Good Shepherd Sunday
May 8, 2011
“The Shepherd and his Sheep”
St. John 10:11-16
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” St. John 10:11-16
Osama bin Laden’s death was richly deserved and welcomed. He got what he had coming. Justice was served. But his death benefited no one. It brought no one back to life. It undid none of the evil he had done in his life. The death of an evil man may be just. We may applaud those who brought him to justice and say that it’s about time. But in the end we must regret that neither his life nor his death brought about the good that God would have us do in this world.
But even in the case of a good man, death does no good. The example of a good life can inspire others. This is true. A moral example can be more compelling than orders to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong. The example of a man or a woman who promotes love in the face of hatred and who risks life and limb for the benefit of others is a valuable life. But death benefits no one. In fact, death is loss.
Muhammad was the prophet of the Muslim religion and Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Mormon religion. They both died. Muhammad was poisoned by a Jewish woman in retaliation for his torture and murder of the Jews of the city of Khaybar. He died cursing the Jews and the Christians. Joseph Smith died in the Nauvoo, Illinois prison with a gun in his hand. These men died, but they did not die for anyone or anything. They died for no good reason. They died as the wages of sin.
Jesus distinguishes himself from all other religious leaders. He not only dies. He dies for his sheep. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” He gives his life. It is not taken away from him against his will. Jesus says, “No one takes [my life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” Jesus did not run away from death. And he did not curse his enemies as Muhammad did or shoot at them as Joseph Smith did. He willingly embraced death as the substitute for all sinners who were condemned to death on account of their sins. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.
That’s how he helps them. He dies for them. He purchases them. He redeems them. He makes them his own by suffering and dying for their sins, taking their sin away, and rendering them holy and pure and innocent. This is how the good shepherd’s death is for the sheep. He’s not fighting for himself. He is suffering for the sins of the world.
The hireling knows nothing of that. The hireling works for pay. He doesn’t own the sheep. He hasn’t died for them. He hasn’t shed his blood for them. He hasn’t redeemed them. He has paid no price to set them free from their sins. They cost him nothing. Rather, they are the source of his income. Instead of enriching them, he uses them to enrich himself. The hireling cares nothing about the forgiveness of sins.
Forgiveness sets sinners free. The message of the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep is the gospel by which sinners are protected from all evil. It is the voice that protects the sheep from the wolf. When the sheep hear this voice and follow this voice they are safe and the wolf can’t touch them. But if they cannot hear this voice they are doomed. The wolf will smell them, track them, attack them, and kill them.
The good shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know him. He knows them from eternity. He loved them before they were even born. He chose them to be his own. He lived for them and died for them. He knows their every weakness. He understands them better than they understand themselves. Surely, the one who bore our sins in his body on the tree knows us. He felt the same temptations that we feel. Where we gave in he resisted. The guilt that we feel he felt. But he did more than feel guilt. He suffered the punishment that guilt called for. He knows his sheep.
And his sheep know him. They know him by his voice. A sheep recognizes the voice of its shepherd. This isn’t a matter of intelligence. A sheep isn’t particularly intelligent. A dog or a cat or a pig is smarter than a sheep. It is the sheep’s simplicity that makes Christ’s illustration so apt. A sheep doesn’t figure out for itself how to find safety. He simply recognizes the voice of the one who can keep him safe. That’s enough. We recognize the gospel. That’s enough.
Oh, what a precious knowledge this is! The hireling caters to folks who don’t know the gospel and cannot distinguish it from the law. The hirelings and their followers think that all religions are essentially the same. That’s because all they know about religion is a list of do’s and don’ts. They don’t know the need of sheep for a shepherd who will lay down his life for them. They don’t know the need for atonement for sins. They trust in how good they are and are bored or impatient with talk about how God became a man and as a man did what all mankind required for their salvation. They look at all this talk about Jesus as a distraction from the main message of true religion: to do good works that will show how good and pious you are.
The hireling packs them in. After all, people are hungry for moral instruction, especially in our day when it seems that moral standards are up for grabs. The hireling teaches them how to be successful in life, how to overcome insecurities, bad habits, and a poor self-image. They promote a religion of human potential and there is never a shortage of people out there who know that they have fallen short of their potential and want to have a better life.
And, of course, so much of what the hireling says is true. Moral instruction is a solid foundation for happiness. Bad habits can destroy a family, a career, a life. Self-confidence can get someone off his backside to do what needs to be done instead of wallowing in self-pity. The hireling is selling some good merchandize.
But then the wolf comes. He comes covered in sheep’s clothing. He is a pious Christian. Or so it seems. But in fact he is set to destroy. He attacks the faith of the sheep. He starts subtly, perhaps questioning the accuracy of certain biblical accounts – maybe the creation account in Genesis – after all, it contradicts the consensus of science. Then he’ll question whether Holy Baptism really does grant the forgiveness of sins (isn’t it just water) or whether the Lord’s Supper really is Christ’s body and blood. And what difference does it make, really? He’ll chip here, cut there, and tear off a bit to make the faith more palatable to popular opinion.
His goal is always the same. It is to take the gospel away from the sheep. It is to denigrate the blood and righteousness of Jesus. It is to falsify the truth that a poor, helpless, and condemned sinner is justified and forgiven by God and saved eternally, not because of any good thing he has done or will do, but solely on account of the holy obedience and suffering of Jesus that brings him full and free forgiveness that is received through faith alone. When the sheep no longer trusts in this gospel he is helpless. For if Jesus is not his righteousness before God he must depend on himself and depending on himself he must fall away from the faith.
The gospel is not something you can learn, commit to memory, file away, and ignore. Every religious impulse in our natural condition teaches us that we must do what must be done to bring ourselves back to God. And the wolf wants the sheep to follow this religious impulse – not the voice of the shepherd. As long as the sheep is hearing the gospel it is safe. When the sheep no longer hears the voice of it shepherd it is in danger of being destroyed, for faith can’t produce itself. It needs the gospel.
The Church is the flock of sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd. The Church is not a government. It is not a visible power structure. It has no hierarchy. The Church is hidden under much sin and weakness. She is despised in this world. She is wealthy beyond compare, but the world despises her wealth. She has the forgiveness of sins purchased by the shepherd who laid down his life for her. She has the voice of the good shepherd who by his speaking gives to her the treasures of heaven. She is holy, even though she may feel her sins and guilt.
The hireling doesn’t serve this church. He serves the fat and strong, the self-satisfied and self-righteous. But the true sheep of the good shepherd hear his voice. In the Smalcald Articles, little known among the Lutheran Confessions, Martin Luther defines the church quite simply. He writes:
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.
This Church is one. She may appear to be divided because of all the sin and false teaching that afflict her. But in actual fact she is united as one for every member shares the same faith and trusts in the same Savior. Jesus said:
And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
The “other sheep” are the Gentiles. Jesus came first to the Jews and then went to the Gentiles. There is no division in Christ’s church between ethnic groups or races of people. The denominational differences that we see are not divisions in the holy Christian Church. That church is one, just as Jesus said. We all receive the same forgiveness and are filled with the same Spirit. We hear the same voice and follow the same good shepherd. This is a blessed reality that Jesus himself promises. This unity of the Church is not had by clever politicking as if we can unite ourselves by compromising on God’s doctrine. It is rather a gift of the Spirit of truth. We promote the unity of the Church by holding fast to the voice of our shepherd, which is also the voice of life and salvation.
The shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep will keep and sustain and defend his flock on earth until he returns to take us home. Meanwhile, we listen to his voice and find our lives in his holy word. Amen