Note: The portions in green are from the sermon for Confirmation Sunday.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for today is the Gospel which was read earlier.
Dear confirmands – it’s that time. Time for you to declare your faith, given to you at your Baptism by the Holy Spirit, confessed for you by your parents and your sponsors. It’s a daunting task, but one that will be easy for you, because of someone who watches over you and protects. No, it’s not your parents. Rather, it is the Good Shepherd.
One of the most familiar pictures the Bible uses to teach us about our relationship to God is that of a shepherd and his sheep. It has its roots deep in the Old Testament. In the most popular psalm, Psalm 23, the author declares, “The Lord is my shepherd.” He describes his Lord as a good shepherd who takes care of His faithful believers who are His sheep.
Jesus uses this same picture in our Gospel reading for today when He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” His listeners knew that a real shepherd is concerned first and foremost with the welfare of his flock. He would provide the flock the necessities of life such as food and drink. When a wild animal attacked, he would risk his life for the sheep. He would put his own life in jeopardy to protect his flock.
Jesus spoke these words some six months before His suffering and death. The way He sets up His opening sentence, He makes sure that all eyes will be upon Him. The personal pronoun “I” stands in emphatic position at the beginning of the sentence. From the outset, we are invited to look at Jesus, only Jesus, and away from ourselves, our limitations, our worries and our problems.
Once Jesus has our attention, He makes us see Him for what He really is. He is, literally, “the shepherd, the good one.” Jesus stands in a class all by Himself; there is no other shepherd who even comes close. Jesus is doing much more than telling pretty stores about heroic shepherds who rescue lovable little lambs from the mouths of hungry lions. He is claiming us as His own. He is saying, “I am the Lord to whom the psalmist looked in all his needs. I am the One who leads and provides. I am the One who goes with you through the valley of the shadow of death. I prepare a banquet table before you in the presence of your enemies. I fill your life with goodness and mercy and lead you to dwell in my house forever.”
With Jesus’ speech, He makes the distinction between the shepherd and the hired hand. We would do well to make the distinction between the shepherd and the hired hand. For many, they seek the comfort of the hired hand, thinking that it is the shepherd who is protecting them. They seek the comfort in the things of this world because it is tangible, it is here and now. It seems good, at the time. The reason for it is because of the false comfort that the world can give. The world is the hired hand. The world watches over the sheep because of the pay, that is, what we can do for the world; the world doesn’t have any investment in the sheep, nor does it invest any love or affection in them. The world comes and the world goes, in the end, only worried about itself. For you confirmands, the world will very much try to be your shepherd, but in the end, it will only be the hired hand. When the assaults of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh come against you, and they will, the world will run and scatter, leaving you to defend yourself. If it hasn’t happened to you already, it will happen. For all of you here this morning, these attacks are very real and they are very harmful, for they bring about death, your death. The hired hand “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
This, my friends, is why the true doctrine is so important. That is why it is so important to have our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as your Good Shepherd. When these assaults come at you, you will not be harmed because He has protected you. He has protected you from the devil, the world and your sinful flesh by His own body and blood, given for you upon the cross. The Good Shepherd has called you by name through the waters of Holy Baptism. As you confirmands have studied, St. Peter tells us, “Baptism now saves you.” You, dear confirmands, have been called by name to be children of God. It is here in these waters that we have been called from darkness into light. We have been called into the light of our Good Shepherd, not the hired hand, for it is only the Good Shepherd who “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” These are words which many of us should be familiar with, especially you confirmands. These are Martin Luther’s words to the explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed. These words tell us exactly what Jesus Christ has done for each and every one of us. These are things which only the Good Shepherd can do for us.
Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, tells us, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father know me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus tells us that not only does He love the sheep above all else, but He has the power to do something for them. He has described the close relationship that develops between a faithful shepherd and His flock. The sheep learn to know their master by His voice, and because of the way He always cares for them, they trust Him. They follow Him wherever He leads. The Shepherd, on the other hand, also gets to know His flock. He keeps track of which ones are feeble and unable to travel as quickly, which ones are sick and so forth. Shepherd and sheep come to know each other so well because they have been together so long, have been through so much.
Because of this love, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ knows who we are and how best to take care of us. He knows that we are feeble from the outset because of our sinful nature. He knows that because of that sinful nature, we will do stupid sheep things like stray from His Word by not hearing it preached and by not studying His Word with the other sheep of His flock. He knows that we will stray from His body and His blood which gives to us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. When we do all of that and even more, our Good Shepherd comes after us, to find us and bring us back into the sheep fold. He does not leave us to the wolves to be devoured; rather, He brings us back to Himself, where He can keep an ever watchful eye on His beloved sheep.
Dear confirmands, this is not the end of your catechesis, of your study of the faith. Your catechesis will continue; but not in confirmation class. In just a few moments, you will all take vows, the same vows which the members of Trinity have taken. One of the vows that you will take is this: “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” Look around you. Here you see those who have taken that same vow and who gather to be fed, fed by the Word of God and His Son’s precious body and blood. These sheep, both young and old, still need and desire the Good Shepherd’s care. Many have seen the days of confirmation come and go, yet they still come to be taught. They come because they know that their catechesis does not end on Confirmation Sunday. Your catechesis does not end on Confirmation Sunday, for it will continue – it will continue tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, until that day when your Lord calls you to His heavenly home.
My dear friends, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we know that the Good Shepherd laid down His life for sinful, faithless, wandering sheep like you and me, of His own free will and His own divine authority. It is this same divine authority by which He takes up His life again. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does not shed His blood and leave His sheep alone, abandoned, and unprotected from the evil that seeks to devour and destroy us. He has taken His life up again in the resurrection on Easter morning. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd, who has already been through death and the grave, leads us through this life, to everlasting life in heaven.
Even now, as we wander like sheep through the dangerous fields and valleys of this life, our Good Shepherd continues to protect us from the evil one and to provide for us. He sets His under-shepherds over His flock to keep watch and warn against the wolf who seeks only to destroy Christ’s flock. He provides for our spiritual nourishment in the proclamation of His Word and with the meal of salvation that He has prepared for His sheep to feast upon. In this Holy Supper, the Good Shepherd comes to us and gives us His very body and blood to feast upon to strengthen and renew our sin-weakened souls. Here at the Lamb’s High Feast even the feeblest of sheep finds forgiveness of sins and strength for their weak and struggling faith. Here at His table, the Good Shepherd bids us to eat His flesh and to drink His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. In this heavenly feast of bread and wine our Good Shepherd well provides for His lambs.
For us sheep, we know that we may safely graze in the green pastures because our Good Shepherd is with, will never leave us nor forsake us, because we are safe in the arms of our Shepherd. In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.