April 22, 2007

Sermon for Misericordias Domini: St. John 10.11-16

“Why should you forgive him? He doesn’t deserve it.”

“Why should you bear with her any longer? See how she treats you.”

“Your pleasure matters most of all – do whatever feels good, no matter what God says.”

“Aren’t you tired of this Christianity business? Ignore it for awhile, and take care of yourself first.”

“That shepherd, that pastor – he doesn’t care about you. Besides, he’s a hypocrite.”

“You are a great sinner, and your sins can never be forgiven.”

“Your life is worthless … cast it away!”

These are the words of the wolf, who comes in sheep’s clothing. His words are silky smooth. They make sense at the time. We want to follow them. But they are words of death. They are devilish words, leading to the cliff’s edge. When this wolf masquerading as our friend has led us away from the flock, he unmasks himself; but then, it is too late. His teeth sink into our neck. He is a ravenous beast. His will is not for our good. The sweet words soon taste bitter, and we are undone.

Has he led you astray? Indeed, we stand in danger every hour of every day. Truly this is the story not only of our own lives, but the entire story of humanity. Lured away from our God by that wolf, we obtained another shepherd, an evil shepherd. Psalm 48 says, “Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shepherds them” [v15 LXX]. In the Fall, Death became the shepherd of mankind, leading us into the valley of its shadow, never to return.

What joy then, was Holy Week and Easter! What joy still is ours! For the true Shepherd has come to rescue His lost sheep – Adam, and all his sons and daughters. See how He does it! He braves the thorns of our out-of-control vineyard, and stands fearless against the wolf’s rage. Condemned and rejected by the very sheep He came to rescue, He presents Himself willingly to the snapping throat of that beast who threatened all mankind. On the cross, that foul beast’s mouth drips with the Good Shepherd’s blood, but incredibly, his jaw is broken, his teeth shattered. Christ is risen, and that wolf’s growl has become an empty threat!

Remember that, my dear friends! For the wolf is enraged, and still seeks to recapture his ancient prey. That is, he still longs for your return to the darkness. But you are children of the light! Death’s flood has lost its chill, that wolf’s snapping jaw is impotent to harm you.

What sort of shepherd would do this for the sheep? None. It is preposterous, reckless. For by any shepherd’s reckoning, the sheep are not worth it. They are expendable, replaceable. And given the choice, the shepherd will save his own skin, every time. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ is called the Good Shepherd. He makes the selfless decision, He chooses our life, our forgiveness, our restoration, and lays down His life for us lost and scattered sheep.

No longer, then, are you destined for the sheep-pen of that other shepherd, Death; no longer do you follow the voice of the wolf, and his false shepherds urging you to fornicate, lie, cheat, gossip, and abide in self-absorption. Now, by Holy Baptism, you are in the flock of the Good Shepherd.

But remember how you got there! Not by your choice, not by your deeds, not by your feelings, not by your birth. Indeed, by your rebirth, which comes from God, not from yourself. You are not a lamb of the Lord’s flock by your right. It is a privilege, and by the words of our Lord we see that we can be cast out and declared not one of His flock. Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” [Mt. 25.31ff].

What is there to desire more, than to be among the sheep on that day, and not the goats?

But we live in a society that values “choice” above all things, and how quickly we translate this to religion as well. We suppose that we can make our religious choices, and dictate them to God. How does this affect our church life? When a family moves to a new area, they should look for the church that is most faithful to Holy Scripture. Yet too often, churches are evaluated based on their programs, their people, their pastoral personalities. And the promises made in church membership are discarded with less consideration than changing your cell phone or internet provider. How easy it is, in these decisions, to really be saying to God, “I will determine the terms by which I am part of Your flock.” And so the entire mindset of Christianity in our age says, “Don’t like one shepherd? Choose another. Don’t like this flock? Choose another. Or, start up your own flock.”

Every year on this Sunday we celebrate those comforting words, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Remember that these words are not a declaration of choice. “You did not choose Me,” says Jesus, “but I chose you.” When we say, with great joy, “The LORD is my Shepherd,” we are confessing that He has called us by the Gospel; that He has, entirely out of His goodness, brought us into His flock. It is always His flock, not ours. When we say, “The LORD is my Shepherd,” we confess that this is not a matter of my choice for Him but His choice for us, His words and promises to us. And what is He promising? He promises to lead you and guide you all the way through the valley of the shadow of death, that He will bring you even to the resurrection of the body, and cause you to dwell in the house of the LORD forever. When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” He is declaring that Psalm 23 is all about Him, and when we sing it, we are confessing with the deepest gratitude His inestimable sacrifice for us.

There’s much to do here for you sheep in this corner of the Good Shepherd’s sheep-pen. The fences need mending and the grass needs tending, and if you’re able to help, I’d really appreciate it. But don’t ever forget what really makes you the Lord’s sheep. It’s not all of our bleating and scampering, not our activity, but His activity to and for us. Blessed Martin Luther explained in the Smalcald Articles that the Church, the flock of the Good Shepherd, is not defined by bureaucracy, be it the papacy or another structure. The Church is not a corporation or a social organization. Thank God, Luther said, that “A seven-year old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

So pay no heed to those false and misleading voices you hear, telling you it’s fine to carry on sinning, it’s fine to withhold forgiveness, or that your life is worthless and empty. None of those things are true! Listen only to the Good Shepherd’s voice, who tells you again and again in the Psalms, the Gospel, and in Divine Service, “I am your Shepherd, and you are Mine. Abide in Me. I have washed you, and you are clean; I forgive you your many sins; I have fed you from the finest pasture, and I will be with you through the valley of the shadow of death, and the wolf shall not harm you.” All this and everything good your Good Shepherd says to you when the pastor, the undershepherd, repeats the words of the Good Shepherd, "This is My Body, given for you."

2 comments:

Peperkorn said...

A fine sermon. Thank you. Now a question: where did you get that stained glass window image? I'm on the hunt for one for a web project...

Christopher Esget said...

Sorry to not respond right away. I've been up at St Catharines for the Gerhardt symposium.

I wish I had some deep knowledge to impart regarding the image. The silly little truth is that I found it through the miracle of Google Image Search. Just type in "Good Shepherd" and you'll get it soon enough, I'm sure.