"I am the Good Shepherd," says our Lord Jesus. "I am the One who guides you and protects you. I am the One who feeds you and nurtures you. I am the One who holds you close, and carries you who are weak."
What Jesus tells us is comforting. We see His great love in the image of the Good Shepherd. He is often represented in art, carrying a sheep on His back or in His arms.
However, we need to realize that when Jesus calls Himself the Shepherd, He is calling us the sheep. We are not pure and beautiful and wise, but we are stupid beasts. We love to wander, to get lost and dirty and injured. We are helpless and vulnerable to wolves. We are not strong and independent. Our lack of sense makes us self-destructive, and destructive to our fellow sheep.
Our own sinful nature does not want to admit that we are stupid, helpless, wandering sheep. Our sinful nature still wants Jesus to be our Shepherd, but only in this way: We want to imagine that He saw how wonderful we are, so of course He volunteered for the job. But we are not wonderful by nature. We are sinful and unclean sheep.
Christ Jesus is our Shepherd out of His pure grace. He did not decide to be our Shepherd because we deserve Him. We deserve the Butcher, not the Shepherd. But Jesus comes to us in love anyway. He nurtures and tenderly cares for us sinners.
The Jews did not want to hear that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. They remembered the words of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd." By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus was claiming to be the Lord God Jehovah. More than that, Jesus was claiming to be the fulfillment of Psalm 23, and indeed all of Scripture. Even worse, Jesus said, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd." Here Jesus indicated that not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles are to be His sheep. The Jews wanted to be the special, chosen people of God, and no one else. They wanted to be such pure, spotless lambs that God could not help but love them. But there is only one pure, spotless Lamb. He who is the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God.
We who are sickly, wandering sheep are counted as pure and holy because of Christ. It is the image of the perfect Lamb placed upon us at Baptism that is acceptable in God's sight. We are spotless through Jesus Christ alone.
It is certainly true that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who tenderly cares for us. The question that is usually overlooked is this: HOW does Jesus care for us? HOW does Jesus shepherd us? When we look at a picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd, what does the picture really mean?
If we say that Jesus stays with us and gives us the things that we need, that is true enough. But it does not do justice to the Good Shepherd. He does far more than see to our daily needs.
The fact that He is the Shepherd means that He has shared our life. He has lived among us out in the pastures of life. He has become Man. To share life with rebellious sheep means to live a lowly life. A shepherd smells like sheep. He walks through mud and dirt and worse with sheep. In the same way, Christ our Lord lived a human life, like us in every way except sin. He experienced our struggles and pain, even to the point of suffering and death.
That is where the greatest test of His shepherding skills came: at His death. It is easy to be a shepherd when there are no wolves around. A cowardly shepherd runs at the first sign of wolves. He will not stay and risk his life because he knows that those he watches over are only sheep. They are not worth dying for.
But Christ is not a cowardly shepherd. He is no hired hand. He is the Good Shepherd. When the wolves came, He stood His ground. When they circled Him and closed in for the kill, He would not abandon us. Even though we are only sheep, He has loved us to the bitter end. So the truest picture of the Good Shepherd is the Crucifix - Christ dying on the Cross. That is the love of the Good Shepherd for His sheep.
On the other hand, if a shepherd only dies, he leaves the sheep abandoned and defenseless. So Christ our Good Shepherd not only laid down His life, but He also took it up again. He died, but He also rose, so that we sheep will not ever be abandoned.
Christ Jesus continues to shepherd His flock today. He leads us beside living waters, and feeds us the best food. In Baptism and the Lord's Supper, Christ cares for His sheep. He bathes us in Baptism, and washes us with His cleansing Blood, so that we are absolutely clean. He makes us healthy with a proper diet of Word and Sacrament. As He absolves and proclaims and preaches His Gospel, He heals our spiritual diseases and binds up our wounds.
Who cares for sheep better than our Good Shepherd? Who paid a greater price than He? Who is more loving and generous and attentive? Who has faced greater wolves than Jesus faced: sin, death, and the devil?
All this is happening here and now. Our worship is Christ shepherding us. Christ is here with His flock, tending our needs, pouring out the benefits of His death and resurrection. Our worship is not us shepherding ourselves - sheep cannot take care of themselves. We may occasionally try to tell Him what we need and try to refuse the things He offers, as stubborn sheep who resist the efforts of the Shepherd.
It is true that our worship contains other things, like singing praises to our Shepherd, offering up prayers and offerings, and so forth. These things are important in their own way. But they are only the bleating of sheep when compared to the loving and powerful voice of the Shepherd. Let us think little of what we do here today, because Yahweh God is here speaking and feeding and shepherding. To Him alone belongs all the glory and honor.
Let us not find offense in our Shepherd. The Jews found offense. Our sinful flesh tries to find offense. Many American churches find offense when they say that Christ is not present in worship. They say that He does not give His gifts in Word and Sacrament. In saying these things, many people turn away from the richness of the Shepherd's gifts. Like finicky sheep, they turn up their noses at the best of food and drink.
Let us never find offense in the Good Shepherd. Everything He has done is for us. Everything He speaks is love for us. We, His flock, are most blessed of all creatures under heaven. Let us open our eyes and ears and mouths to receive the glories of His gifts - gifts of death and resurrection, gifts of Word and Sacrament, gifts of grace and forgiveness and eternal life. Our poor, stupid sheep minds are unable to take in the greatness of our Shepherd's gifts. Nevertheless, let us fill ourselves with all He has to give. Let us gorge ourselves upon His grace.
In the Name of that Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God. Amen.
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