Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sermon: Misericordias Domini (Easter 3)

26 April 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 10:11-16 (Ezek 34:11-16, 1 Pet 2:21-25)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

It is a humbling thing to be called “sheep.” Sheep are flocking animals, they are gentle, they are vegetarian, they are tame and domesticated, and they rely on shepherds to lead them.

How different than the American ideal! For according to secular standards, we’re a proud people that revels in being self-sufficient, go-getter, tough-as-nails, red-meat-eating, sky’s-the-limit-type individualists. Our national symbol is, after all, the eagle.

Eagles and sheep don’t have a lot in common.

And yet, we Christians are routinely called “sheep.” Hardly a funeral goes by where we don’t recite: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Isaiah says “we all like sheep have gone astray.” Ezekiel compares God’s people to sheep: “Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” St. John records our Lord’s words: “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” That would be us.

God does not call us lions, eagles, bears, tigers, or any other strong and mighty creatures that we tend to name our sports teams after. Instead, He calls us sheep.

Sheep cannot defend themselves. Sheep are prey for the predator. Sheep need to stay in a flock for safety. Sheep need a leader to make decisions for them. Sheep need a benefactor who will lay down his life in order to protect them. Sheep need grass and water. Sheep need a safe place to raise their families. Sheep need a loving shepherd who really cares about them – not a hired-hand or agri-businessman only looking to make a buck off of them.

And indeed, the Lord is our Shepherd! The prophet Ezekiel tells us of the work of our Good Shepherd: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep.” God Himself promises to be “among His sheep” – in order to gather them to safety. And our Lord goes even further, as the Shepherd becomes a Lamb in the course of his ministry as the Shepherd. Or as worded in the poetry of the hymnist: “The Lamb the sheep has ransomed: Christ, who only is sinless.”

The prophet continues: “I will seek out my sheep… I will rescue them…. I will bring them out from the peoples…. I will feed them…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down…. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”

For we, the sheep, always get into trouble. We always stray and wander. We always delude ourselves into thinking that we are safe from the wolf and the lion. Hear the Word of St. Peter: “You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

And of course Ezekiel and Peter have the same Shepherd in mind, God Himself, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the one and only One who can say: “I am the Good Shepherd.” For Jesus Christ is indeed the Lamb who has ransomed the sheep, the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls who lays down His life by taking up His cross.

The hireling sees trouble and flees. But by contrast, the Good Shepherd sees the attacker and fights, absorbing the blows Himself rather than see His beloved sheep devoured. The hireling sacrifices the sheep to save his own life. But our Blessed Lord becomes a sacrifice for our very lives. The hireling “cares nothing for the sheep.” But our Lord indeed cares for us. He is the One who loves us perfectly and selflessly. “For God so loved the world,” as the One who loved us and gave Himself for us testifies in His own Words.

Our Good Shepherd knows us, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. He knows us. And He knows the Father. We are not random pieces of cosmic matter and happenstance chemical reactions of carbon. We are the very sheep of His flock, under His care and protection, the ones for whom He lays down His life.

This is far more comfort than if our Lord puffed up our egos by telling us we were all eagles and lions, aggressive predators and the kinds of creatures who survive by killing others. Of course, those who live by the sword also die by the sword. The predator often becomes prey. The aggressive animals in the wild have no shepherd to watch over them, care for them, and even die for them. We sheep, though despised by the world, and maybe even a little ashamed of ourselves for being sheep, have the greatest life of all.

For we have a Shepherd. And not just a Shepherd, but a Good Shepherd. And not just a Good Shepherd, but “the” Good Shepherd: God in the very flesh who leads us to green pastures and still waters. We have a Shepherd who is also the Overseer of our souls.

What comfort that we have God Himself watching over us!

Our Creator is also our Redeemer. Moreover, He is our Protector. He gathers the sheep of His flock into a gathering, into an assembly, into a Church. And in the safety of the Church, he waters us with Baptism, He feeds us with Holy Communion, and he calls us by name, absolving us, proclaiming the Good News to us, giving us the very Words of Scripture that proclaim Him to be our Shepherd – week after week as the sheep gather here in this sheepfold, we who know His name, the name into which we have been baptized, the name into which we gather again and again: the name of the Holy Trinity.

And He knows all of us by name, not merely as a conglomerated flock, but as individuals who have been baptized one by one into the flock, as distinct creatures who were made for a specific purpose.

And no, we have not been created to chase down weak animals and devour them, and we have not been designed to soar above the clouds seeking smaller creatures to attack and eat, and we were not made to be hunting machines with lightning-fast reflexes and keen killer instincts. On our own, we are helpless. But as the Psalmist reminds us: “Our help is in the name of the Lord.” On our own, we are weak. But as the apostle reminds us, when we are weak, we are strong. And our voices are not impressive roars or fearsome calls. No indeed. For we are sheep, peaceful creatures who graze and bleat softly and gratefully, as we gaze upon our good, kindly, and loving Shepherd.

And as the hymnist reminds us, our Good Shepherd bids us to pray:

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;

Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise

Within Thy house forever!


Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.


Daniel said...

I like the Icon. Which Tradition came up with such Beauty?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Daniel:

My guess (judging by the use of Greek on the icon): Greek Orthodox.