In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
And so now we get to the familiar one, now we get to the I Am statement that actually may be the most familiar of them all. “I Am the Good Shepherd.” This is an incredibly familiar statement – think how often in pictures or art Jesus is shown as a shepherd. One of our windows is of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There are Good Shepherd Lutheran churches, I know several. I don’t know many “The Door Lutheran Churches” – but Good Shepherd, that’s a good name. And this text comes up every year a few weeks after Easter – it’s one we hear often. And the fact that the 23rd Psalm is probably the only one most of you have memorized doesn’t hurt either. So instead of going through the whole text, let’s just focus on verse 11 tonight and consider it: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The simple and first idea is this – Jesus is a Shepherd. Jesus is One who gently and faithfully guides His flock in order to care for them and to protect them. And really, if you look at the entirety of the Old Testament, you can see this idea come up often. You have the Lord protecting Abraham and leading him where he needed to go. You have the Lord leading Jacob as well, and Joseph. And of course when you get the Exodus, you have Moses leading the people of Israel. And all of those men, guess what they were – Shepherds. It’s not just David who was a shepherd. When I was in Egypt a few years ago, our tour guide pointed out that statues of sheep only happened after Abraham arrived… he argued that Egypt didn’t have sheep before Abraham showed up. And Jacob was a shepherd, and his Rachel tended the sheep – and of course, Rachel means “Lamb of God.” Joseph is visiting his brothers at the flocks when he gets sold into slavery in Egypt, and when Moses flees Egypt, he becomes a shepherd as well. There may not be a more consistent image of guidance and care in the Old Testament than that of a shepherd – the one who cares for and guides and protects the sheep from wild beasts.
Thus it is no surprise that God would be compared to a Shepherd. Again, this is Psalm 23 stuff – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Well, of course I won’t want, God will care for me. Of course God is going to keep me safe and lay me down in good pastures. It was a powerful image, and a common one in the holy lands – there’s a lot of rocky hill country that’s not good for crops but fine for grazing sheep – people get this idea, and the idea of God being a Shepherd, One who can tend for and care for people even in a dangerous and harsh environment is a common one.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” But what we hear tonight in our Gospel, that’s a bit different. Okay, so Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd – He ratchets the rhetoric up – it makes sense to say that Jesus is Good, that He is superior to all those Old Testament Shepherds we came across. But then there is one change that is just astonishing. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. In all of the Old Testament, with all of those Shepherds, when do you ever see them die for the sheep. David didn’t die for the sheep – he saw the lion coming and took it down with his slingshot! They had thought that the wild beasts had gotten Joseph, but it was all a trick, and he was alive in Egypt. It’s like the line from the old movie Patton – a soldier’s job isn’t to die for his country, it’s to make the other guy die for his country. A shepherd’s job isn’t to die for his sheep, it’s to make the wolf, the lion, the thief die for coming after his sheep! At least that’s how we are used to thinking. Love, protect, defend your livestock… but die for, no, not quite.
But Jesus is no ordinary Shepherd, for we are no ordinary sheep. We were sheep who had wandered and gone astray, and so our Shepherd goes after us to reclaim us, gather us again. Consider this. If your sheep wanders into a swamp, the only way you are going to get that sheep back is if you go into the swamp yourself, and if that means you get much and stench on you, so be it. A hired hand might not do that, he might tell you to take this job and shove it, but the Shepherd, you do what you have to do. But it wasn’t merely to some other hill or into a ditch that we had wandered, or even into a swamp or bog – no, we had wandered into death. Adam and Eve had put themselves into a world of hurt when they ate of the tree in the Garden, when they ignored the Good Shepherd’s proper pasture and went after Satan’s snack instead. And it caught them. It caught us. We were trapped by death, we were brought into the kingdom of death. The hired hands, they would run from this, but the Good Shepherd knows what He must do. He must rescue the Lost Sheep, and if means entering the kingdom of death, so be it. If the sheep have abandoned the paths of righteousness for the path of death, then the Shepherd will go through death in order to get them. If the sheep had consigned themselves to the grave, then to the grave the Good Shepherd will go.
The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd goes to the Cross, to the tomb for the Sheep. But He doesn’t stay there. The Good Shepherd, having invaded Satan’s domain to rescue and reclaim His wayward sheep then leads them out again back to where they should be. That is what Easter is – when Christ strides forth from the tomb, that is our Good Shepherd who had laid His life down for us leading us out of death. When the Shepherd calls o ur name – for He even calls me by name, as He has done in the waters of Baptism, this is where He leads us, He leads us to everlasting life. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for us, but He takes it up again, He takes it up again so that we might have life. He leads us out of slavery to sin and death unto release in the true Promised land, the life of the world to come. We wandered out of Eden, and He has said, “Follow Me My sheep, for I will bring you to the New Heavens and the New Earth, the new Eden I have made for you.” He is our Good Shepherd. In the Name of Christ the Crucified +