4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 10:1-10;
1 Peter 2:19-25; Acts 2:42-47
THE GOOD SHEPHERD WHO BECOMES THE LAMB SLAUGHTERED
Children’s Sermon: Having fun with the children singing, “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.”
Sermon. That’s a fun song! I begin our ‘adult’ time with the observation that no one really wants to be a shepherd. Especially back in ancient times. Today, things like guns and technology make it a tolerable, even nice, way to make a living. In low-tech times, it was the pits. The best way you had to protect the sheep was yourself, and any basic weapons you could learn to use. You probably couldn’t afford a sword — maybe a knife. More likely is a big stick — like the shepherd’s crook that our bishop carries around today. Or perhaps it was just a good arm throwing stones — or something King David made famous against the giant warrior Goliath, the sling shot.
But sheep were among the most vulnerable of animals, one of the lowest on the food chain of mammals. They generally could not take care of themselves. So it was the shepherd’s job to do that. And to do so you had to had to submit yourself to their vulnerability. Out in the fields, you suffered the same dangerous weather and predators as the sheep. And being in the fields all the time made it difficult to have a family. Shepherds were often unmarried, family-less, in a time when marriage, children, and heirs meant a lot. Nobody really wanted to be a shepherd. In a family with some wealth, and owned some sheep, the job of shepherd most often fell to the unlucky youngest child — again, like King David, who was the youngest of eight sons.
Yet there’s definitely a thread of tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, which lifts up the shepherd as a good thing, even comparing God to a Good Shepherd. In the prophets, this image also was used as a criticism of the kings. With what we’ve just said about shepherds, that’s wild, isn’t it? Everyone wanted to be king. The king’s were the least vulnerable. They were the top of the food chain, more like lions and eagles. They weren’t associated with lowly sheep, vulnerable and wimpy. They were the predators, who not only had the best of weapons of the day, but surrounded themselves with armies of weapon-wielding warriors. Everyone wanted to be king, emperor. Nobody wanted to be a shepherd.
So for the prophets of Israel to compare kings to shepherds was a radical idea. And to think of God the King as a Good Shepherd was even more radical. Perhaps it came originally from the fact that their greatest king had started as a shepherd. He was the youngest son, forced to care for the sheep. And so when he went to his first great battle, against the giant Goliath, he used a shepherd’s weapon, a sling shot.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The people of Israel hailed King David not because he had been a shepherd, but because he had been their greatest warrior. He had raised and led their armies to a time when they were the bullies on the block — the lions, the predators. David and his son Solomon presided over Israel at a time when they were the closest thing to being an empire, the rulers of the Middle East. Since King David, the Lion of Judah, they had become the sheep, the vulnerable people who were controlled by all the empires around them — the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. And so there was a strong thread of their tradition that began to see their God more like a shepherd of the sheep, one who cared for the most vulnerable. As a nation, they had become vulnerable as a people to all the preying empires around them. And so one picture of God and their kings came to be one of caring for the most vulnerable.
In recent weeks, we have highlighted that, when Jesus came as their Messiah, the Christ, he changed their view of God. It wasn’t that their view of God was all wrong. It was mixed up. It was mixed in with the gods of old, the gods that ruled and controlled peoples, the gods like the Roman gods who gave Caesar his power. The people of Israel had an experience of God which was more like those other gods, one who would raise an army and defeat their tormentors. But there was also another kind of God, a God who was a good shepherd — a God who instead of controlling things on high with an army, lived vulnerably with the sheep, the most vulnerable, even to the point of laying down his life for the sheep.
Jesus came to help them understand who God really is. God is not like the warrior King David. God is like the Good Shepherd King David, the one who cares for the most vulnerable. Jesus even goes to greater lengths than the prophets to paint the picture of a God who doesn’t allow any sheep to be lost. Not one! God cares for the most vulnerable, even the ones who get themselves lost. Jesus lived his life that way, hanging around with the least and the lost. He died that way, as one of the forsaken, left to hang on a cross as a criminal.
But as their Risen Lord, he was also the promise that God is working toward a day when all the lost will be rescued and gathered, when the whole herd will be safe and protected, no longer in any danger of suffering. God will lead all people into the final green pasture of Creation, beside still waters that restore our souls. But we can only come to see this God clearly through Jesus the Good Shepherd who let himself become the lamb slaughtered by the eagle of Rome, so that, as our Risen Savior, he is the promise that God is working to rescue all the vulnerable.
And as called disciples, we are invited to join that rescue operation. We are invited to care for our most vulnerable, our children, like little Grayson baptized here this morning. But it doesn’t end with just us, either. In Jesus Christ we come to know a God who is always crossing the lines on in-and-out to find the most vulnerable among those not currently in our family, our tribe, our nation. In Jesus the Messiah, the one rejected by his own people, we find a God who is gathering all the family of this whole creation, beginning with the most vulnerable from every family, tribe, and nation. In Jesus the Messiah, we meet a God who is both the lamb slaughtered and the Good Shepherd so that we may led on the right pathways which lead to life. We meet a God who is willing to be vulnerable to suffering and death as the promise that we don’t have to be afraid of it, because we know in faith the end-game, namely, that there will be no lost sheep. All will be found and gathered, so that the end is still life. Even beyond the death of these earthly bodies, there will be resurrection bodies. And so God is shepherding us through even the valleys of the shadow of death into life, shepherding us beyond our wants and fears from death into life.
Let us enjoy a meal of life on the road, a foretaste of the feast to come, when all people will dwell in God’s house, God’s pasture, forever. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 11, 2014