Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. (Ps 19:14)
“The good shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11) [Easter 2, All Saints, Prescott, AZ, 15 Apr 2018]
I don’t know about you… but I would hate to be called a sheep. I have been called many things in life, but sheep was not one of them.
Why are we sheep? Why not a cheetah, or wolf, or tiger, or any other animal with a bit of flair… a bit of class and power and strength?
The answer lies in our desire to be protected from harm in body and soul and to be saved from permanent destruction. The cheetahs and wolves and tigers in human clothing are dominant figures that want to manage their lives without interference or help… who will not admit that they could be vulnerable… and who live their lives with recklessness. But we, who are dependent on God for guidance and grace, for mercy and ultimate salvation, take a different approach.
During Morning Prayer, we say: “For He is the Lord our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.” (Ps. 95:7) And so, we acknowledge our subservience to the Almighty… we declare openly that we are dependent on Him… and that we rely on His guidance and care. To say that He is our shepherd and we are His sheep demands that we humble ourselves. We admit that we are not self-sufficient or powerful… that we recognize God as the leader in our lives, and that we cannot reach eternal life without His guidance and protection.
When we say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” we say something that should move our hearts and minds in praise and gratitude. To declare that God is our shepherd is to glorify Him… to acknowledge that the Good Shepherd stoops down to care for each one of us individually… and that we are not alone in a cold and heartless world. That sheep/shepherd relationship is at the core of Psalm 23, in which we praise and thank God for the many benefits He showers on us. We praise and thank Him because He will:
Lead us forth besides the waters of comfort;
Convert my soul and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness;
Lead me through the valley of the shadow of death; and…
Allow me to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I don’t know about you… but I need that comfort and that leadership… I need that conversion of my soul and the hope of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. (Ps. 23-6) Without His help, I will be as dumb and directionless and defenseless as any other sheep, and the cheetahs, and the wolves, and the tigers of this world will devour me and turn me away from everlasting life with God. I may be a sheep… in fact, I want to be a sheep… so that I am assured of the protection and grace and care and love and peace that only God can give.
I will admit that I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. Even now, I live in a town that explicitly forbids owning livestock. But it does not take an expert to realize that sheep have three qualities that stand out: first of all, they are dumb. They follow the lead sheep without individual thought and without a sense of self-protection. They will do anything that the lead sheep does! “Follow the leader” is more than a game to them, and they allow themselves to go astray just because another sheep has wandered off also.
Second, they are directionless. Even if you put sheep in an absolutely perfect environment and provide everything they need for food and shelter, sooner or later they will just wander off. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, if he doesn’t keep them under his constant care, they will look for greener pastures elsewhere.
Third, sheep are defenseless. Left to themselves, sheep will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal can be returned to the wild and will stand a fighting chance of survival. But not sheep! Put a sheep in the wild and you have just given nature a snack!
And so it is with us and the outside world, with us and Satan. We need help to save us from our own stupidity; we need help not to follow a bad leader; we need a protector who knows where we will be safe; we need leadership to overcome a ravenous world that wants to devour us with its temptations and glittering promises.
Without our shepherd’s help, we are vulnerable to attacks on our soul; we are like sheep, defenseless and ready to be a snack for the Devil’s intrigues. Our shepherd guards and protects us against all who threaten our eternal well-being; He guides us to a better life with God… and of those whom the Father gave Him, He will have lost none. 1
In today’s Gospel Christ said: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” (Jn. 10:14) He speaks about an intimate relationship between Himself and His people, a union fully understood by those who trust Him and believe in Him. If we considered life without His guidance we may understand how horrible it could become for us, not only here on earth, but also at the Last Judgment. To the foolish virgins He once said: “I know thee not.” (Mt 25:7) and to the false teachers He proclaimed: “I never knew you.”(Mt 7:23) On that Last Day, it will be of no help to us that Jesus was our shepherd if… during our lifetime… we never heard His voice… and never followed Him. 2
Jesus leads us by going ahead of us. He makes sure that our way is safe from predators, and He never takes us where He has not gone Himself. For example, He was tempted in more severe ways than we are tempted; He was despised more than we could ever imagine; He went through the valley of death in a much more severe environment than we will ever encounter. But there is also good news!
He has risen from the dead and has proven to us that there is life after physical death. He has invited us to take part in everlasting life and ascend to heaven, just as He did by His own glorious ascension. He has given us hope where there was no hope, and He has shown us love where there was only strife. He sent to us the Holy Ghost with gifts of Knowledge and Wisdom, Understanding and Holy Fear for perseverance in this life, and He left with us a roadmap to reach our eternal destination through His teaching. He left with us a perpetual memory of His precious death and sacrifice by offering us His Real Presence when we eat of His Body and drink of His Blood by faith and with thanksgiving. (BCP pg. 82/83) With such caring, our Shepherd, who always has our best interests at heart, will lead us through life’s most difficult times, and we can follow Him… because we trust Him.
Actually, Holy Scripture mentions sheep more than 500 times, and shepherds are mentioned dozens of times as well. Abel, the first murder victim in the Bible, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds at one time in their life. A herd of sheep was a significant part of a family’s wealth, and this wealth was entrusted to the younger son who normally would not inherit the land. And yet, these sons rose to prominence in the history of God’s involvement with His people. They became the shepherds of not only their families and tribes, but also the writers of interactions between God and humanity, telling us and recording for us the important events concerning our creation, preservation and promises of salvation.
And so, when Holy Scripture says that we are sheep who need a shepherd, it is a realistic assessment of who we are and what we lack. We need guidance and examples to find our way home; we need to listen to Christ’s commands of love for God and fellow sheep; we need to be protected and defended in times of trouble; and we need to be rescued from the clutches of Satan and the desolation of our sins.
Of course, in the OT, sheep were always a sacrificial offering, and we read about the first such offertory in the story of Cain and Able. In Exodus, however, we read that the Lord required each household to slaughter a year-old male lamb “without defect” (Ex. 12:5) and eat it after marking their doorframes with its blood. The Lord would then pass over the house so marked “and bring judgment on all the gods of the Egyptians.” (Ex 12:12) The blood of one lamb symbolized a sacrifice offered as a substitute… one life laid down for many… in this case the lamb’s life for the life of the Israelite’s first-borns. Thus, through the mediation of a single sacrifice, the people of Israel escaped the judgment that fell on the Egyptians.
Holy Scripture contains several references to Christ being the Lamb of God, but we often miss the connection between the sacrificial lamb offered at the first Passover, and the Sacrificial Lamb offered for us on the cross.
Through the blood of Christ, we escape the judgment of permanent exclusion from the presence of God. Through the blood of Christ, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden has been reversed, and the gates of heaven are opened up again.
Those who maintain that Christ died only to confirm the truth of His doctrine, or to confirm the promises of pardon and acceptance with God the Father, are mistaken. The death of Christ was not necessary for either of these two purposes. Our Lord did not say that he laid down His life for His doctrine, but for His sheep… for us… for the atonement of our sinfulness. 3
The plain truth is that our Lord submitted Himself to death on the cross because He accepted God’s will that His own death was the only way of making atonement for our sins. We remember this act in each prayer of consecration, when the priest says: “…who made there, by His one oblation of Himself once offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” (BCP pg. 80)
On Calvary, Christ became that Sacrificial Lamb, and through His death on the cross He fulfilled His prediction in today’s Gospel that “the good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
Much later, St. John wrote in his first letter to the churches in Asia Minor that “…the blood of Jesus… purifies us from all sin.” (1 Jn 1:7), and in the letter to the Hebrews we read that if “the blood of goats and bulls, sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean, sanctify them… how much more, then, will the blood of Christ … cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.” (Heb 9:13,14) And there it is again: One life for the atonement of many… and through the mediation of a single sacrifice… His sacrifice… we “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (BCP pg.76)
His sacrifice, then, has become the ultimate example of a good shepherd… because Jesus, our shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, gave His life on our behalf. He could have freed us from sin by different ways and various methods… but He chose to become the Sacrificial Lamb, because, as Isaiah, the Prophet, said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray… each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquities of us all.” (Is 53:6)
And so, He truly has become our shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep!
I don’t know about you… but I am glad to be a member of His flock and to be called His sheep. Amen!
1 (Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, John, vol. ii, pg. 3) 2 ibid. 3 (ibid, pg. 7)