We are sheep, and in this life we will have one of two shepherds: the wolf or the Good Shepherd. The Lord describes life in the devil’s flock earlier in Ezekiel 34, just before today’s Old Testament reading. In that section the Lord faults Israel’s pastors, and as he faults them we see how the devil had been at work: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought.”
We see from this that the devil weakens sheep, makes them sick, injures them, leads them astray, and ultimately makes them perish. We can picture the analogy, but what does it look like as applied to people?
The devil weakens some people by bludgeoning their consciences with his accusations. He brings up current or past sins (it makes no difference to him) and through this torment of the conscience, the devil seeks to bring people to utter despair. He leads them to doubt the forgiveness of sins and lose all hope of being saved. This often leads to a weakened will as well. Those with bad consciences continue to go against the conscience when it tries to tell them what’s right. If someone feels bad already, why would he worry about feeling a little worse? Thus the devil makes some people weak.
Others the devil makes sick. Sickness is a malfunction of the flesh. This can refer to bodily health, but we also use the term in connection with health of the soul or heart. I think we’ve all heard about some perverted behavior or action and thought, “That’s sick!” This is the sort of sickness that the devil tries to spread among man. He drives people to love sin. He panders to men’s perverted hearts and praises all things perverse.
Still others the devil injures. By harsh temptations and spiritual attacks the devil succeeds in making some people fall. And he tries to get people to fall in life-altering ways, to commit sins from which there seems no hope of recovery. Then he tries to capitalize on these sins to hurt others and scar them. The scars of past injuries bring their own problems for all involved: grudge and bitterness and hatred.
The devil desires to lead all men astray with false teaching. He tries to represent God’s Word as harmful, restricting, outdated, unreasonable.
And ultimately the devil seeks to make sheep lost sheep. Now the word “lost” in Scripture does not mean misplaced. The Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “lost” are the same words that get translated as “perishing” or “being destroyed.” The bad shepherd’s goal is to make his perishing flock perish eternally.
This is the flock to which all people belong by nature. We ourselves belonged to the devil’s flock before the Good Shepherd rescued us and took us for his own. But another shepherd has arrived. “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This good shepherd is our Lord Jesus Christ. He showed himself to be the good shepherd when he became a sheep like us. John the Baptist calls Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus came amongst the devil’s flock in our wool, to speak in this Sunday’s terms. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He became like you to save you. Jesus endured the devil’s whips and teeth, though he certainly didn’t deserve them. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, your substitute, the one who atones for your sins. Isaiah writes of him in chapter 53, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” The shepherd took up the staff of his cross, and the Lamb of God became the Lamb who is slain. The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
And Jesus spoke with these exact words for a reason. His life was not taken from him: he laid down his life. Jesus explains this in the verses immediately after today’s Gospel reading, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, and he has taken it up again. The Lord is risen! We are redeemed to be sheep of the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lives to be our shepherd. And what does the good shepherd do? You heard in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” In short, Jesus undoes the work of the devil and cares for you in every way imaginable.
But again the Scripture passage is speaking by way of analogy. What does it actually look like? Jesus shepherds us with his Word. And the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd, as Jesus says in John 10, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” And this voice is not some secret whispering in the heart, but the clear sound of Holy Scripture and the faithful proclamation of it.
His Word is the answer to all our misgivings. When I was describing life in the devil’s flock, no doubt there were some things to which you could relate, whether it be pangs of conscience or sick desires or scars of past sins. Do not take these things to mean that you belong to the devil, but when confronted with these things, flee to Christ and hear his Word.
By his Word Jesus seeks the lost, the perishing. His Gospel has pulled us back from the brink of hell, and we are his. By his Word Jesus brings back the strayed. He sets forth true religion and combats heresy and false teaching. By his Word Jesus binds up the injured. He heals old wounds and dispels hatred, and makes us stand in the midst of temptation. By his Word Jesus heals the sick. He diagnoses our sins as deadly diseases, and he removes our sins from us by the power of his redemption. By his Word Jesus strengthens the weak. He comforts the troubled conscience, and gives hope and salvation, and grants resolve and desire to keep his commandments. Jesus shepherds us by his Word.
And we are his sheep. It’s not the most flattering way to think of ourselves. Sheep are stupid. Left to themselves they’ll quickly perish. They’re not strong to resist predators. They’ll fall into a ravine sooner than they’ll find their own nourishment. A sheep without a shepherd is a sheep as good as dead. Not a flattering image, but an accurate one.
Yet sheep do one thing very well. They quickly learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd and they will follow him wherever he goes. We may be dumb, helpless brutes, but we are dumb helpless brutes who know the Word of our Savior. His Word leads us. His Word forgives our sins. His Word is our green pasture.
But where do we find this green pasture? Where is the good shepherd’s flock to be found on earth? This is the same as asking, “Where is the Church to be found on earth?” Certainly we confess one holy Christian and apostolic Church comprised of all those from every time and every place who believe in Jesus. But the Church in this form does not physically gather at a single church building on a Sunday morning. This one Church can’t be seen on earth. We believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church; it’s an article of faith, not sight.
How then do we go about looking for the Church? The one Church is manifest on earth in the form of congregations. And how do we know which congregation we ought to attend? We must ask, “At which congregation do I hear the voice of Jesus? Where is a faithful pastor who preaches God’s Word in its truth and purity? Where are faithful saints who flee the voice of strangers and run away from false teaching? Where is the pure Gospel preached, and where are the Sacraments administered according to Jesus’ institution?” That’s the place where you’ll find the green pastures.
The alternative is not pretty. In John 10 Jesus warns against the hirelings who care nothing for the sheep. He warns against the thieves and robbers who come by their own ways and not according to Christ, who is the Way. He warns against the wolf who snatches and scatters.
Or as Jesus warns in Matthew 7, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Beware of those who pervert the Sacraments into works of men. Beware of those who teach the commandments of God but do not proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. And the reverse: beware of those who avoid talking about sin and repentance and reduce the Gospel to self-help advice. Beware of those who would take advantage of you for earthly gain. Beware of those who approve of the world’s sins and blatantly practice against God’s Word. Avoid these things, and if you unexpectedly find yourself in the midst of them, leave your cloak in the hand of Potiphar’s wife and run for your life. “For you were”―were―“straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
And where would we rather be? The wolf holds no appeal for us, especially when we consider what gracious promises we have from our Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Praise be to Christ. Amen.