Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter
Misericordias Domini – “…the steadfast love of the LORD”
Ezekiel 34:11-16 + 1 Peter 2:21-25 + John 10:11-16
“The LORD is my shepherd.” Of all the images that the Scriptures give us of Jesus, the tender image of Shepherd stands out above them all. The Old Testament Scriptures paint this tender picture of God, the Lord, Yahweh, as the true Shepherd of his people, his sheep. Here, in his shepherd-care for his people, you truly see the Misericordias Domini, the mercies, the steadfast love of the Lord.
So when Jesus comes on the scene and declares himself – twice! – to be The Good Shepherd, it’s no small claim. He is claiming to be God, the Lord, Yahweh, the true Shepherd of his people, his sheep. It’s a claim that packs all of the Gospel into one beautiful image of a shepherd caring for his sheep, even laying down his life for the sheep. It’s a claim that needs Easter Sunday for it to be any good, because if Jesus is dead and gone, then you and I have no Shepherd – only the memory of one, and are left to fend for ourselves in this evil world against the devil, the world and our sinful nature, with zero chance of survival.
But because Jesus laid down his life for the sheep and then took it up again on Easter Sunday, he is able to be for you and me just what he says, and this is how Jesus wants you to know him now and forever: Jesus wants to be known as the Good Shepherd.
To know Jesus as Shepherd is to know Him… as the caregiver for sickly sheep.
“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus says. And he summarizes all that he is and does as the good shepherd in this phrase: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” At the same time, he summarizes all that we are and do with that one word, “sheep.” Sheep are unintelligent, untrainable, prone to wander and go astray, can’t take care of themselves, totally dependent creatures. That’s how Jesus would have his people know themselves.
But it’s even stronger than that. What kind of sheep does Jesus care for? Remember what God said through Ezekiel? I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. The sheep for which the Good Shepherd cares are not even the sleek and the strong sheep, but the lost, the straying, the injured and the weak. These are the ones Jesus shepherds; these are the ones Jesus goes looking for, cares for, heals and helps, not just once, but always, for their entire lives. These are the ones for whom the Good Shepherd lays down his life and sacrifices all – for weak and sickly sheep.
Christ would have us view his kingdom, not as a tidy, orderly sheep pen that’s only for pious, strong, good-looking Christians, but rather, Christ would have us view his kingdom as a hospital. In the future, in heaven, all of God’s people will be sleek and strong and sinless. But here on this earth Christ’s kingdom is nothing but a hospital for sick people, sinful people, people who are too often rude and self-centered, people who are weak, too often offensive to others and too easily offended by others, too quick to get angry and too slow to forgive.
But, in his mercy, Christ constantly calls his sheep to repentance and faith, to look to him constantly as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for sickly sheep, for sinners, for you and for me, the Good Shepherd who stared the wolf in the eye and, after all the hired hands had fled, said, “Take me and let these go free,” who took up his life again so that he could shepherd us for all eternity, which includes applying to us the medicine of his Holy Supper. Never see yourself in this life as healthy enough to check out of Jesus’ hospital. This is how you are to know Jesus, as the Shepherd who cares for sickly sheep.
To know Jesus as Shepherd is to know Him…as the One who knows you.
I know my sheep, Jesus says, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. There is no pretending with Jesus. You can’t fool him into thinking you’re one of his sheep by saying the right things on the outside but on the inside you’re still relying on your good works for salvation. And you don’t have to prove to him with your prayers and your works that you really are his sheep. He knows his sheep. He sees the faith that no one else can see. He also sees the good works that always flow from that faith, the good works that are done in the sight of all, and the good works that are done in secret, that no one else even knows about. He knows about them.
He knows the mothers out there who trust in him, with all your flaws, with all your mistakes, with all your dedication and sacrifice. He knows you. He knows how much you can handle, and how much you can’t. He knows your guilt and your shame – both real and imagined. And he laid down his life for you – not just for your children, but for you, and has branded you – and your children, with his own name in Holy Baptism. To know him as Shepherd is to know him as the One who knows you.
To know Jesus as Shepherd is to know him as both Savior and example.
My sheep know me, Jesus says, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. For all their sins and weaknesses, Jesus’ sheep know that no sin is so bad that Jesus hasn’t paid for it. They know him as Savior and the one whose death on the cross paid for every sin of every sinner. They hear words from an old book called the Bible, but they know their Shepherd is speaking to them there, and that he speaks to them, too, through the pastor whom he has called to be his voice in their midst. They know Jesus as the one who leads them through the valley of the shadow of death, through every hardship, through all the pain. And even when your knowledge of this Shepherd is clouded by fear or pain or loss, the Shepherd’s voice breaks through it all. “I lay down my life for the sheep.” That’s the voice you know, the voice of Christ you’ve known all along. Jesus’ sheep know him as their faithful and reliable Savior from sin and all its consequences, even from death and from the devil.
But Jesus’ sheep also know him as example, as the perfect Shepherd in whose very steps we would follow, who is so good and kind and compassionate that we want to be like him, just like him, to imitate him, to walk in his paths of righteousness. That means knowing him as the one we want to follow in all things, even if it means suffering like he did. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
Finally, to know Jesus as Shepherd is to know him as the only Shepherd of The One Flock.
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The sheep pen, when Jesus spoke these words, were the believers among the Jews. The “other sheep” were those who would believe among the Gentiles. In Christ, there are no longer two flocks or many flocks, but one, just as there is one Shepherd. It’s easy for us to forget that, as believers in Christ, we are not an isolated little flock here at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. We’re part of something so much bigger. As confessional Lutherans, we have to recognize that the doctrine that has been passed down to us from our Lutheran forefathers is not a new doctrine of a different shepherd, but the same doctrine handed down by this shepherd to the apostles, confessed in the ancient Church and preserved by the Lutheran Reformers.
Now it’s our turn to confess the whole gospel of Christ, and to confess is rightly. Now it’s our turn to speak the Gospel of the Good Shepherd and trust Jesus when he says that his sheep will listen to his voice. We can’t gather his flock. Only he gathers his flock, and he does it perfectly and wisely and amazingly.
Today, Good Shepherd Sunday happens to coincide with Mothers’ Day, so moms, take comfort in this. You have the high calling to live as Christian mothers, wholly dedicated to pointing your children to the Good Shepherd – bringing them faithfully – every Sunday! – to church, to Sunday School, and later to Catechism class, telling them Bible stories, listening to their memory work, living in your homes as pious and devout Christian women and as godly examples of what a loving mother and a submissive wife is supposed to be.
Christ has given you the monumental task of raising your children to know him, but he doesn’t make you responsible for their faith or for their eternal future. I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus says. He’s the only one who could lay down his life for the sheep and he’s the only one who can gather them into his flock and keep them there. You never take the place of the Good Shepherd. Your children are his, sheep of the Good Shepherd and members of his flock. He will care for them, even as he cares for you, and for all of you whom he has called by the Gospel to be known by him and to know him as he wants to be known – to know him as the Good Shepherd. Amen.