Good Shepherd Sunday
April 30, 2017
“Sheep Need a Shepherd”
Thus says the Lord GOD: "Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down," says the Lord GOD. I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment." Ezekiel 34:11-16
The good shepherd is Jesus. The sheep are the Christians. The flock is the holy Christian Church. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The good shepherd lay down his life for the sheep and took it up again on the third day. He came, not only for the nation of Israel, but for the nations scattered throughout the world. He said,
The one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church is gathered from all over the world. She is the true Israel. She is the sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd, Jesus. They hear the voice of the good shepherd, believe what he says, treasure his word in their hearts, and follow him. Three things go together: the pure word of God, true faith, and the holy Christian Church. The pure word of God is centered in Christ who died for us and rose again. The true faith is the Christian faith. The holy Christian Church is the body of Christ.
There is no faith without God’s word. This is why God’s word must be preached. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” (John 10:27) St. Paul writes, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Faith does not come by seeing. Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) Faith comes by hearing. It comes by hearing what God says. Last Sunday we saw how the crucified and risen Lord Jesus gave the power of the keys to his church. The keys are the law and the gospel. The law and the gospel are preached.
The word of God is written down in the Bible. St. John gives us the reason the Bible was written in words from last Sunday’s Gospel Lesson,
The Bible is the word of the Holy Spirit who works the true Christian faith in our hearts. He makes us into Christians and keeps us in the Christian faith. God wants us to read our Bible.
Anyone who has read the Bible knows that God wants us to go to church. We don’t find God by reaching up to heaven. We don’t find God by searching our religious feelings. We cannot know God apart from his word. We need to hear his voice. We need to go to a church where God’s word is purely preached and where Christ’s sacraments are rightly administered. God speaks his word through the mouths of men. Preachers often fall under the evil influences of the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. There have always been more false preachers than true preachers. Preachers want to be popular. Popularity is a powerful drug to which vain preachers become addicted. They want to please people more than they want to please God. They preach what they think the people want to hear. People-pleasing preachers appear to be very pious to those they please, but because they aren’t committed to God’s pure word, they leave the sheep scattered and lost, injured and weak.
Throughout the Bible God speaks harsh words against false teachers who mislead his people. In the verses just before our text Ezekiel preaches God’s word against the shepherds who abused and neglected the sheep for their own gain. Jesus refers to such self-serving shepherds as hirelings. We Christians must learn to distinguish between the voice of the good shepherd and the voices of the hirelings. The false preachers scatter the sheep. The reason the sheep wander around in the darkness is because they have been deprived of the truth.
Ezekiel prophesies about Jesus. He writes of the good shepherd who will seek out his flock and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. He, who is the truth, will reveal the truth to his sheep. This will lighten the darkness and cause the sun to disperse the clouds. False teaching covers up God’s word with lies. The good shepherd will feed his sheep on the mountains of Israel. The mountains of Israel are the Holy Scriptures. He will feed them in good pasture. The good pasture is the pure gospel and sacraments. Through these the good shepherd shepherds his sheep.
The good shepherd does two things. First, he lays down his life for his sheep. Then, he feeds his sheep. Their food is the word of God. Jesus says of them:
He who laid down his life for the sheep feeds his sheep with the words of life. He gives them life when he gives them his word. This is why the church gathers together. The Epistle to the Hebrews says:
When we assemble together as Christ’s church we begin by invoking God’s name: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We appeal to our baptism and claim our status as children of God. We confess our sins and are absolved. In the services that we recorded where no congregation was assembled I did not speak the absolution that is printed in the left hand column on pages 184 and 185 in the hymnal. Instead, I spoke the more general declaration of grace that is printed in the right hand column on these pages. That’s because the absolution is spoken personally. It’s like the Lord’s Supper. It is given personally. One cannot administer a sacrament electronically. Bodily presence is necessary.
It has been a blessing during these trying times to be able to watch church on the screen when we were not able to assemble together. But there is a downside to this. Church isn’t what we watch. It is what we are. God gathers us together in his name. He feeds us wholesome food for our souls. He feeds us in the reading and preaching of his word. He feeds us in the liturgy that we say and sing. He feeds us in the hymns we sing. He feeds us with the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. Church is not a spectator sport. It’s not like going to a ball game or a concert. We participate. God talks to us. We talk to God. God gives his gifts to us. We give our gifts to God. God talks, we talk, God gives, and we give. God speaks to us as the body of Christ. We respond as one body. There is one flock.
Sheep don’t find themselves. They must be found. The flock doesn’t find itself. The shepherd searches out his sheep. He seeks and finds the lost, scattered, broken, and sick sheep. He treats them tenderly. He knows their weaknesses. He understands their folly. He knows their temptations and failings. When Jesus took our place under the law, he experienced what we experience. We sin against God in thought, word, and deed. Jesus bore those sins in his own body. He felt those sins in his own soul. We are tempted to sin by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Jesus faced the most vicious temptations and assaults of the devil. Jesus knows us. He knows how we are damaged by the evil influences of the devil, the world and our flesh. He makes us to lie down in green pastures. He comforts us with the forgiveness of sins. He sets us at peace. When we gather together as his church and hear, confess, sing, and pray his holy word, he fills us with the Holy Spirit. His word penetrates our minds and captures our hearts. We come to church because we are the church and we are the church because of what God gives us in church. Here is where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled. Jesus is the shepherd who gives his own life for his sheep. His words are words of life because they convey to us the life he won by sacrificing himself for us on the cross and rising from the dead victorious over sin, death, and hell.
Those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness are fools. They are fat and strong – at least in their own minds. They don’t need forgiveness – or so they think. They think they’re good enough as they are. They don’t need to be taught God’s word. They don’t need to be forgiven of their sins. They have their own inner spirituality. They know. They don’t need to be taught. They are what they ought to be (or so they think), and the message of Christ crucified doesn’t appeal to them. These Jesus will destroy. He is not only the shepherd who cares for his sheep; he is also the Son of God who will break the nations into pieces. The Psalmist warns, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way.” (Psalm 2:12) Those who despise God’s grace in Christ and rely instead on their own virtue remain under God’s judgment.
Sheep need a shepherd, not a hireling. The good shepherd doesn’t fleece the sheep for his own profit, butcher them and eat them for food. He gives to them his own body and blood for their food. When he puts his body and blood into our bodies and says to us, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” we know as certainly as the sheep knows the voice of his shepherd, that God has seen our sins and instead of judging us and condemning us has had mercy on us and has forgiven us. He does not treat us as we deserve. He doesn’t make us earn his grace. He is the good shepherd who dies for sheep who loved to wander. He is the Master who pays the debt his servants owe him. The love of the shepherd for his sheep is deeper than our simple minds can fathom, but we know it is true and we know it is for us. This love invites us to church, which is our true home in this world, and the gateway to our eternal home in heaven.
Rolf D. Preus