Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s among the most comforting Sunday’s of the entire church year. In each one of the three readings, we are compared to sheep. Scattered sheep, straying sheep, hunted sheep. Sheep that are unable to help themselves out of danger. And those sheep are gathered, found, and protected. There are a lot of Gospel readings with harsh words of judgment throughout the church year. Sometimes one reading will be comforting, another rather disquieting. Today, it’s comfort and promise as far as the eye can see. Green pastures and still waters abound. We’ve heard the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We’ve heard of his appearance to the disciples, how he gave them the holy spirit, and the power to forgive sins. How he appeared especially to Thomas, who confesses so clearly, “My Lord and my God!”
And with all of that behind us, we can now just bask in the joy of Easter for a bit. Enjoying the promise of new life through Jesus Christ. No readings that threaten today. No readings that trouble. Just Jesus, who laid down his life and took it up again for us, shepherding his flock.
All three readings talk about the forgiveness that is ours through Jesus sacrifice on the cross. All three readings speak of the grace and mercy of God, of the salvation that Jesus brings.
In the Old Testament reading, the Lord God promises us: I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. Our Lord was sacrificed, and the sun was blotted out for three hours. Darkness covered the whole land. Good Friday was THE day of clouds and thick darkness. The disciples were scattered. It was the day forgiveness was earned. The Passover lamb was sacrificed in our place. He entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle his own blood on the altar to atone for our sins. Now we, the scattered sheep, have been gathered by the voice of the Shepherd. Our Lord speaks words of comfort, and we are brought into the land of good pasture where we eat, lie down, and rest.
Peter says that we were straying like sheep, but have returned to our Good Shepherd. How is this possible? Because he committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth. Because He bore our sins in His body on the tree, and by his wounds you have been healed. Jesus explains how it happens in John 10 – part of the Good Shepherd section we don’t have as our Gospel reading.
“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. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Luther, who actually knew how to take care of sheep in addition to everything else, points out in his sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday that a sheep can hear and identify the bleat of its mother in a flock of hundreds. The same applies to the Shepherd. The sheep hear the voice and respond. We have been returned to the shepherd of our souls – Jesus – because he has called us by the Gospel. And we have heard his voice. The Spirit enlightens our hearts so that we can hear, and believe the Gospel. And so, when the voice of Christ sounds, when his word is spoken, we hear it. And we are saved from our wanderings. Restored by the Good Shepherd.
Which is just what Jesus talks about in the Gospel reading. The famous Good Shepherd sermon. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep.” Jesus is the good shepherd. As we sing in the Lenten hymn – He dies for the sheep who love to wander. Jesus does not come to bring judgment, but to comfort, to protect. Unlike the hired hand, who flees at the first sign of trouble, Jesus lays down his life for the sheep. Saint Paul talks about these hired hands – belly servers he calls them. They are in the church teaching for their own gain, not to proclaim faithfully the Word of God. Prosperity preachers who promise you the world, if you just buy their book, send them a donation. But who really aren’t in it to bring you the forgiveness Jesus promises. And who have no intention of sacrificing for the sheep. They want to fleece the sheep and be on their way. Compare that to Jesus. He knows that he will die for the sheep. He does it anyway. Because of the love he has for the sheep. The love he has for you. How important is this image of the good shepherd? This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is used to teach children, “I am Jesus little lamb, ever glad at heart I am”, the Shepherd is used to comfort the dying, and to offer hope to the bereaved, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me, They rod and Thy staff they comfort me. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Some of the earliest Christian art we have is images of shepherds. We name our clergy after it. The word pastor means shepherd. Not that there aren’t other terms that could be used. But the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is so very comforting. Taking care of the flock. Guarding it against wolves that may approach – even when they try sneaking in. Even when they try to look like sheep. To masquerade as children of God just trying to spread his word. That’s when the faithful Shepherd, with reckless disregard for his own safety, stands up to the wolf. Like David, who watched his father’s sheep, and used his slingshot to take down a lion and a bear, who eventually used it to Protect Israel from Goliath. So the faithful pastor stands against Satan and all his servants in this world, armed only with the Word of God. The voice of the one who is the Good Shepherd. There is no other weapon he has because no other weapon is needed. And a good pastor will try and take after The Good Pastor. The one who didn’t back down when the sheep were in danger, but protected them. He even gave his own life for the sheep. He suffered and died so that the sheep would not be devoured. He shed his blood so that you would be redeemed, so that you would returned from where you had been scattered, found from where you had wandered, and so that you would be protected from the ancient lion who prowls around seeking someone to devour.
It’s to Jesus that we look. And we are thankful for faithful servants of Christ, thankful for faithful shepherds in the church today, and throughout the history of the church, who have fought the wolf, who have preached the Word faithfully. Men like the Apostles who shed their blood in witness to the truth, or Martin Luther who reformed and restored the teaching of the church so that it was once again clearly and rightly proclaiming with the voice of the Good Shpeherd. CFW Walther, who founded our synod, not so he could be a synod president and have lots of people respect him, but because he knew the need for a church that teaches faithfully. But of course, the works of the apostles and prophets, the works of reformers, confessors, and pastors don’t earn salvation, any more than your own works earn your salvation. Jesus is the good shepherd. He is the one, the only – he earned your salvation on the cross. It isn’t that we just didn’t get around to it. It’s that we couldn’t do it. We wandered off, into danger. A sheep that gets lost all on its own has very little defense. Staying together with the flock and fleeing: That’s about all sheep have. Satan continues to prowl around, seeking whom he can devour. But Jesus came and rescued us from Satan. Giving his life in order to defeat Satan. The Good Shepherd, has no regard for his own safety, just the safety of the sheep. And it’s the Good Shepherd alone whom we hear. Those who are sent by him, and who speak with his voice bring him. Those who would turn you away from him are false Christ’s false shepherds, hirelings, no matter what their title, or how many blindly follow them.
Jesus is the one. He does the saving. He has saved you. Rescued you from the power of death hell and the devil. And now he calls you his own. And no one can snatch you out of his hand.