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Sermon for Misericordias Domini

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ May 10th, 2011

Sermon on St. John 10:11-16 and Psalm 23

Easter II

“I am the good shepherd” – John 10:11

What was the most popular image of Christ in early Christian art? The crucifix? The risen Christ? No. Rather, the most prominent image of Christ in the early days of the church was the Good Shepherd. Today’s gospel lesson, combined with the familiar Psalm 23, will teach us what it means to believe in Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd.”

The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want. Shepherding was pretty low on the vocational ladder in the ancient world. Shepherds were the entry-level, blue collar workers of their day. They got their hands dirty, lived off the land, and worked the “graveyard shift” in good and bad weather. But for the believers, shepherding was a respected job precisely because shepherds dedicated their lives to helping the sheep, yes, they were even willing to die for the sheep. Think of the list of OT and NT heroes who were shepherds: Moses and David in the OT, the shepherds of the Christmas story in the NT, and, of course, Jesus’ claim in today’s propers to be the Good Shepherd. He is the One who leads us to green pastures where we spend a lifetime receiving what today’s Introit calls the “goodness of the Lord” or misericordias Domini. The word “goodness” doesn’t quite capture the fullness of the word misericordias. It means the lovingkindness, the heart-felt kindness, or even the merciful kindness of the Lord. It proclaims the Lord who pours out His entire self for us, from His merciful heart to our hearts, all moved by love. To say, “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” is to say that you and I, as God’s sheep, live in the presence of our Good Shepherd, who daily and richly feeds us all of His gifts.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. The talk of green pastures and still waters describes Jesus’ keeping us in safety and security. Sheep cannot care for themselves and are often the victims of attacks from wolves and other dangerous animals. Shepherds will testify that a lost sheep will lie down and refuse to budge. Sheep need a shepherd and without the shepherd they surely die. And so Christ leads us through the dangerous pastures dangers of sin, death, and the devil; He leads us away from the seductive yet poisonous waters of false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and He brings us to the green pastures of the church, the place where He lives with us and gives us all His gifts. Martin Luther says in the Large Catechism that the Holy Spirit makes us Christians by placing us in the bosom of the church and preaching Christ to our ears. And He leads us beside the still waters of baptism, the place where He first made us His sheep and promised to keep us in safety all the days of our lives. And when we stray from the waters of our baptism by neglecting the church and her means of grace, our Shepherd faithfully seeks us out, places us on His shoulders, and brings us back to those baptismal waters in repentance.

He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. The talk of restoring the soul and the paths of righteousness is an OT way of describing the forgiveness of sins. He takes our souls out of death and out of sin and restores them to life with God by forgiving our sins. As we hear from our pastors, our undershepherds, in the word of absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” Indeed, one German word for the ministry means “one who cares for the soul.” And that’s what the church has for you – Christ’s gifts for healing and restoring your soul before God, as the “Create in Me” that we are about to sing describes so beautifully. Forgiven and restored, Christ leads us in the path of righteousness or forgiveness all the days of our lives. The path or road of righteousness is the way of daily repentance and faith in Christ. Daily die to sin, confess your faults, and crucify everything in you that is not of Christ. And daily rejoice in the forgiveness of sins that is yours from Christ, your Good Shepherd.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Many of us no doubt grew up singing the children’s hymn, “I am Jesus’ little lamb; Ever glad at heart I am; For my Shepherd gently guides me, knows my need and thus provides me, Loves me every day the same, Even calls me by my name.” Nothing wrong with that, I suppose; it’s a serene, child-like image of sheep safely grazing in the presence of their loving shepherd. However, the talk in Psalm 23 of “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” teaches us that the gentle shepherd imagery is but one role of our Shepherd. He is also a Warrior, One who is ready to fight against the Satanic wolf and any other danger; yes, One who is willing to suffer all, even death, rather than lose even one of his sheep. Listen to the battle imagery in the words of the hymn, “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe”: “Tho’ hidden yet from mortal eyes, His Gideon shall for your arise” and “Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare, Fight for us once again!” Christ is our Gideon, our Warrior who leads us into battle against insurmountable odds; and He is our Captain, who fights for us in the valley of the shadow of death and wins the victory by His own blood.

For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. The rod and the staff were really two ways of using the same tool. Shepherds use a large staff with a rounded end. And just as parents use the same hand to discipline or to hug, so the shepherd uses the same staff in two ways. We call them “law and gospel.” If we wander away from the green pastures of the church and into the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd uses the rod of the law to rebuke us for our own good and to discipline us with His Ten Commandments. He seeks us out, exposes our sin, and reveals how we have trusted in ourselves more than God; broken God’s command to reserve His name for worship; despised His Sabbath and blown off the means of grace; placed our service to the church ahead of God’s service to us; dishonored the authorities in our lives and obeyed our own instincts; stolen honor from our neighbor in word and deed; and coveted gifts that our Shepherd has not given to us. He seeks us out, taps us with the rod of the Law (corporeal punishment is a good thing in His pasture) and says, “Repent!”

But the proper and greater work of our Shepherd is to use the staff of the Gospel to preach the word of the cross and resurrection to our ears. Here we must pause and consider two contrasting ideas in John’s Gospel: to scatter and to gather. Just before His Passion, Jesus said, “I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” That is to say, “I [God the Father] will strike the Shepherd [God the Son] and the sheep of the flock [i.e., the church] will be scattered.” And so God the Father sent God the Son to His Passion, where He was crucified, dead, and buried for the sheep. Meanwhile, most of His sheep scattered to dark corners of Jerusalem, fleeing in fear and then hiding in the upper room. Yes, the Good Shepherd did it all for the sheep. But, during this Easter season, we remember Jesus’ words, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will gather all men to myself.” That is to say, in the wake of His death and resurrection, the Good Shepherd would appear to many, prove that He is the Son of God, and gather His church from the ends of the earth. And here, in the safety of His presence, we who are otherwise scattered and killed, are gathered in the presence of the Good Shepherd to receive life in His name.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over. A table. Anointing oil. A cup. What does this make you think of? The Lord’s Supper, of course! To be sure, the Psalmist knew the Passover meal, not the NT meal. But as with any other image of salvation in the OT, it is fulfilled in Christ. I hope you thought of the holy chalice this morning as you sang Psalm 23 from the beautiful and timeless Anglican chant Psalms in the back of our hymnal (TLH #662). And see who prepares the table: the Lord Himself! For He is the One who gave His body and blood into death, and then left it as a meal of salvation for you. He uses the hands of the pastor and the altar guild to prepare the table, but He Himself is the host, the guest, and the main entree. Moreover, it is set “in the presence of mine enemies.” That is to say, Satan does his best work in the church. This table is set in the midst of sin, death, and the devil all around us. So the image here is sheep who eat in a pasture surrounded by wolves and hirelings. Yet here is the table of the Lord’s Supper, the cup of life, the oil of gladness, all set for you in the midst of sin and death.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This verse reminds us that Jesus’ gifts are not just for today, but last forever. Christ is our shepherd. We are His sheep. As the Father knows the Son, so the Son knows the Father and he knows us – yes, He knows your weaknesses, your fears, and your concerns. So He gives us His goodness and mercy. And those gifts are with us each and every day of our life. There is an interesting word-play in the Hebrew of this verse. One would expect the talk of “following” in the shepherd’s Psalm to say that sheep follow their shepherd. And this is true – sheep do follow their shepherd. But here we learn that goodness and mercy follow the sheep. So wherever we go, however far we stray, however guilt-ridden we are with our sins of the past, the goodness and mercy of the crucified One follow us all the days of our life. His grace outweighs our sin. His gospel cancels our guilt. And even in the hour of death, his goodness and mercy will take us through death to everlasting life where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In the church’s rite of ordination (being ordered into the office of the holy ministry), a shepherd’s staff is sometimes placed in the pastor’s right hand with the admonition to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. One early Christian order, known as The Apostolic Constitution, includes the following prayer for the undershepherd’s faithfulness to the Good Shepherd: “Father, who knows the heart, grant that your servant whom you have chosen may feed your flock and exercise your sovereign priesthood without blame, serving you day and night.” The placing of the shepherd’s staff in the right hand of the newly ordained in the presence of the flock is going to serve teaches us a profound lesson about Christ and His great I AM statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The reason for existence of the church and its ministry is to feed the flock of God which He purchased with His own blood. And as Christ feeds His flock and exercises His priesthood through the pastoral office, He leads you beside the waters of baptism, He restores your soul in the word of absolution, and He feeds you at the table set with His true body and blood. INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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