Monday, May 12, 2014

Sermon on John 10:1-10, for the 4th Sunday of Easter, "The Shepherd"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. If we were to ask the kids at church, “If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”, we’d get a variety of fun answers. Maybe a dinosaur because it’s huge and fierce. Maybe an eagle that could soar above everything in the sky. Maybe a cheetah because it’s so fast. Maybe a dolphin that could play in the ocean. Probably a sheep is not too high in the rankings for most kids. Probably not what we would choose for ourselves. Sheep are not particularly glamorous creatures. Not fast, strong, or fierce. Rather, they don’t have very good eyesight, are prone to get stuck or be in trouble, and are relatively defenseless. But Psalm 100:3 joyously announces to us, Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” We are the sheep of His pasture, and He made us! So God why is it such a wonderful thing? Why would anyone want to be a sheep?  
Because sheep have a Good Shepherd who loves them and protects them! While sheep may not seem impressive, Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most tender and beloved images in all the Bible, and Christian art. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a few of those words might be: safety, strength, protection, comfort, guidance, and love. Shepherds are common in the Bible, from Jacob lifting the great stone from the well to water his uncle Laban’s flocks, to David rescuing his flock from lions and bears, to the prophets calling the leaders of Israel to task for being poor shepherds who were abusing and mistreating the sheep of God’s pasture. The best thing a sheep has going for them is that they have a good shepherd—and in Jesus Christ we have that Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.
On the other hand, sheep without a shepherd don’t fare too well. In fact this was one of the reasons Jesus had so much compassion on the helpless and hurting masses of people that He daily encountered in Israel. He saw that they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” And one of the biggest threats to sheep is to be led away from their shepherd. This is why Jesus describes the “thieves and robbers,” who show by their illegal entry that they have bad intentions for the sheep. The difference between a thief and a robber, by the way, is that a robber adds violence to the crime of stealing. Because false teachers or leaders don’t proclaim the word of Christ, we will not hear Jesus’ voice from them, but the voice of a stranger. They mean harm for the sheep and either abuse and mistreat them, or lead them astray from Jesus, the Shepherd.
Examples of these dangers to the church are too many to name, but through countless attacks, Christians are led away from the Christ and the fold of His church. Attacks that are directed at Jesus’ Word—the Bible. Attacks on Jesus Himself—who He is, what He has done, or even His very existence. Attacks on other sheep—turning us against one another because of a weakness or hypocrisy we discover in another sheep, while often blind to our own. This prevents us from living together as all those who need to gather under our Shepherd’s care. Attacks directly on us—of great temptations, of great stresses, grief, or losses. Attacks that leave us wounded and bleating, fearful that our Good Shepherd has abandoned us. Thieves and robbers assault the church from many angles, even from within, climbing in, as Jesus warns in the other gospels, as wolves dressed in sheepskin, to deceive. The Bible warns us that our enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. But our Good Shepherd is not afraid of any of those enemies, and has faced and defeated them all for us.
One of the best skills that sheep have is their hearing, and the same should be true of us. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and He calls them each by name. An infant already can recognize the voice of their mother, as opposed to the voice of a strange woman, even from birth. A mother’s voice soothes them, assures them, and loves them. It’s the voice they trust. Even before we realize it, we instinctively learn which voices we can trust, and which we don’t. Not that we are never deceived, or that instincts don’t sometimes lie, but it’s the Christian’s job to discern and listen carefully for the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. In the sermons we hear in church, in what we read or in what we hear in books or in the media, we need to discern when there are false and misleading voices. What speaks against God’s truth? What tries to take God’s place in our life, or replace His promises? What makes us apathetic or unconcerned to hear His voice and follow His call? We need to listen for the voice of Jesus, whom we can trust.
Today our young confirmands are taking a significant step in their faith. They have heard the voice of Jesus their Shepherd; have followed Him since they were little lambs; and today they confess that faith in Jesus before you. Faith in their Good Shepherd who loves them and laid down His life on the cross for them. Pledging to follow Him through all of life, through crosses and joys, and through the valley of the shadow of death. They have learned Jesus’ voice from the Scriptures, and are continuing to grow and learn in the faith, just as we do. Today they receive for the first time, Jesus’ body and blood, as a solemn witness that they have prepared by self-examination, repentance, and faith, to receive this sacrament for the forgiveness of their sins. Many competing voices will calling for your attention through life. But recognize and follow the voice of Jesus, and keep it familiar by the constant hearing of His Word.
If the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy—Jesus, our Good Shepherd comes that we may have life and have it abundantly. If sheep are far better off with a shepherd, than without—what makes life in the flock so much better? Some, I believe, have falsely understood this passage to mean that Jesus is promising material abundance. False teachers have misused Jesus’ words here to bait people into Christianity with promises of wealth and prosperity. But if that’s what Jesus meant, why does He so often warn against the spiritual dangers of wealth, and urge us to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth, where moth and rust destroy? Rather, the abundant life that Jesus, the Good Shepherd gives to His sheep, can come to us both in poverty and in plenty, in sickness or in health—in short it can come to us despite our outward circumstances. So what does that look like for the Christian?
Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want…is the favorite Scripture of many. This Psalm describes that abundant life under the goodness and care of our Shepherd, saying that He provides rest and nourishment for us. He restores our soul. We are not merely physical creatures, not just bodies in motion or biological machines. We have a living soul that can be exhausted, fearful, or driven to despair by the worries, troubles, and cares of this life. And our Shepherd restores our souls. He knows the spiritual nourishment we need from His Word—the healing and forgiveness of our sins, the carrying away of our guilt and our burdens, the strong hand to defend us from our enemies. He knows how best to lead us and carries us through sorrows and grief in this valley of the shadow of death. Jesus goes unafraid before us, as the One who faced His cross and grave with triumph and victory, as He suffered with us and for us on the cross. Jesus goes on to say that the mark of the Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for the sheep. And this is what Jesus did, only to take it up again, and show that even our worst enemy of death is not to be feared, for Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
A Christian is not just a nameless, faceless member of the herd in Jesus’ flock. We are not lost to Him in a sea of unfamiliar faces and unknown concerns—rather Jesus tells us that He calls His own sheep by name, and He knows them, and they know Him. Jesus knows our needs and well provides them. He is not like a parent with distracted and divided attention, but is able to hear all our prayers, know our individual needs, and treat them all as He knows best. A hymn we sang last week described the “flock” of the church this way: “Women, men, the young, the aging, wakened by the Spirit’s breath.” (LSB 476:4). Truly the flock is a mixed group, needing care in a variety of ways. But all are called by the Holy Spirit, and led by the One Shepherd Jesus Christ. We come from diverse walks of life, from diverse cultures; from diverse jobs; we have people from the youngest to the oldest here—infants, children, young adults, singles, couples, moms (we thank you especially today for your constant love and care!) and dads, grandparents, and everyone else. All are precious lambs in God’s sheepfold, and Jesus love’s each one and calls you by name.
The Lord is my Shepherd, and He prepares table in the presence of my enemies, and my cup overflows—etc—all show the personal nature of God’s care for us. The rich table and the overflowing cup speak again of that abundant life that Jesus intends for His sheep. A life marked by God’s love and concern for our every need; His defense against our enemies; and the generous goodness of His blessings. Today His table is spread for the forgiveness of sins. Two thousand years ago on the cross, He defeated sin, death, and the devil for us, and He constantly carries those gifts forward to you in His Word, in His Baptism, and in His Supper. These keep us in rich and green pastures, well-nourished spiritually and bodily in this life. And the best things are yet to come, for I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Who do the “thieves and robbers” of Jesus’ parable represent? Matthew 7:15-20; 24:11; Acts 20:28-30. How do thieves and robbers try to attack the sheep or lead them astray? What keeps the church united and aware of the false teaching of the wolves? Acts 2:42; 1 John 4:1-6; John 17:17. How do the sheep tell their shepherd apart from strangers?

  1. The sheep and shepherd language is rich throughout the Old Testament. How is God depicted as shepherd of His flock? Psalm 95:7; 23; 80:1-2. How does God rescue His flock? Ezekiel 34:13-16; Jeremiah 23:1-4. Who served as an “under-shepherd” to God’s people Israel (Numbers 27:15-17), and who did he represent, who would come later and be greater than him? John 10:11.

  1. What threats exist for God’s sheep (His people) today? How might they be taken from the fold (the church), abused or injured, led away from Jesus, or to another master?

  1. Jesus uses a second picture to describe His relation to the sheep. How is He the door? What does He keep out? Whom does He let in? John 14:6; Psalm 118:19-20; Acts 4:12.

  1. What kind of “abundant life” does Jesus desire for us? Is He talking about material things, like wealth and earthly success, or something else? Matthew 6:19-21; James 2:1-7. Greater than physical abundance, how does God desire spiritual abundance for us? John 20:31; Psalm 23. Describe the tenderness and care of Jesus as your Good Shepherd? How does the fact that He laid down His life for us and took it up again (John 10:15-18) give us the greatest confidence in His power to save? 

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