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The Shepherd in the Valley
ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Many images come to mind as we think of Jesus as our Shepherd. The Shepherd holds His sheep in His arms. He promises never to forsake the flock. When a sheep becomes separated from the flock, He carries it over His shoulders. Psalm 23 describes the relationship: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. …Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” But more than all that, Jesus is the Good Shepherd specifically because “He lays down His life for the sheep.”
Israel had seen bad shepherds: cowardly prophets, faithless priests and Pharisees who opposed Jesus. When the wolves would come—when false prophets for false gods would arise, when the people did whatever they wanted in opposition to the Word of God—these hirelings would choose to take the easy road. They would choose their own lives and their own comfort over the welfare of sheep. They would leave the sheep to scatter and be devoured by the wolves. They even lead the sheep in their care to cry out for the death of their Good Shepherd.
But the sheep of the Good Shepherd have a way of straying on their own, even without being led by the hirelings, don’t they? Sheep are not the most intelligent creatures, and we prove it constantly. We try to come up with our own way of dealing with God. If we do more good than bad, if we help more people than we hurt, then we think that everything will be ok, that God will accept us as we are. Like all sheep, when we ignore the voice of our Shepherd, we wander off, and we end up lost and in danger. We become easy pray for wolves, unless, of course, we fall off a cliff first. This is exactly why we need a Good Shepherd.
And Jesus is content to be our Good Shepherd, even at the cost of His own life. He is the Good Shepherd who gives up His life in the place of the sheep, even when the sheep themselves try to trample Him. He doesn’t flee when the wolf shows up, for the sheep are His own, given to Him by His Heavenly Father. Despite our straying, He bore all our sins on the Tree. “The Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.” “By His stripes we are healed.” That’s what it means that He is your Good Shepherd: He laid down His life for you. He knows very well what it means to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death;” He walked that way Himself, dying as the Shepherd for “sheep who love to wander.” Because He walked that path, and because He walks with you as you pass through this vale of tears, you need “fear no evil.” You are passing through that valley even now, whether it’s this virus or cancer or depression or temptation or any other tribulation that afflicts you. But you are not alone. Your Good Shepherd is with you, to comfort you and protect you with His rod and staff, with His Word of life.
Your Good Shepherd knows His sheep. He knows you. He called you by name in the “still waters” of your Baptism and delivered to you what He won for you on the cross. He feeds you in these pleasant, “green pastures” with His Word and with His own body and blood. He knows you. And you know Him, for His sheep know His voice. You know His voice. His voice speaks to you in the life-giving words of Holy Absolution, where His under-shepherd says to you, “I forgive you all your sins.” His voice returns you to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul. His voice calls you back from your straying to new and eternal life.
What does it mean that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gave up His life for His sheep. He gave up His life for you. And because He has given His life for you, you “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!