Jesus the Good Shepherd. Jesus the door for the sheep. The images are comforting and “pastoral” in the literal sense of that word. The word “pastor” is Latin for shepherd. In the Scriptures, “shepherd” and “bishop” (or as we have it “overseer”) run together too, which is why you see bishops in the church carrying shepherd’s staffs. A bishop is a shepherd of souls under the Good Shepherd who is Jesus. Jesus the good Pastor.
To speak of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is to call up the Good Shepherd psalm (Psalm 23) with all its pastoral allusions. David, the shepherd-king boasts as a sheep bragging about his shepherd, “The LORD is my shepherd, and boy do I have it good! I lack nothing. Listen to what he does for me. He makes me lie down in fresh, green pastures of His Word. He leads me beside quiet cooling water of Baptism. When I fall down, he restores my soul. He knows how I love to wander, and so he leads me in the well-worn ruts of righteousness for His name’s sake.
David then turns to his Good Shepherd and speaks to him in prayer. “Even though I walk through the dark valley where death is all around me and the wolves gaze on me from the cliffs, I’m not afraid. I fear no evil. Why? For Thou art with me, walking ahead of me through death and on to resurrection and life. Your rod of the Law, your staff of the Gospel, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me, right there in the presence of my enemies – your Body and your Blood given and shed for me. You anoint my head with the oil of forgiveness, absolving all those pesky sins that nag at me like flea bites on my nose. I have it good. “My cup runneth over.”
And then David speaks to himself and to us once again in the confidence of faith. “Surely goodness and mercy will dog me like sheepdogs, all the days of my life. And I know how it all comes out in the end when the Lord is my Shepherd. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Nice to hear, isn’t it? Even for a city kid like myself who has no idea what it means to be a shepherd, the image is comforting. Too bad we reserve Psalm 23 for funerals. I go to the hospital and pull out Psalm 23 to pray with someone and they think I’m administering a Lutheran form of last rites. And that’s too bad, because Psalm 23 is for the living, for those whose life is hidden in Christ by faith, for those who live even though they die.
Now to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock means that you have to accept that fact that you are a sheep, which from everything I’ve read isn’t a terribly flattering picture. Sheep are mean, prone to wandering, not terribly bright, and very dependent, which is precisely the picture that God is painting here. We are mean, kicking and biting and head-butting each other in constant effort to be the top sheep. We are prone to wander, following every false path, chasing down every poisoned weed and polluted puddle. And we aren’t terribly bright when it comes to the things of God. In fact, we are clueless by nature, and without the Holy Spirit we wouldn’t have a clue no matter how many degrees are hanging on our wall.
It all boils down to dependency, and the fact that we cannot save ourselves. We need a Shepherd, a Bishop of our souls, who will feed us, care for us, sustain us, deliver us. And that we have in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is contrasted with the thief and the robber. The Shepherd enters by way of the door, but thieves and robbers climb in some other way. The “other way” is not the way of Jesus’ death and resurrection. You can always tell a thief or a robber from the shepherd by the message he brings. Listen carefully. Anyone who does not preach Jesus Christ to be your Shepherd, who bore you sins on the cross, who laid down His life for your salvation, in whom you are justified before God freely for Jesus’ sake, is not speaking on behalf of the Good Shepherd.
It doesn’t matter if he’s wearing a clerical collar, a ton of gold robes, a business suit, or a Hawaiian shirt. It doesn’t matter if his hair neat and moussed or all messed up, whether he is clean shaven or has a beard down to here. It doesn’t matter whether he uses PowerPoint or powerful points to make his point. If what he says is not connected to the narrow door of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he is a thief and a robber and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It doesn’t matter if he heals your dandruff, gets you off of drugs, and makes your bank account swell. If he doesn’t preach Christ and Him crucified, he’s a thief and not a shepherd.
The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice; their ears perk up. He calls them by name, and they follow him. Luther said that the church is a flock of holy sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd Jesus. He also reminded pastors that their job was to make the voice of the Good Shepherd heard and not their own bleating. “He who hears you, hears me,” said Jesus.
That puts us pastors who believe this at a bit of a disadvantage these days. The trend is to win people with the messenger rather than the message. You hear talk about “dynamic” preaching and “relevant” teaching. We have no idea how “dynamic” Jesus was as a speaker, do we? The apostle Paul admits to being more impressive in print than in person. And as for “relevence,” Paul admitted that the Jews were looking for miracles and the Greeks had a hankering for great rhetoric and wisdom and all the Paul had was a crucified Messiah named Jesus, which the Jews stumbled over and the Greeks that was foolishness.
Here’s the problem. We sheep like to hear how good we are and how great potential there is in us just waiting to be released if we have enough faith. We love to hear about ourselves. Let’s admit it, the last thing we want to say on Sunday morning is what poor miserable sinners we are. That’s hardly going to motivate sheep to greatness! Yeah, and we’ll follow anyone who dangles a little sweet morsel of Religion in front of our noses, a sweet hour of prayer that will make us feel good about ourselves and feel cozy with God.
But that is not the green pasture Jesus has in mind for you, His sheep. He’s rescued you from slavery to self, to sin, to death. He freed you to be the people of His pasture. He’s marked you as one of His flock in Baptism. You bear the Good Shepherd’s seal of ownership, right there on your forehead and on your heart, the mark of the cross, His death for you. Don’t forget whose you are because that tells you who you are. You are a sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life to seek and save you in His death on the cross.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. He sounds nice enough, maybe even nicer the the shepherd, but don’t trust him for a second. The devil does masquerade as an angel of light, we are told. He’s a religious devil who would love to throw some distractions your way, a few false paths to deflect you from those boring, well-worn ruts of righteousness. You know what he wants. He wants to get between you and Jesus, and he’ll throw anything in there. Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter. But that didn’t work with Jesus because the stricken Shepherd rose from the dead. So plan B is to distract the sheep and get between them and the Shepherd. Just a little daylight between you and the Word, a little gap between you and the altar, just enough to get you to follow the thief to your doom.
Fortunately, the Good Shepherd knows His sheep and their wandering ways. That’s why He has a rod and a staff. The rod is there to ward off the wolves and the thieves. It’s occasionally there for a bit of discipline too, and we need that discipline as well. We don’t like it, but coming from the Good Shepherd, we know that it’s love and not wrath. And the rod of the Law is especially there to drive us back to the Good Shepherd’s fold in case we think we can go it alone without our Shepherd. The Law is good, remember. It drives us to Christ and puts a fence around us so we don’t stray.
There is the gentle shepherd’s staff, with that round crook, by which a shepherd can lift a sheep up when it’s cast down. The Gospel, the good news of free forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. The good news that ungodly sinners stand before God righteous and holy by His declaration for Jesus’ sake. The Good Shepherd gently nudges the sheep with His staff, reminding them “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”
One of the things a shepherd does for His flock is lie in the opening of the pen at night. Every night, the sheep are herded into their enclosed pen. That’s what Jesus means when He says, “I am the door of the sheep.” He literally lays down His life for the sheep. He lies in the door of death, and through His death, His sheep can go in and out and find pasture. Through the narrow door of Jesus’ death there is life for you, life in abundance, and eternity of life. He’s done it for you – died, rose, reigns. And in the Good Shepherd’s flock you are safe forever.
And if anyone tries to come after you and take away your salvation, the Good Shepherd says, “Over my dead and risen body.”
In the name of Jesus,