To be sure, I love our dogs. They are a great blessing in the life of our family. Luther, our golden retriever, is probably not the smartest dog you will encounter. But he’s a really good looking animal who wants to be with his people and has a great disposition.
Noel is technically Abigail’s dog. She’s a little white maltippo. Now there is no way that I ever planned on having a small dog. I didn’t want one. However, when Abigail was six years old and wanted a dog like that for Christmas, there was of course no way that dad was going to refuse his only little girl. And Noel has been a surprise because she has been a joy. She is a smart dog with so much personality, and she is the most affectionate creature you are going to meet. Both dogs are heroes in my book for the way they were Amy’s constant companions when she was at home recovering from brain surgery.
However, as much as I love those dogs and enjoy them, there is no way that I am going to sacrifice my life for them. It’s not happening. I would certainly do everything I could to save them, but if it in any way involved risk to my own life that would be it.
The reason is very simple. I am a human being and they are dogs. I was created in God’s image and they were not. I was created to have dominion over them, not to give my life for them. And then beyond that I have vocations in which I am needed by people I love such as husband, father and pastor. So if push comes to shove and it becomes a matter of risking my life to save them, they are out of luck.
There may be a few exceptions, but I think most people would say the same thing. And if we aren’t willing to give up our life to save a dear family pet, we certainly would not do so in order to save a group of sheep. We would not give our life to save a resource that is there only to produce wool, milk, meat and hides.
And yet … the Lord Jesus says in our Gospel lesson today:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I would argue that this makes no sense. What makes sense is what Jesus goes on to say: “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.” Now sure, if I own the sheep – if they are my investment – I am going to do everything I can to save them. But I am not going to give me life for them.
Our Lord says something remarkable today; something striking; something that is frankly, shocking. And it’s shocking because it is a metaphor about what he has done for you and for me. Jesus says that he lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus laid down his life on the cross for you. Unlike the hired hand, he cared so much about you that he gave his life to save you.
In the metaphor, Jesus describes himself as the shepherd and us as the sheep. The metaphor shocks because it makes no sense – people don’t give their lives to save animals. They certainly didn’t do it in the first century world to save sheep.
Yet while the shepherd and sheep metaphor is shocking, the reality it describes is even more shocking – even more amazing. After all, we are talking about the holy Son of God. We are talking about the Word – the second person of the Trinity; the One who is God and created the world. This is the One who became flesh in order to give himself into death for you. This would not be like you giving your life to save your family pet. It would be you giving your life to save a bacteria.
Not only are you insignificant compared to the Creator of the cosmos – you are a sinner. You are most certainly not holy. Instead, your life is characterized by greed and coveting; by hatred and angry words; by jealousy and lust. Even when you know that you shouldn’t be this way, it still keeps bubbling up and taking over.
And yet … because you are this way God sent his Son into the flesh. God’s intent and purpose was to save you. Jesus laid down his life to rescue you. It makes no sense. And that’s why it is Gospel. It is grace – completely unmerited; completely undeserved; completely off the wall, but in a way that means nothing but blessings for you.
In our text, Jesus says that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Of course, if that were it, the whole thing would be rather futile. The shepherd would be dead. And what about the next time a wolf came around?
But in the verses immediately after our text, Jesus goes on to say, “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.” During this season of Easter we celebrate and give thanks for the fact that on the third day, Jesus took up his life again. He defeated death in order to give us life.
The Shepherd who lay down his life for the sheep – for us – is not gone. Instead, he is alive and he continues to care for us. At the beginning of this discussion Jesus said, “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 called you by name. He did it in your baptism. In the first centuries of the Church, baptism was described as a seal. It was thought of as the mark of ownership that had been placed upon a Christian. You belong to Christ. He laid down his life for you, and then he took it up again. He claimed you as his own by dying for you and rising from the dead.
And now he continues to speak to you. You hear his voice as he leads you toward the Last Day and resurrection of the dead. You hear his voice through the inspired Scriptures. His Spirit borne words draw you to follow him.
They do so as long as you listen to his voice. Our Lord goes on to say, “A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” The voices of many strangers fill our world today. There are voices that say only you can decide what is true for you. There are voices that say you are free to use your sexuality in whatever way you want. There are voices that say you can only be happy with more of this and a better that.
These are voices from which we must flee. These are not voices that want what is best for us. Instead these voices are really only one voice. They are the voice of the devil. It is his voice that speaks through all that would separate us from Christ. He is a murderer and the father of lies. He wants to steal, and kill and destroy.
However the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd is the complete opposite. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus gives life now. At the end of this chapter our Lord says, “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.” This is the confidence that you have as baptized child of God.
Jesus gives eternal life to those who follow him. As the risen Lord he promises that those who hear his voice and follow him will never perish. No one will snatch them out of his hand.
The self giving love of Jesus moved him to lay down his life for us the sheep. But this saving action is not limited to a small group. It wasn’t even limited to God’s Old Testament people. Instead, Jesus says at the end of our text, “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.”
You are the other sheep, that were “not of this fold”! You were not part of God’s people because you did not descend from Abraham. You were not part of the people of Israel. And yet Jesus spoke to you. You heard his voice. He called you by name. And now you are part of the one flock that has one Shepherd.
There are still others who are not part of this fold. Jesus died for them too and rose from the dead. They need to hear his voice. And the remarkable thing is that now you become the means by which Jesus’ voice is heard. Jesus speaks through you.
But for him to speak, you must speak. The Collect for last Sunday echoed the Gospel lesson in which Thomas confessed that Jesus is Lord and God. It said, “Almighty God, grant that we who have celebrated the Lord’s resurrection may by Your grace confess in our life and conversation that Jesus is Lord and God.”
Your life bears witness to Jesus. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “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.” The life that shares Jesus’ love with others is the voice of Jesus that calls them to join his flock.
And in our conversations we seek to share with others about who Jesus is and what he has done for us. He is God in the flesh who died and rose again to give us life. He is the incarnate Lord who was willing to be nailed to a cross and rise on the third day with scars that demonstrate his sacrifice and victory. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and takes it up again.