All We Sheep Have Gone Astray
Easter 4B John 10:11-18
Easter 4 A,B,C John 10:1-10; 10:11-18; 10:22-30
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. It is better known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It has been Good Shepherd Sunday for centuries. For centuries, we have had reading about the Good Shepherd. For centuries, we have listened to the twenty-third psalm read on this day. For centuries we have sung a hymn such as “Savior Like A Shepherd Lead Us.” It is usually easy to find a theme or an anthem for a choir or a soloist on Good Shepherd Sunday. Usually on this day, the reading from the Gospel comes from John, chapter ten. We are a lectionary church and so we have designated readings for all Sundays, including Good Shepherd Sunday. In the readings for Good Shepherd Sunday, a preacher could focus on the good shepherd, the door into the sheepfold, or the sheep. The focus for today will not be on the good shepherd nor on the door to the sheepfold but today we will examine the Biblical image about sheep.
So focusing on sheep, the setting for today’s sermon grows out of two further Bible passages: The book of Isaiah says, 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on his servant the sins of us all.” The second Bible verse is from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus had been out in the countryside healing people of their illnesses. In chapter 8 and 9 of Matthew, the miracles are grouped together, and at the end of this section on miracles of healing, Jesus stood before that group of people who still were sick, who still were poor, maimed, blind and lame. Jesus looked on all of them, and I quote from the Gospel of Matthew 9:36: “I will have pity on them for these people are harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.”
In the sermon for today, I would like to compare us as human beings to sheep. I would like to focus on three characteristics that we human beings share with sheep, that we are like sheep without a shepherd.
The first is this: we human beings are vulnerable to the wolves of life. We know that our lives are essentially and intrinsically vulnerable to death, disease, and injury. We know that. We know that life is infinitely fragile and easily broken and hurt. Our lives are like beautiful dainty glass sculptures.
While on vacation one time, I was watching a glass blower. He was blowing this glass and started to make a glass plate. No, not a solid glass plate but he was making a glass plate that looked like a lacey spider web. He took a piece of molten glass; it was like a dot. He then took a fine instrument and started to pull the glass out of the dot and he wove it like a spider web. It was the most intricate thing that I had ever seen being made in my life. It seemed if you blew on it, it would disintegrate or shatter. As I watched him making this spidered glass plate, my mind flashed back years ago when I had been in Ireland, and there I had seen a beautiful glass plate, baleek China, Irish baleek. It was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen. I impulsively decided that I needed to buy it for my mother. I bought it for my mother and I foolishly mailed it back to Minnesota, and what arrived in the mail were a thousand beads of little glass.
And that is the way life is: infinitely, delicately fragile. Life is easily shattered and you know that. Suddenly, it is a car accident. Suddenly, it is cancer or another debilitating disease that strikes a person living in our home. Suddenly, the heart attack, the infection, the birth defect. Everything was going so well last week, and this week it has all changed. Yesterday was glorious and today is tragic. You and I know that. We are vulnerable to disease, accidents, and all kinds of disasters, enormous disasters, that suddenly shatter our lives with almost no warning.
We are not only vulnerable to the diseases and accidents but also to the vicissitudes of history, to the insanities of history. Before September 11th, all those people and families were living in relative peace in New York City. Suddenly, there was a terrorist attack and life was changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye for all the citizens of the United States. Before September 11th, the people were living somewhat peacefully in Afghanistan. September 11th there was a bombing and suddenly life in Afghanistan was changed.
A few years ago, the Kurds were living in peace in Iraq, and in a moment of historical time, a million people were pushed up against the mountains, driven like a herd of sheep, up into the snows of the mountains, being shot at like lambs being led to the slaughter. Who would have guessed about the insanity of history?
One time, I was visiting Weimar in Germany, Weimar the city of the German intellectual Faust, Weimar, the capital of the Weimer Republic before Germany. And above the hills behind Weimar, were the gas chambers of the German concentration camp named Buchenwald. We were at Buchenwalk and saw the gas chambers, the stacks of shoes, the piles of skulls, the baskets of teeth, from the Jews who were gassed in those insane moments of history.
To help the world remember the horror of that epoch in history, Elie Weisel wrote the book NIGHT. Elie Weisel had been taken from his home to Auschwitz and then to Treblinka, concentration camps, and he survived them both. The book, NIGHT, is about that night that his family was taken from their home. That night when he was taken to Auschwitz. That night when he was walking along in a men’s camp when he saw his little, blonde, six year old sister being and mother led into the gas chambers. That night when he gave up his belief in God. That night when he realized that life was even more fragile and vulnerable than he had thought. Not only to disease, but to the absolute insanity of history.
Or I think of the Gulag Archipelago, and Solzeneitzen, who chronicles a similar story in the Soviet Union, in the 1930s, where millions upon millions of Slavic people, perhaps 200 million, were being led like little lambs to the Gulag, being led to and burnt in the slaughtering houses of life. Yes, life is vulnerable. It is absolutely vulnerable to the insanities of history.
Today, in the insanities of our economic and social systems, millions upon millions of children are dying, like starving little lambs. Today itself, 40,000 children will die of starvation. 40,000 during the course of this day. And the past president of UNICEF said, “It is absolutely unconscionable that we allow 40,000 children to starve to death a day, when we have the means of preventing it.” Children being led to the slaughter.
We know that life is that way. Today, if you think that you are a fat lamb, and a fat sheep, and things are going well for you, you better knock on wood because tomorrow you may be slaughtered, along with your family and your own life. And if you don’t think it is possible, I don’t think I would let God know what you are thinking.
Life is nasty. On the edges and at the inner core. You too can be quickly led to that slaughtering house before you can blink your eye. So we know that. It is obvious. We are like sheep. We are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life and human history itself.
The first point of the sermon for today is that we are like sheep. We are vulnerable and life is very, very fragile, like the spider webbed glass china plate that I sent to my mother years ago, a china plates shattered into a million pieces of glass.
The second point is that sheep are rather dumb animals. Now, sheep are not dumb because they are so unintelligent, but sheep are dumb because they have such a strong herd instinct is stronger than their reasoning and intelligence. Human beings are compared to sheep. It is true that sheep are dumb animals and dumb due to their strong herd instincts. If one sheep goes over a cliff, the whole herd will go over the cliff as well. Do you know that is literally true? One sheep goes over the edge, and the whole herd will go over the edge of the cliff. That is literally true. Or do you know that if we took a pot of feed right here, and if the lead sheep did not eat from that pot of food, all the other sheep would die of starvation. I mean, sheep are dumb animals, but not because they are unintelligent, but because the herd instinct is so strong they follow the lead sheep and follow the flock. Their herd instinct is stronger than their intelligence. Likewise, we as human beings, often suffer when our herd instinct becomes stronger than our intelligence. We too follow the leader. We, too, follow the leader and follow the crowd. We think back only to Nazi Germany and how many intelligent people blindly followed the lead sheep and the pack of sheep. It has happened so often in human history. The most intelligent and educated among us often do not want to admit that their herd instinct is stronger than their intelligence.
I would like to play a game with you. You can play the same game and it is kind of fun. It is to think of illustrations in ourselves as human beings where our herd instinct overrules our intelligence. Some examples: early in the morning, driving to work, you often pass the school buses during the cold mornings of January and standing on the corner, waiting for the school bus, will be a group of older children, half of whom are wearing skimpy t-shirts, even though it is cold outside. Right? The herd instinct dominates over intelligence. Or, in Minnesota, on a cold winter morning, when women wore miniskirts. Dumb? Right. Or, how about those women who wear pointy shoes and four inch spikes and can barely walk. Dumb? Right. Or, how about those young men who wear spikes in their tongues and need to talk around the diamond in their mouth? Dumb? Wait until they look at pictures of themselves twenty years in the future, and as they look back at their old pictures and see the diamond stud in their mouth, they will say, dumb. Right. What I am suggesting is that sometimes the herd instinct is so strong in us as human beings that it overrules our intelligence and we do rather dumb things. Think of all the brilliant people who worked for Adolph Hitler and agreed with the intelligence behind is Aryan theories of the superiority of the white race. Think how many people in the southern states and in the northern states believed that blacks were/act intellectually inferior. Yes, the herd mentality affects the way we think.
We do the same thing with our values. Follow the logic. Today, in America, we have more abortions than live births. I wonder why? Today, in America, young women who get pregnant keep their babies, adoption agencies have closed down or are much smaller, and even if it would be better for the baby to be adopted and for even the mother, if the baby was adopted, she will keep the child. Why? That is what culture dictates right now. You love your baby only if you keep the child. Other examples. We all know that cancer causes smoking but our government still financial subsidizes the tobacco industry. We all know that the icebergs are melting and that we are experiencing global warming which will only get worse, but we still drive enormously large, gas guzzling cars, even if the environment is destroyed. We all know that our prisons have the highest population rate in our history and that the United States has more prisoners incarcerated than any other nation except South Africa, yet we still accept a high degree of violence on our television sets, this TV violence contributing to a violent society. We all know that
illicit sexuality is rampant in our society but we condone glamorization of sexual infidelity in our media. The fundamental principle is true: we human beings are like sheep and in sheep, the herd instinct is so strong that it often overrules our intelligence and rationality.
A third characteristic of sheep is that they wander away from their shepherd and likewise with human beings, we wander away from God and do not fully realize what we are doing. I know very few human beings who say: “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in Christ. I renounce God and Christianity and therefore I am a new direction with my life.” That type of behavior rarely happens. Instead, human beings drift away from God, drift away from Christ, ever so slowly, losing the closeness and deep faith that they once had. And someday, after months or years, they wake up and say, “Where is God? Where is Christ? What happened to the faith that I once had so many years ago?” What I am suggesting is that we human beings are like sheep and we wander away from God.
A four characteristic of sheep is not only are we vulnerable to the wolves of life and not only are we herd animals who follow the crowd, but we human beings do not have strong homing instincts. When sheep get lost, they do not find their way home. Now, if you are a dog living in Montana, you can place a dog twenty or thirty miles from his home in Montana and that dog will find its way home. A dog has a very strong homing instinct. A sheep has absolutely none. A sheep when it is lost, does not find its way back home. So somebody has to go out and find that sheep and bring them back.
And so it is with the church. When people, like sheep, get lost, we need to go and find those people who are lost. That is why in the church we are called, “one, holy, catholic, and APOSTOLIC church.” And you underline the word, apostolic because the word, apostolic, means sent. We are sent out into the world to find all those sheep out there who are lost, who are being eaten up by the wolves and coyotes of life. These lost sheep are not going to find their way back. We Christians are a sent people. We are a shepherd people.
And one of the great deceptions of life and one of the great pretenses of life, is that we are not sheep. I am a strong, self reliant male man, a strong self reliant woman. I can control my life and destiny. I am not a sheep. One of the great illusions of life is not to acknowledge our true identity.
So…knowing that we human beings are like sheep without a shepherd, what does God do? For sake of the argument, agree with me momentarily that we human beings are like sheep. Then, if we are like sheep, what do we need more than anything else in the world? Water? Food? Protection? No, we need a good shepherd who will provide for us water, food and protection. We, as sheep, won’t find our own food, water and protection. If we are sheep, the greatest need for us is to have a shepherd.
God provided a shepherd for us in the person of Jesus Christ. We human beings are sheep and what we need most is a shepherd and that shepherd is Jesus Christ.
A personal relationship is formed between the good shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd knows the name of the sheep and Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, knows your name. Christ knows you personally, your name and the sound of your voice.
We often hear that we Christians are to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and sometimes, that begins to sound like a cliché. But there is a truth to the metaphor, to the description that Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep, and that there is a personal relationship between us. God wants us to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, our good shepherd.
And where does Jesus, our good shepherd, lead us? To green pastures and still water. The green pastures are the food that God provides for us; that is, the Bible, the Word, the Sacraments. We nourish and are nourished by the spiritual sustenance of the green pastures. Jesus also leads us to still waters and the still waters represent the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. So we Christians are led to the Word and the Waters of the Spirit by the good shepherd who provides food for our souls.
The good shepherd, Jesus, also leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name sake. I have always understood the word righteousness; that God leads us into right relationships, but I never could grasp what “for his name sake” meant. Finally, after years of thinking about this, I finally got it. I finally understood. “For his name sake” means the Powerful Presence of God. Name means Powerful Presence. Christ leads us into right relationships that please the Powerful Presence of God. There are relationships that please God: relationships with Christ, with our spouse, with our children, our grandchildren, our friends, our enemies. There are relationships that please the Presence of God. And there are relationships that don’t. Christ, our good shepherd, leads us into relationships that please God.
The last place that the good shepherd leads us is to the cross where it all becomes very strange. That is, the shepherd becomes the sheep, the lamb of God, who is led to the slaughter and he is killed on our behalf and his blood cleanses us from all sin. It is all so very strange to the mind that the good shepherd leads us to the cross only to become a lamb and be sacrificed for our sin.
And so I end the sermon with one basic question, a very important question. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the good shepherd?” Amen.
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