Sheep May Safely Graze

Rev. Marcus Zill

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The King of Love My Shepherd Is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His,
And He is mine forever.
(LSB #709:1)

Words we love based on the most beloved of all Psalms. Words that may seem a little lacking to some who are despairing after the horrific massacre in Blacksburg, VA this last Monday.

But words that bring comfort even in the midst of despair because Christ is the Good Shepherd.

What is the difference between a hireling and the Good Shepherd? Put simply it is this: For the hireling, the sheep are expendable, while the Good Shepherd makes Himself expendable for the sheep. The hireling has no attachment to the sheep except insofar as they are a source of income. If the sheep have to be sacrificed to save his life, so be it. Not so for the Good Shepherd, for He is willing to do the unthinkable. He lays down His life for the sheep.

When the hireling sees the bare teeth of the wolf and hears its hungry growl, he deserts the flock. Better to run than be mauled or killed by a ravenous wolf. Better to sacrifice a sheep or two - even the whole flock - than to risk life or limb for animals who aren't worth that much anyway. Sheep are replaceable and human life is not, so goes the pragmatic logic of the hireling. "After all," he reasons, "the sheep don't belong to me and my boss would never expect me to die trying to protect them." So when the wolf encircles the flock, the hireling retreats. The sheep are left without defense and become easy prey for the wolf. Their legs are not fast enough to run away from the predator and their teeth are no match for the strong jaws of the wolf. They cannot save themselves, and so, the wolf enjoys a nice mutton dinner.

But the Good Shepherd is different. He is the Good Shepherd. He is not merely a shepherd who does the good things that shepherds are expected to do like grazing the sheep, making sure that they have fresh water, tending their wounds, and protecting them from rustlers and wild animals. Jesus is our Good Shepherd in the way of Good Friday. He lays down His life for the sheep.

Our Good Shepherd puts Himself in between His sheep and the open jaws of that very hound of hell, Satan himself. Jesus throws Himself into Satan's teeth. His body is mauled and His flesh is torn by the very predator who seeks to feed on us.

But when Satan sinks his teeth into the Lamb of God, he bites into the One who will break his jaw. He bites into the flesh of the Good Shepherd who came to destroy the work of the devil. By His death our Good Shepherd defeats death and the devil. Jesus is that Good Shepherd. He is God in the flesh, come to seek and to save the lost.

In the Old Testament God so often describes Himself as a shepherd. You heard that description again today in the Old Testament Reading from Ezekiel where God promises that He will depose the false shepherds of Israel who scattered the flock and fed off the sheep. God says: "Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day."

David, who himself was a shepherd, confesses in that most beloved of Psalms, Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd." Jesus is that shepherd. He IS the shepherd who comes to be with His sheep even in the midst of the kind of tragedy we have seen this past week. He comes for His Sheep - to feed them, to lead them, to comfort them. Yes, He does all of this. He feeds us with His own body and blood at the table He prepares for us in the presence of all our enemies - sin, death, and the devil himself. He leads us with His words that are spirit and life. He comforts us with His presence as He gives us His name in Holy Baptism. Standing behind everything that our Good Shepherd does for us - the feeding, the leading, and the comforting - is His cross. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.

Jesus was no wimpy hireling. He was no whining coward who ran away when that old evil wolf came seeking to condemn and destroy you with your sin. Our Good Shepherd died, as the great Passion hymns, "O Dearest Jesus" puts it, "for sheep who love to wander." He did not wait for us to find our way out of the wilderness and back to the sheep pen. He came to us in this world of sin and death and He redeemed us by dying on the cross in our place. Such is the love of the Good Shepherd for His sheep. Whatever happened in Blacksburg, VA this past week, or Oklahoma City 12 years ago, or at Columbine High School 8 years ago can't change that.

We often use the traits or characteristics of animals as metaphors for characteristics of human beings. "He is as strong as a horse. She sings like a canary. He is as wise an owl." These are said as compliments. Of course, it cuts the other way, too. "Someone is fat as a cow. He is as dumb as an ox." And what do we say in reference to sheep? He is as smart as a sheep? No, you are more apt to hear something like, "They are as stupid as sheep.

Sheep are notorious for getting themselves into trouble, for straying away, for ending up lost and confused, subjected to danger and unable to take care of themselves.

Jesus pays us no compliment by calling us sheep. But that is, in fact, what we are. By nature we walk away from the Good Shepherd right into the jaws of death. We have, as the Scripture says, like sheep gone astray. It is no temporary disorientation. It is total separation and alienation from the God who alone gives us life. Like dumb sheep, we graze in contentment not realizing that the wolf lurks around ready to attack. Then when he does attack we foolishly run our own way as though we had the ability to escape his grasp. We think that we can find food, only to starve because we refuse the fare that the Good Shepherd has set before us. We are poisoned with the putrid and stagnant water of worldliness with its passing fads that we think will quench our thirst, all the while refusing the streams of living water to which the Good Shepherd beckons us.

But the Good Shepherd still calls and gathers a flock by His Word. He says, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." Today there is a lot of confusion as to just what the church is? But it doesn't have to be that hard to understand. Martin Luther gave us a beautifully simple definition of the church in the Smalcald Articles at another time of such confusion. He said: "...thank God, a seven-year old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Good Shepherd" (Tappert, 315).

That is who we are. The church is where the Good Shepherd is and that is where His sheep may safely graze. Where His voice is sounding in the pure preaching of His Word and in His Baptism and Supper, there you will find the sheep that belong to Jesus.

Look instead at the characteristics of the sheep, and you will be deceived or disappointed. They can be mangy and flea-bitten, not a pretty sight. But our focus is not on the sheep but the Shepherd.

Dear lambs in Christ, in the midst of doubt or despair, keep your ears pealed to the voice of your Good Shepherd, forsake all others, for He alone has the words of eternal life. He has laid down His life for you, and He has taken it back for you. What else is there to fear, for He has shut the jaws of sin, death, and the devil forever. You are indispensible to Him, for Your salvation is His source of joy and His sure promise is this: "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand."

And that my friends. is the difference between a hireling and the Good Shepherd. And this is why seeing Christ as our Good Shepherd is so comforting, because He is just that - Good.

Perhaps the most famous and influential Lutheran musician of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote a beautiful, tranquil piece entitled "Sheep May Safely Graze." How true those four simple words are, because though our risen Savior has ascended to the right hand of the throne of God, He still shepherds us. He has not left His sheep to fend for themselves for food and protection, for the pastures where he leads us today are His means of grace. For what more fertile place could there be then the waters of Holy Baptism, and what greater nourishment could He feed us with than with His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Through these things we recognize Him because in them He recognizes us as His very own. In these Holy things Christ knows His sheep and His sheep know Him. And what a privilege to hear our Shepherd's voice, to hear Him speak to us still, and to know that we can hear it again and again and again.

Yes, it has been a tough week, but the Lord is our Shepherd, my friends, and in Him we lack nothing!

In death's dark vale I fear no ill,
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never.
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever!
(LSB #709:4,6)

...where "sheep may safely graze!"

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Zill is the full time campus pastor at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church & Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He also is the Christ on Campus Executive for Higher Things.

Created: April 22nd, 2007