Featured image from Garrick Sinclair Photography.
Date: May 8, 2022
Festival: 4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Text: John 10:22-30
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Acts 20:17-35; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Sermon Hymn: LSB #711 Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: What Sheep Are Like
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I cannot help but think that Jesus calls us His sheep for a reason. I have a hard time thinking of it as a term of endearment like a father calling his child his “little cub” or his “little pup” because, you see, sheep are incredibly dumb. They’re also powerless and needy. When a sheep falls over, the shepherd needs to hold it for 1-2 minutes on its feet to get the blood flowing in its legs again before letting it go, otherwise it’ll run off as soon as you get it up and it’ll just fall over again because it’s too stupid to know any better. When a wolf happens to get into the pasture and snatches a sheep away, unless the shepherd is nearby, the sheep is done for. It is powerless to save itself. Its only form of defence is the way it hilariously headbutts a threat (if it doesn’t manage to fall over).
But sheep do have some positive qualities. They’re decent listeners and followers. They know the voice of their shepherd. My dad and stepmom live on a little farm in Illinois, and I can recall many times when my stepmom walks out of the house, and as soon as they hear her voice, they begin bleating, mostly because they know she’s coming to feed them because they’re incredibly needy and quite fat. Coyotes can easily get to the chickens and ducks on their farm because they’re in a free roam area. If they could get to the sheep, they would, but as long as the sheep are in their enclosed pasture, the coyotes can’t get to them.
Still, though, the sheep are powerless, shortsighted creatures. There’s a little area in the back of my dad’s farm where they sometimes have the sheep with some temporary fencing. The sheep like to find holes in the fencing, and if one of them finds a hole and gets out, a bunch will follow, too stupid to know they’re following it into danger. As the shepherd chases after them, they could get lost, get hit by a car, or get snatched by a coyote. Following their own instincts rather than the boundaries their shepherd put up for them, they set themselves up to get snatched by coyotes. But so long as they remain within those boundaries, they’re safe; no coyote can snatch them out of their shepherd’s hand.
The Sheep of His Pasture
The Psalms describe the people of God as the sheep of His pasture. So long as we remain in His pasture, we are safe. None can snatch us out of His hand. But this begs the question: What are the pastures of the Lord? I think there are two things we can analogously call the Lord’s pasture: His Word and His church. Let us first consider His Word.
Everything we need to know about God is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures, and His Word gives us boundaries—what to do and what not to do, what to believe and not believe. Wolves will attempt to snatch you away with false doctrine—with false things like: you can hear God’s voice inside you, you can find God in nature, in the stars, in meditation, and so forth. It is true that creation makes it obvious that there is a Creator, as the Word itself says, and in the words of the psalmists that even creation praises God. But creation is not God and creation cannot tell you who He is; God has revealed who He is in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, through whom call all things that came to be, whom we know because of His Word. The so-called voice inside your head is not God; it is an emotional reaction. The peace you feel in meditation is not God; it is only a feeling that will not last. God revealed Himself as three Persons in one divine Being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And He has not revealed how this is possible; He has only revealed that this is the case.
God does not speak apart from the Scriptures. Anything that calls us to look outside God’s Word and at something else is not coming from God but a ravenous wolf trying to snatch you away. Some of these wolves have names. Prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Kenneth Copeland—just to name a few—have snatched many from the flock of God in promising God’s presence and favour in wealth and prosperity. But God’s Word never promises this; in fact, it promises the opposite.
Other wolves are not people with names but can also be ideas and ideologies, such as the enthusiasm of looking inside yourself to find God as mentioned earlier, “my body, my choice,” “spiritual but not religious,” and others. Like the sheep finding a hole in the fence to escape the boundaries of the pasture only to get snatched by coyotes, some sheep of God’s flock will go beyond the Scriptures only to get snatched by wolves.
The other thing we can call God’s pasture is the church, for here we receive God’s Word and Sacraments to feed our bodies and souls. In our Acts reading this morning, Paul warned the flock in Ephesus that “fierce wolves” will come in among them, “not sparing the flock,” and even wolves rising from within their congregation with twisted speaking. Concerning the church, what this often looks like in our day is the twisted speaking of “spiritual-but-not-religious” Christians who say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” Really? That’s not what God’s Word says. What you do for God you can and always should do everywhere. But God promises to come to you specifically in His Word and Sacraments, which are uniquely served in the church.
Or to use Paul’s own language to the Corinthians, the church is like a body, and it is the Body of Christ. The arm, the leg, and any body part cannot say to the body, “I have no part in you” because it belongs to the body. Similarly, a Christian cannot say to the church, “I have no part in you” because they belong to the church, Christ’s body. If you were to deliberately cut off your perfectly good arm from your body, it will eventually wither and die, to be snatched up by some predator as a free meal. So, what do you think happens to you if you were to deliberately cut yourself off from Christ’s body, the church, to whom you belong? Your faith will wither and die; you will be snatched by wolves. Like the sheep that find a hole in the fence and their shepherd arduously seeks them, calling out for them, and they hardly listen, so those who have left the church through a theology with many holes in it are being beckoned by their pastors to return to Christ’s pasture and they hardly listen. Some even follow them into such danger.
Sheep Listen and Follow
But as mentioned earlier, sheep, when they remain within the pasture, are decent listeners and followers. But they always need guidance when they listen and follow. In my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Israel. I remember a time when we were driving through the wilderness of Zin, and I looked out my window and saw a shepherd with a huge flock of sheep and two sheep dogs. In this analogy, think of the shepherd as Jesus, the sheep as you, and the sheep dogs as your pastors. As they were walking through the wilderness, the shepherd was at the head of the flock, frequently looking back and calling out to the sheep. The sheep dogs helped the sheep stay together to hear and follow the shepherd, sometimes biting at their ankles as a harsh discipline to keep them together and not stray into danger.
We your pastors are like those sheep dogs, constantly on the edges to keep you together and point you to the Shepherd, Jesus Christ. We preach to you and teach you the words of Christ in His Holy Scriptures; all that you hear from our voice is the Word of God, which we only do by His grace and help. We don’t want you to follow us; we want you to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd. It is always to Him that we point you. We do that here, in the Divine Service, your local pasture, where Christ Himself comes to you in His Word and Sacraments. We do that in the various Bibles studies we teach because the more you listen to His Word and follow Him, the more you get used to His voice and the way He leads. And we do this in catechesis as well, where you little lambs begin to learn the voice of Jesus and how to follow Him. Sometimes, your pastors might bite at your ankles—rebuking a false belief you hold, a sin you need to repent of.
None Can Snatch You
As we all grow in hearing Jesus’ voice in the Scriptures and how to follow Him, know that you are safe in the pastures of His Word and His church. It is Christ who brought you into His pasture. No sheep chooses to become part of a flock; it is either born into it or brought in by its shepherd. Both are true of you; you have been born into Christ’s flock through the womb of the church in Baptism, and it is He who brought you into His flock through these waters of new birth. He has led you beside the still waters of salvation, and it is yours forever [Psalm 23:2]. Not even the devil can take this from you.
To be sure, the devil is our vicious enemy. Peter warns that the devil is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour [1 Peter 5:8]. But because of Christ’s victory of eternal life, which He has given to you, as Luther once put it: the devil is a toothless lion; the worst he can do is gum you to death. He is still our enemy, but he only rages so much because he knows his time is short. As we shall sing at the close of the service, “O little flock, fear not the foe / Who madly seeks your overthrow; / Dread not his rage and pow’r. / And though your courage sometimes faints, / His seeming triumph o’er God’s saints / Lasts but a little hour” [LSB #666 O Little Flock, fear No the Foe; stz. 1]. Fear not, little flock; for Christ your Good Shepherd gave Himself up for you as the sacrificial Lamb, shattering the teeth of the devil, who through your Baptism has clothed you in white robes to stand before His throne for all eternity. To Christ be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.