"The Shepherd Knows His Sheep"
“God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’ This is why children pray in this way, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’” (SA, III:12). So said Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles. They are most fitting words to hear on this “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Not only do we get to receive the comfort of the Good Shepherd, but we also get to rejoice in being His flock, that is, His Church. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Good Shepherd Jesus knows His little sheep, and His little sheep love to hear His voice.
We city-slickers may not know all of the intimate details of tending sheep, but somehow the picture of a shepherd still brings comfort and speaks of protection. But why? I mean a shepherd does not strike you as some kind of super-hero, does he? We can have Superman or Batman or Spiderman, but somehow “Sheepman” just doesn’t cut it. Even Mighty Mouse seems more “superhero-ish” than “Sheepman”! So, what makes Shepherd Jesus so “good”?
Listen to Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Now, a first century Palestinian shepherd would rarely die defending his sheep. Oh, he might try to act like Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, and risk his life, or put his life on the line. But actually “lay down his life” and sacrifice himself? No way. After all, who would take care of the sheep if he should die? But Good Shepherd Jesus does give His life for His sheep. That’s what makes Him “good” and noble. Jesus also says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:18). Remember, no super-hero can lay down his life and take it up again. But Jesus can. He’s no wimpy super-hero. He’s true God and true Man, begotten of the Father from eternity, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
But that’s not all that makes Him “good.” Good Shepherd Jesus does not just lay down His life for giggles or to show off. No, He “lays down his life for the sheep.” You see, He knows His sheep. He knows you; He knows me. He knows that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Is. 53:6). He knows that we tend to wander off from His tender care and keeping. He knows that we easily get spooked at the least little noise or trouble around us. He knows that we get absolutely terrified, if and when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So, Good Shepherd Jesus laid down His own life for you, His sheep. And not only did He lay down His life on a blood-soaked cross, but He also took it up again in His glorious resurrection. Not only was He sacrificed as a Passover lamb, but He is also risen to give you His new, divine, and eternal life.
If you’re not sure of that, just ponder what Good Shepherd Jesus gives you on the altar today—His very own Body and Blood, pulsating with His glorious, eternal, resurrection life, given and shed for you. So think of Good Shepherd Jesus also as your Passover Lamb. He was slaughtered and roasted on the cross, but He is also risen to give you His life.
Look above the altar, in the middle of the reredos. You see the victorious Lamb of God, complete with His banner of victory and His glorious sunburst of a new dawn. Remember that He rose to give you life with Him. But also look at the front of the altar. There you see another animal—a pelican feeding her pious brood. Notice that she feeds them by plucking her own flesh and blood and giving it to them. That’s how Good Shepherd Jesus gives His life for you, His sheep. He feeds you on His own life-giving Body and Blood.
We’ve heard about the Good Shepherd; let’s hear about His sheep. A shepherd is not a shepherd without his flock of sheep. And a flock of sheep must rely on its shepherd for everything, from food and drink to healing and protection. And how does this happen?
I used to think that sheep are nothing but smelly, stupid animals. Well, they are smelly, but a friend who used to be a shepherd once taught me, a shepherd of souls, the truth about sheep. Several years ago, I preached on Good Shepherd Sunday about smelly, stupid sheep. Then a couple of days later I had to get a haircut. Little did I know that my barber had formerly done some sheep-hearding. So, I sat down in the barber’s chair. We began discussing John chapter 10, sheep and shepherds. Then my barber said, “Pastor, sheep aren’t stupid; they just can’t see well. They have to listen for their shepherd.” He then went on to tell me that sheep have such keen hearing that several different voices can call out to them, but they will know the voice of their own shepherd.
That’s what Jesus says about His flock: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 10:27). Jesus’ sheep don’t just follow any voice that’s popular or that draws massive crowds or that sells lots of books. Jesus’ sheep, His believers, can discern His voice. They can discern His voice even amidst the din and racket of the shopping mall of modern American Evangelical religion. Jesus’ faithful sheep can discern His soothing voice, even though the noise of things contemporary and theatrical seems to drown it out.
Yes, it does matter what church you belong to, because you will not hear Jesus’ voice at every church. Just because a church has a religious bookstore or a fashionable coffee stand or a rocking praise band on a Sunday morning, that does not guarantee you’ll hear the voice of Jesus. Beware of the religious hirelings—that is, pastors—who merely seek to line their pockets or have good looking numbers on their statistical reports. Chances are, you won’t hear the voice of Jesus from them, because they are puppets of that old satanic wolf who loves to hunt down and eat Jesus’ little sheep.
Why is this important? Not only does Jesus say that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him, but He also says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:28). Now there’s good reason to listen only to the voice of Jesus, and not to the modern, religious mindset. When you listen to Jesus’ voice, you have eternal life! When you listen to Jesus’ voice, no one can snatch you out of His hand.
Two weeks ago at the Easter Vigil, we got to hear three young people confess faith in this Good Shepherd Jesus. They promised to be faithful to Him until death. After all, He has already promised to be faithful to them. Their voices quivered with nervousness, but Jesus’ voice will always give them life and protection. Their promises may seem like mere words, but we pray that Good Shepherd Jesus will help them to keep their promises and rejoice in life with Him. Actually, all of us who have been confirmed and taken these vows need to perk up our ears. All of us need to pay attention to what we’ve promised. After all, all of us have promised “to continue steadfast” in the Christian confession and Church. All of us have vowed “to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”
Don’t let anything, no matter how popular or appealing, lure you away from Christ and His Church. After all, here’s where you hear the voice of your Good Shepherd. You also promise “to be faithful in the use of God’s Word and Sacraments.” May God graciously help you keep that promise! You will always be tempted to sleep in after a late Saturday night. You will always be tempted to do something supposedly “more fun” than “go to church”—whether it’s shopping or fishing or a Cardinal’s game or a Blue’s playoff game. But remember, the more you stay away from Jesus and His Church, the more you miss out on hearing the voice of your Good Shepherd, and the more you miss out on receiving His gift of life.
But the more you are here, in this place, to hear Good Shepherd Jesus and receive His Body and Blood from the altar, the more peace and joy you always have. You see, your Good Shepherd tends and feeds you through His Word proclaimed and His Sacraments given out. You do need to be in His green pastures and beside His still waters for Him to restore your soul. He does prepare a table before you so that your cup will always run over with His goodness and mercy.
Now we know how Luther could say it: “God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’ This is why children pray in this way, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’” Here in the one holy Christian Church, your Good Shepherd Jesus knows you, His little sheep, and you get to learn to love His life-giving voice. Amen.