Second Sunday after Easter
April 19, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
It’s unfortunate that in popular theology the sheep metaphor that Holy Scripture uses extensively is reduced to the stupidity of sheep. Sheep don’t know what’s good for them. Sheep wander into danger. Sheep can’t think for themselves. Sheep would mistake a pack of wolves for their own flock if they didn’t have shepherds to lead and guide them. And transferring the metaphor to life, the message inevitably turns to the therapeutic model of ministry: “Oh, isn’t it wonderful that we have a Good Shepherd who will lead us in the right direction so we don’t get ourselves into trouble!”
But let’s give sheep a little more credit, shall we? They’re not exactly dumb animals. In fact, I was reading an agricultural essay on sheep that lamented the fact that their general lack of intelligence is universally presumed. They are intelligent, according to this article, and have the ability to distinguish faces and keep particular features in their memories for extended periods of time. They also have an acute sense of hearing—you can see how they turn their ears to even the slightest sound—and have the ability to distinguish their mothers’ bleats from other sheep, and there’s some evidence that they can distinguish human voices as well.
This is the aspect of the sheep metaphor that Martin Luther points to—the sheep’s hearing, their ability to distinguish the voice of their shepherd from the sounds of danger and death. You are sheep because you know your Shepherd’s voice.
The sheep’s ability to distinguish sounds and voices is the point of comparison in this parable. Our Lord isn’t insulting His people by comparing us to stupid, recalcitrant, don’t-know-what’s-good-for-them animals, though our old nature that clings to us is certainly worthy of such a comparison (the Lutheran confessions use a obstinate donkey as an image for the Old Adam). The sheep-Shepherd imagery is a metaphor for hearing rightly. I know those that are Mine, and those that are Mine know Me…and they will hear My voice, says Jesus (v 14b, 16b).
The danger for a sheep, then, is dull hearing, the inability to distinguish a voice of safety from a voice of danger. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, tells the disciples, The heart of this people was made dull, and their ears heard with difficulty (Mt 13:15a). St. Paul reiterates this sober warning at the end of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 28:27). Likewise, the Epistle to the Hebrews warns, We have a great Word to say, and it is hard to explain to you, because your hearing has become sluggish. Although by this time you are indebted to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basics of the beginning of the Word of God; you have come to need milk and not solid food. For all who take milk are inexperienced in the Word of righteousness—they are infants. But solid food is for the mature, who by maturity have senses trained for the distinction of good from bad (Heb 5:11-14).
Dulled hearing makes no distinction between bad and good, between danger and safety, between death and life, between hireling and Shepherd. Dull hearing cannot distinguish a pastor who preaches for his own glory and a pastor that preaches for God’s glory. The hireling, and not the shepherd, to whom the sheep do not belong, he sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees—and the wolf snatches and scatters them—because a hireling doesn’t concern himself about the sheep (vv 12-13).
Who is a hireling, and how do you recognize him? One of the easiest places to recognize one is at a funeral. Does the preacher preach about the deceased? Or does he preach Christ? Does he preach about the joys of a disembodied, spiritualized heaven, or does he preach the resurrection of the dead on account of the Resurrected One? The irony is that in showing such concern for the sheep, he doesn’t actually concern himself for the sheep. His concern is for himself, and his pocketbook.
This kind of preaching dulls hearing, and not just at funerals. It turns the Word of God into something God never intended His Word to be—a set of instructions for how to please God. But there is a predator looking for sheep lulled into deafness by hireling preaching. The devil also prowls about, looking for someone to devour. And his eyes open wide when he sees a sheep that’s told to go it alone.
How do you distinguish, then, between a hireling and a good shepherd? Here’s good news—it’s not a distinction you have to make. Because Christ distinguishes Himself as the Good Shepherd by laying down His life on behalf of the sheep. I AM the Good Shepherd, says Jesus. The Good Shepherd lays down His life on behalf of the sheep (v 10). This is how you know and recognize the Shepherd who will not flee when the devil and danger comes your way. Rather, He places Himself in harm’s way so that you would not be harmed. You know your Shepherd by His willing and sacrificial death.
Christ Knows His Own, and His Own Know Him; and He Lays Down His Life on Behalf of the Sheep
The distinction is a distinction of hearing, which means that it’s a distinction of preaching. It’s not really your task to say if Pastor Schultz, or Pastor Meyer, or Pastor Ehrhard, or the Baptist preacher, or the Presbyterian preacher, or the Catholic preacher are shepherds or hirelings. In truth, none of us are good shepherds, and we’re all to some extent hirelings. The task is to recognize in the preaching of these undershepherds whether it presents Jesus as the Good Shepherd that He is, or turns Him into a hireling.
How do you make this distinction in preaching? It’s really quite simple, but it has everything to do with everything you believe. Does a preacher present Christ crucified as righteousness for sinners, accounted to them freely and apart from their works? Or does a preacher present Christ as a guide in the wilderness, as an example of how to attain your own righteousness?
This is the basic distinction of the Christian faith, and it’s a distinction that sent shockwaves through the Reformation Church. It was the discovery of Martin Luther in reading the Psalms and Romans, with respect to the phrase, “the righteousness of God.” Human nature is always looking to make everything about Me, and so the prevailing through in Christendom at the time of the Reformation was that “the righteousness of God” was a righteousness of actions, the righteousness by which man approached God. But with a slight change of view, the proper distinction of a mature Christian took hold in Luther, and subsequently in the Reformation. Luther remarked in his later life:
“I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel. I lacked nothing before this except that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection. But when I discovered the proper distinction—namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another—I made myself free” (AE 54.442).
I AM the Good Shepherd and I know those that are Mine, and those that are Mine know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life on behalf of the sheep (vv 14-15). You know Christ because you know Him as the One who laid down His life on behalf of the sheep. He is the One who suffered your punishment, who died your death. He put Himself between you and the devil and took the worst the devil had to give. The Father knows this and is well pleased with His Son who shepherds in such a way. And by knowing Christ as the One who lays down His life, you know the nature of God Himself—that He loves with a self-giving love.
But you mustn’t only know Him as the One who lays down His life, but as the One who takes it back up again. Because a dead shepherd is as good as a hireling at defending the sheep. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again. No one takes it away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. I received this command from My Father (Jn 10:17-18).
And so you will also recognize the Good Shepherd in the preaching of the resurrection. Christ is risen! He is truly risen. Alleluia! And if you ever go to a Christian funeral and hear nothing of Christ crucified and the resurrection of the dead, you have my permission to tell that preacher he is guilty of pastoral malpractice. Because the preaching of the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life and takes it up again, is the only protection when the devil stares you in the face.
Jesus says, And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; it is necessary for Me to lead these ones also, and they will hear My voice, and there will be one flock, one Shepherd (v 16). Jesus leads with His voice, and He gives His voice to His Church. The preaching of Christ crucified and the preaching of Christ risen must go beyond this couple of minutes on Sunday morning. It’s necessary that the lost sheep also hear the voice of the Shepherd.
Dear sheep who know your Shepherd’s voice, bleat loudly. Let everyone know that here they will hear of their Shepherd’s sacrifice, of His resurrection, of His love and His gifts.
In the name of + Jesus.