At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.”
(a homily by Rev. Will Weedon, Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Hamel, IL)
Once upon a time (a real time, mind you, not an imagined one), there was a wolf. He was a fat old thing. You see, he had it pretty easy. Whenever he wanted to eat, he only had to walk his door of his cave and look at the sheep that fed right outside. He’d eye this one or that one. And then he’d go after it and with a pretty minimal struggle, he’d bring the sheep down and eat away. And the more that he ate, the bigger he got, and the bigger he grew, the hungrier he got. He was a wicked old thing; sometimes he’d just poke his head out the door and howl. All the sheep began to shiver at the very sound of him. He’d chuckle to himself. “Yes, you better be afraid, you stupid sheep because one of these days I am going to eat you, and it won’t be pleasant, oh no it won’t. Ha! Ha!” This big, bad wolf, you see, had a name. A name of fear. The sheep had only to think of his name and they’d get wobbly on their knees and some would faint outright. His name, you see, was Death. And Death was always hungry and never satisfied. Always eating sheep and always wanting more. And he stank. The very smell of him was worse than his name or his howl. He was altogether dreadful, let me tell you! He was in charge and all the sheep knew it.
There came a day when he was feeling hungrier than usual. He poked his head out the cave door to roar and he couldn’t believe his eyes. Why, right there in front of his door, on his very door-step almost was the fattest, juiciest sheep he’d ever laid his eyes on. The effrontery of it! He drew in the air to fill his vast lungs and then he let out a stone-splitting howl. All the other sheep in the vicinity turned tail and ran. They were afraid. All but the sheep that grazed still just outside his cave. That sheep paid him no heed at all. Kept on eating, just like it hadn’t even heard him. He was getting mad now. He came bounding out the door and right up to that impertinent animal. Again he sucked the air into his lungs and this time he breathed out right in the sheep’s face. The sheep looked up and blinked as the hideous odor of decay was blasted in its face. Totally unconcerned the sheep blinked and then stared.
Now the wolf was getting himself into quite a tizzy. “Don’t you know who I am?” he snarled. The sheep looked at him and said: “Yes. I know.” Calm, at peace even. The other sheep began to creep back at a distance to watch. They couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. “Well,” snarled the Wolf, “aren’t you afraid?” The sheep looked Death, that old wolf, right in the eyes and said: “Of you? You have got to be kidding!” Now the wolf was so livid with anger that he spoke low and menacing: “You’re for it, lamb chops. You are not going to have it easy. I’m going to take you out slow and painfully.” There was a moment of silence and then the sheep said: “I know.”
The other sheep had all been watching because they’d never heard anything like this before. But the moment that the wolf pounced they turned away. A great sadness filled them. They had thought, well, they had scarcely dared to hope, but it was just possible that, this once, the wolf wasn’t going to get his way. But their hopes were dashed. It was an awful and an ugly sight. The wolf chowed down. It was slow and it was painful, just like he said. And in the end, there was nothing left. He turned his rude face, red with blood to the other sheep, and he belched. They turned tail and ran, knowing that he’d be back for them one day soon.
As the wolf went back to his cave, he took out a tooth pick and cleaned his teeth and he thought that he’d never tasted a sheep that was quite so good before. Nothing tough about that meat. It was tender and rich and really altogether satisfying. The thought hit him with surprise. It was almost as though his insatiable hunger had actually been quenched for once. The thought was a little disturbing. Well, no matter, he thought. And off he went to bed.
When the morning came the wolf wasn’t feeling quite himself. It was almost as though he were getting a bit of tummy ache. Such a thing never happened. He always woke up ravenous and went off to start eating first thing in the morning. At least a dozen or so sheep before the dew was off the grass. But not this morning. His tummy WAS grumbling. By noon he was feeling more than discomfort. He was feeling positively ill. He who had brought such pain on those poor sheep, he was getting a taste of pain himself and it was most unpleasant. He kept thinking back to that impertinent sheep he had eaten yesterday afternoon, the one that had tasted so strangely good. Could it have actually been poisoned or something? It wasn’t long before he stopped thinking altogether. The pain was just too great. He rolled around on the floor of his den and his howled and yammered.
The sheep heard the sound and didn’t quite know what to make of it all. They crept cautiously nearer and nearer to the door of his house and turned their heads listening. What could it mean?
It was sometime in the dark of the night that the wolf let out a shuddering howl. Something was alive and moving inside its own gullet. Something that pushed and poked and prodded until with a sudden burst, the gullet was punctured and hole ripped open. And something, rather, someone stepped right out through the hole, right out of the massive stinking stomach. The wolf felt like he was dying. And I suppose in a way he was.
The figure that stepped out of the wolf’s belly was totally unknown to the wolf. Why, it looked like a shepherd. He’d heard of such a critter, but had never actually met one. With a staff in his hand he walked around and stood facing the wolf. And he began to laugh. He laughed and his laugher burst open the door of the wolf’s house. He laughed and the sheep were filled with bewilderment wondering what was going on in there. He laughed and he looked the wolf right in the eye.
“So, you don’t recognize me, old foe? It was I who ate outside your house three days ago. ‘Twas I that you promised would die horribly and how you kept your promise. But what do you propose to do about me now?”
“You? The wolf gasped. The voice was the same; he recognized it. This shepherd was indeed the sheep whom he had swallowed down. “You. But how? Oh, the pain!” The shepherd smiled and said: “Well, I think you’re pretty harmless now, my friend. Go on and try to eat some of my sheep. I promise you that as fast as you swallow them down I will lead right out through the hole I made in your stomach. And then you’ll never be able to touch them again! Ta!”
The wolf howled in fear and anger and rage, but there was nothing he could do. The Shepherd had tricked him, fooled him good! And the Shepherd then stepped outside the door and called the sheep together. They knew his voice too. They’d heard it before. They stood before the Lamb who had become the Shepherd and they listened as he told them what would happen to them. “You’ll die too. He’ll come out in a few days and be hungrier than ever. He’ll swallow you down. But don’t worry. I punched a hole right through his belly and I promise you I’ll bring you out again.”
Once upon a time, and the time was 2,000 years ago. But the promise still holds: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.” It is the comfort of the Resurrection that Christ reaches us today in his Supper. Here we may taste the body and blood that went into the wolf’s mouth, but which the wolf could not hold. As you eat and drink you have the same promise: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life!” Let the old wolf howl and snarl all he will. We know about the hole in his tummy. We know about the Sheep who is the Shepherd. Our Good Shepherd. Amen!