Know Your Place
"Know your place" is a sharp admonition. You probably think it's out of place on Good Shepherd Sunday. But Jesus' language here is particularly tense and pointed. Normally each sentence in Greek begins with a particle or conjunction. Not here. This shows the intensity with which Jesus speaks (Buls, Exegetical Notes, B, 102). So sharp are these words that immediately following them we're told they caused a split among the Jews. Verse 19 says, "At these words the Jews were again divided."
"Know your place." Your place is in the fold, among the flock, in the Church. And remember there is only one. There is only one Holy Christian Church. There is only one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. There is only one Flock, one Shepherd. The divisions that have plagued the church ever since Jesus ascended don't overcome the truth or the fact of the essential oneness. A seminary professor of mine who was no stranger to contending for the truth and the divisions in the visible church said, "In our darker moments we must comfort ourselves with the great ones,' one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one flock, one Shepherd" (Ibid. 101).
Know that your place as a sheep is in the one fold, and know that sheep are not safe outside of it. The Holy Spirit doesn't use sheep to represent church members because of the rich imagery connected with them. There are not many animals as helpless, defenseless, and brainless as sheep. Sheep then as now have the reputation of being docile, harmless, and rather stupid. In storms they have piled up in the corner of a pasture smothering to death. If a sheep stumbles and ends up on its back, it can no more right itself than a turtle. Sheep have no fangs, no claws, no ferociousness to defend themselves (Wendland, Sermon Studies, B, 196). The smallest dog can put off an attacker with barking, but who's afraid of a baahing sheep?
A sheep doesn't last long outside the fold, without a shepherd. But how is the fold of the Good Shepherd found? How does one get into it? We've all laughed at a disoriented animal. The house pet that couldn't find the door. The dog on "America's Funniest Videos" that thinks a window is an open door. But this is no laughing matter, is it? This is more along the lines of the panicked person racing to escape a monster. This is the sheep pursued by the wolf.
Know your place! Your place is with the Good Shepherd in His fold, but how do you find that fold? Find the Shepherd, and you've found the fold. In our text Jesus says His sheep hear His voice. Earlier in John 10 Jesus says He calls His sheep by name, and while they will follow His voice they will flee from the voice of a stranger. If you don't know the voice of the Good Shepherd you're no sheep. If you don't listen to that voice, you're no sheep either.
Here's where sheep stumble. Here's where they go off the trail on one side or the other. I started out by saying there's only one flock and one Shepherd, and some wander off to listen and follow anyone who claims to speak in the Good Shepherd's name. Usually it's anyone in that sheep's denomination. They equate the one flock, the one Shepherd, for example, with the LCMS. The other side of the trail is that once a sheep you're always a sheep. I heard the Shepherd's voice in Baptism, at confirmation, last month, two months ago, and that's enough. Although Jesus defines His sheep as those who hear His voice, they go by the fact they heard it at one time.
So how do you know when you're hearing the Good Shepherd's voice? Jesus is pretty emphatic about that. He says 5 times that the Good Shepherd is the one who lays down His life for the sheep. Jesus speaks this way only in John. In Mark we hear of Jesus' giving His life. In Matthew we hear of Jesus being a ransom. Only in John does Jesus' speak of laying His life down, and while you can translate "for the sheep" that's rather weak. Better is "instead of" or "in place of" or "in behalf of."
The Good Shepherd is all about laying down His life in place of sheep. When you're hearing how sheep can't save themselves; how they are helpless and defenseless without the Shepherd; how they will die apart from His fold, you're hearing the Good Shepherd's voice. When you're hearing how the Good Shepherd gave His life in place of sheep; how it was Him instead of you that bore the pain, shame, judgment, and death your sins called for, you're hearing the Good Shepherd's voice.
Two other things mark the voice of the Good Shepherd when He speaks about laying down His life in place of yours: First, He does it willingly. Isaiah 53:7 emphasizes this: "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open his mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open his mouth." It's true; sheep get sheared patiently, without a bleat most of the time, but no sheep goes to slaughter that way. The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world did. No one forced Jesus to take your place. No one made Jesus bear your sins. Jesus wanted to, so you wouldn't have to. Jesus doesn't want or need you to add your sufferings be they guilt, shame, or pain to that of His.
The second thing that marks the voice of the Good Shepherd is that when He speaks of laying down His life place of yours He says not only does He have authority to lay it down He has the authority to take it up. We aren't to picture Jesus as helpless and defenseless as we are. No one could have taken Jesus' life from Him had He not willingly gave it. He had the authority to do what you can't, to willfully separate His soul from His body, and He had the authority to take His soul back up. Jesus was a willing sacrifice for your sins, but once He did that He was done being under sin, Death, and the Devil.
Know your place. It's in the fold under the Good Shepherd. These can only be found by His voice. You only stay in the fold under the Shepherd when you stay within earshot of His voice. That Voice will speak of your sins and His sacrifice for them. It will speak of your joining Him in Death today, so that you can rise with Him tomorrow. His voice directs you to where His death and resurrection are found today. In His Words in your ears and in His Water on your body. You're hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd when you hear how He laid down His life in place of yours and when you hear where He distributes the forgiveness He won by doing so.
Notice in our text how Jesus distinguishes a true shepherd from a wolf. The wolf snatches by force. The wolf pursues the sheep and ends up scattering them. A true shepherd gathers, goes before, leads them not with a rope but with his voice. As Hank Williams sang, "Jesus is calling, calling, calling night and day." Hank got it right about the calling part, but he was wrong about the hearing part. He sang, "Jesus is calling, calling night and day/ And you will hear Him if you'll just pray." No, you don't hear Jesus calling in prayer. That's you calling on Him. You hear Jesus calling where He has promised to speak to you: In His Word, in His Sacraments.
Know your place: in the one Fold, under the one Shepherd, as a sheep. Think that is obvious? Not to me. I've spent plenty of time in the Fold, under the Shepherd as a goat, a bull, and even a jackass. No Jesus doesn't kick me out of the fold when I am like that, but it is as hard for me as it was for St. Paul to "kick against the goads."
Your place in the Fold is as a sheep known by the Good Shepherd. The word for good here can be translated beautiful.' This emphasizes what Jesus wants us to hear. Not that He is a morally good Shepherd, although He of course is, but that He is beautiful." Not to goats, bulls, or donkeys, but to sheep who know they are sinful, lost, and damned apart from the Shepherd forgiving, finding, and saving them, Jesus is beautiful.
Sheep go wherever the Beautiful Shepherd leads. This could be to the green pastures of your salad days; this could be to the dry, stubble of your middle ages when there is no rain to make life sweet upon your tongue; this could be to the valley of the shadow of death we all must enter. Bulls, goats, and mules kick and pull back. They know where they want to go and it's not anywhere but the green pastures and still waters.
Sheep go wherever the Shepherd leads because they not only know the Shepherd but they know He knows them. This word for know is the same word for the intimate knowing being spoken of when Scripture says, "Adam knew Eve." The world makes of this knowing no more than "Carnal Knowledge," a knowing that extends only to the flesh. No it really illustrates the knowledge promised when we shall finally see ourselves and other Christians as Jesus sees us right now: forgiven, restored, redeemed. Paul says, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
Know your place; it's following the one who knows you better than you do yourself. I have no idea what twists, what turns I need to go down to enter heaven. I have no idea what pains and sorrows, what pleasures and joys I need in my life so that everlasting life is not only my goal but end. I can tell you this: When my children were small I had absolutely no doubts that I knew what was best for them at every turn, every twist, in every pain, sorrow, pleasure and joy. The Good Shepherd knows me better than I have ever known any of my kids. He knows all His sheep that well.
So my place is following Him into and out of green pastures, to still waters and on to tempestuous seas, following Him even into the very presence of my enemies be they temptation, doubt, fear, sickness, devils, or death. And what do I find smack dab in the presence of my enemies? A table prepared for me. And what's on this table? I only know because the Good Shepherd tells me. The Body and Blood of the Lamb of God that was given and shed for me and my forgiveness. It's here now for me to eat and drink. I know my place is at this Table. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday of Easter (20120429); John 10: 11-18