What punishment so strange is suffered yonder, the shepherd dies for sheep who love to wander….
Christ not only risks his life, but gives himself into death. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We are told that our good shepherd, when he discovers one of the sheep missing, leaves the ninety-nine on the hillside to go and find the one that is lost. Jesus spends his whole life with sinners and tax collectors. The people find it a scandal. After all, these aren’t church going folks, these aren’t the sort to respect the role of the church in the community. These are the sort that you tell your children to stay away from, that you don’t want to be seen with, because, well, people will talk. And yet, these are the sort Jesus goes after. The sinners. The Lost. For he is the good shepherd. He is not a hired hand, who is just in it for the money, but when the wolf comes, he runs away. Jesus loves and cares for his sheep.
King David of old, when he was a shepherd, had to face down a lion and a bear while protecting the sheep. God gave him strength, and he was victorious both times. Jesus must face down a serpent. And before he goes, an angel comes and strengthens him. And he will be victorious. But unlike David, Jesus will be struck by the serpent. He will be a dead shepherd. How can a dead shepherd protect his sheep? Won’t the sheep be scattered without the shepherd? We hear that, when Jesus the Good Shepherd goes to the cross, the disciples were scattered. But that does not mean that he does not protect his sheep.
Have no fear little flock, have no fear little flock, for the father has chosen to give you his kingdom.
Just as the Jesus the shepherd was raised to life by the glory of the father on the third day, so you are raised to a new life in him. The dead shepherd does not stay dead. He was struck by the serpent, but he crushed the serpents head. The serpent, who overcame by the tree of the garden, was overcome by the tree of the cross. That is the gift of Easter, the gift of resurrection. You are not abandoned. It is after the shepherd lays down his life that he makes of us one flock, with one shepherd. That is, in his death and resurrection you are forgiven your sins. In Holy Baptism you have been given this new life with Christ. You are joined to him and the kingdom of God is now yours. Having been adopted as a child of God, you are now an inheritor of his kingdom.
Who so happy as I am, even now the shepherds lamb…
This new life given by Christ to you is a tremendous comfort in times of sorrow. As the psalmist says, “Yeah 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.” Now, even though the old evil foe now means deadly woe, even though Satan tries to attack and destroy and scatter the flock, we have the promise that Jesus is always with us in his holy word, and in his blessed sacraments. He is here to feed and strengthen you, and so that you would be made one with him. So that the life he has won for you is given to you in concrete ways. So that, when you face trial and temptation, when you face sorrows and difficulty, when you face death and the grave, you will be kept safe by the one who promises that no one can snatch his sheep out of his hand. That is what Jesus does – he went into death for you, do you really think that he will let Satan destroy you now, now that Satan’s power has been broken, now that death has lost its victory, now that you have been justified and made right with God? No, rather he takes care of you and protects you.
There is gladness and joy even in the midst of sorrow. The Easter hymn boldly proclaims, misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day. It might not really feel that way as life comes at you from all sides, as you struggle with the problems of this world, with the sin that so easily entangles, as you face death in this world, both for yourself and your loved ones. It doesn’t feel like play. But indeed, the devil has lost his most potent weapon. He has lost death, and he has lost death because he has lost the power of sin. Your sins, which had condemned you, are forgiven. You who belonged to Satan have been taken from him and returned to your creator, to the good shepherd who died for you to redeem you.
O ever be our guide, Our shepherd, and our pride, Our staff and song. Jesus, O Christ of God, By Your enduring Word Lead us where You have trod; Make our faith strong.
And now, God keeps his church safe, not with a parable and good wish, but in concrete ways. He sends out shepherds to protect his flock from the false teaching, despair, and great sin that wolf, Satan, would bring into the church. The word pastor means shepherd. It is what Jesus gives his church after the ascension so that the church would still be taken care of. So that the sheep would be fed, so that they would be led to the table of the lord, where your cup runneth over.
Jesus says that we should pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the field. It is not simply laborers, but faithful laborers that we must pray for. So that pastors are true shepherds and not merely hirelings in it for their own benefit, as saint Paul says, belly servers. We must pray that the shepherds whom God sends will speak boldly the word of Christ, like the prophets of old, bringing law to sinners who do not repent, and bringing Gospel the Good News of salvation to repentant sinners. And they must do it even and especially when it is difficult or uncomfortable or even dangerous to do so. Good pastors are a gift from God, not because they are anything in and of themselves, but because of the Word they bring.
That Jesus chose this system of sinners taking care of sinners is only evidence that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. Because this sinners-as-shepherd-of-the-sheep method is nothing but foolishness as far as mankind is concerned. It is a testimony to the great mercy and power of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, that the church has endured and will continue to endure, even though we are weak, even though every pastor after Jesus ascension has been a sinner, as much in need of the forgiveness as those whom he feeds. That is why we must pray that God would protect and preserve his church and her pastors. Because we deal here, not with the stuff of this world, but with eternal things. And those eternal things are just as needed by pastors as they are by laity. As John said to Jesus, “I should baptize you, and yet you come to me?” Like John, pastors need to be forgiven their sins as well, they need to be strengthened against he attacks of Satan. They need to receive the forgiveness of sins, just as you do. And yet, God, in his wisdom, sends men to preach Christ crucified to you, to bring you the salvation won for you by Jesus Christ. To forgive sins, to pour the water, to feed you with the body and blood.
The good shepherd is still taking care of his people, through the pastors – the shepherds that he sends even this very day.
Thanks be to God, for his grace and mercy, in keeping us in his goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. May he grant to each of us that we would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.