“He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths,
For His Name’s sake.”
Throughout the ages, the Lord of heaven and earth has chosen His own.
While they were in captivity to sin and death, the fruit of the devil’s work, God rescued His children, rescues His children, from the evil foe’s clutches…
…from the jaws of the one who is the ultimate wolf…
And how many men and women have hoped, have dreamed, have known joy and love and even known fame throughout the ages… only to have finally lived and died in vain?
If you think about this for a while, I think you will feel that the words of the old hymn seem to nail it:
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day…”
Know this: the believing men and women who were here today and gone tomorrow, like a candle that burns and is quickly snuffed out….
…were never forgotten by the only One whose opinion truly matters in the end.
They were made His, now and forever, by the blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and now reign eternally with Him, a part of that great picture that we heard about in this morning’s reading from the book of Revelation….[i]
Our life here on earth is so short, and we sometimes need someone to help us realize this, see this, feel this…
My mother-in-law died about one year ago… Thinking the other day about her death as we visited the cemetery – and reflecting on the spiritual nurture she herself received from her companions as her life drew to a close – I also could not help but think about the death of my wife’s great aunt, very precious to her, some 22 years ago…
I remember that as she struggled through her last days, we read a devotion to her about the 23rd Psalm, probably the most-well-known and loved of all the Psalms…[ii]
And of course, going along with that is our Gospel reading for this morning:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
My wife’s great aunt was from a Roman Catholic family, but I also knew she loved the great Lutheran hymns testifying to God’s grace and mercy in Jesus and the gift of faith the Holy Spirit gave…
We had confidence she knew the Shepherd…
And even so, again, it is not so much that we know the Shepherd but that He knows us – as the Apostle Paul emphasizes in the book of Galatians.
And as the theme of an old devotional book by Herman Gockel put it, it is not so much my hand holding His, but His hand holding mine… More: my hand in His…
It is the Lord who holds and knows us.
It is the Lord who makes us His. It is the Lord who provides and protects… It is the Lord who is our strength.
Our loving Shepherd.
Perhaps you noticed that all of our texts this morning are about shepherding…
Probably none of them hit me as much as the reading from the book of Acts, where the Apostle Paul, compelled by God’s Spirit to head into dangerous Jerusalem like his Lord Jesus before him, speaks to some of the overseers or pastors from the city of Ephesus for what he believes to be the last time…
And the thing that I thought about the most here is that during this time and place, the Lord our God provided a strong man like Paul – whom He filled with His grace, power, and love – to take care of His people.
Paul’s words are convicting and powerful, and show a tremendous sense of calling and conviction. To review some of what he says:
- “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.”
- “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
- “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
- “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”
Knowing the Good Shepherd like he did, Paul simply had to care deeply about the Shepherd’s sheep![iii]
One passage sticks out to me as particularly noteworthy, given the fact that our days seem to be growing darker and darker all the time:
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Paul had the joy and the peace of the Lord, but he also knew that part of being a Christian here on earth has to do with knowing that we walk in danger all the way, but with our Shepherd by our side….
The devil wants our souls dead. And he knows false teachers and teachings kill. We though, knowing the ultimate victory we have in Christ, counter him with the Word, God’s sacraments, and prayer.
We call this the church militant!
So Paul, one of these strong and militant ones, was a gift to the early church. And He was God’s gift to us as well.
While in one sense all believers are saints, we nevertheless rightly give him special honor, specifically calling him “Saint Paul”.
And of course, God still does this today, giving us such wonderful and yet fallible gifts…
He gives us pastors (by the way, this is a good time to remind you I am still not actually a pastor!) who powerfully and lovingly pass on to us the Word of Christ, the story, the commands and promises that we need….
They feed us… For the word “pastor” means shepherd…..
So God means for you to have a shepherd. Someone who lives among you and who delivers the gifts of God to you, and who will guide you in the Lord’s paths….
And each one of us too, each in our own way – even if we are not called to be pastors or shepherds – are nevertheless called to be those who imitate the Good Shepherd!
There was a book that was popular in Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod circles in the 1970s called “Everyone a Minister”….
And this book gets some things very wrong, to be sure…
For example, not everyone has been called to be a pastor, that is, a steward of the mysteries of God who is called to distribute Christ’s gifts to, to be responsible for, the individual souls of the faithful who gather for worship in a particular place!
Generally speaking, not everyone should be preaching the word of God in a public setting, baptizing those who come to the Lord in faith, or giving the Lord’s Supper to Christ’s people.
And when the author of Hebrews says
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you….”
…he is not just talking about doing this to every member of the congregation, but specifically those in positions of spiritual authority, particularly called shepherds.
On the other hand, like the woman at the well who eagerly shared the message of Jesus when He changed her life, without question all of us are to be Christ’s witnesses in all the daily vocations that the Lord has given us – as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, students, and workers!
And while we might not all be called to be shepherds who fight the wolves attacking congregations, we all, and particularly the men, are certainly to be those who shepherd our families, schools, communities, and even workplaces, insofar as this is in our power. Taking on wolves in those places.
Again, we are meant to be those who bring the word of God to bear in all the situations we find ourselves in. We too should always be ready to oppose what is false and evil, and to encourage others to hear the Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and still waters… the right paths for His Name’s sake….
This is the way everything is meant to work together… pastors, teachers, deacons, etc. – and laity – all sharing the work of God together…
Ephesians 4 says:
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
Maturity is a wonderful thing. And yet sometimes people think this means always being happy and going from one victory to another. Also, sometimes the impression is given that this means perpetual busyness in church programs or that the only reason we have our vocations is so that we can evangelize other people, almost like a bait and switch to sell people Jesus.[iv]
People forget Martin Luther’s advice for the cobbler to excel in his vocation, which would mean making the best shoes possible – or to see changing a baby’s diaper as a great work.
We should glorify God in the ordinary, whether we eat, drink, or in whatever we do!
Brothers and sisters, we do want to be zealous for God and always eager to proclaim His Name as the opportunities present themselves!
At the same time, also know that we are not yet to the point where God is glorified by all creatures and enjoyed by all creatures, even we who are new creations in Christ! … all the time… where there will be no more tears or thorns or sorrow as we hear about in the book of Revelation!
As Luther puts it, “while worms and rottenness are before our eyes, we cannot be unmindful of them…”
So the travails of life and death continue to happen in this fallen world besieged by sin where also the world continues to get to us… and we fail time and again to stand up to it’s currents, finding ourselves swept away in them time and again…
When the reality of the world’s continuing evil, outside and inside hits us, it is here when we must remember our wise Good Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and still waters…
“In a letter written A.D. 250 by [the pastor] Cyprian to his friend Donatus [he says]: ‘This is a cheerful world as I see it from my garden, under the shadow of the vines. But if I could ascend some high mountain and look very far, what would I see? Brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas, armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters people murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness, and cruelty, misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy that is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians – and I am one of them” (Enc. of sermon illustrations, 1988, #127).
Cyprian speaks of a content, quiet and holy people… attractive in their humility, simplicity, and faith…
And the reason Cyprian could speak as he did had nothing to do with the believer’s own powers from within and from himself but had to do with their Shepherd!
For unlike the kings of old, who also would talk about being shepherds, He won’t just pretend to be both strong and good… but actually is…
And again, He has provided strong and good men – men strong in the Holy Spirit that is – to guide us still this day!
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
And when they fail, when we fail, He is there to pick us all up again
Because of Him,
“Faith should begin to forget tears and dishonor which it does not see. Although the eyes see the rottenness, the ears hear the complaints and sobs, and the noses smell the stench of the corpses, nevertheless it is the part of faith to say: ‘I do not know this. I see nothing. Indeed, I see a multiplication and brightness surpassing the sun itself and the stars.’ Therefore such examples are set before us in order that we may learn that God is the Creator of all things, restores the dead to life and glorifies words and the foulest bitterness. And He wants this to be acknowledged and celebrated by us in this life of faith. Later, however, in the future life, we shall experience it in actual fact…” (AE 7:210-1).
So far Martin Luther.
Hold firm, little flock!
God Himself will not buy His church with His own blood and then fail to shepherd it with His good gifts – reliably and safely through life’s storms and curses – to life eternal… with green pastures, still waters and more forever!
So little sheep, hear the Shepherd’s voice now!
Remember that His blood applies to all your sins – those you know and those you don’t – and gives you the sparkling white robe by which you stand at true peace in God’s presence, now and forever!
He loves you. So be brave and bold as you face this broken world.
[i] And so, the Apostle John, privy to the great vision set before him in the book of Revelation, states to us:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’”
“All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’”
I wonder if this image may not be as impressive or arresting to many of the young people today as it has been in the past… given the endlessly fascinating rhetoric, special effects, and dramatic visuals that dominate our world…
Nevertheless, the picture behind these simple words can still and will captivate the heart of faith…
The hearts of men and women who know that they are but grass, and this life but a breath….
And that they are, at bottom, exceedingly stupid sheep blessed to have a very wise and strong Shepherd.
[ii] It was a short devotion from the 1960s book, My Hand in His, from the popular Lutheran pastor Herman Gockel (some of you might remember the old show This is the Life – he played a large role in this). I’ll read it here:
“It happened many years ago. A group of well-educated people were gathered at the home of a friend for a sociable evening. Among them was a popular actor of the day.
During the course of the evening the actor was asked to give a reading, and he obliged by reading the Twenty-third Psalm. All were impressed by his deep, rich voice, his clear enunciation, and the rhythmic rise and fall of the well-measured tones as they came from his lips. Here was an artist!
After he had finished, the group asked an elderly clergyman to read the psalm. Timidly he declined. But he asked permission to explain certain of its verses, both against their historical and geographical background and in light of their New Testament fulfillment in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
As the clergyman expounded the beautiful psalm, he became more and more absorbed in its message, completely forgetting himself in the process. And at end, almost involuntarily, he quoted the entire psalm – as the humble confession of his believing heart.
Particularly moving was the confidence with which he repeated the words: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.’
The light of faith shone in his eyes as he concluded: ‘Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’
A hush fell over the group as the elderly clergyman sat down. There had been a difference in the two readings of which all were aware. And yet – just what was the difference?
Later that evening one of the company put his finger on the difference when he was heard to observe: ‘The actor knew the Shepherd’s Psalm, but the pastor knew the Shepherd.”
[iii] Overall, his words here are interesting and challenging. Perhaps sometimes they might sound like boasting or humble-bragging to us – or even like he is too militant about His convictions or trying to justify himself too much before these pastors – but I submit that if this is the case for us, it is more a problem with our perceptions than it is any supposed problem with his character…
[iv] People like to riff on Bible passages like this… On a blog post named, again, “Everyone a minister” I read this:
“It’s the less staged activities of the week that really prove where our hearts are investing week after week. I am far from criticizing the Sunday celebration of Christ…. I’m praising that… as wonderful and key to our continued unity and growth, but I’m adding to that our opportunity to respond to the feedings we receive with an insatiable hunger for God’s Word every day in our private and public contexts. May we long for God to show up in our daily interactions and private meditations. May we run in God’s will for our lives, living out what He’s called us to in our homes and work place contexts. May we delight in Him so much that we can’t help but  rise with His praise on our lips, serve with His joy in our hearts and His compassion burning in our chests, and prepare for sleep each night with prayers of thanks and requests for all the more grace. This isn’t a ‘ministry’ for us that is fake and [a] dirty religion of pretenses. This is the only true religion that we are more passionate about than any of the false religions’ followers. Our zeal is an eternal one and our passion an imitation of Christ’s passion for us shown on the cross. We run in His grace and favor on our lives, looking to Christ, seeking His heart, enjoying His strength to grow in grace and show grace to the lost and found in our lives every week.”[iv]
On the one hand, I think this kind of talk can be encouraging and inspirational. Would that we would be increasingly captivated and delighted to be Christ’s followers!
At the same time, this can sound exhausting and discouraging as well… and perhaps, in some circumstances, has the potential to drive some folks to only pretend they are “pulling it off,” maybe faking it until they can make it in their Christians duties…
And sometimes, a danger that exists among those who always emphasize this is that, at the very least, impressions can be given that the only reason we have our vocations is to, for example, evangelize lost people.
…and there are no doubt times when words like those we hear above can be no real comfort to us, but might leave us feeling hollow, fake, and spent…