Easter 4, May 7, 2017
Text: Psalm 23
Do you like to be led around? It’s not my favorite. When I was in high school I did the senior trip thing to Washington D.C. and New York City. We were in a tour group. They took us everywhere. Told us where we would be, when we would be. I wanted a little more freedom. When Christopher and I go to Germany next year, God willing, no tours. We are going to see what we want when we want. Maybe you have been led around by your spouse, or spouse to be, in a mall, at a car dealer, or a bridal shop. We might be ok with being led around, and sometimes we might not be.
I bring this up today because today is Good Shepherd Sunday. I believe you are all familiar with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (v 1). That makes us the sheep. The thing is that sheep need shepherds. Sheep need to be led around. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of wild sheep. No football team will ever be called the Green Bay Lambs. If OKC ever gets another hockey team, or an MLS team, they will not be the Oklahoma Sheep. Right? Sheep need to be led. Scattered sheep are doomed. As David told us that, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” this beautiful promise is fulfilled in Jesus, the Lord who rescues us. Jesus is our Shepherd because He lays down His life for the sheep; He leads His sheep; and He never abandons His flock.
The first thing we note this morning is that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is OUR Shepherd. Jesus did what He came here to do. He gave His life for the sheep, for us. He doesn’t cut and run in order to save His own skin when the fight to save you gets tough. He doesn’t let Satan and his forces get us. Jesus put Himself between us and our spiritual enemies. He suffered for us. He purposely was betrayed, mocked, scourged, crucified, and damned. As St. Peter tells us in the Epistle today: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:23–24).
Jesus suffered without threatening and was reviled without reviling back, because He was dealing with the consequences for all the times we have wandered away; He got what a lone, isolated, scattered sheep deserved. The Lord had promised through Ezekiel: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezek 34:12). On the darkest day—a Friday called Good—your Good Shepherd delivered you by delivering Himself to the cross. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
And the Good Shepherd leads His sheep. The Good Shepherd calls His sheep and they follow His voice. Sheep have excellent hearing. Multiple flocks can be put together at night and then separated in the morning, simply by the shepherds calling. This is what Jesus taught in John 10, speaking of Himself as the Shepherd: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn 10:3–4).
We know what this is like, right? We know how words can inspire us, comfort us, lead us to decide to follow someone. JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” MLK said, “I have a dream today…” And my family put up some words of inspiration for me last Sunday by the front door of our house; words that I would see as I left to go run the half-marathon. And I was particularly inspired by Christopher who wrote on his sign for me: “Run well. Do not fail. I don’t know what to write.”
But we know these words well, right? We are inspired by the 23rd Psalm. We are comforted, strengthened. We know, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
My brothers and sisters, Jesus leads you by His voice. He first taught you to recognize his voice at your Baptism. He continues to teach you and lead you through the Word and Holy Communion, to guide us in this sinful world with His voice. But you must learn to distinguish His voice from the loud and tempting voices of our day. His voice calls you to repentance, to the anointing of your head with Holy Baptism, to feed on the green pastures of His Word and at the Table of His life-giving body and blood. We have all this to help us as Satan, sin, and death surround us. Notice in Psalm 23 that all the important actions happen by the Shepherd’s work, not yours. He makes you lie down in green pastures; He leads (besides still waters); He restores (your soul); He leads again (in paths of righteousness), He prepares (a table before you), He anoints (your head).
But watch out, for there are plenty of enemies out there who would teach you that Holy Baptism is your work, instead of God’s, that it’s something you do to show yourself to be a sheep rather than the way God blesses us with faith, forgiveness and eternal life, and the brand the Good Shepherd puts on you to mark you as His. There are those who want to teach you the Lord’s Supper is not the Good Shepherd’s body and blood, but a symbolic supper by which we just think fondly on what Jesus did for us. There are those who tell you that they can give you success, popularity, wealth, and health if you just say their prayer repeatedly or follow their rules. There are those who would turn you inward to your believing, to your feelings, to your works, to yourself, and away from Jesus and His gifts. There are those who tell you that receiving Jesus’ work isn’t enough to save you. You must have enough love and do enough good to make it to heaven. As if a sheep could save itself!
Flee from them and do not follow them, Jesus says. As Martin Luther wrote, “If you wish, therefore, to be richly supplied in both body and soul, then above all give careful attention to the voice of this Shepherd, . . . hold fast to his Word, hear and learn it gladly, for then you will be well supplied in both body and soul” (AE 12:157). The Good Shepherd leads us.
And the Good Shepherd never abandons His flock. David, who faced death many times, calls us to pray: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v 4). There are times when you might feel abandoned, times when you had to say good-bye (temporarily) to someone you love, times when the doctor told you something you didn’t want to hear, times your family was in crisis. Jesus does not leave us. The devil wants us to think so, but Jesus does not leave us. Jesus is with us in death. He went through it first for you to open the way to life. Jesus is with us when we mourn. He wept at Lazarus’s tomb. Jesus is your Good Shepherd, who comforts you. He sends goodness and mercy to follow you and be with you. He leads you right into His house here today and will keep you who follow Him in His house forever.
Time to wrap this up. Sheep that are separated from the flock are easy pickings for the poachers. Christians don’t go it alone—that would be going against the very voice of the Good Shepherd. Experience teaches that people without a congregation tend to believe in a little bit of everything, and so in truth wind up believing in nothing at all. Sheep who don’t learn the voice of their Shepherd will soon follow any voice. Outside the Church, it’s cold and deadly—there’s no forgiveness, no life there.
But here in the Lord’s congregation, the Lord restores the joy of salvation to your soul; the Lord brings you back to rejoicing; the Lord binds up your wounds; the Lord guides you in his righteous way; the Lord is with you and comforts you even under the shadow of death. Because of your Good Shepherd’s death and resurrection, because of His infinite, selfless love, received by the faith He supplies, surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Adapted from a Sermon in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol 27, Pt. 2.