In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I AM the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. … 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. … For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again” (Jn 10:11, 14–15). “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (Ps 23:1–3a). What words of great comfort, from the Lord Jesus and from King David, words that continue to comfort us, especially in times of trial, trouble, and tribulation.
Sadly, though, some people, such as some who are hospitalized or recuperating at home due to illness or surgery, will actually decline an offer from a visiting pastor to read the 23rd Psalm or the words of Jesus from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel. They turn down an opportunity to hear those comforting Gospel words. Why? One reason that’s been given: When do people often hear the 23rd Psalm? At a funeral, of course. It’s a popular choice for those occasions, especially in the King James Version. That particular psalm may also be read as part of the Rite of the Commendation of the Dying. John 10, the “Good Shepherd” chapter, understandably tends to remind folks of Psalm 23. So these two passages of the Word of God have come to be associated in many people’s minds with death and dying. Why do you want to read me the 23rd Psalm, Pastor? Is there something they’re not telling me? Am I dying? So the heart and mind are led into distress over God’s holy Word of comfort.
This distress is a “gift” from the enemy of God and man, that ancient serpent, the devil. Oh, he doesn’t have to put in a personal appearance in order to instill the fear and dread of death in us. Ever since our first parents listened to the tempting voice of the serpent, instead of listening to God, that fear is inborn in us. We fear death because it is an enemy as well, an enemy whom we cannot evade forever. Death reminds us that we deserve judgment, and the judgment against us should be “Guilty!” Death is the penalty for sin. Death, both temporal (in this life) and eternal (in the world to come), is our just deserts, what we justly deserve, for our rebellion and disobedience against God. More than death, though, we fear God, for He is the sinless, righteous, and holy Judge against sin. He has told us in His Word not to sin, and still we do. Recall again the Garden, when the man and woman ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. After their theft of what belonged to the LORD alone, the LORD came to them, called for them; but they hid themselves from Him because they were afraid of Him. “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10). The Voice of the Lord causes us to fear Him and to hide from Him?! Something has gone terribly wrong when that’s the case!
Indeed, something did go terribly wrong. I’ve told the familiar beginning of that wrong, and the consequences for us all as a result. But we’re not innocent because we didn’t start it. Each of us came into this world, this life, as happy and willing participants in the rebellion against God. That’s a problem, and because of that inborn rebellious nature, we have another problem: We’re afraid of, and we flee from, the only one who can solve these problems for us, the One who can change our nature and take away our fear.
What we need, then, is to learn to hear and recognize His Voice and His Word and even His Breath. Jesus, who is the Word of God made flesh, says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn 10:27). Earlier in John 10, He says, “The sheep hear [the Shepherd’s] voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out … and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice” (vv. 3b, 4b). We cannot recognize Him on our own, but only through the Holy Spirit’s patient, gracious, and merciful work in us through the Word and Sacrament do we learn to recognize our Shepherd. All who do recognize Him He likewise recognizes as belonging to His flock, as surely as He said to those who did not recognize Him but demanded that He tell them plainly if He is the Christ, “I told you, … but you do not believe because you are not part of My flock” (Jn 10:25a, 26).
Last Sunday, we heard the beginning of the account of Saul of Tarsus, how the Lord transformed him from “the Destroyer,” a persecutor of the Church of Christ, to be an apostle of Christ and a shepherd of the followers of Jesus. Today we jump ahead to a time nearer the end of his earthly ministry and life, when he had gone about preaching the Gospel among the Gentiles, going by his Latin name, Paul. The events of Acts 20 took place during his third missionary journey. At Miletus in what is now southwestern Turkey, Paul called the elders, that is, the pastors of the church at Ephesus to come to him. Paul had earlier stayed at Ephesus for nearly three years, and here he gives the pastors instructions, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul had served them as a faithful undershepherd in the name and stead of the Good Shepherd, and now he reminds them not only of their duty to carry on the shepherding task, but to entrust themselves to the LORD their Shepherd, even as he, Paul is entrusting them to the Lord’s care. His words here sound like a final discourse, a verbal “last will and testament” for his hearers, those to whom he has taught the Faith of Christ. Indeed, the final verses of the chapter tell us:
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36–38)
Remember the LORD your Shepherd, Paul is saying. What does a shepherd do? He herds sheep. Simple, right? Even though most of us have never herded sheep, we know that keeping sheep is far from a simple or easy task. As we heard in the words of Jesus, the shepherd leads his sheep out to pasture, guiding them to food and water, and then he leads them back into the pen, where he is the door of the sheep, keeping track of those who are his. He guards the sheep from predators, treats them when they’re sick, binds their wounds, and brings back the wandering sheep. Paul testifies that we have a Triune Shepherd, the one true God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, who feeds us and leads us. Paul solemnly testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of the repentance toward (into) God and faith in (into) our Lord Jesus. And now, behold, having been bound, I go by the Spirit into Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and affliction await me … if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly the Gospel of the grace of God.” Did you hear the name and the work of your Triune Shepherd? Repentance to God, faith in Jesus, bound by the Spirit, and then the solemn testimony of the Holy Spirit, the ministry from the Lord Jesus, and the Gospel of the grace of God. Paul commended his Ephesian hearers, and he commends all who still hear his words, “to God and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all the sanctified, those made holy” (v. 32). You are commended into the never-failing, eternal care of God the Father, Christ the Word, and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. So also, Jesus testifies of it in the Gospel, and John testifies of it in the Revelation.
We must certainly know and remember God’s Law, for it is His holy Word. But we must know and remember His Gospel of grace, His Word of comfort. For the Law says, “You need Christ Jesus,” but the Gospel declares to you, “Here He is!” And where our God and Savior Jesus is, He who “obtained [us] with His own blood,” there also His heavenly Father is present to receive you as His own, and there His Holy Spirit is, to create faith in your heart and mind. As Martin Luther (LW vol. 52) said: “There is no other sign by which you can know where Christ and His church may be found than this one sure sign, this star, the holy gospel; every other sign is false and fails. … It is impossible that God’s Word should be proclaimed and God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit not be present.”
The presence of our Triune Shepherd is His sure promise to us, though we may not always feel it. Still, He gives us, His sheep, ways to understand and know His presence among us. He gives us His Word, Law and Gospel: “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Ps 23:4d), His Word to guide and to defend us. The Father gives us His Son, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), who is also “the Good Shepherd [who] lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). How can this be, the Shepherd who is the Lamb, the Lamb who is the Shepherd? Yet Jesus is the Shepherd-Lamb. The 23rd Psalm isn’t just for us or about us; it’s first about Jesus as our Shepherd, and as the Lamb of His Shepherd, His God and Father. Jesus alone could say in full faith and trust, “I shall not want … I will fear no evil … Thou anointest My head with oil.” In our weakness and little faith, we do want, we do fear evil, we are unworthy to be anointed by the Lord. But Jesus the Shepherd-Lamb feeds us and leads us, and by His laying down His life for us, His sheep, He redeems us and so deems us worthy.
In the Gospel waters of Holy Baptism, “[we] have washed [our] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14c). When we wander from Him, He restores us through Holy Absolution. The Welsh-born poet and priest George Herbert’s beautiful paraphrase of “The 23d Psalme” brings in this thought: “Or if I stray, he doth convert / And bring my minde in frame: And all this not for my desert, But for his holy name.” His forgiveness is not our desert, what we deserve, but is given for the sake of the suffering and death of Christ, and for the honor of God’s own name. Herbert adds this based on Luke 15, the Parable of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep, and on Isaiah 53, the
Song of the Suffering Servant, Jesus’ Passion and Sacrifice: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before her shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (vv. 6–7).
As has been said many times, our Shepherd-Lamb feeds us and quenches our thirst: “Thou preparest a table before me … my cup runneth over.” A shepherd of domestic sheep needs to keep them moving to new pasture, or else they’ll eat the grass in one place down to the roots, and the sheep will gorge themselves until they can’t move. For Christ and His sheep, it’s the opposite. We hanker to move to new pastures; but His supply for us here, His body to eat and His blood to drink for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, shall never run out. He calls us to stay close by Him. Someone has likened the “goodness and mercy” following us to the shepherd’s sheepdogs—and some have said that that’s a good picture of us undershepherds. Pastors as sheepdogs, taking directions from Christ the Good Shepherd. (I like that.) The sheep just need to understand the purpose of our barking and nipping, for the sake of each sheep and the whole flock, till we all arrive at our Shepherd’s destination for us: “And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for length of days,” even unto the Last Day, the eternal Day without end.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.