Keep Close to Your Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd Sunday – April 22, 2018

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:28-32)

“Roche limit” is a scientific term. It determines how close a planet can come to another object before it is ripped apart, or pulled apart by that object’s gravity. The Roche limit for Earth is about 10,000 miles. Out of context that might not mean anything to you. But if an object with the same mass as Earth travels closer than that mark, then both bodies would tear apart. In the case of large stars and black holes the situation gets worse. The planet would simply be devoured.

The Roche limit is the scientific answer to an everyday question. You have probably asked it before: “How close is too close?” How immersed can I become in a book that glorifies drugs and murder? How long can I watch a revealing movie before I feel the need to turn off the tv? How much gossip can I listen to before my conscience finally stops me? What is my spiritual Roche limit?

It is a difficult question because the answer always seems to be changing. In fact, it often seems to be changing for the worse. If I had to guess, I would bet that your spiritual Roche limits were not always this close.

Perhaps you used to close the book sooner. A movie with shady content had been a non-starter. Gossip rarely piqued your interest. Those limits have since changed. In fact, those limits seem to be constantly changing.

Your sinful nature constantly tests your limits. It entices you closer and closer to those dangerous objects until soon you find yourself right at the limit. One more inch and you cross over the threshold. Your mantle shifts. Your self-contained gravity gives way. Your core rips apart. At that point the devil cries “Victory!” And you are lost.

The Apostle Paul gets that same warning across this morning. He doesn’t use the scientific term “Roche limit.” Instead, he uses a far more practical and relatable example. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Watch yourself, as a sheep in the flock of your Good Shepherd, Jesus. Paul brings up that warning for good reason. There were enemies from without: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” And there were enemies within: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

And that’s what happened. Paul’s words in Acts 20 were, in essence, his farewell speech to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He tells them, “Be on your guard!” And Paul said those things because he understood sinful nature. He knew that as sheep, we are constantly pushing the limits. We are often tempted to wander further and further from our Lord. To go back to that scientific term, our spiritual Roche limit gets closer and closer to the dangerous objects of this world. And eventually, if left unchecked, it leads to oblivion.

The enemies threatening the Ephesian believers continue to threaten us today. Paul described “savage wolves” as the type of people who would rip apart a congregation. Ephesus had their fair share of those.

Paul himself had seen unbelievers riot against the Christians in Ephesus, capture some, and persecute others. It happened before, and it would happen again.

But the greater danger was within. Some within the church at Ephesus had become “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They had “turned to meaningless talk.” They wanted “to be teachers of the law, but they [didn’t] know what they were talking about.” Well-meaning Christians had added rules to God’s Word. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods.”

Believers in Ephesus had reached their spiritual Roche limit. Many had wandered from the faith. They were ripped apart. And if it could happen in Ephesus, where Paul had preached, where Timothy was pastor – it could happen anywhere.

Limits define us. As imperfect humans, we measure what we cannot do. We are judged by what we can accomplish and what we cannot accomplish. And that has been true of every human except for one. Jesus, our limitless God, came to live among us as a limited human. Every time the devil tried to push Jesus to a spiritual Roche limit, Jesus answered back with the words of Scripture.

Limitless, perfect and divine, Jesus allowed his limits to be pushed by his enemies. Some of those enemies came from without. The Pharisees, the Jewish leaders and King Herod all acted against Jesus to capture and kill him. But some of those enemies turned out to be from within. Judas was the wolf in sheep’s clothing who betrayed his Lord. Peter also denied knowing Jesus.

It all led to Jesus’ flock of sheep scattering. The Good Shepherd was apprehended. And in order to save his sheep, your limitless God took your limitless punishment upon himself on the cross. To make you his sheep, Christ “bought [you] with his own blood.”

Now today, your Good Shepherd has a serious warning for you. Keep close to your Good Shepherd. And Paul reminds us why that is so very important: “I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

So where does that put your spiritual Roche limit? How close to sin is too close? How far can you wander as a sheep from your Good Shepherd’s fold? Today your Lord is clear – Don’t find out! Don’t secretly slip into sin, because that sin takes you closer and closer to destruction. Take a lesson from the world’s wisest man, Solomon, who once advised: “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.”

Go where worlds of sin don’t collide. Go where eternal oblivion cannot follow. Follow the path of righteousness your Savior Jesus, your Good Shepherd, leads you on. It is a road with only one, beautiful, perfect ending. And it is Christ, who will help you to flee from sin and strife, to his glorious eternal life. Amen.