The Lord is My Shepherd!
Good Shepherd Sunday
Rev. S. D. Spencer – Pastor Messiah Lutheran Church, Salem, OR
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father."
Grace, peace and mercy from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!
I am Jesus’ little lamb - Ever glad at heart I am - For my Shepherd gently guides me - Knows my need and well provides me - Loves me every day the same - Even calls me by my name (LSB 740). There’s something precious about hearing a little child sing that hymn. It used to be taught to children as early as possible. I imagine that it’s been that way since the hymn was written in 1778.
Of all the images of Jesus in the Scriptures, one of the most comforting is the image of the Good Shepherd. The old Latin name for Good Shepherd Sunday was Misercordias Domini - the merciful heart of the Lord. What a proper way to understand it. The shepherd king, David, wrote that wonderful Psalm by the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We sang those words just a moment ago.
But the image of sheep with their shepherd is not exactly near to our everyday experience here in Salem. Well at least not for most of us. The pasture lands are mostly gone now, houses replaced fields, roads replacing trails and parking lots replaced pastures. You might find some sheep grazing out toward Turner and Aumsville. But even if you were to find a flock of sheep, it wouldn’t resemble a Middle Eastern shepherd with his flock. You need to think more along the lines of how it is with the family pet. That’s closer to the merciful heart of the Good Shepherd than any of our modern sheep herding methods.
The Good Shepherd literally lays down His life for the sheep. They are His life. He brings them out to green pasture. He leads them to the fresh pools of water. He restores them when they’ve fallen down and can’t get up. He leads them on the good paths, through places sheep don’t naturally want to go, the dark valleys where predators abound. Where the good shepherd leads, the sheep will follow in trust. He feeds them, anoints their wounds and sores, cares for them, and even pampers them. And at night, after the flock is safely tucked in their pen, the good shepherd lays down at the entrance to become like a door. If anyone wants to get to the sheep, they’ll have to get through Him first.
A shepherd is not some kind of hired hand, which runs off at the first sign of danger. For the hired hand, it’s only a job and a paycheck. But the shepherd lives for His sheep. They are His own, they are family. He defends them. He calls each of His sheep by their name, as we do our pets, and they hear his voice and follow only that voice and no one else’s. That’s what Jesus is for us. The Good Shepherd who laid down His life in order to save us.
Jesus was born in a shepherd’s town, Bethlehem, the birthplace of His ancestor David, the shepherd-king of Israel. The first to worship Him were shepherds from Bethlehem’s field. Though Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s house, shepherding was His true vocation. When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” He is identifying Himself with Yahweh, David’s Good Shepherd God.
To say Jesus is our good shepherd is also to say that “we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” That might prove troublesome to our egos. While it’s nice of think of Jesus as our shepherd, we might desire something a bit more flattering than the image of sheep. Sheep are stubborn, sometimes mean, prone to wandering and often stupid. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone has turned to his own way.” We don’t like to stay close to the flock.
Some of my fellow pastors have shared the frustration of how believers seem to have a tendency to wander. (Pastor, by the way, means shepherd; that makes a congregation a flock.) One of the greatest frustrations of pastoral work is the constant wandering. Shepherds have sheep dogs whose job it is constantly to circle the flock, keeping the strays in line. I guess that would be the elders of the congregation. We pastors need this reminder that shepherding involves a lot of chasing after strays and lost sheep.
We are prone to wandering. We’ll drink from any decaying, polluted puddle that promises refreshment – whether religions, philosophies, self-help fads. We’ll sample any weed in the pasture that looks tasty, no matter how poisonous it might be. We’ll wander off on our own, thinking we can go it alone. The American breed of sheep is particularly prone to wandering. We are, after all, a nation that admires rugged individualism - the Marlboro man sitting high atop his steed, the self-made man, the single mom who does it all by herself. Just me and God, thank you very much! Who needs a congregation, who needs a pastor, who needs anyone, when you can do it yourself and dial direct and get all the religion you need off the internet? Remember, the lone sheep, the isolated Christian, is easiest picking for the wolves.
All this waywardness comes from the original sin of wanting to be gods in place of God and sticking our hand into the middle of the garden to pluck fruit of death instead of life. You and I have that same inborn tendency that manifests itself in our spiritual restlessness, our boredom at the Good Shepherd’s table, our continual flock hopping from one church to another, our itch for the brand new and exciting over the well-worn roads of righteousness.
Left to our own we’d be dead sheep, devoured by the wolves. Had the Son of God not joined the flock by becoming man, we would be doomed in our own sin and eternal death. But this is the heart of the merciful God, the Good Shepherd. He became one of us. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, the way a shepherd dwells among his flock. God didn’t just sit there on a throne in heaven saying, “They sure look lost; I hope they find me.” No, Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, joined the flock. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” God said through the prophet Ezekiel. God didn’t leave shepherding His people to hired hands. He sent His Son Jesus, to seek and save the lost, to gather the scattered, to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
In His death on the cross, He did just that. He laid down His life for a world of lost sheep. Lifted up on the cross, He drew all to Himself, gathering a sinful, damned humanity in the embrace of a loving shepherd God who is willing to suffer and die to save the sheep.
You are sheep of the crucified and risen Good Shepherd. He pastures you in the green pastures of His Word; He leads you to the quiet waters of Baptism; He restores your soul, raising you from death to life in Him. He guides you in the paths of righteousness, the way of repentance, daily dying and rising, for His name’s sake. Even though you walk every day through the dark valley called the “Shadow of Death,” where threats to your life are all around you, where death and the grave loom large over you, you need fear no evil. The Good Shepherd Jesus has gone ahead of you through the suffering and death to resurrection and glory. Your Shepherd lives and in Him you live too. The grave couldn’t hold Him, and it can’t hold you either.
He is with you, comforting you with His Word and presence. He prepares a table for you, the meal of His sacrifice, His own Body and Blood which He offered up once for all to pay for your sins, He gives you as food and drink on the banquet table of His altar. Nothing can harm you in His presence. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
He anoints your head with healing oil, forgiving your sin. Do you see here the nice image of corporate and personal confession and absolution? A shepherd will give the sheep a flea bath, like a corporate absolution. But he will also apply a healing balm to the troublesome sores and spots that could easily become infected if left unattended. You are forgiven in general, all the sins with which you have ever offended God, and also in specific, those sins that trouble you the most. That’s why we must never let private confession fall into disuse as our forefathers did. Forgiveness, like sin itself, is both general and specific.
At the end of this day, and at the end of your days, you can say with David, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” For the Lord is your Shepherd and you are His sheep. And at the end of it all, there’s a promise for you. A promise as sure as Jesus crucified and risen from the dead: You shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, for all your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus name and for Jesus sake, Amen and Amen!
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.