Text: John 10:11-18
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are some Bible passages that become so familiar to us that we almost don’t actually hear the words anymore. On this Good Shepherd Sunday we have a couple of readings which fit that bill. First, Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” I don’t even have to finish the rest, you know the words and could probably keep going from there. But also our gospel reading today from John 10. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Again, familiar words. Nothing in there seems particularly stunning or surprising. But try, if you can, putting yourselves in the shoes of the people who were standing there listening to Jesus when He first said those words 2,000 years ago. That will give you a different perspective, I think.
Imagine you are in Jerusalem way back then before Jesus died and rose again. Imagine you are there in the big city hearing this countryside teacher from Galilee talk to the big shots. Imagine you are standing there beside Him in a large crowd of people and you hear Him say, “I am the Good Shepherd…” What would go through your mind when you hear those words?
I imagine a lot of people that day, just like us today, would have immediately started to think about Psalm 23. Some others might have thought about a passage in Ezekiel 34 where God said that He Himself would come and be the shepherd of His people, but I imagine most people had Psalm 23 in mind. With Psalm 23 in mind what do you think they would be expecting Jesus to say next? After Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd…” how do you think that they would have finished the sentence?
Maybe they would have expected Jesus to say, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd causes his sheep to lie down and green pastures and leads them beside still waters.” In other words, He feeds and provides for His sheep. Or maybe they thought He would say, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd restores His sheep and leads them in the right path.” The Good Shepherd cares for the needs of the sheep and leads them in the way they ought to go. Or maybe they thought He would say, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd comforts His sheep with His rod and staff as He guides them through dangerous times.” The Good Shepherd protects His sheep from danger.
Any of these would have been reasonable, logical conclusions. In Psalm 23 the LORD, the Shepherd, does all of those things. All of those conclusions, however, would have been wrong. Jesus doesn’t say anything like that. What does Jesus say? “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
John does not tell us here how the crowds reacted to Jesus’ words, but I imagine there were some puzzled looks. “He does WHAT?” the people probably wondered, “Why in the world would a shepherd die for His sheep?”
Leah, Hannah, and I lived on a sheep ranch for one year while I served my vicarage internship during seminary. We lived in the guest house on the sheep ranch. The owners of that ranch had been shepherding for a long time and they loved their sheep. They demonstrated their love for the sheep every morning when they got up before the crack of dawn and went out to feed and care for them. They demonstrated their love for the sheep each evening when they went back again to make sure that the sheep were all settled down in the barn for the night. They demonstrated their love for the sheep when the lambs were born too early that spring and they went out in the bitter cold to help the mothers and little lambs make it into the safety of the barn. They demonstrated their love for the sheep when they called each one by name, knew who its mother was, and could recall when it had been born. They loved those sheep. But would they die for those sheep? Would they lay down their life for sheep? I doubt it.
There are very few things in life for which people would be willing to lay down their life. There are very few things for which we would be willing to die. Husbands and wives might say that they would be willing to lay their life down, to die, for their spouse. Parents might say that we would be willing to lay down our life and die for our children. But other than that there isn’t much we would be willing to die for. We certainly would not be willing to die for farm animals like sheep. But Jesus says that is what the Good Shepherd does. He lays down His life for His sheep. He lays down His life for you.
Why? Why would the Good Shepherd, lay down His life for a sheep? It’s not because the sheep are such good sheep that they deserve it that is for sure. Nothing about sheep deserves this kind of care. Why would Jesus lay down His life for you and me? Not because we deserve it, but because of His love for us. Love, that is the reason. A little later on in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “Greater love knows no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” The Good Shepherd’s love for His sheep, our Lord Jesus’ love for us, runs so deep that He would call us, sheep though we are, His friends and willingly lay down His life for us to save us from the wolves around us, to save us from death, to save us and give us life.
This love goes beyond any love that you and I could really ever know. Like I said, we might love someone so much that we would die for them, but for the most part we love ourselves far too much to let that happen. Christ Jesus, our Good Shepherd, on the other hand, loves each and every one of us, each and every one of His sheep on this sin filled planet so much that He would lay down His life for each and every one of them. Greater love knows no one than this! The King of Love our Shepherd is!
Our epistle reading today says, “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” There is only one response to the kind of love that has been shown to us, only one way live in light of this love that would send our Good Shepherd to the cross laying down His life for us. We ought to lay down our lives for one another. In each day, circumstance, and relationship that might look different. One day it might mean laying down our priorities and desires in order to care for someone in need. Other days might mean laying aside our own thoughts and ideas by taking the time to listen rather than spouting off with words of our own. Another day it might mean forgiving someone who has wronged us and laying down our “right” to be angry and hold a grudge. Christ, our Good Shepherd, has laid down His life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another!
But the laying down of His life was not the end. No, that was only the beginning. He took up His life again. Jesus is emphatic about that here in John 10. “I have authority to lay it [my life] down,” Jesus says, “and I have authority to take it up again.”
The betrayal, the scorn, the whips, the beatings, the violence, the miscarriage of justice, the crucifixion, the nails, the death, the tomb, and the stone rolled across the entrance all happened under Jesus’ authority. And when all of that had been completed, when the work of our salvation, the forgiveness of our sins, had been completed, He took up His life again. Living now eternally as the Shepherd of the sheep.
And that is where Psalm 23 fits in. Having laid down His life and taken it up again Jesus our Good Shepherd feeds us in green pastures and waters us with still waters in His Word as we hear it and read it. He restores our souls and leads us in paths of righteousness for His names sake with the forgiveness He won for us on the cross and the righteousness that He pours out from heaven on us in our baptism. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and comforts us with His presence because He has already walked that road and overcome the sharpness of death itself by rising from the dead. He sets a table before us today in the presence of our enemies, the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, and feeds us with the very body and blood that He laid down into death and then took up again. And because He, our Good Shepherd, has laid down His life for us and taken it up again we can be sure that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life in this world and we will, beyond any shadow of a doubt, dwell in His house, the house of the LORD, forever.
The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for us. It is absolutely amazing. What shepherd would do that for his sheep? Surely only Jesus, the Good Shepherd, whose love knows no end! Thanks be to God for the undying love of our Shepherd, Jesus! Amen.