Fourth Sunday of Easter  /  May 3, 2009  /  Rev. Carol Kniseley  /  The Good Shepherd

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter…and because we are still in the season of Easter…we find ourselves once again turning to the Gospel of John.    All because John’s Gospel, more than any other, seems to be obsessed with sheep…and now Shepherds in particular.     What we may or may not realize, is that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is not just any ordinary Sunday.   It is always set apart as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday...especially during the season of Easter…and for one very good reason.    John is apparently not the only one obsessed with sheep and Shepherds these days.   God is.  And it is his Son who lays claim to the title of being the one and only Good Shepherd of the sheep.

Beginning at verse 11, Jesus says:  ‘I am the good shepherd.   The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’   That alone is what makes him good, according to John…his willingness to get involved and not just stand on the sidelines, to even risk his life for the life of his flock.    Notice I said: his flock…and not somebody else’s.    Our lesson today speaks of hired hands…those who for a fee are willing to at least look after the sheep.  And yet, as soon as conflict of any kind raises it’s ugly head, you can bet that the hired hand is not about to stand around and protect the sheep.    According to Jesus, the hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  

I tell you, this business of caring for the sheep, is one that seems to strike a personal chord with God.   If we take a moment to look back to the time of the prophets, and particularly to the time of Ezekiel, we will discover a God who does not take lightly the mistreatment of his flock.    According to Ezekiel, chapter 34, the “shepherds” appointed by God had failed miserably in taking care of the people of Israel.     Reading from verses 4 and 5 we hear:

‘You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.    You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered…because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.’   

By the end of this same chapter, God makes two very important promises…that are still enforce today:

Promise #1: He himself will come and be the shepherd of his sheep (passing judgment on ‘false shepherds’ and where appropriate, even on his sheep).

Promise #2:  He will appoint a new shepherd over his flock…and (quote): ‘he will tend them and be their shepherd.    I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them.’

For me, the artwork on today’s bulletin cover says it all.   Notice that the one standing between the wolf and the sheep is none other than Prince of Peace himself.      From the way he is securely holding the lamb…with both feet planted firmly on the ground…can there be any doubt that ‘the good shepherd’ has no intention of running away and leaving the sheep to fend for itself. 

Perhaps that insight in itself explains why from the very beginning of the church, no picture was more dear than that of Jesus, the good shepherd.      He came…as a personification of the very shepherd who is portrayed in Psalm 23, which reads:

‘The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want.’

and in Isaiah 40, verse 11, which reads:

        ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.’

And again, from Luke chapter 15, who can forget the image of the good shepherd who will not be content with the 99 sheep who are safe…until he has gone out and found the only one who was lost.    As nice as all of these images are…there is still one more that we need to consider here today…especially on this Fourth Sunday of Easter.    

The image…of the good shepherd…who lays down his life for the sheep.    Reading from Isaiah 53, beginning at verse 5 (and I quote):

‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace…was upon him, and by his wounds…we are healed.      We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;  he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers is silent…so he did not open his mouth.’

According to the Gospel of John, the good shepherd…is also the Lamb of God.    The difference, then, between Jesus and all the other shepherds who have gone before is this one simple fact:  his willingness…to die…for the sheep.     That is “the” difference between one who is merely a hired hand…and one who truly loves the sheep.     If I were to ask each one of us to think of at least one person we’d be willing to die for…how many of you would immediately say ‘one of your children’?     Is it any wonder then, really…that when God was asked the same question…he not only responded with an answer, he delivered it in person.     That, dear friends in Christ, is why he alone is called the good shepherd of all the sheep…no matter where they may be.       Amen