May 12, 2019 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 10:22–10:30, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9–7:17
Fourth Sunday of Easter[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
John 10:22-30; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9–17
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is frequently known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” around congregations such as ours that use the three-year lectionary cycle for worship. Four weeks into the season of Easter, the readings from God’s Word we hear on this weekend speak of the one who takes care of his sheep, his flock. Each year, we get to join in speaking the words of Psalm 23, maybe one of the best-known passages in all the Bible, proclaiming “The Lord is my shepherd…” And that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Most of us are pretty disconnected from what it meant to be a shepherd in the ancient Near East. Is it, indeed, a good thing? What does it even mean?
The image before you is The Good Shepherd. Decades ago, my congregation’s Sunday School gave students a gift to take home with us: a small, framed reproduction of this painting. Since then, this has become one of my favorite depictions of Jesus; I hung it on the wall of my bedroom growing up. The original painting is the work of artist Robert Hook (1914-1975). He and his wife, Frances, also an artist, created numerous pieces of sacred commercial art over the years, many of which were commissioned by Concordia Publishing House – including The Good Shepherd. Here, we have an image Jesus as that shepherd we hear about on Good Shepherd Sunday, a dynamic figure who brings his flock through the valley, protecting them without rod and staff, even carrying them along on his shoulders.
In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we hear the voices of the chief priests and Pharisees. They want Jesus to tell them if he’s the one who God was going to send to deliver His people. Answering them, Jesus reveals that they’ve already heard the answer – but they refuse to believe it. He is that good shepherd who would protect his flock, bringing them through the valley to the life that his Father has for them to enjoy. He is the good shepherd who would even lay down his life for the sheep.
The world can be a scary place, the valley of the shadow of death – or if you want to be more literal with the original Hebrew, “the valley of deepest darkness.” By all rights, you should be afraid each day of all the things that are wrong with our world. Even in these past weeks, we’ve heard of more school shootings in our nation, of chaos in Venezuela where people are starving and dying amidst government turmoil. We have friends and loved ones who are coping with serious injuries and illnesses, including those who are battling cancer right now; you may have even lost some of them to death. What are you going to do about it? What can you do about it, really? You and I need a good shepherd who will lead us through this scary world, who will keep us in his care, no matter what.
We’re entering the fourth week of Easter. Why do we still proclaim Easter, weeks on? In part, it’s because this time in the church year reflects those weeks Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven. But I think the greater reason is that we need to be reminded of the truth of Easter: Jesus is the good shepherd who lives, for you.
Sheep have this tendency to go wandering off. They can be kind of dense, thinking only about what’s right in front of them. They scare pretty easily. It’s kind of telling, then, that the Bible often refers to God’s people as his “flock.”
God gives us great gifts as He gathers us together around the cross and empty tomb in worship, but we let other things take priority in our lives. Jesus promises us that nothing can snatch us out of his hand, but we focus on the parts of life that scare us and fail to listen to his voice. We need a good shepherd to lead us through this world of fear. We need the one who calls us back to be refreshed and renewed in his life-giving Word. We need the Lamb who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, keeping us through suffering, illness, and even death. We need a good shepherd to guard us as his flock. And we have him.
You are Jesus’ flock. He is the Lamb who was slain and who now lives as the shepherd in our midst. This season of Easter is a reminder that Jesus keeps his promise to you. He has brought you together under his care and keeping. And as you grow in the life that he gives, he strengthens you against the fear that our enemy, the devil, seeks to work in your heart.
In the Lutheran Service Book hymnal, the editors needed to number one of the hymns as “666.” Elsewhere in the book of Revelation, that number is the “number of the beast,” representing complete imperfection. People have grown to fear this number, thinking it somehow intrinsically connected to the devil. The editors of LSB wisely chose this this hymn to fill that spot: “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe.” Here’s how it goes:
O little flock, fear not the foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow;
Dread not his rage and pow’r.
And though your courage sometimes faints,
His seeming triumph o’er God’s saints
Lasts but a little hour.
Be of good cheer; your cause belongs
To Him who can avenge your wrongs;
Leave it to Him, our Lord.
Though hidden yet from mortal eyes,
His Gideon shall for you arise,
Uphold you and His Word.
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew
Against us shall prevail.
Their might? A joke, a mere facade!
God is with us and we with God—
Our vict’ry cannot fail.
Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer;
Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare,
Fight for us once again!
So shall Thy saints and martyrs raise
A mighty chorus to Thy praise
You have a good shepherd in Christ, the one who keeps his flock. Hear his voice, and know that nothing in all the world, seen or unseen, can steal you away from his care. He knows you by name, and nothing will ever change that.
As God’s flock on this weekend when our nation celebrates Mother’s Day, remember and pray for families and homes here and around our world. Celebrate with those who recently gave birth to their first child. Mourn with those who lost a child or experienced miscarriage. Rejoice with those who are pregnant and waiting with anticipation for the future. Stand with those who have known failed adoptions or the hardships of infertility. Encourage those who are raising children –their own or those entrusted to their care – that they may continue to point these lambs to their shepherd, Jesus. Comfort those who have lost mothers or who have had broken relationships with their mother that they know the healing that Christ brings his flock. No matter how many people live in it, every home needs that abundant life that Jesus freely gives.
We still proclaim Easter this weekend and in all the weeks ahead because this world of fear needs a good shepherd. This is the truth of Easter: Jesus is the good shepherd who lives, for you.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
[i] Passage for memory:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” – John 10:27-28