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Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Reverend Philip Stringer

John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Feed us with your Word, and speak to our hearts, that we may be filled with your endless life, now and forever. AMEN

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord, my soul to take.”

Does that bedtime prayer sound familiar to you? It was the de facto bedtime prayer when I was little. I have to say, I think it is a terrible prayer! To my ear, it is filled with fear and uncertainty and anxiety.

“nighty night, children. Sweet dreams.

Oh, by the way— there are demons that might try to snatch your soul away. Just a ‘heads up.’

Oh— and also— Once you close your eyes, there’s a very real chance that they will never open again. Big question mark. I can’t help you— you’re on your own.

You had better say a prayer that Jesus will protect you from the demons and take you to heaven if you die.

Good night!”

Not surprisingly, it probably has its origins in a German poem of the late 1500s. The Germans also gave us a host of children’s stories with trolls and witches designed to terrorize children into obeying their parents.

An English version of the prayer first appeared in London in 1600’s. The prayer as we know it today first appeared in a New England journal in 1737.

Our Gospel reading today presents us with a vision of Jesus that should truly come as good news to anyone who grew up in the shadow of this prayer. In it, Jesus describes himself as the gate and the shepherd who protects and keeps us, without question.

Today— the Fourth Sunday of Easter— is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we hear a passage describing Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.” This year’s reading is a little less direct in casting Jesus in the role of shepherd— but it is still there. “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. . . . “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. . . . He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” It isn’t until verse 11 that Jesus explicitly states, “I am the good shepherd.”

Jesus is the gate to the sheepfold.

And Jesus is the good shepherd.

While you and I can certainly picture the scene, our modern lives give us little understanding about the depth of meaning that these images held for Jesus’ first listeners. Sheep and shepherds were a part of everyday life in Jesus’ day. The closest that most of us will ever get is at the zoo— or looking out into a field while driving, seeing a handful of sheep grazing.

Unlike a modern farm, the shepherds of Jesus’ day led their flock in an open range of wilderness. There were no property lines or fenced-in pastures; once they left the sheep pen they were in no-man’s land. There were wild animals about, there were cliffs and crags and other natural dangers, and there were thieves and bandits. The thieves and bandits were perhaps the greatest threat, because they were not only in the wild— they remained a threat even after the sheep were gathered into the pen at night where they were otherwise protected.

Although the world we live in may be far-removed from the presence of sheep and shepherds, it is still filled with dangers. The world is a dangerous place— from earthquakes and tornados, to diseases, pandemics and carcinogens— and of course, thieves, murderers and bandits. And just like in Jesus’ day, the latter are perhaps the worst— because they could even find us in the supposed safety of our homes.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and it seems we have a natural tendency to base our actions on them. People with agendas seem to understand this truth, because a time-tested means of persuading people to action is to tell them they are in danger— and they must take matters into their own hands. It creates a “siege mentality” of “us” against “them,” and they’re out to get you.

Corporations use this tactic to protect themselves— think oil companies, the gun industry, etc.— who say, “the bad guys have an agenda of lies they are trying to dupe you with”— when all the while it is the corporations telling the lies.

Politicians do it, too. Politicians on both sides of the isles are famous for it— although Donald Trump has certainly taken it to a whole new level with his “stop the steal” garbage.

And religious groups do it, too. “You had better be good if you want to go to heaven.” Jesus loves you, but he’s going to throw you in hell if you cross him. Or as innocuous as the bedtime prayer with which I began. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Notice that in our Gospel reading, there are no caveats — no conditional promises. And perhaps that is best recognized when we understand a fact: Sheep do not choose their shepherd. It is the shepherd who owns the sheep. The sheep don’t do ANYTHING to become members of the flock.

In the imagery that Jesus uses, he clearly demonstrates that the sheep are safe. In his description, the thieves and bandits are never said to be successful. He states that they intended harm; they came to do harm— but they didn’t succeed because Jesus has protected the sheep like a gate— and they will not succeed because Jesus protects the sheep as the good shepherd. Period.

You and I are the sheep of Jesus’ flock. We are safe. We don’t need to worry about evil. We don’t need to worry about being good enough to go to heaven. We are under the care of the good shepherd, who will not let us down.

As another layer of assurance, I’d like to make a point about how unattractive and unpleasant are sheep.

In addition to not knowing what a shepherd is like, most of us probably don’t know much about what sheep are truly like. There are things about sheep you can’t tell from seeing one in the zoo or a pasture. Things you must learn from living with them.

Several years ago when Patty and I served as the directors for a Lutheran Church camp, I thought it would be a neat idea for the kids to experience sheep in the camp. I arranged with a local farmer to loan us two for the summer. I had visions of the kids “oohing” and “ahhing” as they ran their fingers through the soft fluff of a gentle lamp’s fur.

Well, the first thing I learned was that sheep are big. I also learned, quickly, that they don’t take to children. Instead, they run........ and, in hindsight, who could blame them. And I also learned that sheep are stupid, selfish, needy, and dirty. They will push and shove each other to get as much of the other’s food as possible-- yet when they become separated, they bleat and cry loudly until they find each other.

I learned that sheep smell, and that you can’t housebreak a sheep. It wasn’t long before the entire camp was littered with piles of pellets that simply would not go away. Windows became smeared with saliva and mud because they would see their reflection and try to get in.

They frighten easily, they get lost, confused. They are selfish, needy, and dirty. Not a very glamorous animal. So you see, it is a powerful statement for Jesus to call himself the good shepherd of the sheep. Because the role of the shepherd is to become the servant of these lowly, miserable creatures. He is able to lead them, only because he is WILLING to serve them.

You and I are the sheep of Jesus’ flock. We are safe. We don’t need to worry about evil. We don’t need to worry about being good enough to go to heaven. We are under the care of the good shepherd, who will not let us down.

The end result of that truth boils down to the truth that you and I need not live in fear. Fear should not be what motivates us or shapes our lives. Rather, our lives should be characterized by thanksgiving and joy. Love is what has saved us— and love can therefore be the defining quality of our lives.

In our first reading today is a depiction of the early church. The passage isn’t so concerned with what the individuals did, as it is concerned with the COMMUNITY. We are told that the apostles taught individuals-- they proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ love for them-- the good news that they are the beloved of God. And in hearing these words, INDIVIDUALS became a COMMUNITY. Scattered through-out the passage are words and sayings like, “generous,” and “together,” and “all” that capture the nature of a community shaped by love.

When we live by fear, the best we can hope for is to not lose what we’ve got. Like the bedtime prayer at the start of this sermon, people in fear pray that they won’t lose their souls.

But Jesus tells us today that he hasn’t come merely to help us keep what we’ve got. Jesus tells us that he has come to add something more. He not only helps us “keep” our lives; he transforms them into something new. Lives characterized by love. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

When our children were little, we were fortunate to have an opportunity to have my wife’s brother’s children come and stay with us for a few days as their parents moved to a new home. At bedtime, we were blessed to learn a new prayer from those children, which we then began to use with our children. It is a prayer that encapsulates the good news of the new and abundant life of love we have received from our good shepherd, Jesus. I would like to share it with you today in closing.

Let us pray:

Jesus, savior, wash away

all that has been wrong today.

Help me everyday to be

gentle, loving, more like thee.



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