4th Sunday of Easter – A LSB #588
Text – John 10:10
The thief comes only to steal & kill & destroy; I came that they may have life, & have it abundantly.
TO STEAL & KILL & DESTROY
During the two years in which I led bible studies at the county jail in North Dakota, I spent the majority of that time working with the man who’d started them. He had a verse from Scripture that he often used to get the attention of the inmates. It was the 1st half of the sermon text for this 4th Sunday of Easter.
He liked to tell the inmates that you can recognize when you’re doing things that are of the devil’s will rather than God’s. To steal & kill & destroy is not God’s work. It probably seems like a no-brainer to most of you, but it wasn’t to a member of one the churches I served out there. Less than a year after graduating from high school he was in the state penitentiary.
He got there by stealing guns from a local hardware store. With all the school shootings that had taken place in those years the feds weren’t real keen on that sort of crime. This member of my church claimed that he had a scholarship to college, but was 15 minutes late for taking the entrance exam, so they wouldn’t allow him to take it that day.
He never made it back, & that’s how quickly a person’s life can start out on the wrong road. To steal & kill & destroy is not so obviously wrong to everyone. This young man didn’t have a job or a place to live & he was hungry. He told his mother that he was perfectly justified in stealing those guns, because he needed money in order to eat.
In my visits with him he was obviously sorry that he got caught, but I sensed he never felt the weight of having committed a sin. “You shall not steal” seems pretty black & white to older generations, but things are a lot more relative to people growing up today. This guy didn’t mean to harm anyone. He just wanted to eat. It’s like stealing is only a sin if you’re out to hurt someone. How easily a person can rationalize their actions in order to excuse themselves from guilt, or from the constraints of the law. With that line of thinking, the end does justify the means. This church member needed to eat & stealing those guns was simply the means for achieving that.
What’s wrong with wanting to eat? That’s the question he was asking himself while in prison. The problem is, from God’s point of view, it is the wrong question. He should have been asking, “How did I mess up my life so badly that I have to steal in order to eat?”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus said, “All who came before Me are thieves & robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” If someone is stealing guns to eat are they actually one of God’s sheep?” After all, Jesus’ sheep don’t listen to the thieves & robbers.
I hope that few of you easily relate to that opening illustration. In North Dakota I dealt with enough of my members in prison to last the rest of my ministry, & I’d rather not have to visit any of you at the ‘big house’ in Jackson. But the lesson from the sermon text for today isn’t really concerned with actual stealing of worldly or material goods.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven...” (Matthew 7:21 ESV) People like Jim & Tammy Baker, who years ago were stealing millions of dollars from their ‘church’ ministry, are the kind of thieves & robbers Jesus is talking about, but not simply because they stole money.
Jesus is referring to the destruction brought upon God’s sheep. The Bakers were not entering the church by the gate, but were climbing in some other way, in order to steal, kill & destroy. They came in order to take from their sheep rather than to feed them. They destroyed life, rather than gave it, as Christ the true Shepherd, gives.
The sexual abuse scandals, which rocked the Catholic church in years past, are
another dimension of how spiritual shepherds have fed themselves at the expense of the sheep. And the Bishops, they didn’t want the church or their reputations to look bad, so they buried the crimes & moved the criminals around to disguise the problem.
They were not entering through the gate of Jesus Christ, but were climbing over the wall in order to steal, kill & destroy. Bringing life to the sheep was the last thing on their mind.
In Jesus’ day it was the Pharisees who were fattening themselves at the expense of the sheep. Their religion was constituted almost entirely of Law. They taught no Good News. And it’s still common, even in our day, for churches & pastors to coerce, or lean on their people to do good works. They threaten them with the law, or with the wrath of God’s anger.
Yet, good deeds done in response to that sort of heavy-handed approach are not good deeds in God’s sight. They are only good if done in response to the love that God has for us, & because of God’s love living within us. His true sheep will listen to Him & do His will without strong-arm tactics or deception & trickery.
But there’s been a trend in our own denomination, for 70 years already, to move away from using the Gospel to motivate people. These false shepherds want to use feel good songs, feel good bible studies & feel good worship to motivate people into serving God.
You can find entire hymns that mention not a single word about Jesus Christ. You can hear complete sermons that say nothing of what God has done for our salvation. False shepherds will tell you “Don’t worry! Be happy! Go & serve the Lord!”
But those words have no power to change your mood when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. In fact, people like myself, just get angrier. The Apostle Paul countered, “This is how Christ gives us confidence in God. He has made us able servants of a new covenant, not of a written Law but of the Spirit, because the written Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4 & 6) The written Law he’s speaking of can be anything that someone tells you to do, like, “Don’t worry, be happy!” That’s law, not good news, & according to St. Paul it kills. He claims it’s the Spirit, or the Good News, that gives life.
The Good News, the Gospel, the stuff with the power to change lives, to actually give life, that is what God has done to make us not worry, & to be happy. That news does have the power to change attitudes because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. “Don’t worry, be happy!” is nothing more than the power of sinful men.
Have you been guilty of preaching “feel good” theology? You know, have you ever told someone, “Just snap out it,” or “Smile”? Then you have tried to take the short cut that all human beings are tempted to follow – that of using the Law to motivate people rather than using the Gospel to change & convert people.
The shortcut saves us time & effort, but the reason we take it is not that we’re concerned about those who are unhappy. We take the shortcut because we’re concerned with ourselves. In that sense each of us has been guilty of stealing, killing & destroying. We’d rather control the sheep than give of ourselves sacrificially in order to support them.
Giving to them will cost us, but most of the time we believe we’re too poor to give. We don’t have enough time, enough energy, enough money, or enough love. That should make you wonder if you’re one of Jesus’ sheep. Remember the Gospel reading? Jesus calls His own sheep by name & goes on ahead of them, & His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.
Do you recognize His voice when He calls you to suffer on account of His name? Have you been following Jesus by serving Him even if it costs you something? Are you listening to the true Shepherd? How do you tell the difference? How do you learn to recognize His voice? Stephen was not an apostle. He was a layman who was murdered for proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. As he died, he prayed for his killers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Was Stephen motivated to sacrifice his life by the words, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”? I think not! The book of Acts says, of Stephen, he was a man full of God’s grace.
That grace is undeserved love. Stephen fully understood that he did not deserve God’s love. Yet Jesus gave it to him along with life abundantly. No, Stephen was no more a perfect man than you or I. He, like each of us, was guilty of stealing, killing & destroying.
Sin is what sinners do, but good deeds are what our Heavenly Father sees when He looks at one of His children. And He sees those good deeds because our Brother Jesus has covered us with the robe of His perfection. That is good news! That news does motivate to live without fear, & then to live with abandon.
Like Stephen, we can pray for the forgiveness of those who harm us, because that forgiveness costs us nothing. We are never too poor when we are God’s children. And when we mess up our own lives so badly that we have to figuratively “steal in order to eat,” that same unending supply of forgiveness is available to cover our sin.
Verse 3 of the Gospel lesson says that Jesus calls His own sheep by name, & that calling, that naming, 1st occurred at your Baptism. Already there the robe of perfection was placed upon you by your Lord & Savior as He claimed you for His own. In hearing & studying His Word, you will learn to recognize His voice.
In receiving the Body & Blood of your Holy Shepherd, who is also the true & sacrificial Lamb, you are strengthened for the journey, so that you might reach the ultimate destination. Jesus Christ, & only He, is the gate through which we enter there. He did not come to steal or to kill or to destroy, but that we may have life, & have it abundantly.
We experience that life already in this world of false shepherds, through faith. But that
fullness of life is not about an SUV in every garage. It is about a spiritual fullness, peace with God, peace with ourselves, & peace with our neighbor. Even men serving time in a state penitentiary can know that peace, because it’s given by faith & not by sight.
The more we read & hear God’s Word, the truer becomes the sound of it, & the more certainly we recognize the thief as he comes to steal & kill & destroy. Matthew wrote of the people in his 7th chapter, “They were astonished at [Jesus’] teaching, for He taught as one who had authority, & not as their teachers of the law.” (Verse 28-29)
They recognize that Jesus is different. They recognize that His message is one of life & not one of death. The sermon text summarizes the contrast between Jesus & the Pharisees. There’s nothing cramping or restricting about life for those who enter God’s fold, because your heart & attitude is made new by God’s creation of the new man within you.
In your life, as you’ve listened to the false shepherds & followed their voice, be assured of this, it is by the wounds of Christ that you may be healed. For in this life, all God’s children are still subject to the rotten & corrupt nature that lives within. Daily it will steal, kill & destroy.
Yet the God who died for His own creation reassures us, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) You see, it’s not what we do, or don’t do, that makes us God’s sheep. It is what Jesus does. He simply calls us to follow to Him. Amen.
Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong. Jesus loves me! He who died heaven’s gates to open wide. He has washed away my sin, lets His little child come in. Amen. LSB 588:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet