’t farmers – they’re city-slicker Jews from Jerusalem. Not just that, but they’re the guys in charge at the big temple. They’ve got a lot of power. So, do you think they know anything about sheep?

Well, they do know one thing – sheep are a commodity. Sheep get brought to them for holy sacrifice. To make atonement for the sins of the people. Of course, this is supposed to be all wrapped up with repentance and doing the justice and mercy of God’s will. Except, they’re not very good at those things. In fact, the temple is kind of like the epicenter of injustice and greed. They demand offerings and taxes that most of the common folk can’t manage, on top of everything that the Roman Empire already puts them through. And judging them anyway. There’s no compassion here. No mercy. So, in the end, to them, sheep are small potatoes, just nameless things to be consumed.

But we say, no! They totally got it wrong! Listen to Jesus, he knows our names, and we’re precious in his sight! But, what are sheep really for? For shearing. For breeding. For eating. And they’re only cute when they’re young. That’s not very comforting. But thank God for faith. We tell ourselves that this is actually good for the world. Sheep sustain us. Except, ultimately, only when they die. So we don’t want to think about that. We just want to hear about right now. We’re not dead yet! What about Jesus our shepherd, leading us beside still waters? Well, does he really? We still suffer and struggle, when we’re not busy fighting and judging each other in our sin, and in the end, we still die. Isn’t that really our ultimate punishment? But wait, what about Jesus our shepherd? Isn’t he supposed to guide and protect us in the meantime? Well, that’s hard to do when you’re nailed to a cross. Our protector gets himself killed. He goes to the temple, he confronts the priests and scribes for every way they deny God and destroy human lives. And he doesn’t just put himself in danger, but his disciples too. Yet, he dies by the hands of the Romans, and the priests from the temple, like just another sheep led to the slaughter. And our turmoil continues. No still waters.

But, brothers and sisters, the good news is that this is a lie. Jesus is no mere sacrifice, and the cross is not the end of the story. For after three days, Jesus is raised from the grave and the depths of hell by the power of the Spirit. The tomb is empty. He is raised! Why do you look for the living among the dead? And it’s not just that Jesus dies and is raised, but he brings us with him. Jesus goes to the very end of everything for us, to the thing that we fear most, and moves beyond it. Not even death can hold him, or us, for if we have been baptized into a death like his, we will surely be raised in a resurrection like his. There is nowhere we can go that Jesus has not already been before us, not even death. And Jesus is with us in all of it. We don’t even have to hold onto Jesus – he holds onto us. He says, I give my sheep eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. That’s a promise to you and me, and Jesus keeps his promises.

This is the same promise we hear in our baptism, when we drown and die to our sin in the waters of creation, that we might be raised to new life in the light and love of Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raises Christ raises us, by giving us faith. Faith to know that when Jesus says we are forgiven, we are indeed forgiven. Faith to see that death is not the end, but only the beginning of eternal life in the kingdom of God, where mercy, and justice, and righteousness flow like a rolling stream. Where sin is no more. Where we are all the children of God, equally loved and cherished by God and by each other.

And the thing is, by faith we see the kingdom of God breaking in right now, precisely where we see turmoil and strife surrounding us. The Spirit leads us to give ourselves away for the sake of our neighbors, to comfort them, to support them, to share with them the resources that God has given us, and we know that it all comes from God. We can give freely, because we trust God’s abundance. Now, the world lies to us, convincing us that we don’t have enough to share, telling us that we can only rely on ourselves. But by faith we know that we’re served by others all the time. Besides, if God can bring life out of death, then God can surely bring abundance and freedom out of scarcity. And how else can we possibly see just how abundant God really is?

So this is why Jesus calls us his sheep, and why he is our shepherd. Because in the end, we do what all sheep do. We give our lives away to sustain the world. We can’t help it – it’s just what we are. And we do not fear it, because the vision of what God is doing in the world through us is so captivating, so overwhelming, that it’s everything to us. We want that more than anything in all the world. But of course, we’re just sheep. What do we know? Lord, what did you say? We fed you when you were hungry? We clothed you when you were naked? But how? We didn’t even know! Well, thanks be to God for that! Amen.

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