Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 25, 2004| St. John 10:11-16
When Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd He makes it crystal clear that He is claiming to be the true God. He says I am in such a way as to identify Himself with the Lord God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush as “I am.” Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the same Lord God who led Abraham out of idolatry. He promised that all nations would be blessed in Abraham’s Seed and in the fullness of time He became Abraham’s Seed. He delivered Isaac from death on Mount Moriah. He wrestled all night long with Jacob and blessed him at the break of dawn. He guided the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground. He steadied David’s aim when he slung the stone into Goliath’s forehead, killing that fierce blasphemer. He is the Shepherd of the twenty-third psalm. He is the same God who sent prophets to confront His people with their sins and then to speak comforting words of forgiveness and peace to them, urging them to return to Him who was their salvation.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the word “good” sets Him apart from all others. Every other shepherd enriches himself at the expense of the sheep. Jesus enriches the sheep at His own expense. Other shepherds kill the sheep for food. Jesus lays down His life for the sheep and gives to them His own body and blood for food. Other shepherds depend on the sheep for their livelihood. Jesus depends on no one. He is God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. He doesn’t need the sheep. He doesn’t depend on the sheep. They need Him and depend on Him. And He gives His life for the sheep.
The hireling offers some other kind of a religion that requires the sheep to find their own pasture and to protect themselves from the wolf and other dangerous predators. But sheep are not capable of doing so. Sheep can bleat loudly, but of what value is that if no one hears them and comes to their rescue? And sheep have such a keep sense of hearing that they can recognize their shepherd’s voice from a cacophony off voices. But of what benefit is such hearing if there is no shepherd’s voice to be heard? The hireling is no shepherd because when the wolf comes he runs away. He can’t help the sheep from a safe distance. He must be with the sheep to do battle for them whatever the cost. He must remain with them and they must know for a certainty that he will never leave them for one moment or they won’t be able to trust in him.
This is why we do not trust in the words of the hireling. He leaves us to the tender mercies of the wolf who wants only to kill us and devour us for food. The hireling is more concerned with his own safety than he is with the welfare of the sheep. He works for pay, not for the shepherd or the sheep. He teaches only that doctrine that won’t antagonize the wolves. That is, he teaches only law and morality. That doesn’t raise the ire of the wolf. The gospel makes the wolf furious. That’s because the gospel drives the wolf away. It teaches that God forgives us all our sins because the Good Shepherd laid down His life for us. The hymnist expresses it so well:
What punishment so strange is suffered yonder!
The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander;
The Master pays the debt His servant owe Him,
Who would not know Him. (ELH 292, verse 4)
But it is precisely in this dying for us and paying our debt that the Shepherd makes Himself known to us. The preaching of the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of the Good Shepherd’s vicarious living and dying for the sheep is the message that protects the sheep from the wolf. The hireling will preach this message only until the wolf attacks. Then he will run away because he cares for himself first and serves himself first and the last thing he will do is take on a wolf for the sake of the sheep.
The Good Shepherd said He would give His life for His sheep and that’s what He did. On the one hand, it was because of the wolf. He hates His teaching and he hates Him. This is why he plotted His death. His teaching angered the wolf because it protected the sheep and the wolf cannot eat protected sheep. The teaching of the Good Shepherd protects the sheep because of what it gives them. The word or doctrine of Christ gives us what it says. It doesn’t set forth religious principles for success that depend on our doing. The Good Shepherd never leaves the sheep to their own devises because He knows they are helpless with Him. He doesn’t say to the sheep, “Here you go, sheep. Follow this twelve-step program of personal self-improvement. First do this, and then do that, and then put this into practice. I’ve got to go now. Just call Me if you have any questions.” Jesus doesn’t do it that way. His doctrine doesn’t lay the burden of doing on the sheep. He bears that burden for the sheep. And His doctrine costs Him His life. The life He gave up for the sheep is the life that He gives to the sheep. He gave His life up willingly when the wolf set out to steal it from Him.
But it wasn’t really on account of the wolf that He died. It was because the Father willed it, and the Father’s will must be done. It must be done because the Father and the Son live in perfect unity with one another and have so lived from eternity, before time began. The Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father. This is why Jesus lays down His life for the sheep. The Father wants Him to.
The Good Shepherd knows His sheep and they know Him. This knowledge is a wonderful thing. It goes both ways and it goes back and forth. From the side of the Good Shepherd it is love. From the side of the sheep it is faith. Faith receives love. The Good Shepherd knows us in love. From eternity – before there was ever a world or a universe or any human being – the Good Shepherd knew His sheep. He knew every one of His sheep by name. He loved them as a flock and He loved each one of them individually. In eternity the Father and the Son lived in the perfect unity of divine love. The Son loved us with the same love with which His Father loved us. In eternal love our Father saw us trapped as helpless sheep in the mire of our own making. He saw us clinging with fierce determination to the sins that were destroying us. He saw our self-love, our defiance of His authority, our contempt for His truth, our disregard for one another, and our devotion to self-gratification at the expense of our neighbor’s marriage, property, and honor. He saw us destroying ourselves in open rebellion against Him.
And He loved us. He saw through all of the filthiness of our sin and He loved us with a Father’s love. This love sent His Son to become the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep. This love is revealed most clearly on the cross where the Good Shepherd offered up His holy life vicariously for us. His innocent life was offered up to God in the place of our guilty lives so that we would find in that holy offering the eternal love of God for us.
But it’s not as if we found this love. This love found us. The power of this love is not only seen in how Christ bore our sins and removed them from us, but it is seen in how He seeks us out in order to bring this love into our lives. This love sought us and found us when we were helpless and could contribute nothing to being found. This love calls us by name in Holy Baptism where we are truly christened by putting on Christ. The Good Shepherd preaches this love to us through His undershepherds. He doesn’t stop preaching it because we never stop needing to hear it. This love is sealed by the very body and blood of the Shepherd who is in truth the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He gives us to eat and to drink of His body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
There is only one flock. The “other sheep” that were not God’s people but now have become God’s people are the Gentiles who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and trust in what they hear. To trust in Jesus and to trust in His voice are the same thing. We do not fashion Jesus according to our own faith. It is the other way around. Our faith is fashioned and formed by what it receives and it receives what it hears and it hears the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is Jesus. The wolf is the devil. The sheep are the Christians. The flock is the Holy Christian Church. The language is simple and straightforward. Nowhere will you find the church so clearly defined. In the Smalcald Articles, one of the lesser known of the Lutheran Confessions, Luther speaks for us all when he says, “For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” He’s right. While the church cannot be seen, she most surely can be identified.
The church is not recognized by finding the correct kind of government, whether hierarchical or democratic or somewhere in between. The church is not seen in bureaucratic flow charts, programs, constitutions and bylaws, synodical structures, and the like. The church is where the sheep of the Good Shepherd hear the voice of their Shepherd. He is the only true pastor. He is the only true bishop. He knows His sheep in love and His sheep know Him by faith.
And they follow Him. They hear His voice and they follow Him. When the Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep He also gives them a pattern for their own lives. No, we cannot lay down our lives to take them up again. But when the Good Shepherd suffered for us, He left us an example to follow. In the very act of taking away our sins and winning our very lives for us, He showed us what the good life really is. He did not return insult with insult. He didn’t issue threats against those that did Him wrong. Instead, He entrusted Himself to His Father in heaven. The good life is a life of honesty, gentleness, and patience. We contend for the pure teaching of the gospel because our very lives depend on it. We need to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd or we will be destroyed. This is why we suffer no assault on the truth of the gospel. But we do not need to defend our pride and contend for our own way. This is why we patiently suffer every insult and every slight. That’s what Jesus did. And He is our Good Shepherd whose clear, gracious, and forgiving voice leads us to heaven where there will be no suffering, sin, or death, but rather the pure enjoyment of God’s love forever and ever.