Immanuelskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark
Praise the Shepherd
April 26, 2015
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday – the Fourth Sunday in the seven week season of Easter. On this day we thank God for Christ Jesus, our Good Shepherd. That he is because he is God – raised from the dead after being crucified for our sins. He is good because only God is good (Mark 6:22). And so he brings with him the the divine blessings of health, prosperity and longevity. Alleluia!
Our Warrior Shepherd
But there’s also a surprise here. Jesus is also our good shepherd because he fights against the wolves that attack us! John 10, where we learn about Jesus being our good shepherd, refers more than once to Jesus fighting off the attacking wolves – “laying down his life for the sheep” (John 10:12). Most of the artistic depictions of The Good Shepherd, however, leave this out. What they give us is instead a serene, erect shepherd, calmly holding sleepy lambs in his arms. Oh, to have a picture of The Good Shepherd fighting off a wolf, with one hand at its throat, while his other hand is guarding behind him a wounded sheep!
So on this day, then, when we are supposed to praise the Shepherd, Christ Jesus, we can’t do that unless we feel under attack. We can’t do that unless we have a need for The Good Shepherd to defend us against our assailants – when as Martin Luther said, "the devil shows his teeth to your heart in order to slay and devour you" (Luther's Works 77:183).
But alas, we are not so inclined! No, we instead are like the Laodicean Christians of old! They felt fine – no problems for them! Their lives were just fine – thank you very much. But they did not know how needy they actually were – being vulnerable, weak and truly pitiful (Revelation 3:17). So they were deluded into thinking that everything was fine when it in fact wasn’t. And that is because the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And the more devout we are, the less safe we are, for then the devil wants all the more to eat us up – tasty morsels that we are when God’s Word and Sacraments abounds in us (LW 30:135).
Against this delusion, Luther helps us see our actual state of affairs. And so he writes:
A true Christian life is never at rest…. Consequently, constant warfare is necessary. He who does not experience this dare not boast of being a Christian…. Thus even if you are baptized, you must realize that you are never safe from the devil and from sin. Indeed, you must remember that now you will have no peace. Thus the Christian life is nothing but a battle,…. an everlasting struggle…. Here one must always resist…. [The devil] is not in your sight when you are armed; but he looks in front and behind, inside and outside, for a place… to attack you. When he attacks you here now, he soon rushes there and attacks you at another place….But we are fools and pay no attention to [him] (LW 30:71-72, 141).
Doesn’t this sound like someone who has himself experienced the assaults of the wicked one? Indeed, it does! And so we have his three great points. First, that we are always under attack – even when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are baptized in his name. For indeed, in this life we will always be suffering from tribulations (John 16:33). Second, the devil is nimble, deceptive and relentless in his attacks on us (2 Corinthians 11:14). He will do whatever he can to pull us away from God’s Holy Words and draws us into temptations. So watch out, Luther says. The devil will never attack you where you’re armed. He bobs and weaves – looking for your weak spot. And when he strikes you there, he won’t hit you again just as before – figuring that after the first attack you’ll somehow managed to get your guard up. So he moves from side to side, forward and back, to catch you off guard, and strike you where you don’t expect him to be. And third, we’re stupid about all of this. We think it’s unreal and foolish – the stuff of legends and mythology. So we don’t give it a thought, and as a result, we’re easily taken in and unwittingly become the devil’s children (John 8:44). O Lord have mercy on us!
And he has done just that. “See what love the Father has given us” (1 John 3:1). Yes, he has not left us defenseless, and this is "a strikingly high comfort," as Luther puts it (LW 77:190). But neither has he wiped away all of our problems. Instead he is our spiritual warrior who takes on our worst problems – sin, death and the devil. On this Luther writes:
[God] rules… where the... power… of men [stops]. He can save and help where no
man can help – against sin,… death… and the devil (LW
So against our last enemy death, and the devil and sin that lies behind it, Christ is our warrior shepherd – for indeed he is our "guard, guide, and lead through His office as Shepherd" (LW 77:179). He suffers on the cross in our place in order to free us from the punishment we deserve because of our sins (LW 26:284). This is the Lord in whom we rejoice on this day. He is our Good Shepherd, for he "stands the test in peril against the devil when he opens the jaws of hell through fright of sin and eternal death" (LW 77:179).
And we are glad that he was raised from the dead after dying for us that he might rule from on high and also be with us today in and with the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. When we receive this glorious sacrament, he transfers his immortal, eternal life to us (John 6:53). For that we praise his name and give thanks.
I Shall Not Want
But this is not the end of it. In the great Psalm 23 – read every Good Shepherd Sunday – we begin by saying that because the Lord is my shepherd, “I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1) And then it ends with the explanation that “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Because the problem of eternity is taken care of, I have no wants – as strange as that may sound. So Luther explains:
Here the psalmist sings: ‘Be it with me as it may. This is still the comfort of my heart, that I have a gracious, merciful Lord, who is my Shepherd, whose Word and promise strengthen and comfort me. Therefore I shall not want.’ For this reason [David] wrote this psalm that we might be sure that… we can find… comfort nowhere else, and that this alone is the golden art: to cling to God’s Word and promise, to make judgments on the basis of this Word and not on the basis of the feelings of the heart (LW 12:159).
So while I might think what matters most is my favorite pizza or a new car, I’m wrong. “I shall not want.” What matters most is that we make our judgments based on God’s Holy Word and not on our feelings of what we think we need. It’s easy to be distracted and lead astray – why, can you imagine how upset I was to learn that my favorite restaurant (which made the best portobello sandwiches ever) had closed! But against this our Good Shepherd brings us home giving us these revered words to resound in our hearts – “I shall not want.” All that matters in the long run has been taken care of. Rejoice and be glad.
So call on God to guide you in these words from Psalm 23. Pray that he will keep your hearts filled with the joy of Christ – whose love is so great, certain and sure that he did not flinch from the cross but died to save us all. And may God then open all of our eyes to the battles that are before us against the devil and his demons – the “powers and principalities” throughout the world and beyond (Ephesians 6:12). May this all take place so that we with true hearts and clear minds may on this day and always, praise our warrior shepherd, Christ Jesus our Lord – The Good Shepherd. Amen.
(printed as preached but with changes)