Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of Sheep and Shepherds

I preached this sermon for Wednesday of Easter 3, a.k.a. "Good Shepherd" Week, tonight at a St. Louis church's midweek Divine Service. While the exegesis is broad rather than deep, it is primarily based on the one-year lectionary's lessons from Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, and John 10, particularly the following verses (emphasis added):
For thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd 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. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 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" (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

"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" (John 10:11-16).
The Lord is our Shepherd. We are God’s flock. This truth runs like a wood grain through both Testaments of Scripture, is depicted in a large body of religious art. It is embodied in one of Christendom’s favorite psalms. It is familiar from being read and discussed in church services, and not just on Good Shepherd Sunday (or Wednesday), but at every Christian funeral as well. This imagery of sheep and Shepherd is so deeply embedded in our hearts that we may sometimes forget that it is just that: imagery. Metaphor. Figurative language. We sometimes visualize it quite literally, as when we look at a painting of a bearded man leading a flock and we instantly know that he’s Jesus. Perhaps the Biblical imagery of Jesus as our Shepherd has become so familiar that it has lost all meaning for us. This would be unfortunate. The Good Shepherd image of Christ is really an important revelation, and it has a powerful meaning for the whole church, and for each of us.

Yes, we are God’s flock. As our Good Shepherd, Christ is concerned for our care and protection. But to say the Church is God’s flock, and that Jesus is its Shepherd, could be meaningless unless we understand how we are His flock, and what it means for Him to shepherd us.

How did we become Jesus’ flock? Surprisingly, the best answer to that question comes where the Bible describes Jesus as a Lamb! In Revelation 5, John describes Jesus as “a Lamb standing as if slain.” This is to say, Jesus was put to death as a sacrifice, but now He has come back to life again. Then John records the song by which the saints in heaven worship the Lamb: “Worthy art Thou [who] wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God.” This complements the way John the Baptist introduced Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And so Revelation 13 says those who are saved have their names written in “the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.”

So, how did we become Jesus’ flock? He purchased us, that’s how. With what did He purchase us? With His blood, shed on the sacrificial altar of the cross. For whom was He sacrificed? For all mankind. And what is the result of His dying and rising again? He has caused people from every nation on earth to become God’s property. Even as we serve in our lowly station in life, we are royalty in God’s kingdom, reigning on earth but subject to God in heaven. Even as infants, at the Baptismal font we have been gathered into Christ’s priesthood. Revelation 1 says Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.”

Note this well: We did not come into this kingdom by our works or our choice. He chose us before we knew Him. He purchased us with His own blood. He made us His own, in the same way a shepherd makes lambs his own. The lamb does not choose the shepherd. A sheep comes into the flock either by being purchased or by being born, and it has no control over either process. In the same way, Jesus became our Shepherd by right of the purchase price He paid, the ultimate price of His innocent death. And we become members of this flock by the new birth that Jesus gives, through the faith-giving power of Baptism and the Word.

So Peter tells us that God has ordained us as a “royal priesthood” to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Paul tells us that, as God’s priests, we are qualified to present our bodies to Him as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Peter also tells us that as a spiritual house of God’s building, we can “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Why? Because Jesus has made us such a royal priesthood. He unconditionally delivered us from the kingdom of Satan to God’s kingdom. He set us free from the unending cycle of sin and atonement by the once-for-all sacrifice of Himself. Now, therefore, we serve Him with such spiritual sacrifices as prayer, patient suffering, love for one another, and above all faith.

So much for how Jesus became our Shepherd. Now, what does it mean for Him to shepherd us? What does all this pretty imagery about sheep munching grass in a pasture have to do with us? It has to do with the way Jesus keeps your faith alive through all the pressures and trials of life. It has to do with how He protects you from spiritual harm and keeps you from going astray.

In Matthew 18 and Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the pasture to search for one lost sheep; when he finds it he rejoices. This parable is about bringing a sinner to repentance. So, first of all, Jesus shepherds us by seeking us out when we stray into sin and error. He would have us repent and be comforted by His forgiveness. How? By sending ministers to apply His bitter medicine of Law and His sweet, soothing Gospel.

It isn’t always politic to speak of ministers as shepherds. But that is how Scripture describes them. When the apostles talk about the ministry, the word “shepherd” (pastor) is one of the terms they use, together with “elder” (presbyter) and “overseer” (bishop). Peter declares: “I exhort the elders among you... shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight... [and] proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” Paul also urged the elders of the Ephesian church: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Jesus Himself instructs Peter in John 21: “Tend My lambs, shepherd My sheep, tend My sheep.” Which is to say, feed them, protect them.

What do we need to be protected from? False teachers, for one thing. In Matthew 7, Jesus warns us about wolves in sheep’s clothing, by whom He means false teachers. Paul echoes this concern in Acts 20: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert . . . ” False teachers aren’t the only danger to Jesus’ flock, nor the only threat that He describes as wolves. According to Matthew 10 and Luke 10, Jesus tells His apostles: “Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves,” meaning that they would be persecuted for His sake. In Matthew 9 and Mark 6, we read that Jesus took pity on the multitudes “because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.”

Discouragement, sadness, and affliction can be our enemies, just like the devil and his temptations, which try to lead us away from Christ. Ignorance, being without the Word of God to light our way or to show us God’s mercy in Christ, can make us like sheep without a shepherd. Being led by a faithless or spineless teachers who crumple under pressure, or who run away at every sign of trouble, puts us in the same danger as sheep shepherded by a hireling who runs away when the wolves approach. And in John 10, Jesus talks about a thief who climbs over the fence rather than going through the gate. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy the sheep. This is like a false minister whose teaching is not from God, or who operates on his own authority. “I am the door of the Sheep,” Jesus says; only through Him do we come to salvation and abundant life. “I am the Good Shepherd,” He says, “and I lay down My life for the sheep.” Because He gives His life for us and to us, the flock follows the sound of His voice—that is, His divine teaching.

Jesus laid down His life for us. This is what He meant when He warned the apostles before His arrest and crucifixion: “I will strike down the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Scattered indeed: when the soldiers showed up to clap Jesus in irons, the disciples ran for it. Since then, there have been times when believers were divided and confused by conflict and trouble, or when affliction and distress sent their faith into a tailspin. But however scattered God’s people may seem to be, we are never without our Shepherd. More importantly, we are never without Jesus’ comforting promise: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.”

Listen to Jesus’ voice. Listen to the voice of your Shepherd, warning you against danger and calling to His lost and straying lambs. Where do you hear that voice? In the ministry of preaching Law and Gospel, which Christ has given to the church. Listen to the voice of your Shepherd, leading you to nourishing pastures and refreshing streams. What pastures and streams are these? They are the ministry of Word and Sacrament, cleansing you inside and out with the pure water of Baptism and Absolution, and giving Christ’s sin-atoning body and blood for you to eat and drink. Rejoice that Your Shepherd protects you from false teachers who would destroy your faith, like thieves who break in to steal, maim, and kill. Rejoice that He sends you strong shepherds to watch over you by teaching you faithfully and resisting pressure to desert their duties. Rejoice that your Shepherd has gathered you from the nations to feed on the pasture of Israel, namely the prophetic Scriptures. Rejoice that He has laid down His life for you, bearing your sins in His body on the cross so that you might die to sin and live to righteousness; rejoice also that God has raised up the Shepherd of the Sheep, and brought you back to Him by the power of His Holy Spirit.

We join David this day in rejoicing in the Shepherd who abundantly supplies all that we need. With Christ as our Shepherd, we lack nothing. In the pastures and streams of Word and Sacrament, He restores our souls. With God’s forgiveness won for us on Jesus’ cross, we can face the valley of the shadow of death without fear. With Jesus’ promise to give us His kingdom and to be with us, we will fear no evil. With the rod of the Law to correct us, with the staff of the Gospel to lead us, with the anointing of the Spirit to assure us that God has indeed chosen us to be His kingdom-priests forever, our cup truly overflows. Whatever we may face in this life, we face knowing that God’s goodness and lovingkindness are behind us, and an eternal dwelling in His house is ahead. Shall we not therefore rejoice? For by the incomprehensible grace of God, He has chosen to make us His flock by the dying blood of the Lamb, who is Christ. And that same blood continually covers us, fills us, cleanses us, and anoints us through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. In this very real and powerful way, Jesus shepherds us. Is He a Good Shepherd? Yes, indeed: we could not ask for a better!


RobbieFish said...

That last bit is based on Psalm 23, you know. I stuffed this sermon with Scripture quotes and allusions without citation; see if you can spot them. Looking back, I wish I had emphasized Ezekiel's "I will" language in the sermon, to support my main thesis about who causes us to be & remain Jesus' flock. But then, if I had said everything I wanted to say, it would have been a much longer sermon; and, moreover, it wouldn't have been finished on time!

Oak Abbey said...

Lovely. Thank you for this.
Deep Peace and Every Blessing!