Sermon for Misericordias Domini, the Third Sunday of Easter, AD 2021

John 10:11-16

Five hundred years ago today, April 18, 1521, also Misericordias Domini, the Third Sunday of Easter, Martin Luther made his “here I stand” statement. At the Diet of Worms, Luther confessed before the bishops, princes, and emperor that he would not take back any of his writings or teaching about justification by grace alone through faith alone unless he was shown his error by clear scripture. He heroically stood firm with the confession of scripture, God’s Word, even when many powerful men were against him and his life was on the line. As a result of this, the true gospel of Christ’s work alone for our salvation continued to be preached even to this day.
           
This is the gospel of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. We have our own painting of the Good Shepherd here at St. Paul’s at the rear of the nave. Like many Good Shepherd paintings, we see Jesus interacting with different kinds of sheep. On the left there is an entire flock of sheep He is leading, as He leads the church and those who hear His voice. On the right there is a single sheep, showing that Jesus is also personally our Shepherd, caring for each one of us, as we heard in the 23rd Psalm. Finally, there is a lamb in His arms, showing His care for the most vulnerable, as God says in Ezekiel, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
           
It is comforting, knowing you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, that he cares for you in this way. Jesus speaks of four types in our gospel lesson today – the good shepherd, the hired hand, the wolves, and the sheep. You who trust in Christ and hear His voice are the sheep. Yet being a sheep is not always what you want to do. Being called a sheep is not a compliment. Foxes are clever, horses are powerful, but sheep are neither of these. They are not self-sufficient. They need a shepherd who will lead them. When Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, He is not just there to comfort and help us as we do our own thing. He lead us. He protects us. We do not run around the pasture however we wish, but submit to His leading. Otherwise we will fall into a ravine, wander off into the wilderness, or get eaten by ravenous animals.
           
The church leaders at Luther’s time believed he was a rebellious sheep, or even a wolf. Seeing themselves as the true shepherds, they tried to get him back in line to follow their way. Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me” because “they will listen to my voice.” Those who are sheep led by Jesus are those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. They hear His Word and follow it. No other way, by no other authority, do we know the Good Shepherd than by His Voice, His word. As Luther said five hundred years ago, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Luther knew he was a sheep because he would only follow his Shepherd’s voice, the Word of God. No matter how powerful or important others saw themselves to be, if they did not speak with the Good Shepherd’s voice, teaching from the Word of God, he refused to be bound by what they said.
           
Jesus warns of this reality – there are wolves outside and inside the church. If it were not so, the sheep would not need a shepherd. For the Lord who is your shepherd leads you to green pastures and quiet waters, but this is through the valley of death. Death surrounds us on all sides. As sheep, if you lose the voice of your shepherd, you may wander off into this death. This is not mainly speaking about physical death, though the flock of Christ does face pressure from outside to not preach the gospel, and at times faces physical consequences from worldly authorities. Yet the much worse death is eternal death. The wolves will force or mislead the sheep into false belief, great shame, and vice.
           
These wolves come and consume sheep in many ways. Some wolves come appearing to be shepherds. As in Luther’s time, they lead the sheep to a confidence, a fear and trust of something besides the death and resurrection of Jesus. These may be popular preachers, often, but not always, on TV, who focus on self-care, self-actualization, and living your best life. Or they may tell you that you need to be more radical, that trust in Jesus is not enough but you need to add your part. Or they turn you to your own experiences and meditations, trying to connect with God by your own thoughts and feelings. All of these are wolfish because they pull you away from the real place of healing, strength, and peace – the voice of your Good Shepherd, the Word of God. If someone who claims to be a shepherd is focusing away from the Word of God and the sacraments, the places the Shepherd has promised to speak to us, he or she is really a wolf.
           
Thankfully, Christ, our Good Shepherd, has sent his undershepherds as well. That is the meaning of “Pastor” – shepherd. He has called and equipped men to preach His Word so that the sheep may hear His voice just as if He were speaking it himself. How incredible that our God became man and then also sent mere men so that His Voice may be heard. This is not to say that Pastors are perfect and free from error. If that were the case, the would be no warnings about wolves. You should encourage pastors to keep in study of God’s Word, to pray, to receive the Lord’s Supper, to hear the voice of the one who is their Good Shepherd too. In this way, and this way alone, Pastors become more truly undershepherds of the Good Shepherd who lead and protect the sheep.
           
The ultimate way in which Christ is our Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for the sheep. The Son of God did not leave us in our sin and wandering, but was sent by the Father to become man, to live in humility, and die for sheep that went astray. You were all bad sheep, rebellious and wandering, and He sacrificed himself to keep you from the wolves, to preserve you eternally. In His resurrection, you too have that eternal life with Him. So other good undershepherds follow Christ’s example and lay down their life if needed. They protect the sheep from the wolves of their day. Unlike the hireling who runs when difficulty comes, the true undershepherd does the hard work.  This may mean stern warning or rebuke when scripture means it. This may mean saying things that are unpopular and unacceptable in our culture. To turn from unpopular messages when they are of the Word of God is the action of a hireling, not a true shepherd. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, even if the sheep don’t like it.
           
For this is what the Good Shepherd did for you. He laid His life down. He sacrificed Himself for your sins and rose again so you could live under Him forever. He leads You with His voice now, calling you to trust in Him. You are not just another sheep to Him. Each one of you is precious, unique. He is bringing you, with all the church to a closer knowledge with Him, as you hear His voice. For He promises that He knows You just as the Father knows Him. Just the Father and Son are one God, are intimately connected, so He is intimately connected with those who believe in Him. In our baptism, you are made one body with Christ, and in the Lord’s Supper He strengthens you in that unity with Him.
           
Therefore, even among wolves, even in the valley of the shadow of death, there is no need to fear evil. For He is with you. His rod and staff lead you, and may discipline you at times, because He cares for you. And even now He prepares a table before you in the presences of your enemies. Trusting in your Good Shepherd, surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

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