Sunday, April 29, 2012

Weak, Vulnerable Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Saint John 10:11-18

High schools, just like professional sports teams, choose mascots that are strong and powerful. Bolingbrook has the Raiders. Naperville has the Huskies and Red Hawks. Plainfield has the Bengals, Cougars, Tigers, and Wildcats. And Romeoville has the Spartans. All are strong, formidable mascots that bring pride to their communities. Weak mascots just won’t do. That’s why you’ll never see a sheep as a mascot. Sheep are not the picture of strength or power, but of weakness and vulnerability.

And yet, as you listen to the prophets and apostles, and even to Jesus, what animal is it that God chooses over and over again to describe humanity? Sheep. Weak, vulnerable sheep. Poor, defenseless sheep. Lost, straying sheep. Friends, if you are ever tempted to justify yourself before God, to boast of your own righteousness, to toot your own spiritual horn, remember this one word: Sheep!

Like the four-legged sheep out in the wilderness, you two-legged sheep are by nature equally…
  • weak and vulnerable,
  • lost and frightened,
  • without direction in this life,
  • prone to over-indulgence of every sort,
  • apt to follow the world around you into sins of thought, word, and deed,
  • defenseless against the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh,
  • and unable to survive without someone looking out after you.
That why’s the prophet Isaiah writes: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6a).

So, what is the answer for you, a straying sheep? Who will find you and rescue you? Who will protect you and feed you? “I, I myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out,” says the Lord. “As a shepherd seeks out his flock … so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:11-12). And how does God do this? Through His beloved Son. “I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Earthly shepherds raise sheep either for food or money or a combination thereof. To that end, shepherds feed and fatten their sheep. They clip their wool. They protect them and provide them shelter. But eventually, all of those sheep are either slaughtered and eaten or else brought to market and sold. Stated another way, every sheep eventually gives its life for the benefit of the shepherd.

But not so with the Good Shepherd. Your value to Him is this: You are the object of His love and forgiveness. You are the one on whom He delights in showering His goodness and mercy. He dies that you will live. No earthly shepherd would sacrifice his own life to save a sheep. But that is exactly what the Good Shepherd has done for you. “I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

What’s more, Jesus also says to you: “I know My own, and My own know Me.” Most shepherds mark their sheep by cutting a notch, fastening a tag, or branding a number on one of the sheep’s ears. The Good Shepherd, however, marks you as His own in Holy Baptism, where the sign of His holy cross was traced on both your forehead and your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. And through His Word and Supper, your Shepherd continues to seal you with the identifying mark of His Holy Spirit.

What does this mean in practical terms? What does life as a sheep of the Good Shepherd entail? Jesus answers: “My sheep hear My voice … and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Sheep hear and follow. They come into the green pastures of God’s house regularly to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and then go and live out their vocation with His blessing and protection. Which is to say: Your life always centers in Jesus’ voice. “My sheep hear My voice … and they follow Me.”

The voice is crucial, dear friends. The voice is everything. Two shepherds can utter the same words, but the sheep will follow the one and not the other because it knows and recognizes its shepherd’s voice. In the same manner, you must have discerning ears. You must be able to recognize the voice of your Shepherd so that you are not led astray by the voice of a hireling and snatched by the wolf. And that means being able to distinguish between those who rightly proclaim God’s Word and those who mingle in false teachings. Saint Peter reminds us that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Sometimes he does this through pastors and teachers. Other times through friends and family. Therefore, beware. Have discerning ears. Know the voice of your Good Shepherd well, so that you can easily recognize errors and falsehoods.

The ancient Bereans took this calling seriously as they “received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In like manner, I pray that you will take every opportunity to hear the voice of your Good Shepherd, to hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it, for He speaks words of comfort and renewal, words of forgiveness and healing, words that strengthen and nourish. Martin Luther once wrote:
The Good Shepherd’s voice “enables [the sheep] to live out his life in full and certain hope; he eats, drinks, works, does what he is told to do, yes, will even gladly suffer whatever is laid upon him. He keeps his ears wide open for his Shepherd’s voice and more and more trains himself not to judge according to what he sees and feels but solely according to the sound of the Shepherd’s voice.”
Fellow sheep, in Christ you have everything you need:
  • green pastures,
  • still waters,
  • a restored soul,
  • feet placed on the paths of righteousness,
  • a life and death filled not with fear, but with the presence of Your Savior,
  • the comfort of your Shepherd’s rod and staff,
  • a head anointed with the oil of forgiveness,
  • an overflowing cup of blessings,
  • goodness and mercy, and last but not least,
  • a dwelling place in the house of the LORD forever.
All of that is yours, dear sheep. Not because you’ve earned it, but because your Good Shepherd has given His life for you on the cross. Therefore, continue to listen to His voice and to shape your thoughts, words, and deeds by what He says.

So let’s hear it for weak, vulnerable sheep. Although no mascot will ever be named for you, you are followers of the strong, powerful, and formidable Good Shepherd, in whom there is nothing but forgiveness, life, and salvation. Now, that’s reason to celebrate!