Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 14, 2002| Psalm 23
The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
God does not call himself a shepherd and us sheep for light reasons. This heavenly metaphor has a very serious and down to earth purpose. God wants us to understand how he relates to us and how we relate to him. I can think of no other illustration in the Scriptures that so clearly explains to us what it means to be a Christian and to be the Christian Church than this inspired illustration of David the king of Israel, who had considerable experience as a shepherd of sheep.
The sheep is a simple animal. He’s not smart, like a pig. He isn’t cunning, like a fox. He isn’t ferocious, like a wolf. He’s simple and he’s rather helpless. He cannot find his way to where he needs to go. And so it is with us in our relationship with God. We are lost. We are unable to find the Shepherd. So he needs to find us and carry us home. This is what God said through Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament Lesson:
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.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12)
The sheep don’t find the Shepherd. The Shepherd finds the sheep. The relationship that exists between God and his children is a relationship that God establishes. Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and he adds, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) The first thing the Shepherd/sheep metaphor teaches us is that we Christians are entirely dependent on our God for everything from beginning to end.
This is why we need to identify and condemn every teaching that challenges this precious truth. We confess in the Catechism on the meaning of the Third Article of the Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.
The sheep cannot find God. God finds the sheep.
God gives them everything they need. This means everything. Yet this psalm is not talking in general about how God provides every need of our bodies and souls. It is talking more specifically about how the LORD – that is, our Lord Jesus Christ – cares for our souls. Jesus makes that crystal clear when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. What does the Good Shepherd do for his sheep? He lays down his life for them. This means that he goes to the cross and suffers and dies for them. As we sing in that wonderful Lenten hymn: “What punishment so strange is suffered yonder! The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander.” In dying for the sheep and in raising himself up from the dead, Jesus purchases the food with which the sheep are fed. That food is the gospel and the sacraments. It is likened by the Psalmist to green pastures in which there are pools of pure water that provide the sheep with everything they need to be healthy and content. The same Lord Jesus who died for us lives among us and gives to us everlasting life in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the holy sacraments.
This is why we call the man who preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments a pastor, or shepherd. So long as he speaks the true gospel and administers the sacraments according to Christ’s institution, he is acting in the stead and by the command of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. But we do not follow any human pastor on account of his personal piety, persuasiveness, charm, or popularity. We ask only one thing. Is this man speaking the words of Jesus? Jesus is the true pastor and bishop of our souls. Ministers come and go. God can and has spoken through the mouth of a donkey. He doesn’t need any particular pastor. But his people need to be fed. They need to hear his voice. They need the washing in which he covers their sin with his righteousness. They need the Sacrament of his body and blood. This is why they need pastors and why we honor this holy office that Christ has given to his church on earth.
The church is where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments of rightly administered. That is where the sheep find pasture. This is what sustains them. It literally keeps them alive.
What do you want in life? Do you want a better education? Maybe you need more money or a better job. If your wife were more understanding, that would help. Or perhaps if your husband were more sensitive to your feelings and needs, or your parents more interesting in what you really think, or your boss just a little bit more willing to listen to suggestions your life would be better. Maybe so. But is that what life is? I mean, is that the essence of living?
Jesus said in his high priestly prayer, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) When you live in the pastures of God’s holy word and sacraments, when you drink in his words of life that come from the mouth of Jesus you have everything you need. You are content. “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
What do you really need? You need faith. You need to trust in God. You need to know that God forgives you your many sins. You need to believe this. You need to believe that you deserve God’s anger and judgment but that Jesus has removed this anger from you and borne this judgment against you. You need to know that the law of God curses you for your sins, but that Jesus bore that curse for you on the cross. This is what you need to know and believe.
But you are a foolish sheep and forget what you need. You run off to where you cannot hear the voice of your Shepherd. And so you get lost, it gets dark, the wolf smells you and tracks you down, and you are utterly helpless to defend yourself against him.
Have you ever seen a wolf in the wild? They stay shy of men, you know. But in the wintertime you can see them not too far from here. The sheep farmers up north near the Canadian border have had an ongoing dispute with certain folks who want to protect the timber wolf from their guns. Of course, the Good Shepherd doesn’t go battle with guns. He sheds his blood and he speaks the truth. By shedding his blood, we are forgiven of all our sins. By speaking his truth to us he drives the wolves away. No one can stand before the truth of the gospel and belie it. No one! When we take our refuge in the words of Jesus, the wolves run from us. Jesus said:
My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27-30)
These are the words that give us faith. The gospel and the sacraments of Christ are Christ present among us today where we live. They give us what we need. They give us faith when we doubt. The gospel gives us comfort when our sins accuse us and would convinced us that God no longer loves us or wants us as his children. The gospel convinces us that God hears our prayers and is willing and able at all times to protect us from all evil. The running water of a river will frighten the sheep who doesn’t trust that water because he doesn’t know what’s in it. But the gospel is a still, pure, clear pond of life-giving water that brings us no fear at all. It soothes our fears by giving us God’s pardon. These are the still waters that restore our soul.
The gospel restores our soul. We are weak and filled with doubts. The gospel breathes life into us, just as surely as Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples on Easter Sunday evening. Every single baptized child of God is filled with the Holy Spirit, and this Spirit is God, the God who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Those who hear and believe the gospel are those who walk in the paths of righteousness. You don’t make people good by telling them to be good and punishing them for being bad. You make people good by giving them Jesus who is our righteousness. Then they live righteous lives for we do what we are. We can no more make ourselves righteous than a sheep can make himself into something he is not. God makes us righteous by forgiving us our sins and by giving us new desires to listen to him, follow him, and submit to his holy will.
And the well-fed sheep of the Good Shepherd, far from being prey for the hungry wolf, is able to walk through the valley where death overshadows him and to do so without fear. How can he have no fear? Because he isn’t afraid of death! He has already died; he will never die again. He had died and risen to eternal life in Holy Baptism and the Good Shepherd comforts him with this knowledge whenever death strikes. The rod and the staff of an ordinary shepherd will drive the sheep and shove him where he doesn’t want to go. The rod and the staff of the Good Shepherd protect the sheep from death and hell and damnation. They aren’t used to beat on the sheep, but to beat away his enemies.
And we have enemies. When Jesus instructs us to love our enemies he is also teaching us that we will always have enemies. It is the conceit of our humanistic post-Christian culture that says we can do away with all enmity here on earth if only we subscribe to their anti-Christian creed that debunks all Christian dogma and denies the exclusive claims of Jesus. And the purveyors of this false religion most certainly are our enemies. It is foolish for us to deny it. We don’t hate them. We love them. They belittle what we hold dear. They show their contempt for the most holy suffering and death of Jesus and the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone on which we rest our eternal hope. They urge us to let go of historic Christianity in favor of the religion of the New Age that finds the solution to life’s trouble in us instead of God. Make no mistake. They are our enemies. And in their presence, Jesus lays before us a table of rich and delicate foods, of the most excellent wines and sweets, of the most delicious dessert capped off with the perfect cup of coffee that won’t keep you awake at night. He feeds us as kings and anoints us as holy priests before him.
This is true, and this is real, and this is all ours because the LORD is our Shepherd. Goodness and mercy belong to us because Jesus is filled with all goodness and the One who showers us with undeserved but steadfast kindness every single day of our lives.
Lenin and Stalin mocked the Church. They murdered the faithful pastors and imprisoned those who protested. Josef Stalin destroyed over a hundred and fifty churches in Kiev alone. And where is the empire they imposed by fear and terror? It is in the ash heap of history. And where is that holy flock of Jesus, purchased by his blood, fed by his gospel and sacraments, protected by his Holy Spirit, and sustained by his power? It is feasting on the words of the gospel that even now is bringing new life to those living in the ruins of Communist totalitarianism.
You don’t need money or power or worldly success. You don’t need the love of the crowd or the favor of the right clique. You don’t need the cure of your every illness or the answer you told God to give you to that particular prayer that you think he never heard. What you need is Jesus. You need God’s favor, God’s forgiveness, and the life that comes from God and is given to you only in the suffering and death of God’s Son. You need it, and God gives you what you need. Because the LORD is your Shepherd, dear Christian, you will never, ever be in want. He will keep you, by his gospel, in the holy faith he has planted in your heart. He will lead you to heaven. He wants you to know this and to rely on this. This is why he inspired David to write such a beautiful psalm and why he invites you to take these words to heart and know that they were written for you.