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May 3, 2020     The Good Shepherd for Straying and Suffering Sheep

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Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,

I’m guessing that -so far- you’ve had no trouble keeping in mind the theme of the day.

In the Introit,  we used the words of Jesus:  “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own,  and my own know me,  and I lay down my life for the sheep.”   In the hymn we sang:

‘The Lord’s my shepherd,  I’ll not want.’      The 4th Sunday of Easter each year emphasizes the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.    It’s a good thing that Jesus IS our Good Shepherd,  *isn’t it?   Without Him, *where would we be?     Actual-sheep are not aware of how weak & needy,  and directionless & vulnerable they are,  because they’re just animals,  & have no reasoning mind  or eternal soul.     BUT WE are not just animals.

The Lord relates to us  as creatures made to bear His image with self-awareness.

The reason He compares us to mindless sheep  is because we lost His true image-awareness;  our sinful nature does not bear His image = sin cancels it.    So,  we ARE like sheep  because  we are spiritually lost & vulnerable,  and our souls are easy prey for predators.   Sheep cannot rescue themselves from trouble,   or find their way home on their own =  that describes US.

But our Creator is fiercely committed to those He created.  In Psalm 23,  David says:   ‘the Lord  -Yahweh-  is my Shepherd.’   Jesus comes & claims that exalted title,  when He says,  ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’    With our Good Shepherd  to protect & guide our lives,  we are able to graze in green pastures;   that is,  we are safe & sound,  satisfied & at peace now  because our souls are safe eternally.   That’s what makes the difference  in having the very  Son-of-God  as our Shepherd.

We heard the Holy Spirit  talk about this theme in our Epistle lesson,  from  1Peter.2.      Peter writes this letter about 30 years after Jesus’ ascension;  and Peter’s ministry has become very difficult,  being imprisoned & beaten & opposed because of the Gospel.   The opposition to the Christian faith was getting worse,  as more Jews are believing in Jesus as the Christ,    and  more gentiles are converting away from the Roman gods of the day.  That means less people  were following the pharisees & the ‘mega’church-of-the-day,  and more people  were refusing to live & behave like the immoral Greek culture around them.

Christians suffer because they are different than the world around them.   Peter acknowledges the hardships of the day;  Christians were persecuted because they were seen as rejecting their neighbors,  and rejecting the ‘modern & enlightened’ culture.    Peter has only one solution for them = not to give in,  but  to clearly see, & confess, & obey Christ Jesus,  who suffered for us.

A main theme in 1Peter  is to remind the people  that they had been straying like sheep;   but now  -in marvelous grace-  they have been brought back to the care of the Good Shepherd.

This image of Christ  as the Good Shepherd  becomes even more spiritually precious to US  when compared to all the danger a sinner faces without Jesus.   We notice this  in Psalm 23.   Those ‘green pastures’  are even greener  because they stand in contrast to the ‘valley of the shadow of death.’   In John 10,  we heard Jesus describe Himself as the Shepherd who comes that we may  “have life and have it abundantly,”  as opposed to  a life subjected to the thief,  who  “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”    The Lord makes these contrasts for us and so makes the image of the Good Shepherd even more pleasing.  It’s the same way in 1 Peter.   You are told  that Jesus is  ‘the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul’;   that comes right after a reminder  that you were like a sheep going astray.      The Good Shepherd is important & precious for you  because He saves you.    When we think about how lost we would be on our own,  we appreciate more deeply the fact  that we have a Shepherd to  oversee, guard & guide us.

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Besides our sinful & dangerous straying away from God,  Peter also writes about our suffering,  so that we will appreciate our Shepherd even more.   The unpleasant reality is that Christians suffer in this world,  and sometimes it’s because we are Christians.   No matter how many times the church preaches & teaches that reality,  people assume it should not be this way.

Unbelievers accuse the church of saying  that we think our faith will fix all our problems,  & that our religion will make our lives trouble-free.     We’ve never taught that.   Even WE are tempted to think that,  because Jesus loves us & wants the best for us,  so we equate ‘best’ with being problem-free.   Our Lord is powerful,  so we assume  He will prevent us from  /having troubles,  /getting sick,  /going broke,  /or even guarantee us a long life.

The Bible doesn’t say that;   and no faithful preacher could ever promised that to you.   The unpleasant reality is that Christians live in fallen-bodies,  in a fallen-world,  and are subject to all the same troubles & problems that all humans face.

And even worse,  because we are Christians  in an anti-God world,  so we may suffer  even more  than unbelievers,  because we defy & confront the anti-God ways of the culture & the people around us = & they don’t like that.     BUT,  whether we suffer in some natural & worldly way,  or suffer because we trust & obey Jesus as Lord & God,   the Christian difference is that we will trust God & endure it,  because our loving Shepherd has reassured us that He knows our pain & our sorrow.   And He will never leave us;   and  -in the end-  He has a great prize,  & gracious place  for each of us.   Jesus is the Good Shepherd for sheep who stray,  and for sheep who suffer.

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So,  Peter says,  “This is a gracious thing,  when,  mindful of God,  one endures sorrows while suffering UN-justly.    For what credit is it  if,  when you sin  and are beaten for it, & you endure?    But if when you do good  and suffer for it  you endure,  this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.   For to this you have been called,  because Christ also suffered for you,  leaving you an example,  so that you might follow in his steps.”

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Here,  Peter talks about Christians who suffer in two ways.   Some of it may come because we brought it on ourselves.  That would be suffering ‘justly’,  because we did wrong.  But other suffering comes ‘unjustly’,  because of the good we do,  or the godliness we speak & support,  as Christians.    So we need to distinguish between those two,  & examine ourselves,  and ask WHY IT IS  that we are suffering.   It could be that we are suffering ‘justly’,  it could be that we are suffering ‘unjustly’,   or  -I suppose-  it could even be a combination of the two.

Our society has its laws that we must follow;  if we break laws,  we will suffer ‘justly’ = /such as if we speed in our car, /or ignore tax laws, /or steal things from a store.    But in our nation,  we have religious freedom.  In Peter’s day,  with an oppressive Roman Empire, people were  /beaten-up,  /barred from doing business,  /jailed,  /or killed  for not worshiping the Emperor = Christians couldn’t do that;  so they suffered ‘unjustly.’

You & I may encounter a certain amount of suffering for our faith.   People may exclude us from their circle of friends,  or they might make derogatory remarks about us,  criticize or insult our church’s teachings or practices.      So,  when we feel ‘put-upon’ (afflicted) ,  the HSp would have us -first- consider this:  *Am I suffering because of something wrong that I did?    *Is this a consequence of my own sin?

*Was I being a thoughtless jerk,  and now somebody is mad at me?   *Did I fail to study for a test,  and now I’m getting a bad grade?   *Was I driving under the influence,  and now the policeman is giving me a ticket?     In those cases,  it’s not that I’m being persecuted because I’m a Christian.   No,  it’s because I was being a jerk,  or being foolish,  or breaking sensible laws.   Peter says,  stop whining,  take your punishment as correction,  & wise-up;    ‘just’ suffering is discipline.

Sometimes suffering is simply the natural consequence of our own bad behavior.   If that’s the case,  then I need to  /repent of the wrong I have done,  /confess my sin,  /ask God’s forgiveness,  /ask others for forgiveness,  /and seek to do better.

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And then there are also times  when Christians suffer  because we belong to Christ,

and we’re following His good ways in a world that disagrees with Him.   People will belittle good behaviors  in order to make themselves feel better about their bad behavior.   When you don’t go along with the crowd,  when the crowd is cheating or shoplifting or gambling or getting drunk;  and they pressure everyone to conform;  & IF you don’t,  then you’re rejected and ridiculed.   That’s ‘unjust’ suffering.

*What do we do?  *What would Jesus do?   Peter doesn’t use those exact words,  but he does point us to Christ == suffering sheep look to their Shepherd.  Peter says that Christ suffered,  “leaving you an example,  so that you might follow in his steps.”   The Greek word here  -‘example’-  is a word that refers to tracing some writing,  or a drawing,  by putting the one thing under another & copying it.

So Jesus Christ,  in His suffering,  is our perfect model to copy.  How Jesus acted when  He suffered unjustly  is how we are to behave too.   Peter says,  “that you might follow in his steps.”    I’ve heard that sheep will follow their shepherd by stepping in his very footprints.  Our Shepherd has led the way,  not just when He said, ‘follow Me’,  but also when He said,  “take up your cross  and follow me.”  Our path will include some suffering.

Because Jesus was ‘without sin’,  ALL of His suffering was ‘unjust.’   Look at how He handled it:  “When he was reviled,  he did not revile in return;   when he suffered,  he did not threaten.”     We may like books & movies where  -in the end-  the good guy gets revenge  and the bad guy gets his comeuppance & a harsh punishment;   but that’s not how God has worked in order to save us  lost & straying & doomed sheep.

The very Son of God did not just bide His time  until He could get revenge &  deserved punishment on the crooked pharisees,  or the cruel & violent soldiers,  or the weak-spined king Herod or governor Pontius Pilate.     And  He is not reserving any punishment for US either.

During His ministry He was mocked;  He was unjustly  arrested, tried, beaten & crucified,  for our sins!  He could have retaliated;  if anybody ever had a right to,  He did;  but He didn’t.   Instead,  Peter says,  He  “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”    It didn’t matter how the fallen world treated Him,  the Son knew that God-the-Father would judge Him rightly.   God would vindicate His innocent & righteous Servant.   All true justice WILL be done in the end,  even if it is not being done right now.

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Now,  the experienced Christian knows how hard it is  to actually follow Jesus’ example.  Without help,  we can’t do it.   That’s what Peter says:   “This is a gracious thing.”  God gifts us with the grace,  & the strength,  & the ability to follow our Savior’s example.   God’s grace enables us to bear up under  and to endure suffering,  knowing that God will ultimately save us, and vindicate us,  and bless us for the sake of Christ.   In this life,  we will never change from being helpless sheep;   but by God’s grace,  we can DO what sheep do best:  trust the Shepherd.  “This is a gracious thing.”

From start to finish,  God’s grace in Christ is what makes us Christians in the first place, and it’s what will enable us to endure,  even to the end = even if it’s a bitter end.   And so when Peter talks about  the suffering we endure,  he just takes us to Christ;  that helps us,  because His connection to us is …the cross.    Christ Jesus suffered ‘for you,’  Peter says.   “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”    The sinless Son of God  -unfairly-  took all our sins upon Himself.   But He did it to save you from the eternal suffering of death & hell.

The Good Shepherd used-up His whole life to redeem straying sheep.   He laid it down on Good Friday,  and He took it up again on Easter morning.  Christ’s resurrection is the proof that,  what our Shepherd did in dying for the sheep,  is enough to bring us back to God.

Jesus came  so that we may have true life,  and have it abundantly.

“For you were straying like sheep,  but have now (been)  returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”    In ‘grace language’,  that means that God has reached out & found you;   He has called out to your soul  to turn toward Christ.

God worked thru others  =such as your parents, pastors & friends=   to make sure you were brought to His baptismal water == the water of the cleansing of sin,  and the giving of faith & His Holy Spirit.

All this UNdeserved grace  -freely given to sinners-  is the ultimate contrast.

That contrast makes our Shepherd all the more dear to us.   For we know that  -without Him-  we would remain lost,  and perish.   But now we have a strong Shepherd,  one who cares for us.   Like a hymn verse says:    +Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,  / But yet in love He sought me,    / And on His shoulder gently laid,  / And home rejoicing brought me.

Now we are saved & safe for eternity,  no matter what suffering we endure in the life which God has assigned us.   Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls,  and He is bringing us into those eternal, green pastures.

Amen