Fourth Sunday in Easter
April 22, 2018
St. Jacob’s and Trinity Lutheran Churches
Rev. Kirk Shipley, Interim Pastor
Having been a watcher of westerns I am glad I had a few opportunities to play cowboy for real at a roundup-branding and a few brandings. Overall the experiences went rather well. I found the work interesting and generally enjoyable. Though I am glad I do not have to weather some of the attending smells on a daily basis.
One of the most interesting observations for me was noticing how the calves and cows call to each other at the end of the vaccinating and marking. Each cow and each calf knew each other’s voices. In a surprisingly short time, say within a half hour, most of the calves were reunited with the one who takes care of them, nourishes them, and provides some protection. In this morning’s gospel Jesus compares us to livestock that knows its shepherd’s voice, sheep.
At first blush this is not a flattering comparison. It is true lambs are cute and the adults can have interesting faces. But they are not the brightest of animals. Their herd instinct can be described as a bit crazy. If they are moving and one jumps over the shadow of an overhanging branch, the sheep right behind also jump over the shadow of the overhanging branch.
But sheep do know their masters voice. On one of our excursions Linda and I stopped to observe a sheep herd and the dogs protecting them. We walked to close to the fence and a couple of the dogs barked and then snarled. The owner came by and figured out we were harmless. She shared stories how they would hear her and follow her around. Once she had had to bottle feed in their early lamb hood would hear her and come up to greet her like a pet dog. They had a great relation with one another. She could make like a Palestinian shepherd leading the sheep, which is far different scene from driving cattle or other herd animals.
It is that aspect that Jesus emphasizes. We are his sheep who follow his voice. There is something about him that tells us we are his sheep and he is our shepherd.
The attraction is real. Once when traveling on a break I stopped at a former Navy supervisor’s home. He was off early Sunday morning, when I awoke his wife was watching Robert Schuller. He was sharing how every Easter they did a spectacular Glory of Easter program. One year they were giving passes to youth at a California Juvenile Detention Facility. They had been alerted to be aware of one young woman could be a very difficult behavior problem. They offered her a pass which she accepted.
She was transfixed on the play. They end that play with Jesus Ascension. After Jesus ascended she looked up and said “I want to meet that man.” They thought she wanted to meet the actor and said they could arrange that after he cleaned up and changed into his clothes. She responded, “No I want to meet Jesus.” She knew that Jesus was different from anyone she had encountered in life. She saw Jesus is the Good Shepherd who willingly pays the ultimate price that his sheep might have life.
Jesus was quite accurate when contrasting himself with the hired non-owner shepherd. While most were probably diligent, enough fit into our Lord’s description of shepherds who would abandon their posts if a threat like a wolf made an appearance. We hate to admit it but aspects of that behavior are understandable. A person might be willing to be wounded or hurt driving the wolves away, but who wants to die for an animal that is not theirs, or maybe even those which are. We may go to the mat for a family member, friend, or in defending our homes, but make the person an unrelated person in the neighborhood, or on the other side of town and it becomes more difficult to risk oneself on their behalf. Conditions surrounding hired shepherds in Jesus day went further than that in dereliction of duty. There were laws forbidding purchasing sheep from hired men on the assumption they were the owner’s agents, because enough had sold sheep that they were hired to watch over as their own, thus gaining cash while reducing the owner’s flock.
This opprobrium also applied to some of the religious leaders who were shepherds over the people’s spiritual welfare. One example is in the book of 1 Samuel. Eli was the priest the boy Samuel was entrusted to raise as servant of God. Eli was a good priest during his active service. However his sons were not. They saw their position as tickets to the good life. They saw the people as existing to serve them. They lived the good life off the people’s offerings and animals brought for sacrifice, rather than using the majority as prescribed by God’s laws.
The great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote of broader malfeasance in office of prophets, priests, and other rulers in the last decades of the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah. Isaiah 56:10-`2: “Israel’s sentinels are blind, they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs that cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all. ‘Come,’ they say, ‘let us get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink. And tomorrow will be like today, great beyond measure.’” Jeremiah 23:9-11: “Concerning the prophet: My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake; I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his words. For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course has been evil, and their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found wickedness, says the Lord.”
Being everything such shepherds were not sets Jesus apart. He performs like no other shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd who stands by his flock and before all powers earthly and demonic. Jesus goes through Maundy Thursday betrayal and Good Friday execution that into Easter Resurrection that we might know he knows and can see us through the bad in life, bring more joy in the good in life, companion us in living as agents of his love, and providing eternal reward before God in the heavenly courts and the world to come. Only Jesus the Good Shepherd has done so much for so many and continues doing so.
While some aspects of sheep are not flattering to us, we can learn from them to tune into our master’s voice. We can do no better than following the Good Shepherd promised and provided by God, our Savior, Teacher, combined friend and lord, Jesus. Amen.