Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 11, 2014)

“Our Good Shepherd Gives Us Victory” (John 10:1-10)

There’s a lot of “shepherd-stuff” in our service today.  In today’s Introit, we heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I am the Good Shepherd” and we chanted that “we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”  In the Collect, we prayed that since the “Shepherd of the Sheep” has been wakened from the dead, now may the Holy Spirit help us to know the voice of the Shepherd who called us by name in Holy Baptism and to “follow where he leads.”  In today’s Epistle reading, we heard that we “were like straying sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Yes, there’s a lot of “shepherd-stuff” in our service today.  During this Easter season, we celebrate that the Risen Jesus is still our Good Shepherd.  He is the one who has brought us into His sheepfold, the Holy Christian Church, through Baptism and by faith.  Not only is He the Good Shepherd, but He Himself is “the gate” into the sheepfold of His kingdom of grace.  There is no other way to enter the sheepfold than through trusting in Him and His atoning work at the cross, just as St. Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
During the Easter season we celebrate the victory of Jesus over the grave.  We can also celebrate the victory that our Risen Good Shepherd gives us.  Today’s Gospel lesson teaches us two aspects of that victory.  Our Good Shepherd gives us victory over thieves and robbers who come to destroy us.  And He gives us victory so that we can have life.
Who are these thieves and robbers?  Thieves are those who break in and try to steal something quietly.  Robbers are those who steal things by force and violence.  And both are present dangers for the sheep.  But that still doesn’t answer the question.  Who are these thieves and robbers?  They are any false teacher or anyone who tries to lead people astray from the truth.  Some do it in very quiet, subtle ways.  Others do it in more visible, forceful ways.  But both will cause those who follow them to end up in eternal destruction.
Jesus says these thieves and robbers are those who try to get at the sheep other than the way a true shepherd would.  They do not enter the sheep pen by the gate.  In other words, they themselves have not entered the sheepfold by believing in Jesus.  What’s more, their voice is unfamiliar to the sheep.  They don’t recognize the voice of a stranger and will run away from him.
Jesus said that “all who came before me were thieves and robbers.”  He is referring to all of the false prophets and false teachers who led the people astray in days gone by.  They did not have faith in the coming Messiah, and so they tried to steal the people away from the sheepfold of true believers by introducing new and different teachings, such as the worship of Baal or Molech or other foreign gods.  They led the people to follow their detestable practices such as sacrificing their children to their false gods.
Jesus spoke these words in the hearing of the Pharisees, and He meant to include them in this category of thieves and robbers.  In the eyes of the people, however, they were certainly not “detestable.”  They were considered to be “good people.”  They were very “religious.”  They interpreted the Scriptures and taught the people.  But they did not believe in Jesus and did not see Him as the center of Scripture, as Jesus explained to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in last week’s Gospel lesson.  The Pharisees rejected Him as the Savior.  They did not enter by “the gate” but they “climbed in the sheep pen by another way,” that is, by virtue of their own self-righteousness.  And so, their reliance on their own self-righteousness—and teaching the people to do the same thing—would only result in causing the sheep who followed them to end up in hell.
Who are the thieves and robbers today?  They are numerous.  There are false teachers all around us who are trying to break into the sheepfold and lead the sheep astray.  There are many voices calling you to follow them in order to lead a happy, fulfilling life.  Like the Pharisees, they may seem like “good people.”  They come dressed like real shepherds.  What they say sounds good and very spiritual.  They may even quote Scripture.  But in the end, their false teaching only destroys the precious souls of people, and obscures or takes away the sure hope of the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.
Our Risen Savior gives you the victory over these thieves and robbers by teaching you to listen to His voice alone.  You hear His voice in His Word.  The Holy Spirit enables you to hear it with understanding and insight.  The more acquainted you are with God’s Word, the more you will recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd when He sends His shepherds—His pastors—to His church.  Not only is this text an encouragement to lay people to listen carefully and to know the voice of the Good Shepherd, but it is an encouragement to us preachers to make sure that we ourselves enter through the gate—through Jesus—and to make sure that His voice is the only voice we follow, and the only voice you hear when we preach.  We want you to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd … not the voice of a stranger.
Our Good Shepherd also gives you victory so that you may have life.  God is your Creator and giver of life.  However, life in this fallen world is no longer what it was meant to be in the perfect “pastures” of the Garden of Eden.  Life as God meant it to be—holy and perfect with an unbroken relationship with God—was taken away as a result of Adam’s sin which has corrupted all of our hearts.  Life is now full of thorns and dirt.  There is nothing nourishing in the pastures in which people seek to be nourished … the pastures of fortune and fame, drinks and drugs, sensuality and self-help.  There is nothing nourishing in this life apart from the life of God.
But Jesus died for the life of the world.  Jesus died to counteract the tragedy in the Garden.  He won the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  The life that He now offers is “life to the full” … “abundant life” … and your “cup overflows” with God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus.  God’s supply of grace is so abundant that there is a surplus left over.  Romans 5:20 says, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”  There is never a lack of forgiveness for those who repent of their sins and turn to the Good Shepherd for real, abundant life.
You hear His voice in His Word.  He calls you to follow Him  And He calls you by name.  What a wonder that is in this often impersonal world!  You wait for your order at a fast food place, and they call out, not a name, but “#247!”  Big company employees often feel like a number, like they are dispensable … especially when the layoff notice arrives.  But in the sheepfold of God’s kingdom, your Good Shepherd knows you by name.  He knows every single detail of your life.  He knows your pains, your wants, your deepest longings.  As Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
Your Good Shepherd also does not let His sheep head off into danger.  Jesus says that the shepherd “goes before” the sheep.  Perhaps He had in mind Psalm 80, where the psalmist prays, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.”  The Lord, the Shepherd of Israel, went before His people in those pillars of cloud and fire in the wilderness.
Jesus … the Shepherd of Israel … the Shepherd of His Holy Church … leads us like a flock.  He doesn’t send us off and then come running only when we make a “heavenly 911” call.  The Good Shepherd “goes before” His sheep.  When you face difficult situations in your life, your Good Shepherd is already there.  He goes before you.  He leads you through the ups and downs of our life.  He even leads you through “the valley of the shadow of death” because He has already gone there ahead of you and has passed through it.  This assures you that by trusting in Him He will bring you through that dark valley into His kingdom of light.
Your Good Shepherd also leads you to nourishing pastures.  He leads you past the thorny and dirt-filled pastures of this sinful life which do not nourish.  He gives you real nourishment and refreshment through His Word and His Sacraments.  And He will do so for you this morning as you feed on His body and blood in the “table” He has prepared before us “in the presence of [our] enemies.”   
The terrors and tragedies of this world are piped right into our living room.  When you watch the TV news, it’s clear that our world desperately needs shepherding.  It needs the Good Shepherd.
April 20 this year was Easter Sunday for us.  Forgotten in our joyful celebrations was the fact that it was the 15 anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.  12 teenagers and 1 teacher lost their lives that day, including the two perpetrators.  Following the horrific events, a prayer vigil was held in Denver.  I watched a bit of the coverage, and I was struck by one of the songs that was sung by a Gospel choir.  I don’t remember the exact words used, but they were something like “Everything’s gonna be alright.”  I remember thinking, “I hope more is going to be said to the crowd gathered there.”  Taken by themselves, those words rang empty, hearing them sung so soon after the tragedy.  Everything was not “gonna be alright” for those people.  In fact, everything really stunk … the pain, the heartache, the trauma.
This is true for us, too.  Everything is not always “gonna be alright.”  Sometimes things happen that just stink.  We have pain, heartache, and trauma in our lives.  Some of it is caused simply because we live in a fallen world.  Some of it we suffer as the consequence of our sin or the sin of others.  Some of it is brought about as we suffer for the sake of Christ.
That’s when you need to know that you have a Good Shepherd.  You have a Good Shepherd who loves you.  You have a Good Shepherd who knows your name, and who knows every intimate detail of your life, your pains and your longings.  You have a Good Shepherd who doesn’t arrive on the scene long after you call on Him … no, He “goes before” you, and leads you through your suffering, and you follow His loving, comforting voice.  You have a Good Shepherd who gives you pasture, who provides for you so that you will not be in want.  You have a Good Shepherd who assures you that one day, in his eternal pastures, everything will finally “be alright.”
Your Good Shepherd is Himself the gate by which you enter into His kingdom of grace.  “If anyone enters by [him] he will be saved.”  He offers you His life … His abundant life … because He passed through a gate … or rather, a doorway … one which three days prior had a stone in front of it.


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