On this Good Shepherd Sunday, also a Happy Mother’s Day to all moms among us this morning!
This isn’t always the case, I’m sure, but I think it is safe to say – whether you are a mom yourself or when you think of your mom — that in general it’s hard – very understandably hard — for moms to let go – especially if the letting go has to do with a separation for the first time for a new experience. It’s hard to let go of that day care or preschool child’s hand, isn’t it, as he or she goes into a new world of kids and germs and things they have never heard or faced before – especially if there is that uncertain or worried look you know so well on that little one’s face, or if the corner of the eye has a tear that is beginning to form? It’s hard to let go, isn’t it, when that school bus door opens for the first time, when the first high school bell rings, when you stand almost speechless in the lobby of the college dormitory, when someone else is standing in the church aisle who wants to spend with your little one the rest of his or her life… It can honestly be difficult to let someone else take them from your hand as a mom – or as any parent – who, deep down, knows you must, but for so many reasons in so many ways just doesn’t want to let go.
Our Savior Jesus feels the same way toward all of us as the shepherd of us little lambs. – and so much, much more, of course, since he is the almighty God. The difference is that he is A Shepherd Who Won’t Let Go, no matter where we are, no matter how young or old we are, no matter how strong or weak we are. Look at verse 27 toward the end of our lesson: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I will give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” I will never let go.
That promise is simply amazing, isn’t it, when you think of how many times you and I have let go of him? Maybe this was you when you were younger toward you mom – maybe this is you right now toward your mom: Sometimes have you given the impression – or even said in a mean, rebellious way – “I don’t want you around, mom. I don’t care what you say, mom. I’m going to do what I want, mom.” All of us in some way to some degree have disobeyed or disrespected our parents or other people in authority over us in our schools or our communities. And that is just one example of the much bigger picture of disobeying or disrespecting our heavenly Father by telling him that we know better than he does how to run our lives – and that if he really knew how to run our lives in a good way, he certainly wouldn’t do it in the way our life is going right now.
That is really the backstory for these tender words of Jesus. There were many people who didn’t want to listen to him or follow him because they didn’t believe in him. These are the people whom we are told surrounded Jesus in one of the gathering areas of the temple and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” That was simply a bogus question, and they knew it. Earlier in this same chapter of the Bible they had heard Jesus say that he was the Good Shepherd who was going to give his life for the sheep and rise again from the dead, just as his Father in heaven wanted him to do, leading many people to think he was a mad-man and demon-possessed, they said.
Jesus wouldn’t let them get away with it. “I did tell you,” Jesus said, “but you do not believe.” And then he reminded them of the miracles he did – miracles like healing people who were sick and giving sight to people who were blind and giving people the ability to walk who were lame, not to mention the miracle he was going to be doing in the very next chapter of the Bible – raising Lazarus from the dead.
The point is that people today are no different than people then than people have ever been. That’s why you and I, too, need to hear Jesus say to us, “I did tell you. I did tell you who I am. I did tell you how to live. I did tell you what I have promised you. I did tell you what is to come.” But so often we do not believe what he said, or we are tempted not to believe what he said, or we behave in a way that would lead other people to wonder if we believe what he said, or we wonder how any of what he said could possibly be true for someone like me who so often doesn’t follow what he has said.
But what is the answer to those sins against God? What is the answer to our doubts about God? What is the answer to the things that make us cry in pain or cry out in prayer? “My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says. Listen to Jesus’ voice. Listen to what your dear Savior tells you in his Word. Because it is through that listening to the Word of God, as you and I are doing right now, that God strengthens our faith in the very things he tells us to believe. That’s the miracle of it. We don’t have to make anything up to try to help each other. We can just listen to the words of Jesus. “My blood was poured out to erase your sin. I forgive you! I left that grave to tell death it can’t hurt you. I went back to heaven so I can watch over you.” Or as he said in our lesson about his little lambs: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” I will never let you go.
And those words are not just words for a future time, when we live in heaven, though they are certainly of course for that, too. What I mean is this. When your mom tells you, “I will always and forever love you,” does that just mean she will love you at some future time, but you’re kind of on your own now? Of course not. The very fact that she says she will always love you means everything in the world to you right now. It means you can smile, you can go forward, you can be at peace.
That’s just a little taste of what it means when Jesus speaks about giving us eternal life and that we will never perish. For example, in our Second Lesson this morning from the book of Revelation, Jesus is talking about what it’s going to be like in heaven some day so it can mean something in our lives today, when he says, “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst… For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd… And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
That’s not just a promise for the future. It’s a promise to help you deal with the now. Because my Shepherd will never let go of me in heaven, he will never let go of me now on earth. Now I can look through my tears and smile when I hear my Savior’s voice. Now I can bear up under my hurts and my pains and stand up straight when I hear my Savior’s voice. Now I can do whatever I can to help other people out in whatever little, simple or big, monumental way that I can, as I echo my Savior’s voice when speaking to others, so they can hear their Savior’s voice, too – that voice which speaks of a Lamb who died for sin and who rose for victory and who ascended to rule and who will return for all those who listened and believed and followed – that voice which alone can cause others to join us in believing and following and enjoying a life that otherwise would be totally empty and lacking any purpose or meaning at all.
At the end of our service we are going to sing what it all comes down to in the end when we join in singing the song, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” and one of its stanzas:
Who so happy as I am, Even now the shepherd’s lamb?
And when my short life is ended, By his angel hosts attended,
He shall fold me to his breast, There within his arms to rest.
What he has promised for then makes all the difference for now, because those arms of Jesus have hands that will never let go.
You know, it often comes full circle for moms and their kids, doesn’t it? At first the child clings to mom and worries about her letting go, like maybe for some on the first day of preschool or the first time getting on that bus. Then the child tells mom they can do it by themselves and wants them to let go, like perhaps when going off to third grade or seventh grade or tenth grade or whenever. But many times thankfully the child at some point understands a little bit what mom has been feeling all along, and ends up actually comforting mom by saying something like, “It will be okay, mom. You can let go, because I know you never will really let go. You will always have me in your heart, just as I will always have you in mine.” So much more – and so perfectly — can you and I have that confidence with our Shepherd. He always does have us in his heart, even when we fail to do the same – all because he gave his life for sinners so that sinners might have life in him and so that sinners – cleansed of that sin – can live life for others. In life we wander and we wonder, but we have a shepherd who won’t let go. That’s a wonderful reason to hold on to him as tight as we can! Amen.