Third Sunday of Easter, May 4th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Good Shepherd Sunday, Misericordias Domini
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why Seek Lost Sheep? Ezekiel 34:11, John 10:11, 1 Peter 2:24-25
Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
The pastures are greening up nicely, after the snow and rain. Or at least they will if the sun ever comes out. I have a drive to Great Falls at the end of this week, so I’ll be glad to see the growing grass as I head through Jordan. So will the livestock.
The pastures will be greening up nicely, but last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday weren’t such good days to be a cow or a sheep, or worse, a calf or lamb. Heavy wet snow followed by rain and wind is miserable, especially if you’re a newborn without much body fat to keep you warm. A tough time for calves and lambs, and so also a tough time for ranchers and sheepherders, out in the pastures, early and late, checking on the stock, trying to help them, trying to provide the herds and flocks protection from the cold and wet and wind.
Why do they do it? Why do livestock growers year after year face cold and dark and wind and rough country, to say nothing of dealing with the predicaments livestock are always finding for themselves? Why search for that cow who always finds a way through the fence, or who insists on giving birth in the deepest ravine possible? Why fight off disease, and coyotes? Why bottle feed bum calves and do the thousand and one unpleasant chores that come with raising livestock?
Well, of course, it’s a living. There is a profit involved, hopefully. For a handful, it’s a very good living, a way to grow a family fortune. But for most, the living is not so rich, the bank account not so fat. Indeed, the smaller operations have narrower profit margins, and so more hard work to do, since they can’t afford to hire it done, or buy the latest technology that would make it easier. And yet, for many ranchers and sheepherders, including those paper rich and dirt poor, they wouldn’t do anything else. Why do they do it?
Well, they love the life. They love the countryside and being out in it. They love the sense of accomplishment, and the independence, the responsibility. They love seeing things grow. And, they love their animals. But it can’t be for their beauty, at least I don’t think so. A calf is cute, but a cow? It certainly can’t be for the love the livestock give back. A dog may be very affectionate and loyal. Cows love you when you’re spreading cake, but that’s about it, right? And yet, those who choose to ranch and raise sheep do love their animals, just the same.
Why do they do it? I think many do it simply because that’s who they are. Raised into it, or maybe not, still, their identity is all tied up with livestock. They could hardly be anything else.
Why raise cows or sheep? Why seek them out when they’re lost? Why risk life and limb for animals? Well, there’s a profit to be had, and a life of loving animals, and for many, their identity is all connected with the lifestyle. It’s simply who they are. And so they do the hard work of seeking after and caring for livestock, including during freezing winter nights and sloppy, wet, miserable spring storms.
Which brings us to our Good Shepherd. Why does God do it? Caring for livestock is one thing. But caring for people, rebellious people, why do that? Why try to save sinners from themselves? Why rescue fools from the predicaments we make for ourselves? Why do it?
God has and continues to do the work of rescuing His sheep from the wolfish schemes of Satan. Satan uses God’s law against humanity, pointing out our sin and detailing what we deserve, aching to share his eternal misery with God’s people. But God, the ultimate punisher of sin, postponed His just wrath. Starting right after the Fall, God began putting up with human sin, overlooking rebellion and withholding full punishment, even rescuing His special people Israel from self-inflicted wounds, again and again, all to get to the real work of salvation. Which is finished.
The rescue work is done, because God went even further. He took on our flesh, our creatureliness, in order to take our sin upon Himself. Ranchers and shepherds very often sacrifice greatly to take care of their herds and flocks. They may even, from time to time, end up smelling like their animals. But has a rancher ever become a cow, or a shepherd a sheep, in order to save his animals from slaughter? No. But God has become a man, in order to save us from the slaughter of eternal death. We are in our third week of celebrating the revelation of God’s in the flesh victory for us, a victory won in death, a victory revealed with new life in the Resurrection. So this is a good time to ask “Why?”
Why did He do it? Why did God the Father sacrifice the life of His only-begotten Son to save wandering, thankless sheep? Why does God continue to work, sending out His Word of forgiveness, supporting His Church, keeping her going in the most unpromising circumstances? Why?
Does God do it for profit? Well, yes. That may sound a little strange, but God does all the works of salvation in order to realize a profit, a gain. It’s just that we don’t understand His method of accounting. Looking at what God gives and receives in this salvation business, it doesn’t seem that God is coming out ahead. But God gets to determine His own measures, and for God, the profit in salvation is you. God’s reward for achieving human salvation is to have you with Him, along with countless other saints, forever. Given what we know about people in general, and about ourselves in particular, given all the obvious faults and failings of humanity, God’s accounting is very strange. Strange accounting, but very good news.
Does God do it for love? Yes, most definitely. God loves His whole creation, and most especially the crown of His creation, which is you. You and I might expect God’s love for mankind to fade, since we humans, once we hear we are second only to God, immediately start thinking about knocking God off His throne. Like Adam and Eve, we desire to be as gods. It is not enough for us to be dependent on God who blesses us with all we need. We want to be in charge, to make our own rules, and judge ourselves. It would be quite right and fair if God, who is holy and righteous and all powerful, were to simply destroy us ungrateful usurpers. But God still loves humanity, despite our sin, and so He has loved humanity, by sending the Only Begotten Son to save us, from ourselves.
What, in the end, happens to mankind if we insist on independence from God? Look at the punishment Jesus suffered. Look, and shudder. But then, look again. For in the same frightening Cross of Jesus we also learn that this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His only begotten Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Our just deserts, and God’s limitless, forgiving love, are both revealed in Jesus’ death.
Why does God seek lost sheep? Why does He save? Because that’s who God is. Good News, God is love. Like the rancher who just doesn’t know anything else to be, even more so, God is love. God is Savior, our Good Shepherd. God is the One who desires a multitude of people to be in the closest possible communion with Him, in joy and peace and glory, forever. Think of it. How sure is your salvation in Christ? Your salvation is the very identity of God, who is life, and love, and so has done all things necessary to share His life and love with you.
When wolves are circling, trying to bite your flesh, when enemies, like tempters in the world, or your own sinful desires, or struggles that lead to doubt, when these or any other predator of Satan are pressing you hard, remember, Jesus is your Good Shepherd. He loves doing whatever it takes to save you. And the one thing necessary to save you is His specialty: forgiveness, delivered in the Word and Sacraments.
When your own heart is telling you God would never forgive what you have done, your Good Shepherd says “Rest in my peace, you are forgiven.” When the evil you see in the world makes you doubt that good can conquer, your Good Shepherd, the One with scars in His hands, reaches those hands out to you and reminds you “I have overcome the world, enter into my green pastures.” When you have yet again sinned your way into a real mess, and you think there is no way God will forgive and help you, remember, Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected is still seeking you, even into the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is still calling you to Himself, still preparing a table before you. Your cup runneth over, because your Good Shepherd is filling it up, today, and forever and ever, Amen.