Sunday, April 30, 2017

Misericordias Domini - The Third Sunday of Easter (Easter 3)

John 10:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Exodus 34:11-16

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd has suffered greatly in contemporary Christian imagination from an overly romantic sentimentalism and from Gospel-reductionist pietism. From the pastel-colored Precious Moments figurines of Christian kitsch to the airbrushed Sunday School and church bulletin artwork depicting a smiling Jesus holding a young lamb over His shoulder or surrounded by a flock of innocent enough seeming sheep, the popular Christian image of the Good Shepherd is a soft, gentle, kind, and often effeminate, young man who lives a happy, simple and pastoral life with His greatest joy being young children and social outcasts. Now, that image is not entirely wrong, mind you, but it is a far cry from the fullness of what it means that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and from the Church’s historic understanding of that office of Jesus Christ.
That Jesus is the Good Shepherd does not mean that He is kind, gentle, happy, loving, etc. any more than it means that He is merely a competent practitioner of animal husbandry. The adjective good here (kalos in the Greek) doesn’t mean that. Rather, Jesus is the Good Shepherd in the same way that God proclaimed each day of His creation and work to be good: Jesus is good in the sense that He knows the Father and the Father knows Him. He is in complete agreement and harmony with His Father’s will. He loves what His Father loves, and He does what his Father commands. Jesus’ goodness is an innate goodness. Therefore, in calling Himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus is referencing His inherent goodness, righteousness, beauty, and unity with His Father. Jesus conformed perfectly and completely to His Father’s will, even laying down His life unto death for His Father’s sheep. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He dies for them. For this reason the Father loves His Son Jesus, because He lays down His life for the sheep. Therefore, Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He saves us, not because He plays with us and rolls with us in the grass.
The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. He does not flee when the wolf comes, but He places Himself into the beast’s jaws and teeth that His sheep may live. This is the Father’s will, and the Father loves Him because of this, and the Son loves His Father and you in this way. This is the way in which the Father loves you, His sheep: God so loved the world in this way, He gave His only Son. The Good Shepherd protects and defends His sheep. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. The Good Shepherd dies for His sheep. This is what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. In contrast to the Good Shepherd then is the hired hand. The hired hand is not a shepherd. The hired hand does not own the sheep, does not love the sheep, and most certainly will not die for the sheep. When he sees the wolf coming, the hired hand leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. Not so the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and they know Him, and He lays down His life for the sheep.
From man’s perspective Jesus is not a good shepherd, but a fool or a lunatic. From man’s perspective, a good shepherd raises his sheep for their wool or their meat. A good shepherd most certainly will not die for his sheep, but rather, he will raise his sheep so that they die for him, for his profit, benefit, and good. Not even faithful pastors are ultimately good in the sense that the Good Shepherd is good, but, despite their best intentions, they are still hirelings. Undoubtedly, however, Jesus had the scribes and the Pharisees in mind, who were the teachers and shepherds of Israel. Instead of leading the flock of Israel to the cool waters and wholesome food of Jesus, they slaughtered them with legalism and false teaching, directing them to works under the Law, rather than to the life-giving grace of the Gospel. And, sadly, too many hireling shepherd pastors continue to do the same today.
The problem with hireling shepherds and pastors is that they are afraid of the wolf and flee, or they do not believe that the wolf even exists. But, the wolf is real; Satan is real, and as St. Peter warns, he prowls this earth seeking sheep to devour. Satan prowls in the Church disguised as works righteousness, which falsely comforts the flock by causing them to put their trust in their works, in being good, fair, and tolerant people. Satan prowls in the Church tempting pastors and parishioners to misrepresent and misunderstand God’s Word and commands so that they do not fear His holiness and righteousness but minimize and deny their sins, believing that God only wants them to be happy and prosperous, but not obedient. Hireling shepherd pastors preach “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace, because they do not preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins but exhort the flock to keep on doing as they are doing with the false assurance that God is love and doesn’t care about sins so long as you are loving and tolerant and kind. And so there are prosperity preachers teaching the power of positive thinking and self-improvement instead of repentance, humility, and true love, which is sacrifice and selflessness and service to your neighbor to the glory of God
Through His prophet Jeremiah the LORD has said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” “You have scattered My flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.” “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord is our righteousness’.” That is a direct messianic prophecy of the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. “I Myself,” says the LORD, “will be the Shepherd of my sheep.”
Hence Jesus proclaims, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is one of seven great “I AM” statements of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel. “I AM,” in Greek ego eimi, is a rendering of the LORD’s Name given to Moses in the burning bush. Thus, Jesus at once communicates that He is the LORD’s promised Good Shepherd, even the LORD Himself. Jesus is the fulfillment of the LORD’s prophetic promise to seek, gather, and rescue His lost sheep Himself from all the places they had been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. That dark day was, first, the day our Frist Parents fell in the Garden and, second, Good Friday, yet another instance in which good means something substantially other than pleasant, competent, or kind. In Jesus, God Himself sought and gathered and rescued His sheep from the Satanic wolf by laying down His life unto death. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” By dying, He destroyed death and broke the wolf’s jaws so that now he is a toothless, wounded, defeated, but furious, dangerous, and still powerful enemy. No one took His life from Him – indeed, no one could possibly do that – but Jesus had authority from His Father to lay it down and authority to take it up again. Indeed, the Father loves Him because He laid down His life in love for His Father and for you.
This day in the Church’s Year of Grace is called Misericordias Domini, the merciful goodness of the LORD. No one made the LORD lay down His life for you. He did so because of who He is, not because of who you are. God is love. Love is sacrifice. And, God so loved you in this way: He died for you that you may live for Him and in Him, not for yourself. And, you honor, thank, praise, and obey Him by laying down your life in love for Him and for others. He promises, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Your pastor shepherds may be hirelings, they may be sinners themselves in need of mercy and forgiveness, but they are called and ordained by God through His Church for you and for your sake, that you may be fed and nourished, protected and defended from the attacks of the Satanic wolf and his demons. Follow where they lead you. Eat and drink what they feed you. Heed their warnings and exhortations, all the while listening for the voice of your Good Shepherd. They are called and placed under holy orders to care for you in the stead and by the command of Christ the Good Shepherd, and they will called to account for their shepherding.
However, you have a call as well: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.” You are called to suffer, to lay down your lives for others as Christ suffered and laid down His life for you. “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.” You are not to fight with the weapons of men and with violence, but remain steadfast in His Word and in the confession of Christ crucified and risen. This may very well mean maintaining the good confession before family members, neighbors, your employer, lawyers, judges, and people who will revile you and mock you and curse you and hate you, even fine, imprison, torture, or kill you. “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.” Truly, this world is still very dark and dangerous, and the Satanic wolf still prowls, but, do not be discouraged, and do not be afraid. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The earth is full of the merciful goodness of the LORD! “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love, that He may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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