Sheep, the Good Shepherd, and Promises

The following is the majority of the sermon that I preached at Messiah Lutheran Church this weekend based on the readings for Easter 4C, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The readings included: Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30. I did something I don’t usually do when preaching, breaking into a couple short Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and/or camp songs. Special thanks goes to Allison for inspiring me to break into song, and to Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis‘ “Craft of Preaching” post which helped me frame my thoughts this week. 

“I just want to be a sheep, ba, ba, ba, ba; I just want to be a sheep, ba, ba, ba, ba; And I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I just want to be a sheep, ba, ba, ba, ba.”

The Rose Window inside the Tower Chapel at Pacific Lutheran University. At the center of the window is a depiction of the Lamb who becomes the Good Shepherd. This room and window holds a special place in my heart, as a PLU alum. It is the space in which I asked Allison to marry me... the rest is history.
Check out the beauty of the Rose Window from the inside of the Tower Chapel at Pacific Lutheran University. At the center of the window is a depiction of the Lamb who becomes the Good Shepherd. This room and window holds a special place in my heart, as a PLU alum. It is also the space in which I asked Allison to marry me… the rest is history.

If you don’t recognize it, that’s a popular camp, Vacation Bible School, and Sunday School song which seems appropriate when you think of what it means to be a sheep, and have a shepherd.

Jesus the Good Shepherd, it’s one of the most familiar images we have of Christ. It’s a true comfort to know that God promises to be with us, knows us personally by name, and calls to each and every one of us. It’s a comfort to know in this Easter season that the Resurrection itself, the gift and promise of eternal life, is that very act by which the Good Shepherd says I will go to the ends of the earth, the ends of the universe, the ends of life itself, for you.

One of my seminary friends and professors wrote this week that the image of the Good Shepherd during Easter, allows us to understand the “Resurrection as Protection.” She wrote that, “The empty tomb is a promise of protection. Not from the truth of life, but for the sake of the truth of your life.”

The tomb doesn’t replace the pains or challenges of life, but it reminds us that death does not have the final say, and that even in the midst of the “valley of the shadow of death,” we shall fear no evil because God, the Good Shepherd is with us.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been an interesting few weeks for me since Easter Sunday. There’s been some traveling, and some much needed rest and relaxation time. There’s been new experiences like this past week meeting with the different faith leaders involved with Compassion Ridgefield, hearing some of their stories, glimpses of miracles and God’s promises in action, as well as their hopes to continue to serve and grow as God is leading and calling that great ministry to do.

There was a day of teaching and hanging out with just about every different generation there is, as on Wednesday I spent time with the preschoolers in chapel singing, “Hallelujah.. Praise Ye the Lord,” and then later in the morning with a great group of adults pondering Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain,” in the gospel of Luke, and I capped off the day leading confirmation in thinking about money, faith, and stewardship. Those were just a couple experiences of this crazy, but wonderful past week.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.”

It’s been an interesting few weeks too, because I have a confession to make… I didn’t sit down to start writing this sermon until Thursday afternoon.

Now that might be normal for most pastors, but that’s anything but normal for me. It felt like I was procrastinating, but at the same time, I don’t know when I would have written this sermon, nor would I have changed any of the great ministry experiences I had over the course of the past week or two.

Jesus the Good Shepherd
Jesus the Good Shepherd

I wanted to sit down and have the time to dig in and find something brilliant to say about Jesus the Good Shepherd. I wanted to remember some great story of beautiful still waters, like those of the creek and pond in the woods behind my parents’ house where I grew up. I wanted… But it’s been an interesting few weeks, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

There have been visitors. Good questions. Prayer concerns. Trials and challenges of the deepest nature of life. Those moments where we really cling to the promises of Psalm 23, and the reminder from today’s gospel that God gives us eternal life, and that we will never perish. In a nutshell, the past few weeks have been real life, and I suspect you have had some days feeling like that too.

I have been caught this week, by the start of Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or “I shall not be in want…” What an interesting and down-right counter to human nature expression and exclamation. “I shall not want.”

The stewardship implications are rich. Trusting in God and God’s abundance, and not focusing on our own desires.

The life implications, of choices, decisions, and ideas are many- The desire to be in control or have things go as you want them to; And the desire for change, or the “if only I would have known,” or the “what if’s…” There’s plenty of those too. All of these ideas and more come to mind when being confronted by the psalmist when declaring, “I shall not want…” And perhaps confessing how often we give in to those wants is important.

But then there’s the rest of the Psalm and the good news in this week’s gospel reminder from John. We are who we are, just the way God created us to be. That goes for you, and it goes for me. God loves you for who you are, and needs you to be who you are. This goes for times when we’re so busy we feel like we can’t sit down and do necessarily what we want to do at that moment. That goes for times when we love what we are doing, and are confident or proud of our results.

That goes for times when we are bogged down with the questions of “what if,” the challenges of self-doubt, and the voice in our heads that might say, “you aren’t good enough,” or “you don’t know.”

Those messages aren’t of God. God’s message for you is this:

“You are one of my sheep. You, beautiful, joyful, dancing, mourning, grieving, wondering, questioning, doubting, and faithful, you are indeed one of my sheep. And there is nothing- no one, not a thing, no terrible story in the news, no ruler, no leader, no politician, no institution or organization, and no church that can change that. Because you are one of my sheep, and I know you. You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Maybe that’s a message I needed to hear earlier this week when I worried about not having time to write a good enough sermon. Maybe that’s the message you needed to hear as you quickly ran through the drive through lane while trying to get your kids from school to baseball practice, or as your mind raced from project to project, or meeting to meeting.

You are one of the sheep.
You are one of the sheep.

When I hear these words this week, I am drawn back to the loving memories of my grandpas, and their funerals. I am also drawn back to harder times of high school, when over the course of a year, four of my class mates lost their lives to suicide and mental illness.

Of all the periods in my life, that’s when I learned more than any other, how true my Grandpa who also happened to be a pastor’s words were when he often told me “a sermon without grace, isn’t a sermon at all. People need to know that they are loved just because of who they are.”

And that’s what I think is at the heart of the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. As John the writer of Revelation declares, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes.”

“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

That’s a promise. That’s a deep love, the love a shepherd has for all of his or her sheep. And that’s a promise, and love for you, made possible through the work of the cross and the resurrection that you can’t do anything about, but embrace it and live and serve joyfully in the knowledge of it, and thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Image Credit: PLU Rose Window; “Jesus the Good Shepherd“; and Sheep.

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