"I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling, and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd."
Sermon for Misericordias Domini Sunday 04/18/21
The Good Shepherd
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Laymen and pastors often hear the Gospel for today differently. Laymen tend to hear about the gentle, loving, self-sacrificing Savior, pictured for us as the Good Shepherd. As a pastor, I hear Jesus, the chief Shepherd, describing the difference between Himself and all those who serve unfaithfully as under-shepherds of His flock. You hear comfort, I hear job-description. I also hear comfort, but I am confronted by the image of the hireling.
Now I know that Jesus was not merely saying either of the things we hear. Surely, He meant us to see both of those messages, but He was also connecting Himself to the prophets, to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who spoke of the unfaithful shepherds of Israel – both the kings and the priests – and who declared that God Himself would be our Shepherd, and that He would be a good and faithful Shepherd. Jesus wasn't just being pastoral (in the sense of pastures and countryside), He was taking His stand as the fulfillment of the prophecies, such as this one from Ezekiel 34:
For thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his flock in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. . . . I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest," declares the Lord GOD. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment. . . .
"Therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey . . .. Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God."
The Good Shepherd is the work of God. He is the one who does not run from danger - any danger, but pays the price. What that tells us is that it's not that Jesus didn't want to flee. He told His disciples that He was sorrowful to the point of death – He really didn't want to go to the cross. He cried out earnestly to His Father in heaven that if there was any other way, He wanted to avoid the cross. But He is the Good Shepherd. He is not a hireling, but the Owner of the sheep. So, He could not run. He could not deny the need of the flock. He could not take care of Himself first. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. So Jesus died – on the cross – in your place and in mine. He died for His sheep, because they were His and He is the Good Shepherd.
And if He is the Shepherd, we must be the sheep. It is useful to consider the image that Jesus leaves with us about who we are. People will often have this wonderful, warm feeling as they consider the picture, but the picture they have in mind is the one where Jesus is holding the sweet little lamb in His arms. That is not a picture of sheep. That is a picture of Jesus. Sheep are another thing altogether.
Just think of the phrase, "a bunch of sheep." It is not a positive image. Sheep are, in fact, among the least intelligent of animals. They will wander from safety into danger without a thought. They will go to where they cannot get back from without assistance, repeatedly. They are helpless in the face of genuine danger. Sheep often do not understand the dangers that confront them – and even when they do, it is often too late for them to flee or do anything about it to protect themselves. That is what makes the sheep a perfect image for God's people – and the Shepherd the perfect image for God Himself. We often do not understand the depth of the danger we live in. We do not see sin for the evil thing that it is, nor do we often see our sins as sins, until it is too late. We do not consider what it means when we make our religion over into something we like, rather than following God. We follow our family, our friends, our neighbors, just like sheep, into things we ought not to do, and into attitudes and values which deny our God and betray the faith we confess. Like sheep, we allow ourselves to be drawn away from what is wholesome and good, many times, by our expectation of some pleasure, some joy, some "greener grass" on the other side of the fence.
When we do discover the danger, and see what we have done, we don't know how to put it back, or to get back ourselves. Even when we know we have gone astray, we are all too often unwilling to be turned around, unwilling to do the things that we know would bless and benefit us, unwilling to give up the things we have become accustomed to or the high regard of the people we have learned to treasure. Instead we just stand still, right where we are, and await disaster rather than repent, or forgive, and turn away from whatever it is that threatens us.
And what can threaten us? Lives accustomed to sin. Too much free time and too great a hunger to be tickled and pleased. Too great a pride to admit our errors. Too much wanting wealth and happiness of a worldly sort, and too little willingness to set aside the desires of our flesh for what God lays before us. The devil, the world and our own sinful flesh can threaten us and destroy us if we are unwilling to give up whatever it is that draws our hearts and our attention from a holy life of faith, whatever it is that keeps us from His Word, whatever it is that makes us too busy to pray or too important to put the others first. Anything which delights us or frightens us into placing God and His grace out of our minds or out of our priorities is one of those things that threatens us. Anything that causes us to forget to trust God or causes us to despair of God's love and good will and forgiveness threatens us.
Of course, there are many people who do not understand Jesus either. Of course, you cannot blame them. The Bible tells us that we cannot understand Him until and unless the Holy Spirit changes you and enlightens your mind and heart. Such people often make of Jesus a new Law-giver, like Moses. They see Jesus as a task-master and a fun-spoiler. Others think of Him as a buddy, a Friend, something like the social director on this giant cruise ship, whose business it is to make us all feel good and have fun and be jump-up-and-down-with-joy happy, and give us a modicum of success in the bargain too. We humans are naturally as clear headed as sheep.
The truth about Jesus is the Gospel. Jesus is the Son of God – True God Himself – who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and was made man. That means that He became one of us, taking on human nature and flesh and blood and was born fully human, while still truly and fully God as well.
The truth about Jesus is that He lived without sin, and spent the last few years of His life teaching His disciples and doing things that should have identified Him as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the Savior intended by God for our rescue from the mess of sin into which we had gotten ourselves.
Then Jesus died. "The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." He died on a cross, as we just celebrated on Good Friday. His death was ours. We had earned it and we deserved it and He did not, but He died for us and in our place anyhow. Because of His great love and His self-giving sacrifice, we are forgiven. Our sins are not held against us. We are no longer reckoned as guilty and deserving punishment and death, but holy and righteous because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus won this for all men, and God has promised that all that trust His promises, and expect what He has promised will receive and possess those promises -- forgiveness and love and blessings now, and life everlasting and resurrection of these tired bodies from our graves, only they will be outfitted for unending and eternal life before God in Glory, which is His gift to those who believe, though Jesus Christ.
Jesus' sheep hear His voice and follow Him. We follow Him into our graves trusting in His power to raise us from the grave to eternal life. We follow with lives of faithfulness and holiness, by His help and power. We will follow Him in His resurrection, also by His help and power. In the course of this life, we hear His voice where He has placed it, in the called servants of the Word who are faithful. We follow by faithfully doing what He has given us to do. We believe in Him, and we cling to His Word and His truth – that is sound doctrine – and we follow His voice.
Others don't. That is an unfortunate truth. Jesus said that His sheep hear His voice. Those who cannot hear it are not His sheep. Those who will not listen are not His sheep. Those who will not believe the things His voice says are not His sheep. Those who will not follow Jesus are not His sheep. In the days of Jesus, shepherds led their sheep, they did not drive them like in a cattle-drive. In fact, you cannot drive sheep as one might drive a herd of cows. You have to lead them. Shepherds of old would meet and their flocks would mingle, but when it came time to part, the shepherds would simply walk away singing their song or calling out their call, and their sheep would each hear his shepherd's voice and follow the right shepherd because he was their shepherd, whom they knew and trusted. Jesus' sheep hear his voice. He said so. Those who do not hear and follow Him are simply and sadly not His sheep.
And Jesus is the Good Shepherd. There are other shepherds out there. They speak different words and lead in different directions. Each has his own agenda. But they do not care for the sheep, except as a means to their own ends. They do not love the sheep because they do not own them, and they cannot save them, because the kind of saving the sheep need is beyond anyone but Jesus. When the dangers of life, or death and hell confront the sheep, those false shepherds, those hirelings, run away and abandon the sheep to their destruction.
But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. That means you are safe. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He will keep you in all your ways. He will guide and guard and bless you. He will not desert you in the hour of need, because He is not merely a hired hand. You need have no fear of life or death. He is Your Shepherd. He has loved you to death and into everlasting life, and He will keep you until you arrive at the heavenly sheepfold.
You and I are the other sheep that Jesus mentioned in our text. We are the ones whom He has added to His flock. Ancient Israel was His flock. We have been added. He knew that we were like sheep – not able to understand, and not able to sense the danger we were in, and not able at all to help ourselves, so He has done it, worked our salvation on the cross, and has spoken His love to us in Word and Sacrament. Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
There are still many false shepherds and hirelings out in the world today. They are those who have their own agendas. Some want to build a large flock that they can lead wherever they will. Some use the sheep for their egos, or they are serving another who would be shepherd, but is not and cannot be. Some just want to fleece their flock. Whatever their goal or agenda, only the Good Shepherd has forgiveness and life and salvation. Only the Good Shepherd can bless and only the Good Shepherd can save.
Only the Good Shepherd is the One promised in ancient prophecy, "I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest," declares the Lord GOD. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment." He has sought you. He has gathered you together into His flock. He has healed your deepest wound - sin and death. And He gives you the rest - the peace and joy of the Gospel. Only those who are too strong and too comfortable to listen to His call are in danger. The Fat and the Strong. Those He will destroy.
So listen for His voice. Be careful to hear His voice and not another. And when you have heard His voice, and you will know that it is His voice, follow Him. Do not let anything, not fame or wealth, not family or friends, not pleasures, or fear, or troubles, or sorrows, or any other thing stand in your way, but follow Him. And be at peace in whatever circumstance you may find yourself, for the Jesus Christ, your Shepherd, is the Good Shepherd.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)