Monday, May 1, 2023

We are sheep. . . but not foolish ones. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (A), Good Shepherd Sunday, preached on Sunday, April 30, 2023.

The reality is that this figure of speech, as Jesus put it, fits the imagination but not real life.  None of us want to be sheep.  In fact, when you think about it, it is an insult to be called a sheep.  We do everything to resist the idea that we are followers, that we behave like herd animals, or that anyone controls us.  We think of ourselves as individuals, who decide our own truth and who live our own lives.  It is an illusion.  We are not who we think we are; we are sheep, like it or not.

The pandemic proved that we are sheep.  We decided then and there that most of us would do whatever it took to be safe and preserve our lives.  We shut off the aged and infirm in nursing homes that ended up being their mortuaries as well.  We hid behind masks and kept our social distance from family and friends as well as strangers.  We believed that there was a science to it all that we should trust but it was too dangerous to meet together in God’s House.  We accepted at face value that the liquor store was essential but the bread and wine of God’s Table were not.  We are still adding up the costs of being a herd and trying to figure out who led us.

We imagine ourselves to be the leaders but we have always and only been the followers.  From Eden and the prompting of the serpent to all the voices that fill our heads, we are just trying to find that voice worth following, worth our loyalty, and worth our trust.  It is a disappointing task.  The problem is not that we are sheep.  Like God who asks Adam and Eve who told them they were naked, we have always been transparent.  We have always been sheep.  We are not above peer pressure in trend or fad of what we wear, what we listen to, what we eat.  So the Lord is not calling us to be something different than sheep but He is calling us to be smart sheep.

That is why Jesus is blunt.  The Good Shepherd comes through the door – the door of God’s Word.  If you read that Word, you know who to look for and who it is that fulfills that promise.  The one who does not come through the door of the Word is not the Good Shepherd.  He is a hireling or worse – he is the wolf.  Hirelings exploit the sheep to get from them what they want and then run at the first sight of truth or danger.  Christendom is filled with hirelings who serve God’s people out of greed and gain.  You know that.  I know that.  The talking heads of the internet and snake oil salesmen who put their words above God’s Word are all around us. They are obvious but that has not prevented them from deceiving many.

The Joel Osteens of this world and those much more orthodox than him have a grand following of people blinded by their ignorance of God’s Word and their suspicion of creed and confession.  But that does not stop us from buying their books or watching them on the internet or thinking that every pastor and every church is pretty much the same.  We are vulnerable because we do not know God’s Word and we are hard pressed to know the danger because we choose this ignorance over truth.  It is not new.  It has always been that way.  The worst the hireling does to God’s sheep is to harden them with disappointment so that they do not hear the voice of the true Shepherd speaking through His undershepherds.

But the wolf is not just interested in money or fame.  He is out to devour the sheep. The devil deceives not out of sport or fun but because he will not stop until hell is filled with the lonely, the bitter, the self-serving, and the self-righteous just like him.  He is not interested in being popular but filling the empty minds and hearts of God’s people with lies filled with death and despair.  He is the most dangerous of all the fake shepherds who would steal God’s sheep but even he cannot withstand the scrutiny of God’s Word or steal sheep who know their Good Shepherd.
We start by admitting the obvious.  We are sheep.  We cannot be left to our own devices and we need a shepherd.  There is only one shepherd worth following.  He is the Good Shepherd.  The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  The Good Shepherd does not rely on some dog and pony show to distract us.  He calls us by name and leads us by the voice of His Word.  He does not let us lead ourselves but goes ahead, through the gate of death and the grave so that we might follow Him to everlasting life.  We follow Him not because He is nice or attractive or charismatic or easy but because we know His voice.  We know His Word.  We may be sheep but we are not stupid sheep.  

The pastors whom we would follow are authentic preachers of Christ’s Word and faithful providers of His sacraments to us.  We do not follow them because they are nice to us or because we are friends or because they are great around a beer and pretzels.  We follow them because they will address us with the hard word that calls us to repentance when we lose our way.  We follow them because they will comfort us with real hope when we are wounded and broken.   We follow them because they will teach us the Word of the Lord that endures forever over the word that is popular in the moment.  We judge them against the Word of Christ and that is why we dare to call them pastor.

Our Good Shepherd promises a real abundant life.  His is not some gimmick to get our spouse to be the person we want them to be or to make our kids do what we want them to do or help us get ahead of the rest of the folks at work or retire early so we can indulge our whims with more money and more time than anyone else. No, the abundant life this Good Shepherd promises cannot be ended by death or contained by the grave.  This abundant life can only be imagined this side of glory and promises a future in which the best of today becomes the ordinary of our eternal tomorrow.  

If you want to know one place where you can discern the genuine shepherds from Jesus and the hirelings and wolves and thieves from the devil, listen to a funeral sermon.  If you get a lot of sentiment about the past or stories that make you smile or sports memorabilia or a great playlist, that shepherd is fake and his gospel poison.  But if you hear of the Savior who died that you might live and lives to bring you through death to everlasting life and a new and glorious body and a life better than you can imagine now, stick with him because he is the real deal.

You are sheep.  You are not watchdogs or sheep dogs.  It is okay to be sheep.  Just do not be foolish sheep.  Pay attention to the voice of Christ, your Good Shepherd.  Pay attention to the voice of the pastor who shepherds you in Christ’s name.  Know the Word of God well enough not to be deceived out of ignorance and pay attention so that you will not be led astray because you are preoccupied.  Learn the Word, listen to the voice of the Pastor, recognize what is faithful and you will be fine.  But do not presume that you can listen to the voices of the false shepherds and not be led astray.  You are sheep.  You don’t need to know everything.  You only need to know Christ, your Good Shepherd, and the pastor who preaches Christ honestly and faithfully to you.  Amen.

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