Sunday, April 10, 2016
Homily for Misericordias Domini (The Third Sunday of Easter / Easter 3)
John 10:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Ezekiel 34:11-16
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If you are a sheep, you are meant either for the sacrificial altar, or for the dinner table. That’s what it means to be a sheep. To be sure, while you are alive, your wool is valuable and will be shorn from your body to make clothing and blankets, and your milk is valuable for men to drink and to make cheese, but still, you are a sheep, and you are meant to die. And, when you have been killed, you will become food for men, or for animals, or you may become a sacrificial victim on the altar of God, or gods.
Throughout your sheepy life, your trust is in your shepherd. You trust in your shepherd to lead you to food and to water. You trust in your shepherd to protect you from thieves and from wild animals. You know your shepherd’s voice and his call, and you listen to and follow your shepherd wherever he leads you. However, even the best of shepherds – those who feed you well and who give you clean, clear water to drink, even those who fend off the wolves and seek you when you go astray – even the best of shepherds are still shepherding you to your death – either to sacrificial death at the altar or to the dinner table.
A shepherd knows this. A shepherd knows this ironic truth that he will, ultimately, lead the sheep he has so devotedly cared for, nourished, and protected, to slaughter, to death. A hireling shepherd will gladly do this – it’s his job, it’s what he’s paid for, it’s what puts bread on his table, clothing on his back, and a roof over his head. It’s not that he hates the sheep, or that he despises the sheep, but the sheep are a means to an end, and he cares nothing for their welfare beyond that end. Thus, he will not sacrifice his own welfare for the sheep. Certainly, he will defend them, if he can, but, not because he cares for them, but because he cares for himself – it is not in his own best interest to let the sheep die before their time. Therefore, when the wolf comes, he will not put himself in the beast’s jaws in order that a few sheep might live, but he runs and flees.
That’s the way it goes with hireling shepherds. They may not be bad people, bad shepherds, but they’re working for a wage and they’re not going to risk more than they expect to reap in reward. They’re not fools, and they’re not shepherding for charity. However, there are bad shepherds. Such scoundrels not only care nothing for the sheep, but they care nothing for their master for whom they work. A bad shepherd will exploit and fleece the sheep for his own benefit. He will take a sheep and shear it for himself and then slaughter it to feed his belly. He will abuse the weaker sheep and pit sheep against sheep for his pleasure. A bad shepherd will not lead the sheep to pure water and good pasture but will allow them to eat and drink what is not good for them. He will not seek them when they go astray, and he will not defend them from the wolves and thieves.
Not so the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd actually lays down His life for His sheep – for one or two sheep, and for all of the sheep. He places Himself between you and the wolf. He lays Himself, willingly, into the beast’s jaws for you. The Good Shepherd does this because you are His Father’s sheep, you are His sheep. You belong to Him, and He loves you, and He loves His Father who has given you to Him.
The bad shepherds are the ruthless King’s of Israel described in Ezekiel’s prophecies, they are the scribes and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and they are the pastor’s, religious leaders, and false teachers today who fleece the sheep, the people they are called to shepherd and to care for, by promising them blessings for money, by embezzling their charitable gifts, and by squandering their donations on wicked, fleshly indulgence and depravity. They are those shepherds who keep the sheep in bondage and abuse them by teaching righteousness by works according to the Law, while ever raising the bar of what they must do. They are those shepherds who will not defend the sheep from false teaching predators who would lead them into apostasy or complacency, so that they no longer repent of their sins and, therefore, do not receive absolution. They are those shepherds who kill and devour the sheep themselves by teaching them lies and deceptions and by withholding the Gospel grace and mercy of God revealed in the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. They are those shepherds who care nothing for the sheep and do not serve the sheep but desire only to be served by, and make a feast of, the sheep. And, often they are not shepherds at all, but they are wolves who infiltrate the flock by coming in the guise of sheep’s clothing, deceiving the sheep in order to lead them astray or to devour them.
Not so the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, Himself, seeks out the sheep that the wolf has scattered and He rescues them. The Good Shepherd brings them together into the fold from all the places they have been scattered and have wandered, and He feeds them and gives them drink in good pasture, in their own land, in their own country. The Good Shepherd leads them to rest from their laboring to provide for themselves righteousness by works according to the Law, and He binds up the injured and He strengthens the weak. The Good Shepherd is not a hireling motivated by self-interest, but He is the Father’s seeking love incarnate. He is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but He is the Good Shepherd in sheep’s clothing. He is God in human flesh, become what you are that you may become what He is.
The Good Shepherd seeks you and lays down His life for you precisely because He is the Good Shepherd and you are His sheep. He does it because He is good. And, He is not good because men judge Him to be so, but He is good, and He is the measure and judge of all goodness. Through the mouth of His prophet Ezekiel He says, “It is not for your sake, O Israel, that I am about to do this, but for the sake of my holy Name" (Ezek 34:36). You belong to Him, and so, He takes back what is His. This He does for the sake of His Name and because of the kind of God and Shepherd He is.
The Enemy, the predatory wolf, Satan, has sought to scatter and devour God’s people since their creation. He was successful with our First Parents in the Garden. He was successful as the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. He was successful as the kings of Israel served as wolves in sheep’s clothing to lead the people into apostasy, idolatry, and unbelief. He was successful as the Babylonians and the Assyrians scattered the people in exile. And he was successful as the scribes and the Pharisees, the shepherds of Israel, lead the people astray into complacency or despair by withholding from them the Good News of God’s salvation in His Shepherd Messiah who was coming into the world.
On a day of clouds and thick darkness, on a Friday that we now call Good, it appeared to us that the Enemy had finally won once and for all. The Good Shepherd gave Himself into the jaws of the wolf and died. But, in His death, Jesus broke Satan’s jaw and crushed his teeth, and on the third day He rose again having defeated death and having removed the stone of sin and guilt that kept you in your graves. The Good Shepherd takes back what is His for the sake of His Name. To God, you are His precious sheep. You are worth sacrificing for. You are worth dying for. To lose you or to give you up to an usurper is to be something other than who God is; it is to not be God at all. God is love, and the greatest possible expression of love is self-sacrifice, laying down one’s life for another.
And, “to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
On a day of clouds and thick darkness, our Good Shepherd, Jesus, was raised up in death that He might draw all men to Himself and to life. He has sent forth His Spirit to call, gather, and enlighten all His sheep whom the false shepherds have scattered all over the face of the earth so that there is one flock and one Shepherd.
But, still you are a sheep, and death is part of what it means to be a sheep. Therefore, your Good Shepherd Jesus came as a sheep that He might lure and be attacked by the satanic wolf and so defeat him by His sinless and guiltless substitutionary death. Now you follow your Shepherd through death into His eternal life in His Father’s House. Death has lost its sting. It can no longer hold you. But, it has become an open door into life that cannot die. Because He has blazed the trail before you and has been raised the firstfruits of those who die in faith in the Lord, He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.
Even now, as you pass through the valley of the shadow of death, your Good Shepherd leads you and guides you, cares for you, and protects you. He has prepared a meal for you in this life and world, in the presence of your enemies, that you might persevere. And, He leads you through death and the grave into His Father’s pastures where sheep may safely graze.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.