True Sheep of His Flock

True Sheep of His Flock

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Three weeks ago, overwhelmed by the Lord’s grace, love, and mercy, what began with the rescuing thunder of Easter Day moved into the great Fifty Days which follow. How consciously have you thought about the resurrection since then, other than while sitting here in church? Does the wonder and power of it ever enter your mind at times apart from being prompted to do so? I hope and pray that because of the grace, love, and mercy shown to you, the Son’s crucifixion and resurrection have continued to roll through your lives at least on a daily basis.

Admittedly, the lives and minds and hearts which have Christ’s atoning death and His miraculous return to life in their forefronts may be in the overwhelming minority of our nation, culture, and world. But even such lives as recognize and trust in the reality of our rescue in Jesus are constantly being distracted as the shiny, sparkly things of the world’s false gods work temptation on us.

Still, those rescued lives are our lives—the lives of the Lord’s baptized people. His Holy Spirit steadily drenches us with the realities of His crucifixion and resurrection. He ensures that the great Fifty Days in which we now find ourselves will dominate all the other days of the year. Our drenching occurs first in the Church, so that it might reach out and then spill into the world.

As we look into today’s Gospel, we see—far in advance of the actual events—the extraordinary gift of the Lord’s dying and rising. We—His people splashed by the water of the Son’s Life—belong to Him. We pay close attention to him. The Son knows us, His people, deeply and richly. As His sheep, we seek to follow him. The Son gives us eternal Life, and we will never be lost, even when it appears we are. There is no one, no threat, no entity, no reality that will steal us away from the Son.

The Father who has given us to the Son is greater than anyone, so no one can steal us from the Father. The Father and the Son are so perfectly united in will and purpose that all the works of God echo their voices in creation, in our salvation, and in the holiness the Spirit gives us.

The Son’s dying and rising for all the people of the world is an extraordinary gift. Through the four holy gifts of Baptism and the Scriptures, of the Absolution and the Supper, that larger, eternal gift continues to roll into our lives and throw its weight around. All this occurs while the world seeks to draw us away from our Baptisms to its view of life—a life full of arguing and distorting, of self-absorption and rebellion, all sorts of evil or false realities that are draped in attractive ways.

As the Lord’s Scriptures and Sacraments roll through our lives, though, and his Life gets reflected to others through our own, we have to ask ourselves something: Is he actually the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed One, the Savior who was marked from all eternity for crucifixion and resurrection?

This question should be raised today because it is floating up from the Jews who are crowding around Jesus in today’s Gospel. These very religious, seemingly faithful Jews are at the Feast of Dedication, remembering how the Lord God restored sacred worship to the Jerusalem temple through Judas Maccabeus and his followers, the Maccabees.

Nearly two hundred years before our Lord’s ministry, in 163 BC, the Syrians had profaned the Jerusalem temple by erecting one of their idols, the Middle Eastern version of the Greek god, Zeus, on the temple grounds. They had also desecrated the temple by conducting sacrifices of pigs and allowing them to wander into the Most Holy Place. After three years of this disrespectful, profaning activity, Judas Maccabeus drove the Syrians out, built a new altar and re-dedicated the temple.

The Jewish people crowding around Jesus that day are remembering this historic event. It always took place in the month of December and it still resonates today among observing Jews. We know it as Hanukkah. This Jewish feast is one of renewal, the literal meaning of “dedication”.

It is helpful to note that just before the Jewish people ask Jesus if He is the Christ, Jesus has been describing Himself as the Good Shepherd. This puts Him on familiar ground with His questioners. They know that there are frequent references to shepherds in the Old Testament. David, Israel’s most significant king is referred to as a shepherd. Israel’s future kings are spoken of with the same imagery. Jesus’ teachings and comments to His questioners suggest He may be the future King, that Shepherd who would be the Messiah.

The reason His questioners demand that Jesus make His remarks more clear is because they understand the Messiah one way, but He is describing the Messiah another way. When they wonder why He is keeping them in suspense, the literal meaning of that Greek phrase is “Why are you taking away our breath of life?”

As John’s Gospel account unfolds, this reminds us that—although Jesus lays down His own Life for those who follow him—He also provokes judgment, and takes away not just His Holy Spirit—the Lord and giver of life, as we confess Him—but also the very lives of those who reject Him! Jesus’ questioners tend to think of the Messiah only in political and self-understanding ways. They are looking for a shepherd-king—one who will drive the Romans out and restore their country to prominence in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, as the Old Testament prophets had revealed to them, sees the Shepherd-King as the Lord’s servant, the One who will break the hold that the unholy trinity—sin, Satan, death—have on the people, and provide them with the gift of His eternal Life.

It is these differences in understanding that cause the questioners to demand of Jesus that He tell them plainly if He is the Messiah. In His response to them, Jesus does not explode in anger and frustration. Instead, He points them to the miraculous works He has been doing throughout His ministry as indicators that He is no ordinary man, no everyday shepherd or king. These works have been powerful, giving the people glimpses of His soon-to-be crucified and resurrected Life.

But the questioners cannot see that the Messiah’s path to glory must run through a valley of suffering and death before reaching the pinnacle of power—heavenly, and not earthly power. That’s because they are dominated by their own ways of thinking.

Jesus knows exactly why they cannot see and why they cannot understand. It’s because they aren’t His sheep. Although they may claim it by blood, they are no longer a part of His covenant people, having abandoned it for things of their own choosing. It is this reality that explains why we (the few) see ourselves continuing to be drenched with the realities of the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection and why others (the many) are wrapped up in their own lives.

Not realizing or acknowledging that their lives and all the gifts of creation they enjoy flow only from God’s love, character, and eternal promises, the world believes that each person’s life is his or her own to do as he or she pleases. The world takes those places where the Lord God is to be daily worshiped, confessed, and served through our neighbor, and sweeps His presence out. The void is then back-filled with gods of our own making.

In the world’s view, it is not vital whether or not people belong to the Son and listen to Him. For them, it is better to pay attention to one’s self or to those they respect or at least find highly interesting.

In the world’s view, it is not vital whether or not people are known by the Son – it is better to follow one’s own knowledge and instincts.

In the world’s view, it is not vital if people do not receive the Son’s eternal Life – it is better to work up the life that one desires in the here-and-now.

In the world’s view, it is not vital whether or not people can be stolen from the Son – it is better to protect one’s self from potential theft.

In the world’s view, it is not vital if the Father is greater than anyone or any reality – it is better to make sure we can take care of ourselves.

In the world’s view, it is not vital if anyone can steal from the Father – it is better to concentrate on any risk that others may be able to steal from us.

In the world’s view, it is not vital if the Father and the Son are one or not – it is better to concentrate on the gods we can create and maintain.

The world always thinks it can stride into those places where the Lord God is worshiped, sweeping those places of His presence and filling them with its own gods. The world, however, is completely wrong. Three weeks ago, the Son’s crucifixion and resurrection blew the world’s life away, judging it to be in error and sentencing such thoughts to death! Three weeks ago, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit thundered their eternal presence back into the world!

It is true that such a blessed eternal Life is intersecting with only those of us who are few, with only those who are humbled, with only those who are baptized and believe. But this Life is an extraordinary gift, one that bursts into the world through the Son’s Cross and rescues people caught up in the grip of the unholy trio.

The few, those humbled and baptized are exultant, exuberant, and enthusiastic that they get to celebrate these great Fifty Days of Easter! Because of the Lord’s grace, love, and mercy, they see that the Son truly is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the One marked for crucifixion and resurrection.

While many in the world question this identity of the Son, almost as many reject not only His Messiahship but also His divinity. But we are His remnant, the sheep of His flock who hear His voice and respond accordingly. We are still the few who are full of gratitude and faith, the few who are delighted to reflect the Son’s Easter Life in our own lives, and to share its message of salvation, joy, and hope to those who are still asking questions about him!

So, rejoice in the remaining days of Easter. Hear your Shepherd’s voice as He brings His Word to your hurting, empty, painful heart. Speak plainly about Him who is the Christ. And find great comfort in the miracle of His resurrection, a seal of God’s great promise of eternal life to all who believe on His name. You cannot be snatched out of the Father’s hand, now or for eternity, for Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!