SERMON FOR THE 3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER, 5-5-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
This morning our readings from the Sacred Scriptures are short and so clear. In them we come to know and learn again the very nature of our God, who he truly is. We also learn a simple meaning of what it means to be a Christian, and to belong to Christ’s church.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Our Lord does not say I am like a shepherd, or I have the attributes of a shepherd. He does not say I am a shepherd, as if he were one among many, but rather, I am the, definite article, the good shepherd. The one and only true shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. That’s who God is.
Who are we? What does it mean to be a Christian? What is the church? Well Martin Luther put it so simply in the Smalcald Articles. There was much debate at the time about the church, the papacy, rituals, and traditions made by man. In the midst of all this confusion Luther would simply write: “Thank God, that today, even a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”
Each church I’ve served, or in a variety of circumstances, it’s not totally uncommon for little children to call their pastors, Jesus. They actually think their pastors are Jesus. It’s happened to me a number of times, and I’ve heard from others pastors the same thing. The children have things a bit confused. But at the same time, it’s not for lack of understanding or piety there. In fact there’s actually a deep profundity in that – there’s some depth there. They link the pastor reading the Word of God, preaching, presiding at the altar and visiting the sick as an icon of Christ. Hence the Lutheran term for a minister of the Gospel is “pastor,” a word best translated as shepherd.
That’s what the Reformer Luther was getting at when he said “Thank God, today, that a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their shepherd. A Christian is simply a disciple, baptized, and given the gift of faith who listens to the voice of Jesus and follows his voice. A voice heard in His Word, Heard in His preaching, seen and felt, even tasted in the sacrament.
When Christians are sick or preparing to the die, they are like lambs who hear the voice of their good shepherd. There are 150 psalms but they want the 23rd psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. We pray. Pastors gently speak the words of Jesus into the ears of the dying as they fall asleep. That they would awaken and behold the face of Jesus, their Good Shepherd in the splendor of paradise.
Whether we’re children or preparing to fall asleep in death, or anywhere in between this is the Gospel that we need this morning. That Jesus is our Good Shepherd. That we are his sheep. And that this good shepherd lays down his life for us to protect us from the infernal wolf, to bring us blessings, and eternal life.
Therefore, every Christian must come to terms with being one of Christ’s sheep, no matter how strong or confident or self-assured you think you are. Hear the Lord speak through Ezekiel in our reading this morning: “I myself,” that is the Lord, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
Being a sheep isn’t exactly an altogether flattering description of you, but then again it’s not meant to be. But it’s the truth. Because “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one of us—to his own way.” Those sheep, they get lost and don’t know where they are, or where they are going. But the Lord tends them all. These sheep, they are the ones that have injured themselves, inflicted damage on their own person and those around them. Those sheep, they are just plain worn out and don’t know if they can go on. But the Lord is in the business of gathering them together and calling them to himself. He's talking about you of course, each and every one of us.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That is the cry of the Lord’s heart to you. You see he knows you. He knows you in your sin. He knows the lies you’ve told. The gossip you’ve passed on with glee. He knows the hatred you’ve harbored. The bitter words you’ve let flow from your heart through your lips to sting and hurt the people you were supposed to love.
He knows the betrayal of the promises you made to your spouse and children. He knows the distrust that overwhelms your heart when you wonder if there really is a God who can bring any good out of this mess. We are the lost, foolish, and injured sheep that the Lord makes it his business to seek out and save.
How does he do it? Jesus in the same chapter refers to himself as the sheep gate. What’s that mean? Well, when the sheep were out in the pastures, the custom was for the shepherd to usher them into the sheepfold each night. The sheepfold was something of an enclosed fence, stacked with stones, stones stacked high enough to keep out predators, but without a door.
Actually the shepherd was the door, because at night he would lay down in the opening of the sheep fold, and literally became the sheep gate. Predators, wolves, nothing could get in or go out without stepping over the shepherd first.
And that’s just what happened. You see, the wolf of hell, had it out for you. He wanted to take you out and lead you into sin, death, and eternal condemnation. You were no match for him. So Jesus, your shepherd, stood in the way. He did not flee. He did not flinch. But held his ground at Calvary, offering himself up for your salvation. He let the wolf attack him. Even gobble him up in death. But the wolf couldn’t keep that Good Shepherd down, but burst through, raised from the dead on the third day – leaving a hole in the wolf’s belly. All so that when the wolf comes after you, you can cheerfully go down his throat without a thought of fear. For you know that your Good Shepherd has already travelled that way, gone down into the valley of the shadow of death, and came right back up again. And he will bring you with him, saying where I am there you shall be also. So when all becomes darkness – and death closes in around you – you need not fear anything.
Just listen to the voice of your Good Shepherd: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” You see, death had no right to take Him because The Good Shepherd had no sin. But death made a mortal mistake and went up against Him; and so death forfeited its right to hold you. Death died.
You see, he died to release you from sin’s power. St. Peter teaches us in the epistle this morning: “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. By his wounds you have been set free from condemnation to serve him, find pasture in him, and to follow his voice – in life and in death.
St. peter also writes that you are to learn from his example, so that you might follow in his steps. 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. In other words, trust God and patiently endure affliction and trouble. God, in time, will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. So be still and know that He is the Lord.
Traditionally this day is called Good Shepherd Sunday. The Latin phrase associated with this day is Misericordia Domini: meaning “merciful heart” of the Lord. And that’s what you should see today. That’s God’s heart is merciful and kind to sinners. That’s God’s giving of His Son into sacrificial death, so clearly reveals the Father’s incomprehensible love for us. Jesus is truly our Good Shepherd. In Jesus we see the kindness of the Father’s heart. A heart of love and compassion, of forgiveness and grace. By baptism, you belong to him, no matter how damaged you are, no matter how beaten up and bruised and wandering. No matter how worn out and tired. You are His and He is yours. He made you his own in the font of living water. He splashed his name right on you. He calls you by name. You recognize his voice.
Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He is no hired hand. He does not flee when he sees the wolf coming. He stands his ground. Rather, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks out His scattered sheep to deliver them. He gathers them and feeds them on his rich pasture of His Word and Sacraments. He binds up the broken and strengthens the sick. He lays down His life for wandering and wayward sheep.
On the cross, Christ bore in His body the attacks of the predators of sin and death and the devil for you that you might be saved. He now lives to restore your soul in the still waters of baptism, to lead you in the paths of righteousness by the voice of His Gospel, to prepare the table of His holy supper before you, that you may dwell in the house of the Lord forever. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls,” the Lord Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus. Amen.