"You’re a Sheep with a Trustworthy Shepherd"
Today’s Gospel lesson brings up two questions that I’d like us to ponder. What does it mean to be a sheep? How on earth do I make sure that I am one?
The imagery of our lesson is familiar. We know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we, the Church, are His flock. And usually sheep are associated with the lost, with the wandering, with those caught under a rock and those limping who need to be carried. Sheep need a shepherd. They can’t really find good pastures on their own and water that moves more than a trickle terrifies them, so without the care of the shepherd they end up hungry, thirsty, and all too often in the jaws of the wolf.
So being a sheep isn’t flattering, yet because we are the sheep of Christ, we may find comfort and solace in this identity.
Yet this isn’t what Jesus focusses on in the reading today. He doesn’t focus on the sheep’s needs and weaknesses. He focusses on what sheep do no matter what situation they find themselves in.
They listen to the voice of their shepherd. They are known by Him. And they follow Him.
In the pasture, this imagery is pretty easy to put in out minds. Gentle, stupid creatures eat until a voice cries out, calling to them who the shepherd knows and cares for, and then they eventually pick up their head and move towards Him.
For you and me, we might do these three things—listen, be known, and follow, yet we are constantly acting with the other characteristics of the sheep—wandering, finding danger, acting out.
For us, we have His Word so that we can listen. He speaks it to us in Scripture as He places forth the demands of His creation, His Law, and constantly reminds us of His promises—His Gospel. His Word is ever before us, which is wonderful because we couldn’t really hear Him clearly without it. How well we listen to it is another question entirely. Because the world is shouting so loudly it can be hard to listen to Christ in the midst of the noise, and even when we do hear, the devil and even our own sinful selves can get in the way. In one ear we hear a whisper that our sin isn’t so bad, and we like to hear that. Then in the other ear we hear that God can’t forgive that great sin, so we doubt God’s promises…We really aren’t great at listening.
But being known by Him, we know that we are known by Him because He created us and sustains the world as it travels around the Sun. So certainly He knows when we wake up and when we sleep, when we work and when we travel, when we play and when we read, when we love and when we…sin. When we grumble and when we curse. Oh. Though I know God knows me, I’m not entirely sure I like that. Certainly it’s nice that He sees me and can take care of me, but if He would turn away when I’m not in my best moments that would be nice.
And following a Shepherd, our God, when we only listen to Him with selective hearing and only want Him to know us so well, you can bet this following bit doesn’t go so great. We, like sheep, find ourselves lost in the wilderness of this world, we find ourselves stuck in the snare of sins, drinking from muddy puddles because that’s all we can find and we end up famished, yearning for the good food from our Good Lord. And all this is if danger hasn’t cornered us and eaten us up.
So. What does it mean to be a sheep? If sheep listen to their shepherd, if they are known by Him, and if they follow Him, and yet if we the church don’t do that terribly well, what does that mean for us? Are we not sheep? How can I become a sheep if I can’t get these down?
Jesus, in John’s Gospel, does not say that these are the requirements of clothing yourself in wool and walking around on all fours, nibbling at grass. When we look at the text, what is the difference between the Jews who Jesus says are not a part of the flock and thus are not sheep, and those who are in the flock?
The only difference is the question of Jesus as the Christ. Those outside the flock do not know that Jesus is the anointed one, sent to save all of creation. Those in the flock have heard this and believe it, and so they listen, are known, and follow, because of who Christ is and what He has done for them.
So the three descriptors of sheep are not must-dos in order to get in, but instead they are get-tos. They are privileges that we have, gifts that only we can receive, they are things that simply happen in us because trust has been instilled into our very being as faith was gifted to us. Sheep just listen to their shepherd even when they have strayed, as we do. They are known by Him as He cares for all their needs, and therefore, knowing His good Word and His good care, they can follow even through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that everything is going to be okay because the shepherd is here. Without faith that Jesus is the Christ, we cannot listen to His voice—we hear only condemnation or a fairy tale. And we don’t want to be known because we don’t want to be condemned, and we certainly don’t follow because, well, if God exists, and if we can’t live up to a standard, then we are just going to be cast aside. But those who know that Jesus is the Christ have heard that all is already accomplished; they simply get to live in Christ’s care.
Okay. So how do I become a sheep? How can I be sure that I am a sheep and not a goat trying my best to listen and be known and follow in order that I might earn my way into the sheepfold?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the fact that you are here, whether begrudgingly or joyfully, means that the Lord has spoken to you and called you. Now certainly He did that to the Jews as well and Jesus said that they are not part of His flock, but He never said that there is no room for them. It’s not as though they would never be sheep, but instead they haven’t yet been transformed into sheep. He is mourning over their unbelief and indeed is working towards their salvation. His words of rejection would certainly welcome the response of repentance and trust! He has set forth signs in order to prove to them—to you—His Christ-identity, to give to them the salvation that is theirs. He wants them to have the belief that makes someone a sheep.
And so you, even if you sit here in unbelief, as honestly we all do to some extent, know that Christ is speaking words of sheep transformation to you today right now. Through the nagging of Fathers and mothers to come to church—happy mothers day, by the way!—through the invitation of friends to go to a service, through the pricking of guilt and the thought that maybe church might help, through a bible passage you read in some poem in high school or the example set by some Christian co-worker, the shepherd has been seeking you out in order to make you one of His sheep, that you would be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, in His good pasture, unto all eternity. In the Shepherd’s hands, death cannot touch you.
And this, my dear and fellow sheep, is what sheep trust and do. We come to the miniature pasture here where we hear His Word anew and are refreshed—we listen. Here we are known, both as we confess our sin and as we are made righteous. Here we are fed and watered, and from here we follow our shepherd, to all the other creatures to share this Good Word of our Good shepherd. This is church! In the proclamation of the Word of God, in the forgiveness of the absolution following your confession, in remembrance of our baptism and in the reception of communion, we are constantly re-sheeped, called and carried back, bound up, held. Today you have heard the voice of your shepherd, who bled and died to protect you, His dear flock. Today, you may be sure that you are a sheep in His Holy Pasture, and His strong hands will never be letting go of you, not even until the end of eternity.
And yet Christ, the pure and holy sacrifice, the unblemished sheep, did not just die for us. We are not the end of the Church, as if the pasture is full, as if no one else should be among us—quick, lock the door! No, we who have heard the good news of Jesus the Christ, saviour and shepherd of all, we have been known by God in Christ’s righteousness so now we follow. To our kids, to our neighbours, to strangers on the streets or even people we meet online. We follow knowing that our shepherd is right there with us, and we can in confidence proclaim His Gospel in words and actions, hoping that some will listen and be sheep-ified, that the Spirit would continue doing His work to enlarge the pasture, all for the sake of Christ our Lord.
Hear once more the good news of your shepherd, of the sheep who was slain in your place that you might be among His chosen. Your sins are forgiven. Yes, even that one that you can’t get out of your mind. Christ knows it all, your doubts, your weaknesses, your sinful tendencies, all of it. Yet He hasn’t fled the scene at the knowledge of all you are but instead has chosen to redeem you, to wipe away your guilt and shame and give you life. And He has chased you down to proclaim His life-giving words to you. And so today, tomorrow, and every day until you die, hear His words and follow Him where He leads, whether it is to the table to receive His grace or to your neighbour to share it. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are not alone. You are loved, and you have eternal life. You rest in His hands, the hands of God the Father and Christ His Son and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. And no one will ever be able to snatch you from your Shepherd.