There are few Gospel readings in the church year more filled with words of comfort than this one. The image of the Good Shepherd goes back to the Psalms – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. That Psalm has been providing comfort for the people of God when facing death for almost 3000 years. It is a wonderful image – the shepherd taking care of the sheep, protecting them from danger, providing bountifully for them. King David was a shepherd in his youth. He faced down a lion and a bear with only his slingshot. He uses that imagery of a loving shepherd to describe the work of the Lord God. Jesus is that shepherd. When he says I am the good shepherd, he doesn’t just mean a scenic and quiet life of green pastures and still waters. He means the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus faces down Satan, sin death, and hell with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. He sheds his own blood to protect and save the sheep from the wolf. That’s why Jesus says, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus dies to protect them.
The word for Shepherd in Latin is pastor. Saint Paul says “he sends some as pastors and teachers, for the work of ministry, for the equipping of the saints.” We call the ones whom Christ sends to preach and administer the sacraments pastors – shepherds. Serving under the good shepherd, Jesus Christ. Baptism is how Jesus calls his flock, the still waters that refresh and save us. The Lord’s Supper is how he feeds his flock – he prepares the table before us, our cup runneth over. When Jesus, through the church, appoints shepherds, he wants them to serve as good shepherds under THE Good Shepherd. Jesus does not appoint hirelings. The hireling cares for himself, not the sheep. When the wolf comes, the hireling runs away. He does not confront the wolf he does not stand up for the sheep – he cares nothing for them. Where there are hirelings, not real shepherds, false teaching is brought into the church. And the wolf scatters and destroys the people of God – that is what false teaching does. It seeks the good of the individual in this world, not the true word of God given in Holy Scripture. And it leads astray into all manner of dangers – enough to destroy souls, lead them away from the shepherd until they depend on themselves for their own salvation. Sheep can not survive on their own. And so the true pastor follows the example of Jesus, and continually fights for the sheep, protecting and defending them from the wolf – Satan.
How do we get faithful pastors in the church? Certainly the congregation, circuit, and district work together to make sure that pastors sent to our churches in the Wyoming District are faithful. But the number one thing we do is “pray to the Lord of the church that he would send faithful laborers into the harvest.” We pray for our pastors and leaders in the church. That they would rightly preach the word and administer the sacraments according to his institution and mandate. You have a responsibility under God to pray for your pastor, just as your pastor is responsible to God to pray for you regularly.
Jesus knows his own, his own know him. How do the sheep know the shepherd? The voice. The sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. We often talk about how sheep aren’t that smart, how they are easily fooled, how they are easily killed. Scripture uses the image of sheep, not as a bad thing, but as a good thing. They hear the voice of the shepherd, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Scripture never talks about sheep as stupid. It does talk about wandering sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray and each one turned aside to his own way.” Jesus talks about finding the lost sheep and bringing it home. He doesn’t complain about the sheep. Today he tells us that not only does he defend the sheep with his life, but that the sheep recognize him by His voice. That is how it is. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and they will not listen to any other. Real sheep can identify the voice of the shepherd, the pitch, the inflection, the sound. We recognize Christ and his word as he speaks to us not by the sound produced. Jesus speaks through his pastors his shepherds in the church. And they recognized because what they say is what the good shepherd says. Pastors are obligated to speak the Word of God. They are bound to that word – to bring that word, all of that word, only that word to God’s people. The holy lambs of his flock who hear the voice of the shepherd.
Luther uses this Gospel reading as an chance to explain the difference between Law and Gospel – because we are talking about the voice of the shepherd, it makes sense that we would also discuss the two ways scripture talks to us in the Word of God – Law and Gospel.
In the Law we hear what God demands of us, what he requires if we would stay in his grace, and avoid the sin that so easily entangles. The Law is God telling us how to live, what to do. The Law is not merciful. It is requirement. It always demands. Promises of the law require obedience. And failure to follow the law means threat of punishment. Scripture tells us – and our own experience in the world confirms it – that we can not keep the Law, not even in the smallest part. We are destined for the grave because we are sinners.
This is where we must then hear the voice of the Gospel. God would not have us be condemned, and so he sent his only begotten Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem us who were under the Law. The Gospel is the promise of salvation for all who believe on His name. In the Lutheran Confessions when it speaks of Law and Gospel, it often calls them Law and promises. That is what the Gospel is – the promise of grace and mercy for Jesus sake. The promise that, for Jesus sake, because he kept the Law for you, your sins are forgiven. Nothing more is required of you. You are freed and given salvation without effort, merit, or worthiness on your part. All of the work is accomplished by Jesus on the cross. It is His effort, his merit his worthiness that save you, not your own. That is the wonderful gift we have been given by God. The Law says if you keep all the law perfectly all the time, without ever committing sin, then and only then you can be saved.
Gospel says, Jesus has done all the work for you. Nothing more to do. Your sins are forgiven you, and you are not only declared righteous by God, but you are made holy by him – set apart to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
It is the voice of Jesus speaks to us in the Law and the Gospel. We recognize that voice because it says the same thing as holy scripture, says the same thing that God, through the prophets and the apostles have been saying since beginning of world.
And when we hear that voice of the shepherd, who speaks clearly to us through Holy Scripture, we are fed by that word. There are those who come into the church as wolves, who take that clear and certain Word of God, who declare that we can not know for certain what it means, that it is on obscure word, and we must each give it our own meaning based on our own thoughts. And there are those hirelings who speak lovingly of the Word of God, but who refuse to oppose the false teachers who would obscure the word of God. They refuse to warm against the wolf, thinking that, by just having a positive attitude, we will be all right. But happy thoughts do not defeat wolves. It takes shepherds who are willing to stand up and call a thing what it is. Those who will not speak against false teaching, those who try to obscure the sure and certain word of God with the traditions of men, are either wolves or hirelings. They speak with a voice that is close to, but not quite the voice of the shepherd. God’s sheep are not fooled. We hear the voice of the one shepherd, who created us from the dust of the ground on the sixth day, who promised a savior to our first parents, who sent Jesus to redeem us from our sins, who declares us holy and righteous through his sure and certain word. The voice of Jesus rings out, “Your sins are forgiven you.” “Take Eat, take drink, the body and blood, Given and shed for your for the forgiveness of your sins.” That is the clear and certain word of God, declaring that you are his. He has redeemed you. You are a part of his flock, under the one shepherd, Jesus. And no one can snatch you out of his hand.
May God grant it for Jesus sake.