The Lord is My Shepherd

Audio: Trinity III Sermon

Text: Luke 15:1-10

St. Peter wrote in his first epistle, “[Cast] all your anxieties on [the Lord], for He cares for you.” Likewise, St. Paul wrote in our epistle text, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. This past week at St. John we have hosted our annual Vacation Bible School. The title this year was “Barnyard Roundup: Jesus Gathers Us Together.” It was based on the verses of Psalm 23, and our readings this week perfectly capture that theme. Particularly, this morning we will be looking at our Gospel text, which contains some of the most beloved and comforting words in all Scripture.

In our Gospel Jesus pictures Himself to us as a shepherd. Though He’s in charge of a multitude of sheep, He does not hesitate to drop everything to seek and save the one sheep gone astray. When He finds it, rejoicing, He places it on His shoulders and gathers it back into the fold. Jesus also commends Himself to us in the parable of the Lost Coin. There a woman who has ten coins loses one. She drops everything, lights a lamp, and searches till she finds it. And, like the shepherd, she rejoices. So, we see, the Lord is our shepherd who seeks us out, who saves us, and gathers us through His Word.

I.

Our Gospel reading is building on a theme in Luke’s Gospel. One of my commentaries calls this section of Luke the Table Fellowship section. In this whole chunk of Luke, Jesus is reclining at table in the house of one of the head Pharisees. One of the key themes of this discussion is shared between Jesus and John the Baptist – a theme we usually take up in Advent – the importance of repentance in the life of a Christian. You know the words of John the Baptist’s ministry, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It was the midst of that meal that Jesus spoke our text last week about the Great Banquet.

He told a parable about a man who gave a great banquet and invited many to come and feast. When the time was ready he sent his servant to gather those who had been invited. The way things worked back then, you would send out an initial invitation saying there’s a feast coming up. Then, when the feast had come, you would go and gather everyone up. But, when the servant went to do that, everyone turned him down. One claimed he bought a field and couldn’t come; another, oxen; another, newly married. The master then sent his servant to call people who had not been invited, first those in the city: the lame and crippled. These represent the tax collectors and “sinners” in our reading. Then, even those outside the city were compelled to come to the feast. These are those, like us, who were born outside God’s covenant people.

Here’s where we get to Luke 15. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” Jesus was teaching about repentance and faith. The tax collectors and sinners were hearing Jesus’ words in faith, confessing their sins and being forgiven. The Holy Spirit was working through the Word to create repentance and faith in them. They had learned to recognize their sin and believe in Jesus for their salvation. Meanwhile, the Pharisees were doing as they usually were. They were grumbling, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So, Jesus told them this parable.

II.    

He said,

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing…When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and us to show us just how much He cares about us and what He does for us.

First, Jesus seeks us out. In the parable Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. And like sheep, we are prone to wander. Not content to live within the fold of God, Adam and Eve began to wander, thinking grass would be greener in the field yonder. Ever since, we who have been born of flesh and blood also go astray. But, what does the shepherd do? He leaves the other ninety-nine in the care of faithful undershepherds, and drops everything to go and find the one lost sheep. This is what Christ did by emptying Himself of His eternal glory, which He shared with the Father and Spirit before all time, and taking on Himself our human flesh.

I read somewhere that when sheep get lost, once they realize they’re in an unfamiliar place, they will lay down and not move. Then, when the shepherd finds it, he has to physically pick it up and carry it, because otherwise it ain’t going anywhere. I wonder if that isn’t a good description of us, the sheep. As we walk through this valley of shadow, we do wander. We wander into all sorts of sins, physical, mental, and spiritual. And, sometimes we hunker down. We get lost in our sins and we forget that we’re sinning. Or, rather, we choose to persist in our sin. That is, until Christ finds us.

How does He search for us and find us? He seeks us out through the preaching of the Word. He works through the preaching of the Law to show us our sin and then He calls to us through the Gospel saying, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He sends pastors to share His saving Word and to administer the sacraments, so that the Gospel may have free course to create and sustain faith throughout the world. Then through Holy Baptism He puts us on His shoulders. In Baptism we are united to His death for our sins and the forgiveness that He won on the cross is given to us through that sacred washing. Just like the lost sheep may kick and fight at first when the shepherd picks it up, so the Old Adam in us kicks and screams within us as it is drowned in the water and the Word.

Through the preaching of the Word and in Holy Baptism, Christ seeks us out and saves us. He finds us and, rejoicing, puts us on His shoulders. Then, on His shoulders, He gathers us back to His flock – the Church. And, actually, that was theme of VBS this week – Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gathers us together. As Scripture says, all we like sheep had gone astray, yet He, in love, sought us. He took on flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. He died on the cross and rose from the dead so that we might live with Him (our shepherd) in His kingdom (the Church).

III.

The second parable in our Gospel is the parable of the Lost Coin, and has much in common with the first parable. In it a woman loses a coin. The number is lowered from one hundred sheep to ten coins, to two sons later. Jesus lowers the number to show us how important each individual lost sheep, coin, and son is to Him. After losing the coin, the woman lights a lamp and searches diligently until she finds it. When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her, since she had found the coin that she had lost.

If we keep in mind that the parable goes with the parable of the Lost Sheep and is about how Christ seeks out, saves, and gather each individual lost sheep, then we might also be able to talk about what it means to be found, saved, and gathered by Christ into the Church. King David sings in the psalms that the Word of God is a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Christ Himself is the light that shines in the darkness and He has given the lamp of His Word to His bride, the Church. Like the woman in the parable, we are called to shine the lamp of God’s Word into the dark places of the world to find the lost coin.

Our temptation is always to be like the Pharisees and scribes. The Old Adam in us wants us to point and scoff at tax collectors and “sinners;” but then we would be blind to the fact that we are all chief of sinners. We all like sheep have gone astray and need to found by Christ. And so we are. We confess in the Creed that we have been called by the Gospel. Through the preaching of the Word, Christ has sought us out. He sends His Word into all the earth to find each lost sheep. Then, through Baptism He places His lost sheep on His shoulders and gathers them into His fold. Having been gathered into His fold, we also seek to save the lost, sharing with them the hope and comfort that the Lord is our Shepherd and we shall not want.

To Seek and to Save the Lost

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

People say that sheep are stupid animals. There’s kind of this old wives’ tale that you can take a sheep and turn it facing into a corner, leave it there, and it won’t move. It turns out, according a study done by the University of Illinois, that sheep are not incredibly stupid. Instead, their intelligence is generally just below that of pigs and on the level of cattle.[1] But sheep are herd animals. They generally flock together, making them among the first domesticated animals because they naturally follow a leader. They can also be hefted, which means that they can be raised to stay in one area when there are no fences separating fields. They flock and want to be together, and when separated they become stressed. There have been experiments where scientists have separated a sheep to induce stress and then put a mirror in front of it. The sheep, thinking that it is not alone, calms down.

Sheep want to be with sheep; they belong with other sheep. That’s the job of a shepherd: to take care of the sheep. The Lord speaks against the shepherds of the people of Israel, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”[2] The rulers of the house of Israel, both the civil rulers and the spiritual leaders, led the people astray. They were evil, seeking after only their own interests, and God’s sheep were scattered and separated. God laments, “My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”[3] And so He seeks out His sheep Himself. Contrary to the evil shepherds, Jesus came to seek out the lost. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when they have been scattered, so does Jesus seek out and save His flock.

I.

We’ve now reached the end of the church year and next week we will start anew with the Triumphal Entry. On that day Jesus processed into Jerusalem knowing full-well that it was to His own suffering and brutal death, a death that He did not deserve. Today we learn why He suffered. The reading chosen for the lectionary cuts out the first part of Ezekiel 34, which I think we need to provide some context for our reading – especially since the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep is so fundamental to how we understand Christ’s work for us. Chapter 34 begins with the Lord’s speaking against the rulers of Israel, both in the government and in the Church. Their job was to seek the best for God’s people. They were to care for the weak and sick, to feed them with the word of God. Instead, God says, the shepherds fed off the sheep.

They fed off the sheep and clothed themselves with their wool. They did not strengthen the weak, did not heal the sick, did not help the injured, didn’t bring back the strayed, nor did they seek the lost. Instead, those placed in authority by God to care for the people ruled with force and harshness. Ultimately this would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. and the exile of God’s people. It also resulted in two consequences that were even more personal than the destruction of God’s house: many sheep were injured and scattered, and the ones that remained became fat like their shepherds.

The wicked priests were probably the worst. They were the ones who were supposed to feed God’s people His pure Word, to comfort them with the promise of the forgiveness of sins through faith in the Messiah, and they didn’t. Instead, they were concerned only about themselves. They didn’t care about the people, and God’s children became prey for the wild beasts. All around them were pagan nations who had all sorts of wicked practices that enticed them. God said that His sheep were scattered and they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. Instead of worshipping God on the one mountain of Israel, Mt. Zion, His children were scattered and began to worship on the hills. The hills were where all the pagan temples were. And no one sought to bring them back.

The sheep that weren’t scattered became fat like their wicked shepherds. God asks, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?”[4] The sheep that remained were corrupted by their shepherds into caring only about themselves. Instead of growing strong through the preaching of the Gospel, they grew fat on the Law, only caring about themselves. The text says that they pushed with side and shoulder and thrust their horns at the weak, until they scattered the other sheep.

We can see the application in Old Testament Judaism, but it applies today as well. Our natural tendency as humans is to cling to the Law. For pastors, this means that it’s very easy to hammer people. It’s easy to get up in the pulpit and destroy people with God’s condemnation against sin and drive them either to despair or out the door. The opposite temptation, then, is to avoid speaking (rightly) about sin and change our message into moralism – which, actually, ends the same way. Moralism is all Law and no Gospel. If we don’t speak about sin, then we don’t speak about our need for Jesus Christ. He alone is our salvation, our hope, the redeemer of our souls through His precious death.

But also, it’s very easy to sit in the pew and wonder if I’m just a little bit less of a sinner than that person across the aisle. Maybe there’s someone new to church, and I just know how they behave outside these walls. And so we thrust them aside with our horns, instead of sharing the love of Christ with our fellow sinners in need. God says later in chapter 34, “You are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.”[5] But it’s so easy to think we’re better than others.

II.

Therefore, “thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”[6] This text used to be the Old Testament reading for Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th after Easter. It was paired with one of the most comforting texts in all Scripture: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[7] God looked out on the earth and saw that there was no one. There was no one righteous; no one was good, not even the shepherds, nor the sheep. No one. “So,” God says, “I’ll do it myself.”

Because there was no one to do it, no one that could do it, Jesus became the Good Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and lays down His life for them. He came to seek the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak. This He did by becoming man, taking the sin of all mankind upon Himself. He took our sin, our guilt, the anxiety that we have because our lives are not how we envisioned them to be, the anger we have against our brothers or sisters in Christ, and He died. He was flogged, punched, spit upon, and crucified to make payment for our sin, to save us, lost and condemned sinners.

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.”[8] This is God the Father’s promise: that He will set His servant David as the shepherd of His people. This is Jesus. A prophesied title for Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” or “God with His people.” Jesus is our eternal Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us, but He is also among us here. He promised to be with us always, and He is faithful. He is always here in His Word and upon our lips. He continually feeds us His forgiveness through His body and blood. By these things He strengthens us to bring His Word to those around us and in the community. We bring His Word that, in Him, all sins are forgiven and that life finds its fulfillment in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

They say that sheep aren’t as stupid as they’re made out to be. But I know that, as a sheep myself, I wouldn’t be so sure. Daily we are tossed to and fro, scattered by our own sinfulness and the wicked shepherds that still roam God’s fields on earth. Therefore Christ says, “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered.”[9] This Christ did for us through His death on the cross and He will continue to do so through the preaching of His Word until He returns to bring us to Himself.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep#Behavior

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ezek. 34:2.

[3] Ezek. 34:6

[4] Ezek. 34:18

[5] Ezek. 34:31

[6] Ezek. 34:11, 16

[7] Jn. 10:11

[8] Ezek. 34:23–24

[9] Ezek. 34:12