THE GOOD SHEPHERD
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. John 10:11
ARE there really seven billion people in the world as we are told? No one knows for sure, but whatever the number there is one thing we do know from the prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each man to his own way.”
Do you wonder why the world is such a contrary place? Such a mess? Why it has resisted improvement for all of its history? Why today it is regressing instead progressing, and more rapidly than ever before thanks to technology? Do you ever ask yourself why it is so hard to get ahead? Why danger lies at every turn? Why it is easier to give in to temptation than to live as Christ’s holy people? It’s because there are seven billion people, each going his own way, each doing his own thing, each seeking his own good, each making his own particular contribution to the boiling cauldron of the world’s sin. What a world!
What makes matters even worse is that each of us wants to be his own shepherd, to lead himself away from the pain of the world, into green pastures and beside still waters of his own making! In order to achieve that end we employ all the wiles of sin. The chief fault is that we do not entrust our lives to God who judges justly, as Jesus did even in the face of suffering and death. We deceive others in order to gain advantage over them. When we are scorned we don’t suffer it patiently as Jesus did, but return evil for evil instead. Dear friends, this is the way of the world, the way of darkness, the way of death. It is the standard curriculum taught by the world’s catechism and there is only one dissenting example, our Lord Jesus Christ; one dissenting voice, that of the Good Shepherd.
Thankfully there is a remedy. All three of today’s Scripture lessons work together as a strong corrective admonishing and enabling us to resist the prevailing winds, and to follow the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us.
First we have the epistle lesson (1 Peter 2:18-25) which tells us how Jesus conquered sin and made it a power of the past. St. Peter says, “He bore our sins in His body on the tree.” The words “in His body," are words we can never hear too often. They remind us that the Christian faith is neither a philosophy to be contemplated, or an emotion to be experienced; nor is it merely a set of doctrines to be believed, or a way of life to be lived, though those are vital aspects of it. It is, rather, a tangible and sacramental religion focused on God who came to us in the flesh, in the person of His Son, to be our Shepherd and to lay down His life for the sheep. Yet His was no ordinary death, the kind that all men die. Instead it was unique! One of a kind! The sinless Savior put Himself in harm’s way in order to redeem the sheep who love to stray, and we are those sheep. He suffered the penalty that we merit on account of our sins, and in so doing justified us before heaven’s court and made us heirs of the eternal kingdom.
The words, “on the tree” are also instructive. Whenever Scripture refers to the cross as the Tree it reminds us of sin’s origin when Adam rebelled against His Creator, ate the forbidden fruit, and made a decision that would change the course of history. It was not mainly Eve’s fault, though she was the first to fold. Scripture does not call sinful Flesh “the old Eve,” but “the old Adam.” That is because he was the divinely appointed bridegroom. He was the one whom God ordained to be the shepherd of earth’s earliest church, but he, too, quickly folded when the wolf, come in the form of a snake, made his deadly appearance, so it was only fitting that “he who by a tree once overcame,” -- that is the devil,-- “might likewise by a Tree be overcome.” God loves symmetry.
If this were not enough today’s Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16) reinforces the lesson in strong language, designed to shatter any notion of self-reliance in spiritual matters into fine dust. In these five memorable verses God uses the first person singular, “I” no less than seventeen times. He says, “I, I myself will search for my sheep...I will rescue them...I will gather them...I will bring them into their own land...I will feed them on the mountains of Israel...I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD...I will seek the lost...I will bring back the strayed...I will bind up the injured...I will strengthen the weak. Indeed, the Lord is our Shepherd, and we are the sheep whom He rescued.
However the crowning words for the second Sunday after Easter are the words of our Lord, also replete with the first person singular, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Dear Christians we make very poor shepherds; so does the devil, and so do the heroes whom the world praises so highly, and the institutions it relies upon so heavily. Only Jesus is the Good Shepherd, God’s Shepherd, who was given all authority in heaven and on earth to do what we can never do for ourselves: to atone for our sins, inspire us to live a new life even now, and to raise us up from the dead on the last day. All this is ours through Christ who shepherds us and strengthens us. Amen.
Rev. Dean Kavouras