It's Shepherd not Sheep Sunday
For centuries the church as celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, but the Gospel reading talks just as much about sheep. It could be called Sheep Sunday. It's not; because there wouldn't be much to celebrate. What do I mean? The text says sheep listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd; they follow Him, and they will never perish. Aren't these something to celebrate?
It is if we are sheep that listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, but are we? I think not. Jesus says sheep listen to My voice. "My" is emphatic; they listen to His voice in a way they listen to no other. It doesn't appear to me we do that. The voice of Jesus is one among many. I think we're just as likely to listen to others, particularly experts, as we are to Christ. Actually, I think we're more likely to listen to the voice of others than we do Christ's. The Good Shepherd says His sheep listen to His voice. He doesn't say they read His Word; He says they hear it. The place we've pledged to do that is here. But most of us can only "stand" 1 hour a week; an extra hour of Bible Class is too much, and heaven forbid that we hear it for an hour more on Wednesdays during Advent and Lent!
I know; I've lost you. You don't think the liturgy, the sermon, the hymns, the Bible Class are the Good Shepherd's voice. That's because you're forgetting Luke 10:16 which plainly says the one that doesn't listen to pastors doesn't listen to Jesus. Oops! That offended some of you. How far we've fallen. When the Missouri Synod was founded 172 years ago many of her churches had engraved on the pulpit or on the wall by the altar Jesus' words of Luke 10:16, "He that hears you hears Me." Where it was once constantly before our eyes, it's now hardly ever suggested that God Himself says when hearing a pastor speak God's Word you're hearing Jesus.
We do what the unbelieving Jews did in our text. We blame the pastor for us not listening as they blamed Jesus. Although Jesus had told them plainly that He was the Christ, they imply they don't believe because He hasn't said it plainly. Likewise, many people excuse their not hearing Jesus' Word spoken by their pastor saying he's boring, lengthy, unclear, etc. But don't you see? If you find the preaching of forgiveness, dull, tedious, or whatever, you're admitting to being lost? Only for those perishing says Scripture is the preaching of God's Word foolishness, weakness, or dullness.
But don't think it's only the sheep who don't listen to the Shepherd that can't celebrate Sheep Sunday. Neither can those who listen but don't follow. Don't we all get to a point where we don't follow? Judas could only follow as far as the Lord's Supper than he turned away. Nine others only followed to the point of Gethsemane then they turned away. Peter followed to the high priest's courtyard but then a servant girl turned him away. John followed to Calvary, but it was a centurion not him who confessed the crucified Jesus to be the Son of God. At what point do you turn away from following Him? At His Words about loving your spouse, not worrying, patiently enduring suffering, loving your neighbor, or about obeying your parent? You're turning away somewhere, aren't you?
In fact, far from following the Good Shepherd aren't you trying to get Him to follow you? "Over here Shepherd! This is the green pasture I want to lay down in. I want to walk beside these quiet waters not those. And no thank you; I will not be led, carried, or dragged through any valley called the Shadow of Death. Here is the way I see my life going; now get out there and lead me through it." Such is the talk of old goats not sheep.
Maybe you think you can at least celebrate the fact that sheep "never perish." But you're forgetting that in the text not perishing is connected to listening to His voice and following Him. For all of you who listen to His voice and do follow Him wherever He leads, your Good Shepherd will not let you perish. That's hollow comfort when I say it that way, isn't it? If my salvation hangs on my listening and my following then, it is hanging on some mighty thin threads. And rather than feeling secure in His hand, it feels like at any moment my Good Shepherd might hurl this bad sheep out of His hand!
Do you see why today is not called sheep Sunday? Then all the focus and burden would be on sheep, and the listening and following of sheep isn't worth celebrating, at least mine isn't! The Good Shepherd's faithfulness is. He knows His sheep. That could be translated "recognizes." To us all sheep look alike. Just like to us all cows look alike, but that's not how it is for a rancher. He doesn't need brands to tell his own cows. The man whose land I hunt on recognizes his 200 cows as easily as we recognize our children. That's how the Good Shepherd is with His sheep. Now, when one of my friend's cows isn't listening to him or following him, does he cease to recognize that cow as his? Are you kidding? That cow is worth hundreds of dollars; he had that cow for years. He has sweated and bled for that animal. That cow walking away from him, ignoring his words, not following with the rest is still his because he recognizes it. The relationship is based on him recognizing the cow not the cow listening or following.
That's how it is with us, but we aren't worth hundreds of dollars to our Good Shepherd; we're priceless. He sweated, cried, bled and died for us. Our names our carved into His hands with 9 inch nails. He wrote our names in His Book of life before the world was made using the indelible ink of His blood. Do you think you're not listening causes Him to scratch off the engraving on His hands? Do you think you're failing to follow erases what He wrote before you were born? Could my sinful friend be more accepting of his straying cattle than your Good Shepherd is of His straying sheep? Being recognized by the Good Shepherd not the sheep's listening or following is something to celebrate. Think of what it would mean to be recognized by the President or by a celebrity. There would be earthly privileges and perks associated with that. Many of your worldly worries would be taken care of. But how many more not only earthly but heavenly privileges and perks must come to one recognized by the Good Shepherd! How could our worldly worries fail to be addressed by a Good Shepherd who rules the world? Our heavenly worries by the King of Heaven?
Celebrate Shepherd Sunday not sheep Sunday; celebrate the Shepherd giving you eternal life not you giving Him attention and obedience. Note the Lord says He gives sheep eternal life. He doesn't say they in any way can or do merit eternal life. But we battle against the idea of merit all our days. That's because it's part of our fallen nature. Fallen Adam thinks he can do something to solve the Fall. He makes fig-leaf clothing. The Pentecost crowd convicted of crucifying Christ cried out, "What should we do?" The Philippian jailer convicted of his sins says the same. And our hearts echo it. Surely there must be something I can do. I'll listen better; I'll follow further. I'll be a better sheep. Great, but the Lord doesn't say He gives eternal life to better sheep or even the best sheep. He says He gives it to sheep. In Scripture is there ever a sheep who gets eternal life because he deserves it?
There is nothing to celebrate in what we do as sheep. Our listening and following are sporadic at best. There is much to celebrate in what the Good Shepherd does. He gives eternal life to sheep. He gave it to you again today when He said, "I forgive you." As we say in our Catechism where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation. Find your comfort, your certainty, your life in what the Good Shepherd does. When you're tried and tempted don't find your comfort in the fact that you'll never perish because you're a sheep who listens and follows. Find it in the fact that no one can pluck you out of the Good Shepherd's hand. Find your comfort not in how hard you hold on to Him but in how hard He holds on to you. In the Greek "No one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me is greater than all" is graphic. See the Father reaching down and transferring you to the Son's hand. They are as careful as you are when you transfer money or diamonds from hand to hand. No, they're more careful.
The Good Shepherd says the Father has given them to Him. "Has given" is a Greek perfect which means the giving has taken place and is valid forever. The sheep will always be safe in the hand of the Son. Rather than God's wrath coming down upon them, the Son's hand will shield them. If He refused to drop us to pick up His privileges and perks as God the Son, if He held us at the cost of suffering the hell we deserve, what could make Him drop us now? Don't water this comfort down. When I was in college a well-meaning friend who belonged to Campus Crusade for Christ, brought be back to the Christian faith. He would point to this passage and say, "See no one can snatch you out of your Savior's hand," and then add, "but you can jump out." That would crush me because I knew that it was only a matter of time and temptation before I would take a flying leap. What my friend did is turn the Gospel of certainty into one of doubt. Compare this with what a 1870's Lutheran professor said, "The Lord here [in this passage] gives us a guarantee against ourselves, against our own weakness and doubt" (Stoeckhardt).
We are so firmly planted in the Good Shepherd's hands that we can't get out even if we want to. It isn't possible for sheep of the Good Shepherd not to be recognized by Him, not to be given eternal life, and not to be safely in His hands come Judgment Day. No one can snatch us away not sin, not death, not the power of the devil. And we can't jump out either. He would be a pretty poor shepherd if sheep were stronger than He was. They're not. That's why we call this Shepherd Sunday not Sheep Sunday. Amen
Reverend Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday of Easter (20190512); John 10: 22-30