Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Sunday, May 12, 2019

Text: Ezekiel 34:25-31

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Dear Friends in Christ,  Within the church, today is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday.  And, as most everybody knows both inside and outside of the church, today is also Mother’s Day.  Can we make an unforced connection between the two?  I believe we can. 

While sin can and, sadly, does at times lessen the ideal, generally speaking the emotional tie between a mother and her child or a child (especially a young child) and his or her mother is often held up as the most endearing, genuine and deepest expression of love.  Whenever poets and wordsmiths want to convey the definitive image of tenderness or the purest form of love, they often invoke the concept of motherlove. The depth of motherlove, celebrated by our nation today, is commonly understood.  It also provides the connection with today’s emphasis in the church.  Because as great as that mother-child bond may be, there is an even greater and deeper love that exists.  It is the love God has for his children.   That’s us.   

The Bible states the reality of God’s love for us countless times.  Those who were raised in a Christian home grew up committing to memory passages like John 3:16 and repeatedly hearing the simple but profound pronouncement in 1st John that “God is love.”  Beyond the many clear declarations, Scripture also conveys God’s love for us through a variety of images and illustrations.  And one of the most endearing and tender is an image of

THE SHEPHERD AND HIS FLOCK

That’s what we have before us in our text, and that’s the image we want to explore and unpack on this Good Shepherd Sunday.  Because within that imagery we’ll find deep spiritual truth, as well as unlimited comfort, joy and peace. First let me give you a little background for the words we have before us. Ezekiel lived and worked as a spokesman to God’ people approximately 600 years before the birth of Christ.  It was a difficult time in their history.  They had been conquered by the world power at that time and were now living as exiles in the strange and distant land of Babylon. 

They longed to be home.  At the time of our text the people had just received word that the beautiful Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  This was devastating.  And while they longed to be home, they wondered what exactly home would be like now, and what the future held for them.  The national mood was what we might expect in these circumstances.  They were down, dejected and sad – all of which was compounded by the fact they had no one to blame but themselves.  In the face of repeated warning by many different prophets, they had allowed themselves to be influenced by faithless and self-serving religious and political leaders who led them away from God.  Finally, God’s patience with them ran out.  And in came the Babylonians.

But God is love.  And he is faithful to his people, even if they are faithless to him.  So, amid this national mourning God instructs Ezekiel to bring them a message of comfort and hope.  Things will change.  The problems will be identified and addressed through repentance, restoration and recommitment to the One True God.  As for the faithless spiritual leaders; they will be held accountable.  Most significantly, they will all be replaced by the ultimate spiritual leader, a shepherd-king, who will come from the line of David.  Keep your eyes on him, says God, and regardless of your present circumstances, things will get better – if not outwardly, inwardly.  Spiritually speaking, this Shepherd-king will protect you and lead you home.  We know that Shepherd-king to be the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Ezekiel assures God’s people a time of peace was on the horizon.   He speaks of it in terms they could understand and envision.  Ideal farming conditions.  The absence of all deterrents.  Abundant crops.  Good weather. National safety and security. 

Why the turnaround?  Because of something within them?  No, because of something within God.  These are God’s people.  Of them, he declares: “You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God” – words reminiscent of how Jesus describes himself as our Good Shepherd.  So, let’s talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd; in particular, the Good Shepherd

  1. Who reads us

  2. Feeds us

  3. And leads us

After you react to something in a certain way or get a certain look on your face or, have you ever had someone close to you say, “I can read you like a book?” What they meant was that they think they know you very well.  In fact, they may follow up with a second phrase: “I know you better than you know yourself.”  As it applies to a people, no matter how well they know each other, this, is an exaggeration.  But as it applies to the Good Shepherd and us, his sheep, it is not.  Our Good Shepherd can read us like a book.  Our Good Shepherd does know us better than we know ourselves.  Think of what this means for us.

He knows when we are troubled or scared or disillusioned or weary.  He knows our needs, our fears and our insecurities.  We might want to put up a cheerful front or construct a brave façade before others, but the Good Shepherd knows what really is going on in our lives.  And, like a Good Shepherd, he cares about us. So, he invites us to come to him for solutions.  When we are weary, he says find rest in me and my promises.  When we are scared, he says “have no fear, little flock.  I’m here.”  When we are insecure, he reminds us that we are loved with an everlasting love.  When we are disillusioned, he tells us to view life from the perspective of the eternity that is ours and not get mired down in the temporal.

Most importantly, he just loves us even though we are who we are – sheep.  This is not always a complimentary description.  Let me expand on that by sharing a personal experience.  If you grew up on a farm or around animals (I didn’t), you’ll know what I’m about to say.

I once had the opportunity to spend time in a sheep barn on a cold day in March in that part of the country we simply call “the prairie.”  What becomes immediately clear well before opening the door and then becomes excruciatingly clear once you’re in the barn is this truth:  Sheep stink.  There’s just no polite way of saying it.  Shearing comes in the spring, but before they get their annual haircuts these animals have accumulated a year’s worth of wool that is dirty and matted and not very pleasant because of the mud and other stuff they’ve been rolling around in.  After shearing and washing it’s a different story.  And herein lays the analogy:

As sinful creatures, we are by nature just like those sheep.  Keying off a phrase used a number of times in the Bible, we can accurately describe our sin as being a stench in the nostrils of God.  On our own we do not offer up a pleasing aroma to God.  Just the opposite. The good news of the Gospel is that our Good Shepherd has changed all this for us.  Earlier in John chapter 10 (from which our Gospel lesson for today is taken), Jesus makes this proclamation: “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  And that is what Jesus did.  All the accumulated filth and sin that clings to us like dirty, matted wool has been sheared off by the cross of Calvary.  We have been washed clean in the blood of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist put it.  Or as we sing in the Lenten hymn: 

“What punishment so strange is suffered yonder! 

The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander…”

Our Good Shepherd reads us like a book.  He knows our needs – the greatest of which is the need for forgiveness, which he provided us through his life, death and resurrection.  And he’ll provides for every need as well.  That brings us comfort.

Our Good Shepherd also feeds us. 

Part of a shepherd’s responsibility is to make sure that the flock has an adequate supply of food so they can grow and become stronger and prosper and produce.  So, he finds pasture for them.  Ours does the same. The pasture our Good Shepherd provides is that rich banquet we call his Word.  This is where the flock of God grazes and feeds and finds strength.  The Gospel message in Word and Sacrament is food for our souls.  Consequently, there is a direct correlation between our spiritual health, strength and vitality and the amount of time we spend with our Good Shepherd.  If we find ourselves feeling spiritually weak or lethargic, there’s probably a reason.  Most likely we’re not eating healthy, or enough.  There is a big difference between periodic snacking in the Scriptures and a sustained, consistent and disciplined grazing in the green pastures of the Word.  This is where our Good Shepherd richly and daily feeds us, and this is how we stay strong and healthy.

Our Good Shepherd reads us, and he feeds us.  He also leads us.

You don’t need me to tell you that there is a lot of uncertainty in life.  Things can and do change quickly, and sometimes we may not always understand why.  But this we do know:  Our Good Shepherd is in the lead.  And that brings us great consolation. It is important for us to understand that having our Good Shepherd in the lead does not necessarily translate into ease of life.  In fact, sometimes just the opposite happens.  Staying with the imagery, there are times when the shepherd must lead his flock over steep hills and difficult valleys and treacherous terrain – all for the ultimate benefit of the sheep and in order to get them to where they need to be.

Which means we may have those times in our lives.  Difficult times.  Hard times.  Seemingly uncertain times.  Most of us learned early on that being a lamb of God does not make us immune from tragedy or illness or pain or loss.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Why?  Does the Good Shepherd take his eye off the flock occasionally?  Does he periodically get distracted by other monumental cosmic tasks? No.  He simply leads and cares for each sheep according to its individual needs.

The definitive place of peace and rest is, of course, in heaven.  That is where our Shepherd knows we need to be.  There we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  There we will enjoy “the marriage supper of the Lamb.”  There we will worship “the Lamb at the center of the throne.”  There we experience no more mourning or crying or pain – because the Lamb of God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. That is what is at the end of our Good Shepherd’s lead.  Therefore, of this we are confident:  wherever and in whatever paths he may lead our lives now, we know it is in conformity with that big picture.

So, we follow on.  Guided by Christ.  Firm in his Word.  Secure in his promise.  And always safe in his lead…

At the beginning of this sermon we mentioned there are many images and pictures that depict God’s love for his people.  But perhaps none is as comforting as the Good Shepherd.  Because this means that each of us, no matter how old we are, can say: “I am Jesus little lamb” – and rejoice in everything that goes along with that precious declaration.  Amen.