The Voice of the Shepherd
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sheep are notorious for getting themselves into trouble, for straying, for ending up lost and confused, subjected to danger and unable to take care of themselves. They’re dirty, smelly animals. Worse than that, though, they’d walk off a cliff without a thought. That’s why they need a shepherd. Sheep may be stupid animals, but strangely enough, sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and everything seems right with the world. They have their shepherd, the one who will keep them safe from predators and lead them away from the cliff’s edge to food and water.
As a favorite saying goes for those feeling rebellious, “People are sheep.” Ask nearly any child or even a teen why they’d want to do something they know will get them in trouble, and you’ll hear something like, “All my friends are doing it.” And then someone will inevitably reply, “And if your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too?” I hope you younger folk aren’t offended. If it’s any consolation, sheep-like behavior doesn’t end when you turn 20, 30, or even 60. Advertisers know they can put pressure on anyone of any age just by saying, “Your neighbor is better off than you.” Left to our own devices, we will follow the crowd, even when that crowd leads us into hell. That’s why we need a shepherd, too.
In the Scriptures God often describes Himself as a shepherd. You heard that description again today, when God promises in Ezekiel that He will depose the false shepherds of Israel who scattered the flock and fed off the sheep. God says: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.” You heard it in the Gospel lesson, where Jesus calls His voice the shepherd’s voice, the one God’s true sheep will know. Jesus is that Shepherd, the One who comes to dwell with His sheep, to feed them, to lead them, to comfort them.
Jesus pays us no compliment by calling us sheep. But that is, in fact, what we are. By nature we walk away from the Good Shepherd right into the jaws of death. As Scripture says, “We like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way.” This is no temporary disorientation. It is separation and alienation from the God who alone gives us life. Too often we allow other voices to drown out the Voice that really matters. We hear the voice of false preaching, preaching that tells us we can earn our own ticket inside the heavenly gates—and it sounds appealing. The voice of the world is telling us that God really meant to say that homosexuality isn’t sinful. It tells us that abortion isn’t murder. It tells us that God wants us to be prosperous. It tells us that God will keep us from suffering as long as we believe enough. It even tells us that we can do whatever we want as long as it makes us happy. What could be more appealing than that? Of course our shepherd wants us to be happy. Surely He wouldn’t deny us things that would make us happy. Are there thorns in the pasture? Surely not—the grass is so green. We’ve let the hirelings lead us into the thistles, and the den of the wolf is nearby. We are poisoned with the putrid and stagnant water of worldliness with its passing fads that we think will quench our thirst, all the while refusing the streams of living water to which the Good Shepherd beckons us.
Jesus is no cowardly hireling who leads us into the wilderness of sin and then runs away when the old evil wolf comes seeking to condemn and destroy you with your sin. Our Good Shepherd died, as one of our hymns puts it, "for sheep who love to wander." He did not wait for us to find our own way out of the wilderness and back to the sheep pen. He came to us in this world of sin and death and He redeemed us by dying on the cross in our place. Such is the love of the Good Shepherd for His sheep.
The Good Shepherd still calls and gathers a flock by His Word. He says, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." Martin Luther gave us a beautifully simple definition of the Church in the Smalcald Articles: “Thank God, a seven-year old child knows what the Church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Good Shepherd.”
So where do we hear His voice today? He speaks to us through pastors, men He raises up to serve as undershepherds. By the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these undershepherds will speak to you with the voice of the Good Shepherd. They will lead you to the still waters of Baptism and the green pastures of the Holy Supper. They will restore your soul with the word of Holy Absolution, spoken by the pastor as from Christ Himself. There are still hirelings out there. People will continue to attempt to lead you astray. But you have your standard against which you can compare anyone claiming to be your shepherd. How does what this person says compare to what my Shepherd tells me? Ask that question, and you will be able to tell the true Shepherd and the true undershepherds from the mere hirelings. Listen to the voice. Does my voice and what I say to you lead you away from the true Shepherd and His gifts? If so, don’t follow me, and don’t listen to another word I say. If anyone steps into this pulpit and preaches anything apart from Christ and Him crucified, don’t follow them, and don’t listen to what they have to say. Kick them out of this pulpit and out of your fellowship. They would lead you away from your Shepherd, the One who would—and did—die to save you.
The Church is where the Good Shepherd is. Where His voice is sounding in Holy Absolution, in the pure preaching of His Word, and in His Baptism and Supper, there you will find the sheep that belong to Jesus. Keep your ears attuned to the voice of the Good Shepherd, for He alone has the words of eternal life. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.