“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: who is your shepherd? That seems to be a strange question, as we gather here in the sanctuary of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. If a visitor is paying any attention at all, they don’t have to spend much time in this place to get the impression that your shepherd is the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The symbol of a shepherd dominates this space: the familiar shape of the shepherd’s staff adorns the end of each and every pew, and the front of the lectern. The beautiful stained glass window to my left proclaims the most important words of our text: “I am the Good Shepherd.” And it is that very name that adorns the sign on the street, our letterhead, envelopes, and the cards in my pocket. When this congregation was founded, you decided to name this assembly of God’s saints after the words of Jesus in John chapter ten, to deliberately grasp onto the image that Jesus paints by words, the image that we have now enshrined in glass. More than any congregation around, it should be obviously that this gathering of saints knows exactly who their shepherd is: the Good Shepherd, Jesus. But do we truly know His voice? I ask you again: who is your shepherd? To whose voice do you listen?
Here, in this place, on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and every other time that we gather for study, worship, or prayer, you hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. Here, I am bold to say, you hear God’s Word taught in its truth and purity, here the sacraments are administered according to the Good Shepherd’s institution. Here Jesus speaks through His instruments, and the flock is fed. But then the flock goes home, and so often they give themselves into the care of hired hands, they listen to the voices of other so-called ‘shepherds.’ These voices speak in the pages of best-selling books, they cry out in top-rated television programs, they preach in pulpits where the Good Shepherd’s voice has been substituted for the power of positive thinking. Here in this place you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd; do you fill your ears with the voices of others when you leave? Who really is your shepherd? On May twenty-ninth, one of the most famous ‘shepherds’ in our land, the man who some have called ‘America’s pastor,’ Joel Osteen, will be coming to this very city, bringing, as he says, “an inspirational night of hope, worship, and encouragement.” Will the flock of the Good Shepherd listen to this voice?
The hired hands do not know the sheep; they do not know what the sheep need. They fill the ears of the flock with religious ideas, with secular ideas; odd interpretations of Scripture and enticing philosophies of man. Hired hands are found in the church and outside of it, and they draw the flock away in a thousand different directions. The sheep are scattered, divided one from another; separated from the Good Shepherd’s voice, they wander aimlessly following all kinds of voices. Only one thing do these voices, these hired hands, have in common: they have no power over wolves.
“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.” The hired hands talk a good game; they boast, they exhort, they encourage, but when the wolf comes, they flee. Joel Osteen’s theology of glory, that if you believe hard enough and pray the right things God will give you material blessings, may work well when you have the beautiful wife, expensive car, and magnificent house you want, but when the wolf comes, when death draws near, it flees; Joel has nothing to say to you other than ‘pray harder, believe better.’ The syrupy sweet theology found in too many Christian books today may help you feel better about yourself, but when the wolf comes, when you are about to die, Hallmark phrases are little comfort. Making life all about personal pleasure and your own fulfillment, as countless voices, religious and secular, tell you, may make your days a lot of fun, but when you lie on your deathbed, pleasure will not save your life.
Judge your shepherds by their reaction to the wolves! The hired hands flee when the wolf comes into view, because hired hands have nothing to combat the wolf—they are as terrified of wolves as the sheep are! The test of any theology or philosophy, the test of any voice that calls to the flock, is whether they are any good when the wolf comes for your throat, whether they can give any real comfort in the face of death. A so-called ‘shepherd’ that has nothing to say when death draws near is a false teacher, a hired hand. The wolf may be our enemy, our greatest and most ancient foe, but it reveals the hired hands for who they are, false and impotent: they flee, the wolf attacks, and the flock is left alone to die.
The shepherds over God’s beloved people were found to be unfaithful hired hands, who scattered the flock and left them exposed to the ravages of the wolves. But God promised that He would act: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” God will not leave His flock to others anymore, He Himself will shepherd the sheep; for that very reason His Son took flesh: He is the Good Shepherd. The hired hands flee, they leave the flock to be easy prey of the wolves, but Jesus does not run. The shepherd’s staff is a weapon, but Jesus does not strike the wolf. Instead, He places Himself between His flock and the wolf and gives Himself up into its jaws. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” He allows the wolf to devour Him, He permits the wolf to fill its belly with the Messiah. Having finished such a feast, the wolf is delighted; He stands there, panting, ready to taste some sheep. He was alarmed at first when the Good Shepherd showed up; this one did not flee as the hired men did. But it was so easy; the Good Shepherd gave Himself into his sharp teeth. And for three days, it appears that Jesus hasn’t accomplished anything but putting more meat in the wolf’s belly.
But something is wrong; terribly wrong. On the morning of the third day, the wolf’s stomach starts to rumble; then it begins to hurt; soon the pain is excruciating, and just when the wolf cannot take it anymore, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, bursts forth from its gullet and leaves it in pieces behind Him. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” Alleluia, the Good Shepherd is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! The wolf’s belly is destroyed; he will never again devour one of the Good Shepherd’s sheep. He encountered the wolf, and He destroyed it, by laying down His life for the sheep.
Judge your shepherds by their reaction to the wolves! Any theology or philosophy that flees when the wolf approaches, when death is near, is no good; it isn’t worth your time. Only the Good Shepherd has defeated the wolf, and He has only done so by giving Himself up into its jaws. Risen in victory from the dead, He goes forth to gather those scattered by the unfaithfulness of hired hands and the violence of wolves. “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.” He gathers in His flock, seeking them out through His Church, through faithful under-shepherds who speak His voice, not their own, and He gives the only real comfort that suffices in the face of death, when one hears the howling of wolves: His death, His resurrection, for you. He gives what no hired man can: victory over the wolves. Only because He hangs on a cross, only because He went into the belly of the wolf, can the Good Shepherd proclaim the sure and certain hope of life in the midst of death; that as He was raised, so His sheep too will rise.
His victory is your victory, for He made you His own in the waters of Holy Baptism. Your Good Shepherd knows you; He knows you by name, He knows you as He knows, and is known by, the Father. “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.” He knows each and every sorrow and trouble, He knows each and every joy. He knows His sheep, He knows you, He knows that the comfort you need in the face of death is His death, His resurrection. He is your Good Shepherd, your true Shepherd, your fitting Shepherd, the only Shepherd that saves sheep like you and me.
Who is your shepherd? In this place we have a comforting, gentle picture of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. But Jesus would not have us look first to that beautiful window to see Him as our Good Shepherd. There is another image in this sanctuary that proclaims His shepherding love, and it stands where the voice of the Shepherd is heard. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” Jesus is your Good Shepherd, your comforting shepherd, your humble shepherd. He carries you in His arms as a shepherd carries a little lamb. In patience, He guides you back to Himself, and He uses the staff of His Word to beat back those who would mislead His flock. But He only is and He only does those things because He went into the belly of the wolf, because He hung upon a cross for you.
Who is your shepherd—the window or the crucifix? Both; He is your Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep, only to take it up again in victory on the third day, and He is your Good Shepherd who truly gives you comfort in this life, when the pastures are bare and the wind is harsh, when the wolves howl and you have been scattered by the false promises of hired hands. Every shepherd’s staff on every pew in this place is also a cross. It is on the cross that Jesus is your Good Shepherd, for there the wolf is defeated, there it swallowed a meal that would be its undoing. And on the Last Day, the Good Shepherd’s voice will sound forth again, and His sheep, seemingly trapped in the wolf’s belly, will burst his gullet through the power of His Word, they will follow their Shepherd in victory. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.