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Conquering Shepherd

April 26, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this third weekend of Easter comes from our Gospel text, where John records Jesus’s words, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Everyone knows this text, almost to the point where it speaks for itself. It’s vivid and relevant in every age, one of the most endearing images of the Savior that we are given in Scripture. “The Good Shepherd.” All I need do is say that phrase, and I’m sure that an image comes to mind – I know it does for me. I think of a painting that was in the stairwell of my home congregation, which portrayed Jesus smiling, in a fertile valley, carrying a lamb on His shoulders. This image is nothing new – in the early Church, in the Christian catacombs that lay beneath Rome, the image of the Good Shepherd was exceedingly prevalent, with paintings on the walls and tomb-inscriptions, portraying the Savior as a young, Apollo-like shepherd. Even if the closest interaction you’ve had with sheep and shepherds is through a wool sweater or blanket, there’s something endearing, beloved … familiar … when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” So why does this gentle, jovial, kind image … need such explanation?

In the context of this most beloved text, Jesus is … arguing. In the preceding chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth … to which the Sanhedrin doesn’t take kindly, since He healed the man on a Sabbath. After they cast the now-seeing man from the temple, Jesus finds him and asks if he believes in the Son of Man. The formerly blind man asks who it is, and Jesus tells him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” The man responds by saying, “Lord, I believe,” and Jesus tells him, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” This phrase is what sets off the Pharisees, who we are told were standing nearby and overheard Jesus say this. They tell Him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus responds by telling them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

Immediately after this retort … comes Jesus’s talk of gates and sheep and thieves and shepherds. He tells them, “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Imagery, again, that likely is familiar and comforting to us who believe, but to those first hearers and unbelievers, it was quite the mystery. They didn’t understand, so Jesus had to explain further. At this point, we come to our text, where Jesus qualifies what makes Him the Good Shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” This, we are told, is cause for great division among the Jews, with some saying, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” while others reply, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

Surely, in a day where shepherding was a common vocation, the people listening to Jesus could understand this image! But they didn’t. They didn’t understand or believe what Jesus was telling them; instead, they took offense. Why? Why would these Judeans take offense to Jesus calling Himself the “Good Shepherd?” Because it’s a loaded term. The motif of shepherds and shepherding among the leaders of Israel is prevalent throughout the Old Testament. Moses was called out from among the sheep of Sinai to shepherd YHWH’s people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. King David had once been a shepherd-boy, who protected his sheep fiercely from the jaws of violent predators, before he also was called to shepherd the people of Israel. In our Old Testament text, when the kings of Israel decided to prey upon their people like wolves instead of shepherding them as they had been called to do, YHWH Himself said, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” He Himself would be their Shepherd.

This image of the shepherd of God’s people is full of messianic expectations of the Lord’s Day of salvation and judgement, the Day of the Messianic King, so for Jesus to declare Himself to be the Good Shepherd is much more than images of verdant pastures and wayward sheep. There is hope for the great and terrible Day of the Lord when He says, “I am the good shepherd,” but as He is wont to do, Jesus flips this preconceived notion on its head as He qualifies what makes Him the Good Shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

This Good Shepherd is the Shepherd King, David’s greater Son. And yet, before Pilate, He declares that His kingdom is not of this world … His scepter is a reed with which He is struck numerous times … and His crown is … well, you know what it is. This Messianic Shepherd King … lays down His life for the sheep, and the crook that He uses to gather His sheep, so they can be one flock under one Shepherd … is particularly cruciform in shape. He presents His sheep … with a dead shepherd, a crucified King, which isn’t much cause for hope, so it’s no wonder people then and now take offense to the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep.

Unless, of course … that dead Shepherd, that humiliated and crucified King … does not stay dead. If He doesn’t stay dead, then by all means, there is all the hope in the world! The transition we heard in Psalm 23 this morning is remarkable – again, a well-known, well-beloved psalm, but perhaps one you know too well. Think about the shift that occurs! After going through the valley of the shadow of death, in which the rod and staff comfort and fear of evil is unknown, there is the promise of a well-prepared table placed before us in the presence of our enemies, heads anointed with oil and cups overflowing. We have the promise that we will dwell in the house of YHWH forever – “In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” That is the promise given to us in the wake of Easter morning: because of our crucified and resurrected Messianic Shepherd King is risen from the dead, we too will dwell in the house of YHWH forevermore!

I love the image of the Good Shepherd – there is great comfort in it. For me, though, it’s less because of a version of Jesus who’s nice and kind – which He is – but more because He is the conquering Shepherd King, who utterly destroys the wolves of sin, death, and the devil by His atoning self-sacrifice … that He did so for you and for me, and that He deigns to call us by name. The crucified King is risen! Alleluia!

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.