A sermon preached on John 10:14-15 at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls, SD, on May 12th, 2019 by Pastor Jonathan Werre.
She knew it was going to be a bad day when she woke up and her first thought was, “My Facebook status still says ‘single.’” Now, she had been single all of her 19 years. But she longed to have someone who loved her. No, that wasn’t it; she had people who loved her. What she wanted was someone who knew her, really knew her, who “got her.” She had become more and more obsessed about it, so that her once vibrant world had slowly lost its color.
She dragged herself out the door, but the magical powers of a good cup of coffee on the way to class helped (God is good to us that way). And her second hour History of Art class took her mind off of things. But at the end of the hour, when her classmates left, joking, laughing, some holding hands, the reason she felt so down slapped her in the face again, like a wet fish.
She was lonely. Which is not uncommon in a world of smart phones and social media and more-or-less mandatory retirement. She was lonely with the special kind of loneliness that is so deep it actually touches your soul, and so we often mistake it for depression or as anger issues or, if you are old enough, being curmudgeonly. But it’s a kind of deep loneliness; when you fall into it, you have fallen into a very deep hole.
She made her way across campus, went into the chapel, and sat down. Other students filed in. No one sat beside her. Then the organist modulated into the opening hymn, and so she sang, “The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.” Except she didn’t quite get all those words out. She choked on the line, “I nothing lack if I am his.” Because she did lack something. A very important something. She lacked having someone who really, really knew her, someone who really, really understood her.
But by now the hymn was done, and the prayer of the day, and the campus pastor was reading the lesson, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Which was a portion of Scripture that she knew very well, since he had grown up in the church. But this time something was going to happen for her, maybe for you, too. This time, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the words she heard would not roll off her like water off a Goodyear tire, but would sink in, like warm rain on thirsty soil. The pastor continued to read, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” And it was like her grey world was suddenly colorized again. Jesus knew her, really, really knew her. Just like the Father knows Jesus, really, really knows Jesus. Since the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one essence, though three distinct Persons but still one, the greatest mystery in the universe (as it says in the Formula of Concord), since this is what God is like, she thought, the Father must really, really know Jesus. “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
She had finally heard what Jesus had been trying to tell her through his Word and Sacraments for the last 19 years. Because when he said, “I know my sheep”, the Holy Spirit had picked a very specific Greek word for the word, “know.” In Greek it sounds like this, “gignosko.”
There are actually two Greek words for knowing. First is “oida”, which is the book learnin’ kind of knowing and “gignosko”, which means to know by experience. So, you’re looking at a cold, 16 oz, plastic bottle of Mountain Dew. You know it is a carbonated beverage, it is green, you look at its nutritional label and know it has 230 calories, 62 grams of sugar. That’s “oida.” But then you twist off the top, hear the Tsck…pshhhhhhhhh. You take a long, slow drink. You feel the tickle of the carbonation, taste the intensely sweet flavor, feel the kick of the caffeine, and you say, “Ah.” Now you know Mountain Dew “gignosko.”
Like Jesus knows you, his sheep. Because when he said, “I know my sheep”, the Holy Spirit picked a very specific Greek word for the word, “know.” “Gignosko.” And that is a sweet fact that you can’t take in like reading a nutritional label, but you’ve got to drink it in.
The chapel service continued on, but she was not even noticing. She was entranced, she had been captured by that word “know”, “I know my sheep.” Jesus who had been so generous to her all her life, was giving her the one thing she had thought she lacked. Having someone who really, really knew her, who really, really understood her. She suddenly realized that he’d been giving that to her for the past 19 years, but today she the first time she had really drank that sweet fact in. And it was life changing.
She understood that this was why, though she was free to choose any college to attend, he had let it work out for her to attend a small Lutheran college instead of the big, public university that was cheaper. He knew her, understood her, gignosko-d her, and what kind of circumstances would be best for her to matriculate in. This was one of the reasons why she did not end up getting the lead in the spring musical production, even though she had prayed about it again and again. He knew her, and knew that would not be so good, given her ego. And this was one of the reasons why her status on Facebook still read “single.” He knew her, understood her, gignosko-ed her. In fact, as it will turn out, a spouse is one gift that Jesus is never going to give her, given the choices she will make and we are free to marry or not, but also because he knows her, understands her, gignosko-s her.
As he does you, me as well. He knows/understands/gignosko-s why we need to be embarrassed sometimes and why other times all the variables need to line up so that we “nail it!” He knows/understands/gignosko-s why this week you need a cold, you need a diagnosis of cancer, and you need to reach your goal weight and feel great about yourself. He even knows/understands/gignosko’s why you do the sinful things you do. Because he knows us, warts and all.
That’s why the defining characteristic of our Good Shepherd is that he, “…lays down his life for the sheep.” He knows you and me, warts and all. There’s parts of us that are not very pretty, for we are by nature sinful. Even some parts we are so ashamed of that we haven’t even told our closest friends…and they are sinners, too. So what must a pure and holy Jesus think of us? Because he knows.
Which is why he had to lay down his life for us—precisely because of our warts and sins and shameful parts. He knew that Death has a contract with God. And your name is on that contract. And that contract clearly states that Death has the right to wrap a heavy chain around your neck when you die, since, as the contract says, said person has sinned. For the “soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezek. 18:20) The contract further states that he, Death, has the right to drag you kicking and screaming into hell, for the “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 3:23) Hell, where you will kick and scream in loneliness so intense it feels like burning and you long for death, which can never come.
Jesus knew this. So he laid down his life so that the contract could be ripped up, invalidated, and fed through the shredder. Laid down his life to atone for every one of our sins. Laid down his life for the sheep. Because that’s what the Good Shepherd does. It’s his defining characteristic. And rose again to prove he had paid for them all. And then gives this forgiveness he won at such a high price away, just gives it away, free for nothing, in the Gospelin the Word and Sacraments.
Which is why we ask our confirmands to promise, and I quote, “Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the teachings of God’s Word, to be faithful in the use of the Word and Sacrament…as long as you live?” For it is only through the Word and Sacraments that you receive the Good Shepherd’s forgiveness and salvation. And it is only through the Word and Sacraments that you get to know better and better this Jesus who knows you/understands you/gignosko-s you. He’s the only one who can give us this gift that we all long for in our souls.
And yet we are so perverse that we drag our feet in getting to know Jesus better and better through his Word and Sacraments. Isn’t that perverse? It’s so hard for us to have our daily devotions, be part of a Bible study, not just hear but listen in church every Sunday. Isn’t that crazy? Failing to get to know better the one who knows us so well? And do not let us imagine that it doesn’t matter, as if he doesn’t care whether you want to get to know him better or not. He cares. A lot. Jesus himself once said, that anyone whose Father is God listens gladly to the words of God; since you don’t, it proves God is not your Father. (John 8:47)
This 19 year old college student was the last one to leave chapel that morning. As she walked across campus back to her dorm, the words kept rolling through her mind, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep.” She didn’t feel quite as lonely. And was no longer obsessing about her Facebook status.
Not that this solved all her loneliness problems. Because there are different kinds of loneliness. Some can only be fixed by getting off of Facebook and actually interacting with real people. Some can only be fixed by getting more involved, maybe at church, or with some extracurricular activity at school. Some forms of loneliness need time, like when you lose a pet. And confirmands, you are entering a time called high school, which is notorious as one of the loneliness times in life. And there are ways to deal with it, so ask.
But the deepest form of loneliness has only one solution, the Good Shepherd. H.L. Senkbeil wrote this classic line in his book, “Dying to Live”, “There is no one so lonely as someone alone with his sin.”
That’s why the Good Shepherd laid down his life (and rose again)—so that the pastor could speak to you the Good Shepherd’s word of forgiveness in the Absolution, so that the water of your baptism would be able to wash away all your sin, so that in the Lord’s Supper, which our confirmands will be able to receive for the first time on May 26, Christ might be able to come to you, just you, and give you his forgiveness, forgiveness so real that you can taste it. And, as Luther put it in the Catechism, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
And until he decides to give you who believe that salvation he has promised, this is the Good Shepherd who will give you just the right mix of problems and pleasures, of triumphs and disasters, of embarrassments and “nailed it’s”—for he knows you/understands you/gignosko-s you. And he’ll be good to you. After all, he is the Good Shepherd. Amen.