In the Name of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I heard the voice of Jesus say, "Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, O weary one, lay down your head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place, And he has made me glad.
If people today can agree on anything, they can agree on the fact that in these last days there are plenty of voices calling to the sheep, "Come and follow."
We instruct our children who to listen to and who to follow. And at the same time we teach our children who to ignore and who to run away from. We spend millions to educate our young people on the dangers of listening to and following the wrong kind of friends. But, at the same time, we spend even more bringing thousands of voices into our very homes so that we may sit mesmerized by a myriad of voices from cables that snake their way into our houses and into our ears through the screen of the television and the internet: the family altar of our age.
And this morning's Gospel underscores the severity of the problem each of us face in a world bombarded with the voices of all kinds of shepherds calling for the sheep to come and follow. You see, when it comes to salvation, it's truly a matter of life and death which shepherd's voice we listen to.
Scientific experiments have shown it to be true. Sheep recognize their own shepherd not by the clothes he wears, not by the staff he carries, not by the dog at his side. The sheep know their own shepherd by his voice, by the words that come out of his mouth. And its the same thing for the true Christian Church on earth and for each true believer in Christ. That's the way it's been from the beginning, as Saint Matthew's account of our Good Shepherd's transfiguration shows.
While [Jesus] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5)
It is specifically this blessed relationship between our heavenly Father and his beloved Son that serves as the basis for any blessed relationship we might enjoy between each of us and our Redeemer. The love and grace and kindness within the Trinity is the foundation upon which salvation is set. This Christ reveals as he announces:
I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me: because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father." (John 10:14-18)
The world today needs to hear these clear words of Christ. Your neighbor needs to hear these clear words of Christ. You and I need to hear these clear words of Christ and keep them treasured in our hearts today and every day. To the fatherless, to the widowed, to the sick and dying, to the prisoner, to the despairing, to the lonely, to the neglected -- to the sinner -- Christ has something very definite to say: "I am the Good Shepherd. ... And I lay down my life for the sheep."
The Shepherd is the Good Shepherd because only he truly cares for the sheep. Only he truly cares because only he willingly, voluntarily leaves the glories of heaven to lay down his own life for such and undeserving flock of wayward and wandering sheep.
Saint John says it beautifully when he writes these inspired words:
God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live trough him. In this is love, no that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)
How do we know the Good Shepherd's voice in the midst of all the other voices calling us to follow? The voice of the Good Shepherd is the voice of the one who defines true care for the dirty, tired and helpless sheep. The Good Shepherd's staff is held by arms with pierced wrists. The Good Shepherd leads his flock to green pastures with pierced feet. The Good Shepherd is the crucified and risen shepherd -- crucified and risen for the poor sheep.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther said it this way, "The only duty of a Christian is to know Christ aright." This is the life-long task of the Christian Church on earth. This is the life-long task of this congregation and each one of us here this morning: to know the real Good Shepherd; to know the true Shepherd's true voice, that voice that spoke over us when we first believed.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, "Behold, I freely give
The living water, thirsty one; stoop down and drink and live.
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in him.
The Shepherd has come and spoke to us with water and his Word. The Shepherd comes and speaks to us through the pages of the Holy Bible. The Shepherd comes to speak over bread and wine laid upon his altar, that his flock may feed upon his very body and blood.
Yes, we have been baptized into the Good Shepherd. Our ears have been baptized and brought to life, and now we are able to hear the voice of our Master. Our ears have been washed with his Word and now we are able to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to follow wherever he may graciously lead. In faith we now hear him as he comes this morning and says, "I am the Good Shepherd. ... And I lay down my life for the sheep."
And, in response, we say back to him, "Yes, you are my Good Shepherd, for you laid down my life for me."
A pastor once wrote:
... even though I must suffer death and all kinds of misfortune, I will not let that thwart my faith. I know and hear and stay close to his voice! For even as a shepherd tenderly calls his little sheep, so Christ also encourages me. "I am your shepherd. I have laid down my life for you. I died for you!" This is the word I hear and believe. This is my one sure guarantee that he knows me and I know him. ...
Never doubt, therefore, that when a person is baptized, they are as lovely and pure in God's sight as is the dear sun, no sin remaining, nothing but eternal righteousness. Christ himself spoke that way. "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved." But this, of course, cannot be outwardly observed. Regardless, however, it's true, provided we abide with the word and the voice of the Shepherd. Everything depends, therefore, on our holding fast to the Word ... .
Those words, written by Martin Luther to the flock over 460 years ago are as true today as they were then. Until Christ comes again, it is all about the voice of the Good Shepherd. For wherever the Word of the Shepherd is, there is his flock, the Church. Therefore the Reformers could joyfully confess that even "a seven-year child knows what the Church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd." (Smalcald Articles 3.12.2)
This age continues in its parent's footsteps of fall prey to false shepherds who ravage the flock and entice away any from the flock who begin to doubt in Christ the Shepherd's call, and the results are not pretty. One example stands out.
Years ago, a man journeyed throughout the land, preaching that he was the promised good shepherd, teaching a new religion that exposed the decay and hypocrisy of society while preaching hope of a restored life in the kingdom of God. For years this shepherd called people to follow him and become disciples of his flock. He promised the thousands he prosteletized, "I can be your shepherd, and my father can be your higher shepherd."
The man to whom I'm referring is Marshall Applewhite, co-leader of the religious group known as "Heaven's Gate." This shepherd led his flock to worship him as the great shepherd and savior, to devote themselves to his seductive teachings, and to blindly follow him as he jumped off the cliff of despair and darkness. This infamous shepherd promised to care for the sheep and to give them life, but instead poisoned the herd with a hypnotizing mix of empty promises and misleading words.
Recognizing a true christian, therefore, involves far more than outward appearances; it's a matter of hearing the Word. That's exactly how it is with a little sheep. It's very life depends upon hearing. If it doesn't hear the [true] Shepherd's voice, the wolves will soon be there. Without the Shepherd's voice, all joy and assurance vanish and only fear and trembling remain.
That's how it is also with a Christian. If he looses the Word, all comfort is gone. But as long as he is faithful to the Word, he will behold Christ his Shepherd, and therefore everything Christ has earned and promised him, namely, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
And this enables [a Christian] to live out his life in full and certain hope. He eats, drinks, works, does what he is told to do, yes, will even gladly suffer whatever is laid upon him. He keeps his ears wide open for his Shepherd's voice and more and more trains himself not to judge according to what he sees and feels but solely according to the sound of the Shepherd's voice, "I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep."
This morning the Good Shepherd comes to his own. He comes and speaks, and his sheep hear his voice and follow, living with is Word in their ears and in their hearts, repeating it to themselves and to God and to their neighbor.
Hear again these precious words of Christ. Memorize them. Tuck them into your heart. Hold tight to them every day of your life. Remind yourself of them when you wake up and when you go to sleep.
"I am the Good Shepherd, for I laid down my life for you."
I heard the voice of Jesus say, "I am this dark world's light;
Look unto me, your morn shall rise, And all your day be bright."
I looked to Jesus, and I found in him my star, my sun;
And in that light of life I'll walk till trav'ling days are done.