It is only with the greatest trepidation and humility
that any preacher should approach a gospel text that speaks of shepherds,
whether good or bad. For when Holy Scripture speaks of bad shepherds, it takes
to task those who were called to lead God’s people in faithful obedience, but
who fell down on the job and chose their own selfish paths. Bring up those
sorts of bad shepherds—those wicked kings and false prophets and evil priests
which seem to plague Israel one after the other for most of its history—and
there’s a good chance the pastor will find himself lumped in with that crowd,
at least in the minds of some.
On the other hand, preach on a text which describes
any good shepherd—especially THE Good Shepherd—and you beg comparisons
to our Lord and Savior, the very Son of God. That’s a standard you can’t hope
to approach, even in your best hour on your best day—so why even attempt it?
Nevertheless, biblical language is replete with
pastoral language; references to shepherds and sheep abound throughout. To
attempt to steer clear of them for fear of comparison is to fail in proclaiming
the fullness of God’s word, only making one’s contrast to the Good Shepherd all
the more vivid and obvious.
But there’s no shame in the shortfall, not really. To
have the expectation that any of us, pastor or not, and regardless of our good
intentions, might be favorably compared to Christ our Lord is merely the
coarsest arrogance. The sooner and more frequently we cast our illusions to
the ground and dash our pride at the foot of God’s throne, the better. We are
imposters, thieves and robbers, every one of us. Repent, and hear not your own
deceitful voices or that of the prince of lies, but that of God.
As St. John records it in our gospel lesson for this
day, Jesus gives the first two of three analogies regarding shepherds, sheep,
Make no mistake: Jesus is preaching in this text, to
both his disciples and some Pharisees. This sermon comes right on the heels of
Jesus’ encounter with the blind man who had been given his sight, only to be
thrown out of the synagogue by the Pharisees. In a horrible case of injustice,
the man had been cured of both physical and spiritual blindness, yet Israel’s appointed shepherds denied him access to the fellowship he desired in his local
community of faith. But along came Jesus, the true priest and temple, and the
man had worshipped the Son of Man in faith.
The Pharisees, however, remained blind to the signs of
the Savior that scripture had foretold, and refused to hear Jesus’ words. And
in their blindness, they continued to lead those who would follow them into the
pit of doubt, despair, and death.
And as he had warned of their blindness and the guilt
it caused to remain, he warns all of us who would hear of other dangers to our
In the first analogy, Jesus doesn’t speak directly of
himself. Instead, he speaks in the third person, referring to a shepherd and a
watchman, a thief and a robber. It’s the latter’s actions which are described
to us first. The thief and the robber works outside the bounds of God’s plan.
He chooses his own path, and it’s not the path God intended for either the
shepherd or the sheep to follow. Thieves, for example, steal by deception, by
craftiness, and by attempting to avoid detection. And robbers steal by direct
confrontation—challenging their victims to comply with their wishes, or face
As we come to contemplate and understand this story
better, we should begin to recognize that Jesus isn’t speaking of figurative
persons here as thief and robber, is he? No, not at all.
Rather, it should dawn on us that the one who takes
sheep away from the shepherd, the watchman, and the sheepfold by deception,
craftiness, and direct challenge is none other than the master of all
deception, Satan himself. It is he who wants to decimate the flock, and to
pull away the sheep, both young and old.
But he dare not come through the gate, for there both
the shepherd and the watchman will confront him, and drive him away before he
can do any harm. The thief and robber can only succeed when he catches the
sheep alone, in a weak moment, apart from the shepherd’s protection.
The shepherd, we learn, does things by the book. He’s
not deceptive or sneaky. He approaches directly and openly, coming to the
sheep and making himself obvious. As direct and obvious as God’s clear message
of scripture. That’s how our shepherd, Jesus, comes to us.
The watchman, it’s clear, is an under-shepherd of
sorts. He takes care of the sheep and protects them during the time the
shepherd himself is not visibly present. But when the shepherd approaches and
wishes to enter in, access is readily and eagerly granted, and the shepherd
takes charge of his flock.
The shepherd’s voice is clear and unmistakable to
those who belong to him. He can identify every one of them by sight, and calls
each and every one by name. They follow at the urging of his voice, eager to
journey along with him, to tread along the paths on which he takes them. They
do not have to be driven or cajoled.
Those who follow this shepherd, who belong to this
flock, we are told, can never be led away by a stranger; rather, they will flee
from the voice of him to whom they don’t belong.
It all sounds quite idyllic, doesn’t it? A safe sheep
pen, a secure gate, a vigilant gatekeeper, and a familiar, caring shepherd who
goes before us to show the way. What could be easier? What could be more
pleasant and desirable?
It beats me, and I’m sure you’re left baffled all the
time, too. Even when we remember and trust in the word of God which has called
us to Christ’s flock and given us the faith to trust in Him alone, you and I go
out of our way to make things more difficult. It’s part of that tension of
living our simul iustus et peccator existence in this current
world—the one where that thief and robber who was banished from heaven long ago
is still allowed to roam.
But even if he weren’t so eager and determined to
crawl into the sheep pen and steal us away, we frequently run headlong into the
fence, and sprint willingly away from the shepherd and the watchmen, just as
eager and determined to leap out of the pen and into danger.
After all, it’s exciting to be out there, isn’t it? If
we’re not trapped inside that restrictive pen, we’re free to roam around the
countryside. We can nibble at whatever looks green and pretty, drinking deeply
of whatever waters we come across, whenever we want. Never mind that sometimes
the lushest, prettiest, tastiest plants we come across can be highly toxic to
us sheep. Never mind that those alluring springs that seem so cool and
refreshing can pour forth bitter, poisonous water.
And those roaring lions and ravenous wolves we’ll come
across, out there on our own? Why, I’m sure they’ll be amply frightened off by
the sound of our vicious… “Baaaaaah!!!”
The fact is: You haven’t got a prayer out there—or
even here in the sheep pen—without the shepherd, and neither do I.
If you want to dwell around the fringes of the sheep
pen, near the wall where it’s easy for the thief and robber to reach in and
grab you, you’re a fool. If you want to hide in the shadows, far from the
watchful eye of the gatekeeper, you’re not real bright. If you want to jump
over the fence and wander around in the wilderness without the shepherd, you’re
That’s the way it always is when we trust in
ourselves, and in our own intellect, feelings, judgment, or works. These all
will fail us, because we’re not involved in a fair fight. The deck is stacked
against us, and we’re fighting foes that are craftier, smarter, stronger, and
more persistent than we can ever be.
That’s why you need the shepherd, and that’s why you
need the flock. We don’t come here together each week because Christ needs
us. We’re not doing him a favor by showing up. This service—and every service
rightly done according to His will and His word—is His gift to us.
It’s time spent in the fold with His flock, hearing
His voice and being prepared to be led forth by our shepherd. We’re not meant
to keep ourselves isolated from the shepherd, or to separate ourselves from the
rest of the flock. We’re not equipped to “go it alone” among the thieves and
robbers that would steal us away or out with the wild animals that would devour
us without a moment’s hesitation or a drop of remorse.
Even though Jesus doesn’t explicitly refer to himself
in this first analogy, it’s apparent that he’s not just talking about an
earthly shepherd. He’s not giving the disciples and Pharisees a life lesson on
the science of managing their mutton and wool futures. He’s pointing them to
the reality of their needs: Sheep need a safe environment. Sheep need a
watchman. And above all else, sheep need a shepherd—one who is recognized and
let in by the watchman, a shepherd who leads the sheep with a familiar,
After showing them their needs, Jesus goes on to tell
them how he is the solution to these needs: As the gate for the sheep, he is
the one who admits them to the sheepfold. He is the one who gives them access
to the protection of both pen and watchman. And he is different from all those
who had previously claimed to be ones who provide relief.
Read again what Jesus says about himself, and what he
will do for those whom he has called into his flock: Whoever enters the
sheepfold and flock through Him will be saved. It is through him that we will
receive the true freedom to come in and go out—not just the ability to wander
as we please, but to have a true calling to serve him constantly. It is
through him that we are assured that we will indeed find pasture—a place of
rest and refreshment beyond the bounds of the sheep pen.
It may seem strange to us that Jesus can speak
abstractly about his being a shepherd in one breath, and then of his being the
gate in the next. But we have to be very careful not to handcuff God, or fit
Jesus into boxes of our own construction. St. Paul has written elsewhere, in
referring to the power of Christ to reach people of all backgrounds and all
sorts of circumstances, that “Christ is all, and in all.”
He can be, and is, your shepherd. He can be,
and is, your gate to salvation, and to all the blessings your heavenly
Father wishes to share with you. Listen to his voice. Do not stray or follow
that great thief and robber who wishes to steal your soul and to kill and
destroy your life.
Instead, let Jesus be all, and in all, for you:
Christ your shepherd; Christ your gate. Christ your baptism. Christ your
absolution. Christ your supper. And, above all, Christ your forgiveness,
salvation, and life eternal.
Enter him, the gate, with thanksgiving, and dwell in
his courts and his sheep-pen with gladness. And the shepherd will give you
life—abundantly—for He has called you to be His own.
In the Name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of
the Holy Spirit. Amen.