A Good Shepherd
"Yea, yea, I know; Jesus is the Good Shepherd." Kid's stuff, right? So simple, so easy to understand. We probably don't think about it much. Except of course in times of stress or sorrow, then the Lord is my Shepherd might be the only religious thought we're able to have. But Jesus isn't just a Shepherd. He's a Good Shepherd. Well what's a good shepherd? Think of a real shepherd. Go from what a real shepherd does to what Jesus does.
A good shepherd knows his sheep. When you and I look at sheep, they all look alike. I can't tell one from another. A good shepherd can and does. They don't look alike to him; that's why he can name them. You're not a nameless, faceless sheep to Jesus. He knows you by name. He knows you as am individual distinct from everyone else. We may be just a number to our government, just a position to a company, just a face to your neighbors, but Jesus knows each of us intimately by name.
A good shepherd knows his sheep and what each need. He knows which ones have cuts on their legs, which one have weepy eyes, which ones need special attention, direction, or nutrition. A good shepherd examines his sheep to find out their needs. Jesus is a good Shepherd; surely He does no less. He knows what each of you needs money, love, health, trials, courage, comfort, affliction, etc. No good earthly shepherd fails to attend to the individual needs of his flock, so your Jesus doesn't fail to attend to yours.
All of this is true and comforting, but it's not the Gospel. There is nothing specifically Gospel in a shepherd taking care of his sheep. The Gospel is in the fact Jesus knows and cares for sheep that love to wander. Wandering is not a particular characteristic of sheep. They are not known for wandering. But when one does, a good shepherd looks for it. Think about it: don't you go looking for an animal you've named and whose needs you know? A stray is different. You say, "I'm not looking for it." You'd never say that about a pet.
Jesus who is a good Shepherd doesn't say that either. Isaiah writes, "All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way." And our text doesn't just say "For you were like sheep going astray," but literally, "For you were continually straying sheep." Just as you don't forget the name of a pet who wanders from you, just as you don't forget the needs of a pet that strays, neither does a good shepherd, neither does the Good Shepherd. His love and compassion go out to sheep even while they're straying. While we're thinking that our Jesus is looking for us with a club or whip, He is looking for us like we look for a lost pet. His heart is heavy and broken, and would willing give the whole world just to have us safely back home.
A good shepherd knows his sheep and a good shepherd goes before his sheep. He doesn't drive his sheep but leads them out in front. That's because sheep are totally defenseless animals. Sheep have no teeth to bite, no claws to scratch, no horns to poke. There is no more defenseless animal than a sheep; that's why you see them at petting zoos. That's why without a good shepherd they are at the mercy of thieves, robbers, and wolves.
What would you think of a shepherd who left his flock at the mercy of wild animals or evil men? Would you ever do that to your pet? If a pit-bull had your cat cornered, would you just laugh? If a boy was tormenting your dog, would you just let him? Then what a monstrous sin it is ever to think as we sometime do - that our Good Shepherd would so abandon us? We think the Lord leaves us alone with the pit-bull of disease snarling at us. We think Jesus sits back and watches as we're being tormented by some one or thing.
No, no, a thousand times No! No pet owner, let alone good shepherd would ever allow such things to take place. Good shepherds make their sheep to lie down in green pasture, lead them beside still waters, and prepare tables for them in the presence of their enemies. All of these images are from Psalm 23. A good shepherd makes his flock to lie down in green pastures which means there is so much grass the sheep are full and lay down content. The good shepherd finds "still waters" damning up a stream by hand if need be because sheep won't drink from running water. And since some plants are poisonous to sheep, a good shepherd goes ahead of his sheep and roots up the poisonous plants stacking them in piles throughout the pasture. He then leads the sheep in, and they eat in the midst of their enemies.
This is what a good shepherd does for his sheep; this is the kind of thing you do for your pets. Admit it. Some of you chop up their food into bite size bits; some of you buy special food so your pet will eat; some of you will insure your pet has cool water by putting ice cubes in it, and all of you chase puppies around to pull things out of their mouth that they shouldn't eat. If we will do that for pets, how much more does Jesus do that for us? What an ugly sin it is then to think our Jesus would be less competent or less loving than us! How dare we doubt that the twists and turns in our life are the Lord leading us away from a particular pasture, toward quite waters, and protecting us from our enemies? How could we ever think that we do more for our pets than Jesus does for His sheep?
What gets in the way of us seeing Jesus doing at least as much for us as we do for our pets is our crazy conclusion that it's up to defenseless, weak sheep to do things for the Shepherd. The Shepherd needs my wool or He'll freeze. The Shepherd needs me to sacrifice my body or He'll starve. The Shepherd needs me to lead Him! Is that how it is with shepherds and their flocks? Is that how it is with you and your pets? Who provides for whom? Who sacrifices for whom? And who really protects whom? Sheep baa and bleat; a good shepherd does the rest.
There's one more thing a good shepherd does for his sheep. He dies for them. But here is where a comparison between Jesus and a good shepherd or a pet owner breaks down. Shepherds do put there life at risk for the sake of sheep. David said he killed a lion and bear to protect his sheep. And pet owners have been known to rush back into a burning building to save a pet. But there's much more than gallantry going on when we speak of Jesus the Good Shepherd dying for His sheep.
There's purpose and planning behind what Jesus did. A bear didn't suddenly come upon the flock; the fold didn't suddenly catch fire. Jesus purposely went to death because that's where the sheep were heading. He purposely went to hell because that's where sinful sheep must go. Can St. Peter make it any clearer for us? "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree."
Now, there's a good shepherd. Now there's a reason for always having a crucifix before our eyes. There is much more comfort in that than say in a picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying a little lamb. A crucified Shepherd reminds us that "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree." That means the weight of sin, the shame of sin, the fear of punishment are not on the sheep; they are on the Shepherd. So when we suffer in this life, and we will, it is not to pay for our sins. And you can bet when guilt, shame, or fear creep into our thoughts, it's because we're not seeing our sins in His body on the tree but on our body in life.
But our Good Shepherd did more than die for sheep. He did more than bear our sins in His body on the cross. "By His wounds you have been healed." Friend, you are not healed by feeling badly for your sins. You are not healed by suffering physically for your sins. You are not healed by your world coming down around you for your sins. "By His wounds you have been healed." Again this is why the image of our Shepherd nailed to a cross, with the wounds on His head, hands, and side visible is comforting. By those wounds we have been healed. As sure as you see those wounds, so sure have you been healed, and push that word healed all the way through. Jesus' wounds mean we've been healed not just of sin, but of death, and disease. These things do not rule our life anymore. Our sins don't have the last word; Jesus' wounds do. Death doesn't have the last laugh; the wounds of Jesus do. Disease doesn't triumph over us; we triumph over it in the wounds of Jesus.
This life marred by sins, overshadowed by death, decayed by disease, is not what the Good Shepherd has in mind for us. His purpose is not to extend your life down here as long as He can. No, that's what madmen do in laboratories and witches do in their potions. Jesus came that His sheep might have life to the full. A full life is one untainted by sin, unshaded by death, untouched by disease. His whole goal is to give His sheep that full life. It's not to get them to a certain educational level, income level, or even health level. His goal is much fuller than that. It's nothing short of heaven!
Our problem is that we are but sheep, but pets. Have you ever tried to lead a pet to a place it didn't want to go? It dug in, scratched, clawed maybe even tried to bite you. But you didn't give up, did you? No, you were the owner; you loved this pet; you would do what is best for it despite itself. So it is with us and our Good Shepherd. We bite, scratch, and claw as He leads us to the full life that is ours in the green pastures of His forgiving word, in the quiet waters of Baptism, and at this Table He prepares for us. All our biting, scratching, and clawing will prevent Him from getting us there as little as our pet prevents us from doing what is best for it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter IV (20080413); I Peter 2: 19-25