The Good Shepherd Knows His Sheep
Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| April 6, 2008
“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, 14-16
He does not say that he is a good shepherd. He says that he is the Good Shepherd. There is no one like him. Another word for a shepherd is a pastor. Last Sunday’s sermon was about the pastoral office, the office that the Good Pastor, Jesus, established on the day he rose from the dead. He sent out the apostles to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. He sent them out to feed his sheep. He didn’t send them out to feed their own sheep, but to feed his sheep. The sheep of the Good Shepherd don’t belong to any mere man. They belong to the God become man, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
His knows his sheep. He knows who they are. He knows what they are. He knows what they are made of. The transcendent God who lives in that unapproachable light that no man can enter has become a man. He became our brother. He knows our weaknesses because he felt them. He knows our sins because he suffered for them. He knows what we are like.
But more than that, he knows us as his own. He doesn’t say, “I know the sheep.” He says, “I know my sheep.” The sheep of the Good Shepherd belong to him. They are his.
They are his because he chose them as his own. One doesn’t become a Christian on one’s own initiative. God chooses his children. The sheep of the Good Shepherd are chosen by the Father. They are given to him by the Father and this choosing of the sheep does not happen as a result of a divine measurement of the value or quality of the sheep. God chooses his children from eternity and no one can take them away from him. Jesus says,
My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.
(St. John 10, 27-29)
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and calls his Christians his sheep. A sheep’s relationship to his shepherd is like the Christian’s relationship to Christ. A shepherd leads his sheep to good pasture where they can eat good grass and drink pure water and lie down in safety. The pasture of the Good Shepherd’s sheep is the word of God and the sacraments of Christ. The pure and wholesome word of God is their daily bread. By hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd they receive that spiritual food that gives them eternal life.
A sheep has two characteristics that we would do well to consider.
First, a sheep isn’t very bright. He doesn’t have independent judgment. He is a follower and he’ll follow another sheep right into danger. Sheep follow along. They don’t know any better.
Second, a sheep has very acute and discriminating hearing. While he’s too stupid to understand that if he follows that sheep over there he just might find himself falling off of a cliff, he can learn to recognize the voice of his shepherd and to distinguish it from other voices.
A Christian is like a sheep. Every Christian knows that he is not particularly bright when it comes to spiritual matters. In fact, we are by nature very foolish. Most of our folly consists in not recognizing it for what it is. The fact is that every single spiritual problem we face is due to our own spiritual incompetence. If left to ourselves we will follow one another into the most damaging of errors and sins. But, like sheep, we don’t know this by nature. This is why we must be taught by the Good Shepherd. Whenever people come up with their own so called “spirituality” it is always a sham.
Religious people confuse morality with spirituality. They think that if they follow certain generally accepted rules – which is what morality is – they will thereby find true peace with God. They will know God. By doing what is in them to do they will come into fellowship with God.
Years ago I was visiting with a member of the Masonic Lodge who was also a lifelong Lutheran. He wanted to know why our congregation required Masons to leave the lodge before they could become members of the church. He had been told that Freemasonry didn’t teach anything that was opposed to any one religion. He and I went through what the Lodge teaches about the white lambskin that Masons wear during their rituals. The Lodge says that it “Symbolizes that purity of heart and rectitude of conduct so essentially necessary in gaining admission to the celestial Lodge above where the Supreme Architect of the Universe presides.” In other words, your good deeds help get you to heaven. This lifelong Lutheran simply assumed that everyone of every religion believed this and he was shocked to hear that the Bible teaches that doing good works does not help to save us. This is shocking to people This is shocking to them because it stands to reason that the sheep will find their way home to their shepherd and their pasture if they do what is within them to do.
But what stands to reason is wrong. This is what we Christians learn about ourselves. Salvation by works makes sense. It makes sense because of the innate spiritual blindness of all people. This is why all religions in the world except the true Christian faith are essentially the same. They all teach salvation by works. They all deny that we are spiritually helpless by nature. They all teach that our salvation depends on us and on what we do and avoid doing.
If that we true we would have no need of the Good Shepherd. But we need him. We need him to lay down his life for us. We need him to rise from the dead. We need him to speak to us and we need to hear what he says.
A sheep of the Good Shepherd knows that he is a sheep of the Good Shepherd. How do you know if you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd? You hear his voice. Jesus said, “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” of which Jesus spoke were the Gentiles who had not yet heard the gospel. Jesus was born a Jew. He was the King of the Jews. But he came to be the Savior of the world. All the sheep that belong to Christ’s flock belong on the same terms. They hear the Shepherd’s voice.
What does it mean to hear the Shepherd’s voice? First of all, it means that they literally hear it. The deaf cannot hear. They must depend on sight. But Christians, who can hear, hear God’s word spoken. They go to where the word of God is proclaimed. They listen to it. They pay attention to what they hear.
Second, to hear the Shepherd’s voice means to believe it. Jesus is speaking of the hearing of faith. To hear means to believe. The Shepherd tells the sheep that he lays down his life for them. Christians believe this. They believe that Jesus died for them. They believe that Jesus suffered for them. They believe that Jesus suffered and died for them to take away their sins. They believe everything God says, but their faith is focused on the love of God displayed on the cross. They trust in all of God’s promises, but their trust looks specifically to the promise of the forgiveness of all their sins that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ gives to his sheep.
The sheep of the Good Shepherd don’t want to hear lies parading as the truth. They want only the truth that comes from Jesus. This is why Christians avoid those who teach false doctrine. They know that false doctrine is poison to their souls and they want nothing of it.
Third, to hear the Shepherd’s voice means to follow where the voice leads. The same voice that promises them forgiveness of all their sins directs them in paths of living that will keep them safe from harm. The Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep does not impose on them a burden they cannot bear. He gently leads them. He doesn’t beat them with a rod. But his leading will often require that they break with the crowd. Being the foolish animals that they are, sheep will follow sheep into danger. The Christian knows this. So he follows his Good Shepherd even when the crowd is going in another direction.
We may not know the specifics of where our Good Shepherd is leading us, but we do know the path we should take. When it comes to our faith, we won’t listen to any other voice than the voice of the Good Shepherd. We will rely on nothing less that his blood and righteousness. We will rest assured that before God in heaven we are washed clean of all our filthy sins with the blood of Jesus. We hear the gospel and, like the sheep bleating for water, we insist on hearing it some more. And then some more. We won’t give up asking for it because we daily sin much and need forgiveness from the only One who can give it to us: Jesus, the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep.
When it comes to our life, it is God who sets the standards. He decides what is valuable and what is fleeting. He defines the boundaries of what love does and does not do. And then, he who loved us from eternity, and graciously chose us to be his own, and patiently suffered for us to take away all our sin, shows us how to love. His love is poured into our hearts by the same Holy Spirit who brought us to faith when we were enslaved by our own folly. This love defines our lives and makes everything we do worthwhile. And when our love fails, the love of the Good Shepherd cannot fail. So we listen to the voice that proclaims it and we rely upon it. Amen