This past December we had to put Baylor, our fourteen year old black lab, to sleep. Anyone who has to do this with a pet, and especially a dog, will understand how difficult it was to do. Dogs are called “man’s best friend” for a reason. People develop profound emotional connections with these animals and it is certainly not too strong to use the word “love.”
The loss of Baylor did not leave the Surburg house without a dog. We still had Abigail’s little white poodle mix named Noel. What Noel lacks in size, she more than makes up in sheer desire to be around people and show them affection. I never thought I would like a small dog, but Noel has proved me wrong.
There was talk about getting another large dog. A black lab had been my choice. Amy’s family always had golden retrievers, and so that is what she wanted the next one to be. But Amy and I were agreed that it would definitely be awhile before we got another dog. The kids didn’t want to wait, but Amy and I had decided that we would be a one dog house for now.
And then in March something changed. The urge to get a golden retriever puppy suddenly arose within my wife. And once the kids got wind of this it was a full court press on poor old dad. The lone voice of restraint, it soon dawned on me that resistance was futile. And so I folded like a house of cards. I think the first time a puppy was mentioned was on a Wednesday. By Saturday afternoon we had a golden retriever puppy.
Our puppy, named Luther, is now three months old. He is the cutest thing you will see and it is a joy to pet him – he is so soft. He’s all puppy right now, but already has displayed a disposition that is very endearing. He is certainly loved by the Surburg house, a feeling that I am quite sure will only deepen in the years to come.
However, with all of that said, there is no way that I would give my life in order to save the dog. I wouldn’t do anything that risked my life in order to save him. I say that because I have a wife and children who need me. And at an even more basic level, I say that because I am a human being created in God’s image and Luther is a dog. I would give up my life for my wife or children in a heartbeat, but I’m not going to risk doing this for the dog.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus Christ expresses a very different attitude. Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd” when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The text doesn’t just say that Jesus is the shepherd who is willing to risk his life to save the sheep. It says that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Underlying this statement is the profound connection that exists between Jesus and the sheep – between Jesus and you. Our Lord contrasts the actions of the good shepherd with those of the hired hand. He says, “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.”
Jesus says that he, the good shepherd, gives up his life for the sheep because the sheep belong to him. He says, “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.” Jesus knows his own, and his own also know him. In fact just before our text he said about the shepherd, “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.” Jesus says that he calls each sheep by name, and that because they know his voice – because they know him and trust him – the sheep follow him. This caring relationship is the reason that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.
Now you have heard this text many times. The metaphor of the good shepherd is a very well known and comfortable one. After all, Good Shepherd is the name of this congregation. However, when I stop and think about what Jesus is really saying I have to ask the question: “Are we talking about the good shepherd or the stupid shepherd?”
You see, shepherds didn’t sacrifice their lives for sheep in the ancient world. Certainly, the animals were valued as an economic asset that was important for supporting life. But sheep can’t do you any good if you are dead. A shepherd might do his very best is save the sheep in the face of wild animal, but when push came to shove he is going to sacrifice the sheep rather than risk getting killed. I don’t find this hard to understand. I am not going to sacrifice my life to save Luther, a beloved creature in our house. The shepherd certainly wasn’t going to sacrifice his life to save a sheep – one really dumb animal in the midst of a flock of dumb animals.
Yet this is where the metaphor of the good shepherd conveys an amazing truth. The fact of the matter is that you aren’t worth the trouble – you are not worth the sacrifice of Jesus’ life. You are just one dumb animal in the midst of a flock of dumb animals. Time after time you make dumb choices. You know that when you are frustrated you are likely to say things you will regret. And yet when you find yourself in that situation, you choose to speak anyway … and guess what happens? You know that there are situations that place great temptation before you … and guess where you keep putting yourselves? You know that the Means of Grace are the instrument God uses to sustain you in the faith … and guess what you often choose to put in second place during the week or on Sunday morning?
You are not worthy of sacrifice. In fact if we are just talking about behavior and how you relate to your master, the family dog probably has a better claim to it. And yet … God values and loves you in a way that overcomes this. You see, God made you in his image. And in spite of your sin and all of the ways you mess up he has never ceased to love you.
In fact when you were unlovable because of sin the Father sent the Son into the world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. The Son loved the Father – and you – so much that he willingly humbled himself in a way of service. He came as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He came as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
But as we are celebrating during Easter, he didn’t just come to lay down his life in a sacrifice for you. Death alone was never the plan. Instead Jesus says a little later in this chapter, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Jesus did this for you. He gave his life for you on the cross, and then on the third day he rose from the dead. He called you by name when you were baptized – when you came to share in this saving action and were born again of water and the Spirit. He called you by name and now you continue to hear his voice. You hear it in the Holy Scriptures. You hear it in the word of Holy Absolution. You hear it in the word that he speaks over bread and wine at the Sacrament of the Altar.
And because this is true, you have comfort. You have the certainty of eternal life with the Lord. Jesus says in this chapter, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Jesus loved you by laying down his life for you on the cross. Because his Spirit has called you to faith in his death and resurrection, Jesus promises that nothing can snatch you out of his hand. But the sacrificial death of Jesus and the work of the Spirit within us does more than just make you feel good about where things are going.
John’s Gospel tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus did something unexpected – he washed his disciples’ feet. It was the job a slave would do – and yet there was Jesus on his knees with water and a towel. When he was done he said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
You have been saved so that you can serve. Jesus stated it very simply, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This love is not a warm fuzzy feeling any more than Jesus’ death on the cross was a warm fuzzy experience. Instead the Lord’s love for us was one of service, and so we are called to serve others because of Jesus. John put it this way in his first epistle: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” And so John goes on to say, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
We can do this because we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd. We belong to him. We know his voice. We follow him, and no one can snatch us out of his hand. He gives us eternal life – eternal life that is already ours now, and which will also involve a share in his resurrection when he returns in glory on the Last Day. And so we live each and every day secure in these words of our Lord: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”