There's a lot of thinking out there that the Lord only has time for you when you, more or less, have your act together. That God loves you when you are lovable. Against such a notion comes this glorious Sunday with its readings. Miscericordias Domini - the Loving-kindness of the Lord. That's it's name in Latin, but we usually just call it "Good Shepherd Sunday."
The Lord Jesus lets us know that that's who He is. "I am the Good Shepherd." So in today's Gospel reading. But in saying that He lays claim to be the one speaking in the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel: "I myself" - that is Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel - "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak."
Bless Carl Steinmann's heart. Good thing he's not here to hear me say this. He shepherded those paintings through to make sure that the sheep turned out just right. They only thing I've never liked about that beautiful painting is how the little lamb and the others are all so clean and white and beautiful. In the reading from Ezekiel, they're a mess! The sheep that are dirty, wounded, torn up, damaged. They've wandered off, gotten lost, strayed into all the byways of sin and all its sorrows. They've injured themselves, inflicted damaged on their own persons and those around them. Some are so weary, just plumb worn out, they don't know if they can go on. The Lord is in the business of gathering them together and making them lie down while He tends them, heals them, loves them.
"Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!" - that is the cry of your Lord's heart to you. You see He knows you. He knows you in your sin. The lies you've told. The gossip you've passed on with glee. The hatred you've harbored. The bitter words you've let flow from your heart through your lips to sting and hurt the people you were supposed to love. The betrayal of the promises you made your spouse. He knows every click of the mouse and every video you've watched. He knows the distrust that overwhelms your heart at times when you wonder if there really even is a God who can bring good out of this mess. The misuse of your body, treating it as though it were yours to do with as you please, forgetting that you were bought with a price. The stinginess of your heart that judges your brother and hypocritically holds him to a standard that you know perfectly well you do not keep yourself. Oh, yes. He knows you inside and out. Me too. In all the things I've ever done, thought, or said - and the countless good I have failed to do.
But that's the miracle of grace we celebrate this Sunday. The One who knows us inside and out like that, didn't come among us to destroy us. For some utterly unfathomable reason that we'll never understand and will marvel at for all eternity, He loves us. He came to heal us. He came to set right the things broken. He came to bind up the wounds and heal them. He came above all, to protect us from the wolf.
You see, to Him the wolf is personal. To the hired hand, his own life is more valuable than the sheep. He runs at the first sign of the trouble on four legs with a bush tail. Why? Jesus puts it so simply: "he doesn't own the sheep."
To Him, you are valuable. Don't go scrounging around inside yourself to discover what it is that He finds valuable. You can't find it that way. Your value comes from the outside in: you have value because He values you; He doesn't value you because you have intrinsic value. You're His. No matter how damaged you are, not matter how beaten up and bruised and wandering. Now matter how worn out and tired. You're His. He made you His own in the font of living water, plopped His name on you and said: "Mine. Mine forever."
So the wolf coming after you is very personal business to Him. And He has no intention of allowing you to end up as a canine snack. So He interposes His own life. "The Good Shepherd lays down His LIFE for the sheep."
"Here, little wolfie! Come over here and eat me! Let them go free!" Of course, the little wolfie has no intention of letting anyone go free, but he freely gobbles down the snack offered. Bait. Poison. You know the story. The wolf couldn't keep that Good Shepherd in his stinking gullet. The Good Shepherd burst right through. Raised from the dead on the third day. Leaving a hole behind in the wolf's belly that will never ever heal or mend. And so when the wolf comes after you, you can go cheerfully down its stinking throat without a thought of fear - for you know that your Good Shepherd has already travelled this way, has gone down into the valley of shadow of death, and come up again, and He will bring you with Him. When all is darkness, and it closes around you - you needn't fear. His voice rings out: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will live though he die and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Death had no right to Him because He had no sin; but it took Him; and so Death forfeited its right to hold you forever.
Tending the wounds of your sins, giving you rich pasture in His word, refreshing you at His table with His own body and blood, forgiving you every sin - the table set in the very presence of your enemies as the sign and seal of your triumph over them - you begin to see how Good your Shepherd truly is. Good beyond all deserving, good beyond anything we could even imagine.
In all of this gift, St. Peter tells us, our Lord has left us also an example - so that we might follow in His steps. The pattern He set is clear: trust in the Father who loves you and who will vindicate you and then you have no need to extract vengeance and such on your own. Rather, like the Lord, when He suffered, He did not threaten, when mocked and reviled He did not revile in return. He bore our sins in His body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
No, He's not the God and Lord of those who have their act together. Those who imagine they do are, in fact, not His proper clientele and the only ones He really ever chews out. He's the God and Lord of the sick, injured, and weak, the straying and foolish ones. He will not turn you away. He died to release you from sin's power. He rose to proclaim to you that death itself would never be the end of you. He invites you to come to Him today at His table and be refreshed and then leave this place to follow His example - to die to your sin and to live in the righteousness that is His gift to you, forgiving and loving those who mistreat you and cause you suffering as you yourself have been forgiven and loved by Him, by Jesus, your Good Shepherd. Amen.