Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Series A

Sermon on John 10:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 15, 2011 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Series A)

Sheep don’t have a very good reputation. Not only are they defenseless and mild, they’re also pretty stupid. They tend to play follow the leader in a manner that shows an utter disregard for the fact that the leader may be heading into disaster and death. To be referred to as “sheep” indicates a helplessness and a foolishness that most people would consider insulting. And yet, that is what we as the Church call ourselves. We are God’s sheep. We are His flock, and He is our Good Shepherd. It’s not a nickname that is very good for the Church’s public relations, of course. After all, many worldly people already think that we Christians are being duped by our leaders into giving money and time to a cause which doesn’t really exist (since they deny that God really exists) and that religion is only an elaborate fraud being perpetrated on the people of our country by the pastors and other religious leaders who profit from it. The idea that Christians are “sheep” would seem to lend itself directly into this way of thinking, because of the uniquely stupid and blindly following nature of real sheep. This is especially true since unfortunately there have been some Christian and quasi-Christian leaders (I hesitate to call them “pastors” since the word pastor means “shepherd” and these were the hirelings Jesus describes in today’s text rather than true pastors) who have, in fact, fleeced their flocks in the name of religion, defrauding them of millions of dollars for causes which profit these so-called pastors rather than the work of God’s kingdom. For that matter, even when following our true Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we engage in things that seem like foolishness to the world. We follow Him, but He leads us to the cross, to our own deaths. We know that’s not the end of the story, of course, since the death of the Son of God leads to His resurrection and ours, but the world doesn’t know that. And so, for us Christians to call ourselves “sheep” would seem to be an absolute public-relations disaster.

And yet, at the same time, sheep is what we are. We can look at this in several ways. One way in which we are sheep is that we must admit the simple fact that we are easily led astray. Our sinful natures easily cause us to want to “go along with the crowd,” to give into peer pressure and become involved in that which is popular in the world but which compromises our Christian confession and perhaps even leads us into outright sin. This sheeplike character we have is not something we easily admit; we like to think we are strong and independent, but it’s a simple fact. That’s what we’re often like when faced with the direction in which our fellow human beings are moving. In this sense, admitting that we are sheep is a way of admitting that we are sinful and unclean, and that we are easily swayed by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. We are sheep who need a shepherd to keep us in the green pastures and quiet waters, to comfort and protect us even in the valley of the shadow of death. Not to admit this need is simply to deceive ourselves.
But to admit that we are sheep is also to claim the Shepherd who has bought us. After all, this Shepherd Himself became a sheep, a lamb, so that He could be slaughtered in our place. Now, it’s true that in the middle east of Jesus’ time, shepherds viewed their flocks as much more a part of the family than a modern sheep rancher out in Wyoming would. They cared for them and watched over them and even faced dangers such as wolves and lions so that their sheep could survive, as David did. But this Good Shepherd, David’s descendant, did even more than any shepherd of Jesus’ time ever would. He became a lamb, a baby sheep, and submitted Himself to the power of the lion. He faced Satan, the roaring lion who prowls about this world, seeking whom he may devour, by submitting Himself to that lion’s teeth, having his hands and feet pierced with nails and his side pierced with a spear. That was how He protected His sheep, by becoming one of them and sacrificing Himself in their place.

That sacrifice was, of course, what we celebrated only a few weeks ago. And of course, we know the rest of the story. The Good Shepherd who was also the Lamb of God was not subject to death. But He died. And so, by doing that, He broke the power of death over His flock. He transformed death so that it is now the gate of everlasting life for us. As Luther put it in the hymn we sang two weeks ago during our Easter celebration, “It was a strange and dreadful strife when Life and Death contended; the victory remained with Life, the reign of Death was ended; Holy Scripture plainly saith that Death is swallowed up by Death, his sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!” It is in this way that our Good Shepherd has led us into the pastures of eternal life, by dying our death and transforming it into the road that leads to the green pastures and quiet waters of eternal fellowship with Himself.

It’s also there, on the Cross, that our Good Shepherd gave us those green pastures and quiet waters to sustain us even now as we journey through this valley of the shadow of death. Out of His side came blood and water, the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus He provides us with the quiet waters and the green pastures of the rich food of heaven even now while we journey here on earth. We are sheep because we follow the Good Shepherd. We may look like foolish sheep because the Good Shepherd died, and we too shall die, but the fact is that He transformed death into the door of His eternal sheepfold for us. And so as we follow Him into death we are really following Him into eternal life. All of us must die, one way or another. We don’t gain anything by dying apart from our Good Shepherd, led astray by hirelings and false shepherds given us by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. But by dying trusting in our Good Shepherd who died on the cross for us, we follow Him through the valley of the shadow of death into eternal life. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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