John 10: 11-18, 27-30
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
“They’re all just a bunch of sheep.” You’ve heard people use that phrase before. It’s not meant to be a compliment. It carries with it the idea of blind allegiance and ignorant loyalty to a person or a cause or an institution. And I suppose that’s how the world often thinks of Christians and the church–that we’re all just a bunch of people mindlessly holding to the faith, not thinking for ourselves, following a Messiah with some foolish herd mentality.
Jesus does refer to you as His sheep, but of course not in the way the world does. It’s actually quite a good thing in the end that you’re a bunch of sheep in His flock. What are we to learn from this image that God uses throughout the Scriptures? There are several points of comparison, but the main point is our total spiritual helplessness and therefore our complete dependence on Christ our Shepherd. Sheep are not particularly well-suited for survival when left to themselves. They can’t run fast to flee from a predator. They have no powerful jaws or claws to fight off an attacker. They’re basically an easy meal for whatever bear or wolf might want to ravage the flock.
And that’s how it is with us. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The grave opens its jaws wide and lunges at us to drag us to the depths. And sin, like a beast from within, constantly tries to fight its way out and gain dominance in our lives. And were we left to our own devices, those spiritual enemies would easily win the day and destroy us and leave our bones for the scavenging vultures. And all the more so because of what the Scriptures say, “We all like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.” We’ve seen those TV shows featuring the harsh realities of nature and what happens to animals that stray from the herd out in the wild. That’s exactly how it is with us who stray from God, thinking we can live independently from Him, doing things our own way, according to our own rules. We wander from the flock. Little do we realize that in our pride we’re entirely defenseless. And the predator attacks, and the jugular is pierced, and the evil one would drag our carcass away.
But today’s Gospel is not primarily about the sheep but about the Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, even the foolish, sinful sheep who stray. Jesus is a Good Shepherd in the way of David before Him. You may remember when David was applying before King Saul for the job of taking on the Philistine warrior Goliath, the number one thing David put on his resumé was his experience as a shepherd:
David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” Moreover David said, “The LORD, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!” [1 Sam. 17.34-37]
Jesus, the Son of David, protects us sheep from sin and death and the Goliath Satan by facing them head on for us. He stands in between us and the predators to shield and shelter us. He opens up His own body to their slashing and onslaughts to take them down and keep us safe.
In this way Jesus is not like a hireling. The hireling runs away from the fight because he doesn’t truly care about the sheep. He’s just there to earn a buck. He doesn’t own the sheep. It’s not his loss if the flock is scattered a bit. At the end of the day, he’s going to save his own skin. But Jesus truly cares about you. He’s not using you for His own ends, just to dump you somewhere down the line. You belong to Him. He wants to have you with Himself for all eternity. And so He defends you as His own treasured possession. He puts His own life on the line for you, even to the point of the cross. Like David, He grabs hold of sin and death by the scruff of the neck, and He drags those predators down into the pit. They kill Him, and then suppose that with the Shepherd dead, the sheep would be theirs. But in attacking Him, they walked into a trap. It was beyond their comprehension that the Shepherd could live again, arising from the dead and leaving them behind, crushed and defeated in the pit forever. They bit into a man and found God. Seizing their Victim, they themselves became the prey. As David beat back the lion and the bear with his knife and club, so great David’s greater Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has turned the wood of the cross into a mighty weapon by which those wolves that threatened us, Satan and death, are slain and crushed.
Always remember, then, that Jesus alone is your Good Shepherd, your Good Pastor and Bishop. For He alone is the One to whom you belong as His flock. As the Epistle said, “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” All of us who bear the title of “pastor” are simply undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep. All trust is to be placed in Him alone. For in every undershepherd there is a hireling called the old Adam, the sinful nature. No sure source of confidence there, whether it's your local pastor or the Pope himself. Our only confidence is in Christ to whom the sheep belong.
And notice how it is that we know Jesus: through His Word. Sheep don’t have particularly good vision, but they do have good hearing. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to My voice and they follow Me.” Usually when we think of herders dealing with animals, we have in mind something like ranchers who drive their animals and push them to go where they want them to go from behind, forcing them to stay in a tight bunch–lots of yelling and dogs barking and that sort of thing. But here Jesus says, “My sheep follow Me.” Jesus is out in front. The sheep stay together and follow because they recognize His voice, His voice of mercy and forgiveness in the Gospel. There’s no force and coercion involved here, but the gentle invitation of Jesus’ Word. Do you see the difference? We’re not just nameless cattle to our Lord. We are beloved sheep whom He calls each by name. Jesus says, “I know My sheep; and My sheep know Me.” You follow Him, for you love and trust in Him. You stake your life on Him. For You know His voice and you listen to it; it’s unlike any other out there in the world. Your ears perk up at the sound of it. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil; for He is with you. Even if you can’t see Him, if you can hear Him, you know it will be alright; you know it’s safe. You’re in His care. He restores your soul. He leads you beside still and gentle waters to drink of His Spirit in the Word and in Holy Baptism. He prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies, the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, which draws us into communion with Himself and with His Father; for Jesus and the Father are one. It is for all of these reasons and more that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. It is for all of these reasons and more that we follow Him.
We dare not forget, of course, that following Him means that we are given to live as He lived, too, in this world. We heard about this in the Epistle, that Christ left us an example, that you should follow in His steps. Being a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock means living a different kind of life, walking the path of the cross. When Jesus suffered, He did not threaten but forgave. So also, it is not for you to seek revenge on your enemies but to do them good. When Jesus was reviled and mocked, He did not revile in return. So also, it is not for you to return evil for evil, but to pray for those who make life difficult for you. As Jesus did, so you also, commit yourselves to God the Father who judges justly. Trust that all these matters are in His righteous hands.
For we heard in the Old Testament reading that Jesus Himself will come for the weak and the injured and the broken and the sick. You can probably find yourself somewhere in that group. None of us is untouched by bodily weakness, or damaged psyches, or challenging family situations, or disappointments or overwhelming obligations, or nagging addictions and compulsions and lusts. You are not alone. All we like sheep have gone astray and are weak, wounded, damaged and frail. But Jesus says, “I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out and gather them and feed them in rich pasture. I will bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.” “By His wounds we are healed.”
And finally don’t forget that the way our Good Shepherd saved us sheep was by becoming one of us, the Lamb who was slain. It is written in Revelation 7, “The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. . . They shall neither hunger any more nor thirst any more . . . And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So let me say it again: You’re all a bunch of sheep. But in this case that’s a good and wonderful thing. Because you’re the sheep of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who listen to His voice and who follow Him to the eternal life that He alone gives. His promise stands sure: nothing, nothing at all can snatch you out of His good and merciful hands.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Midweek Lent 1
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠
The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire. Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome. There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate. Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater. Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.
These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there. For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city. This caused economic hardship to many believers. How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship? Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion. Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim. In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor. Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”
During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place. All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death. Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.” If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free. However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life. Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”
One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews. Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior. But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one. For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.” And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm. These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.
One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna. This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!” See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see. But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!” After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.
So, how does all of this apply to us? Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna. But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers. In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word? Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus? We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm. For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.
On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today. Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work. Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme. That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church. We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed. But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing. Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.
To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.” To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God. In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. For we are of great value to Him. Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.” In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone. So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.” “I am the One who was dead and came back to life. They did their worst to me and failed. So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.” “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.” “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome. It was a crown that faded. But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch. For the crown of glory we wear is His own. The life that we have is His own eternal life. That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.” For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns. He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death. That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross. That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It has no power over you any longer. That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.” Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.
“Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.” To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.” To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on. And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored. So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus. He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven. And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠