4th Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday
May 12, 2019
“Not What We Expected”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Gospel lesson from John chapter 10.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
When I say the word “sheep,” what do you think of? For those of you who grew
up apart from sheep, you probably think of those darling creatures hopping and skipping around the feet of Little Bo Peep with their glistening white wool and natural beauty and softness they possess; they would be a perfect pillow, right? Those of you who DID grow up around sheep know completely different. You know the truth. You already know that sheep are dumb and dirty and not all that beautiful. Maybe not what you expected, but that’s the truth.
In St. Louis there is a free zoo called Grant’s Farm. One of the animals you could get close enough to touch at Grant’s Farm was the sheep. Spending time near these things forever changed my attitude about sheep. Their thick wool picked up every branch and twig they got near and got firmly lodged in that tangled, matted mess. They were always bumping into each other and stumbling around; sheep are less than graceful. Their heavy wool hung off them like a big, heavy blanket and summertime in St. Louis was the last place you wanted to be under a blanket. Contrary to popular myths, sheep are not the soft, darling creatures we think they are. Again, probably not what you expected, but it’s true.
When Jesus spoke of sheep in today’s Gospel lesson, it was a less than soft, darling situation. It was a downright ugly situation. Tension was mounting after the events of John 8 and the Jews wanted to stone Jesus, even taking up rocks to do so (8:59). The pressure and jealousy of the Jews was building after our Lord then healed a man born blind in John 9. In John 10, the Jews approach again to know if Jesus was the Messiah. Why? To worship him? Hardly! They are itching to stone someone; looking for a reason to kill Jesus like they had tried in John 8! Not what we would expect from religious leaders, but it’s true.
Let me set the scene for you. It is winter in Jerusalem and it is the Feast of Dedication; that means the Jews were celebrating Hanukkah. Jesus was now walking in the temple area, specifically Solomon’s Colonnade, when the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Scribes) approached him. “Jesus…how long are you going to keep us in the dark? Are you the Messiah or what?” they asked with fake grins on their faces and rocks in their hands.
That begs an interesting question. Where did they get the rocks? The conduct of the Jews is just the same as it was when our Lord said, “Before Abraham was I am.” They regarded His words as blasphemy, and proceeded to take the law in their own hands, to inflict the punishment due to blasphemy – death by stoning (Numbers 15:36). Okay, a harsh punishment, yes, but that should be what we expect from the Jews of that time. But again, where did they get the stones for stoning?
The Greek word for “picked up” here, is not the same that is used in chapter 8. Here it means “they carried.” No doubt the stones used in stoning to death were not pebbles, but large stones. In other words, we can expect that these moderate sized stones were not lying around in the Temple. The Jewish leaders must have still been carrying them around since their original confrontation with Jesus in chapter 8; they had to carry stones from some little distance for their murderous purpose. We can hardly suppose there were suitable stones just lying around within an old finished building like Solomon’s Colonnade, though there might be stones at a little distance on account of the repairs of the temple. Now…think of the implications of that…carrying around a heavy stone just waiting to use it. I’ll come Bach to that in a moment.
Are sheep the pearly-white creatures we think they are? No…they are not what we expect. They are gross and dirty and they have no way to clean themselves up. That is the way it is with our sin. All of us are born with that awful sinfulness stuck in the wool of our soul with no way to get it out. Romans 3 tells us that we are all sinful and Romans 6 tells us that the wages of sin is death. Sin, then, is why people die…why ALL people die. They are still carrying that heavy blanket of sin and that blanket makes us feel pain and depression and sickness and loneliness and resentment and eventually physical death. Additionally, like the ancient Jewish leaders, we also carry around heavy stones each day – stones of regret and anger and frustration – and we cannot wait to finally throw the stone because we think it will make us feel better. But it doesn’t; the intended relief isn’t there…it’s not what we expected.
The Good Shepherd searches out for us lost sheep and finds us tangled in the muck and brush and the heavy blanket of our sin. But Our Good Shepherd Jesus took his task a step further than most shepherds. He laid down his life for the sheep. In John 10:11, Jesus told the Jews that in addition to being the Good Shepherd, he lays down his life for the sheep. That’s NOT what you would normally expect from a shepherd. A regular shepherd was a hired hand, an employee. They lived by the motto, “live to tend another day.” If the flock is damaged or lost, well, the shepherd finds another flock. Not Jesus. As the Good Shepherd he laid down his life for stinky, sweaty, smelly sheep like us bumping and stumbling our way through this life.
The Good Shepherd calls to you by name every day in and through His Word, and his sheep know his voice. As a result, the sheep follow that Shepherd, and the Shepherd doesn’t give up on the sheep. We no longer live under our yucky blanket of sin but we live under the banner of his grace and love; he isn’t about to let go, for his grace and his mercy and his love are too strong and too great for that. Are you hearing His call? Are you spending time in His Word? If not, perhaps that’s why you feel lost and alone. Just sayin…
It’s easy to love when the one you love is lovable; we would expect that. But even in our rebellion and disobedience, our Good Shepherd continues to love us and hold us fast in the tight grip of his grace. He washes the guilt and stain away from the wool of our soul and he encourages us to drop the heavy stones that we carry around every day for no reason whatsoever. You don’t need that stone; stop fighting a fight that’s already been won.
So much is made of the problems and difficulties of this modern non-church-going world. It becomes easy to be cynical and doubt God’s grip on the world or his sheep. Dear friends, The Good Shepherd is not about to let go. Jesus went to the cross to make it that way for you. And the cross? Well, that’s also not what we expected for sinners such as us, but what a glorious way to bring hope into our otherwise hopeless lives.