May 11, 2014
Easter 4 / Good Shepherd Sunday
Our Risen Lord and Shepherd Gives Us Life and Meaning
Dear fellow lambs of Jesus,
A few years back, I worked for a summer at a golf course as part of the maintenance and greens-keeper crew. This golf course wasn’t necessarily a PGA level golf course. It was a par 3 that offered its challenges. But, with country clubs and well maintained courses in the area, this course was a bit of a joke. Our head greenskeeper was a very animated and dynamic person. But he was....different. One day, he informed us that he used to dream of having a herd of sheep on the course to eat and cut the grass! He thought it would be reminiscent of the Scottish hillsides where golf originated. Well, he made that dream come true. He acquired sheep for a couple months. Fortunately, this was before I worked there, so I didn’t have to clean up after them. The problem was, our greenskeeper didn’t know the first thing about caring for sheep. It was difficult and he never got sheep again. I guess “ewe” could say it was a “baaaaaad” idea.
I’m just glad there was enough grass for the sheep to eat. Interestingly though, some of the great sheep countries of the world are in dry, desert like areas and the sheep seem to do well there. In those areas, green pastures are not so common or even natural. Think of King David, when he was a shepherd boy in the area of Bethlehem. The area was naturally dry and brown. Instead, the green pastures were the result of hard work, digging trenches, and irrigating water. That usually meant a lot of work for the farmers to have good crops and a lot of work for shepherds to keep their flock alive. Green pastures equalled success and healthy sheep that could feed, lie down to rest, and to grow.
Jesus used this picture of sheep that many people would have understood not only because people were used to sheep herding in their society, but also because the nation of Israel was referred to as sheep in the Old Testament. Here, the people would remember some of the words of Isaiah: The Lord is our Shepherd. These words of Jesus especially mimic what the Lord says to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was supposed to speak against the shepherds of Israel. The shepherds were the political and the religious leaders. God tells the leaders how bad they were at leading the nation politically and especially spiritually. And then, God says that he will place over them one shepherd, the servant David, even though David had been dead for nearly 500 years. The messiah would be a descendent of David and would be THE shepherd of God’s people.
The Jewish leaders during Jesus time should have been shepherds too. But they were just as bad as those throughout Israel’s history. They were letting the people spiritually starve. In fact, right before our section, we hear of a man worshipping Jesus because he was blind and Jesus healed him! When the Pharisees, these Jewish leaders, had learned that Jesus was the one who had healed the man and that he did it on the sabbath, the day of rest, they began their usual attacks and the Pharisees threw the man out of the synagogue accusing him of spiritual blindness. Then Jesus confronted them.
Jesus pictures for us a closed sheep pen, probably stone walled, with simply one entrance. The walls would be high enough to keep the sheep in and the wild animals out. The shepherd would guide the sheep in and out of that one entrance. There was no need to jump the fence. Anyone who would hop the fence, wasn’t really there to make friends. They were there to kill or steal sheep. The Jews would have understood some of the things that Jesus was saying, like God’s people were the sheep, the thieves and robbers are those who would endanger, and Jesus was saying that he was the shepherd. But, maybe they didn’t catch on because they didn’t want to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah and they didn’t want to think of themselves as the strangers. In reality, Jesus was looking at them. The Pharisees tried to steal the people by fear and intimidation. They robbed the people of the sure hope of forgiveness and life with all their numerous and burdensome laws.
There have and always will be those who knowingly or even unknowingly try to steer God’s people away. The Jewish leaders didn’t find Jesus in the Scriptures and point him out to others as the way of salvation. Instead of pleasant green pastures, the path of the Pharisees headed straight for a rocky cliff. They should have been shepherds but they were letting the people starve!
I came across an awesome book on a shepherd’s take of Psalm 23. In it, the author says that hungry sheep are always on their feet. They are always on the move, searching, gnawing on anything and everything, even dirt, to try and satisfy the hunger. Those sheep usually don’t survive and are completely useless to the owners. That is where we see here that the thief and robber will also destroy. Not always knowingly. But Jesus definitely pointed it out. It is sad when preachers and teachers willfully depart from God’s Word because they want to get more people in their pews. They think that the church should get with the times and relax its teachings. But here Jesus says that that can lead to the opposite of eternal life, it actually starves people of Christ and it destroys.
Without Christ there will always be that void, searching for something more. Searching for the answers to why we are here, searching for the answers as to why our friends act the way they do, why we act the way we do, why death haunts us...We look for answers or at least we look for those who can help us find the answer. I notice that even in my own life when I am disconnected from God’s Word. I think too much! I’m searching for answers. The devil works on my brain trying to make it twist and turn, make me rationalize my life, maybe even question my very existence. And I scrounge around looking for answers or for help. I’ve heard of people getting emails or even Facebook messages that give them positive thoughts from the universe (like modern day horoscopes), as if that will really quench their deepest insecurities. Here is a sample “universe thought” I found:
In all battles of the heart over the mind, go with your heart. Because, it's a lot easier for your mind to catch up with your heart, than for your heart to catch up with your mind.”
Yeah, I don’t even know what that means. It’s cute. But how does that help me when I’m struggling with my finances. How does that help me deal with the fact that I just got some bad news from the doctor? How does that help me when I feel alone and everyone I talk to doesn’t seem to understand? The things of this world try to take us away from the truth. That thought of the day doesn’t care about life and death. The shallow things of this world don’t care about the effects of sin after this life and the hell that sin deserves. They just say: as long as you feel good doing it in this life. So we settle for those silly shallow philosophical words that seem to make us feel better. Or we crank up the tunage, listen to some Miley Cyrus and think at least my life isn’t as messed up as hers! Or we wait around for words of comfort from a family member or a friend that don’t really seem to help anyways. So often we run away from the sheep pen and our Lord’s protection, thinking we know where to find that pasture, thinking we know what’s good for us. Our sinful pride is what causes our hopelessness. Sometimes, we are like those sheep who almost prefer feeding on the dirt and barren ground of the world around us.
Jesus is the way to reach the sheep and the way for the sheep to have nourishment. Christ has done so much for us! We have eternal life because Jesus laid down his life for us. In verse 11, following our text, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus gives us real life and forgives our sin. He frees us from the guilt of the things we have done wrong. He removes the fears and worries of our everyday life because we are ultimately in his care. He leads us to that pasture and gives to us spiritual rest. We don’t have to search for it. He brings us to it because he loves and cares for us.
Our Shepherd is a personal God. It truly is a miracle that there are 7 billion people on this earth and he knows each of you by name! Your name is your identity. Think of going through school, especially if you had siblings. Sometimes teachers or parents mistake you for your other siblings. Sometimes that was a compliment, sometimes not, especially if they used the last name in reference to the family...oh those Walther siblings are not that athletically coordinated! Or the Walther family is good at crossword puzzles. Either way, your name is your identity and our Shepherd knows it.
Without Christ, people are lost in sin and doomed to hell. With Jesus, there is heaven. There is happiness knowing that we are loved. There is joy because no matter our personality, our clothes, or how many Facebook and twitter followers we have, God loves us because we are his sheep. This shows how important Christ is to us! That’s why it is soooo important that we learn to follow his voice and not those of a stranger! Hearing and reading God’s word in it’s entirety and regularly is how we become familiar! Just like a bank teller is so familiar with the touch and feel of a real dollar bill!
Did you also notice that Jesus referred to himself as not just the Shepherd, but also the door? We could also think of the gate as not only the initial entrance but the continued blessing of the door. The sheep can leave when they are hungry and they can enter when they need security. Those in Jesus care will be provided for! Sometimes he even gives to us Mother’s who love and care for us! God will provide! Does that mean you’ll get a Ferrari? No. But, the person in Jesus’ care will have God’s Word which stills their hunger and quenches their thirst, giving them assurance of divine forgiveness and love, strengthening their faith and making them more devoted to love and serve Him.
Christ gives meaning and comfort to our lives that no horoscope or song on the radio could ever give us. He gives meaning because he loves me. We can’t help but think of psalm 23 when we hear these words of Jesus. And we can’t help but think of the words:
Who so happy as I am, Even now the Shepherd's lamb?
And when my short life is ended, By His angel host attended,
He shall fold me to His breast, There within His arms to rest.