It’s easy for a sermon on the Good Shepherd to lose focus. The pastor—Latin for “shepherd”—doesn’t want to be a hireling, and he wants to warn the people about bad pastors who act like hirelings. But what is the purpose of Jesus talking about the hireling? Listen again: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.”
Who is the shepherd here? It is not the good, faithful, orthodox pastor; Jesus is the shepherd. And there is a fundamental difference between Jesus and all Christian pastors. Jesus is the God-man, God in the flesh; and as such, He is our Savior. The pastor is not the Savior; the pastor points to the Savior. So the point of this text is not good pastors vs. bad pastors; it is that no one can love the sheep like Jesus loves them, because only He owns the sheep.
We take care of things we own, but the things we are only renting, the things that are public property or someone else’s property, we don’t care about so much. Someone else’s problem.
But God does not look at you and say, “Someone else’s problem.” He says, “My problem. Not one I caused - but still, I am their Creator, and they are My creatures, and therefore I love them, and wish to care for them.” The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep because He owns them, they belong to Him, and He loves them. He will die for them.
Which means, He cares for you, because He owns you, you belong to Him, and He loves you. He died for you.
So why do you live as though you belong to another? Why do you live as though the love and affection of others is more important? Why, when the Good Shepherd speaks to you, do you prefer to listen to other voices? Why, when the Good Shepherd would lead you to green pasture and still waters, do you follow instead those who would lead you astray? They do not love you; they cannot give you life.
The chief voice leading us astray says, “Live for yourself!” Crass sins of theft, sexual immorality, lies, overindulgence of the created gifts, contention and vying for control over others - all these are ways in which you live for yourself, and are not following the voice of your Good Shepherd. But there are much more subtle, insidious, even “religious” ways in which you defy your Shepherd and live for yourself: doing good works so that others will notice; using right teaching as reason to hate and despise others; misusing your God-given authority in order to dominate, abuse, and not be loving to others; avoiding sin simply for fear of being punished – in all of these things, you are still living for yourself.
But look at Jesus! What He does is just the opposite. He lays down His life for sheep who love to wander. There is no selfishness in Him, but love. That is the one who says, “Follow Me; listen to My voice.” He says it not to dominate you or control you, but because He knows what it best for you.
So that is what it means to be a Christian - to hear Christ’s Word and follow Him. You can’t do that on your own; He has put us all into one flock, one Church, and there is where He has promised to be. The Church is found not where things are hippest or smokiest, not where things are biggest or oldest, but where the Word is rightly preached and where that Word is joined to water, bread, and wine as Christ instituted it. The Church is institutional because Jesus instituted preaching and Sacraments; and the human aspects of that institution—meeting and bylaws and hierarchies—must always and only serve those things, the ways in which sheep hear the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd.
So what does the voice of your Good Shepherd say to you? He says,
Repent, and be baptized for the remission of your sins;
Repent, and sin no more.
I do not desire your death, but that you should turn from your wicked way and live.
Rejoice, your King comes to you!
I forgive you all your sins;
On this mountain I will prepare a feast of the choicest cuts of meat and the finest of wines;
I will wipe away every tear from every eye;
I will never leave you nor forsake you;
Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life;
Lazarus, come forth from your grave!
Little girl, I say to you, arise! Young man, I say to you, arise!
Take and eat, this is My body given for you;
Behold, I make all things new!
These are the things your Good Shepherd says to you. Those words are your life. All other words are innocuous but temporary and un-saving; or, they are devilishly deceptive and damning. Do not listen to them. Keep your ears tuned to the voice saying to you continually, “Repent! Follow Me!” and “I forgive you! Do not fear!”
Christ the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, meaning He puts His own body between you and the attacking wolf, between you and death. He takes the attack in Himself, which is what He did on the cross. But when death and hell came to swallow Him up, they seized a bite that they could not swallow. The teeth of the devil were broken, and now his snarling voice is to you an empty threat. The devourer was devoured, the destroyer was destroyed, the enemy has been routed.
And now, Christ the Good Shepherd prepares for you a table in the presence of your enemies. He not only teaches you and leads you, He feeds you with Himself. All other food you eat and transform into yourself; but with this holy food, this blessed Sacrament, ceaselessly He transforms you, your souls into righteousness, your bodies into immortality. Meaning, what happened to the dead body of Jesus on Easter also will happen to your dead body on the day of resurrection; and even now, He leads you through this valley of the shadow of death so that you are His and He is yours, and you need fear no evil.