It is dangerous to be a Christian. The Apostle Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). The Apostle John writes, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13). And the Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 44, which has to do with life as a Christian, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36, Ps. 44:22). It is dangerous to be a Christian.
But what is the greatest danger for us as Christians? Is it the devil? Jesus describes the devil as a wolf who attacks the sheep. He lurks and sneaks and lies and seeks to pervert the Word of Christ. The devil sets up hirelings, that is, pastors who don’t bother themselves with preaching God’s Word, who teach whatever they think will make people like them, who forsake sound teaching whenever it would bring unpleasant results – in short, hirelings fleece the sheep and take advantage of them rather than taking care of them. The devil sets up false prophets who teach lies in God’s name. The devil himself seeks to murder you in your sleep, drive you to insanity or despair, and strip you of faith. And you’ve spit in his face, saying when you were baptized that you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways. He is an angry wolf, and you have him for your worst enemy.
But the devil is not the greatest danger for us Christians. What is the greatest danger? Is it the world? As sheep we live in a world full of brambles. There are branches everywhere that look appetizing, that have nice leaves and ripe berries, and are full of thorns and will entangle you in the thicket and kill you. To put it plainly, you face temptation on every side in this world: temptation to rebellion, temptation to anger, temptation to bitterness, temptation to lust, temptation to covet, temptation to all manner of sin. And besides temptation, the world is simply hostile toward you as Christians. The world demands that you conform to its wickedness, and threatens various punishments if you do not comply. The world is a very dangerous place.
Yet the world is not the greatest danger for us Christians. What, then, is the greatest danger? What about the sinful nature? The devil and the world are outside of you, but your sinful nature is a corruption within your flesh. Thus you lament with Paul in Romans 7, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Yet this doesn’t excuse our sin. As far as the outcome is concerned, it doesn’t matter that sheep go astray by nature. The thorny ditch doesn’t care that the sheep has fallen into it by nature. The wild beast doesn’t care that the sheep wandered near its den by nature. The simple fact is, there lies the sheep: bloody, gasping, and barely alive. So what if the sheep ended up there by nature? All that means is that it has no one to blame but itself. Your sinful nature is thus a very great danger.
But the sinful nature is not the greatest danger for us Christians. And how is it that we poor, little sheep can brush off such great enemies as the wolfish devil and the wild world and the straying flesh? How is it that these things do not strike terror in our hearts? There is one simple reason why we can rest secure in the face of the devil, world, and flesh, and that is, we have a Good Shepherd. On our own, we are nothing, and are doomed, and would have already been murdered physically and be suffering eternally. But we have a Good Shepherd. We have Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.
What can the wolf do when our shepherd is near? Jesus is no hireling. When he sees the wolf coming he doesn’t run away. Quite the opposite. The Good Shepherd became the Lamb of God. He assumed our human nature, a sinless human nature, and he sought out the devil. Jesus knew how this meeting with the wolf was going to go. Jesus plainly says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd was going to die in his conflict with the wolf. Yet Jesus knew that the devil was going to have the worst of it. And Jesus knew that he himself would return to life, as he says just after today’s reading, “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.”
And that’s how it went. The Good Shepherd took up the staff of his cross and bashed in the devil’s head with it. In the process Jesus became the slain Lamb, who was the sacrifice for us, his sheep. Now Jesus has risen from the dead to be our shepherd forevermore, and as he says of his sheep in John 10, “no one will snatch them out of my hand.” The devil still lurks about, mortally wounded. He still lies and deceives, but he cannot snatch us. He cannot steal us away from Jesus. He can tempt us to hate the Word of Christ. He can entice us to leave our Good Shepherd. He can bombard us with hirelings and false prophets, but he has no actual power over us. All his force is nothing against Christ’s little flock, not because we’re made of such stern stuff, but because Christ stands at the head of his flock, and the devil cannot contend with him.
So you see that the devil is no danger at all, so long as Jesus is our Shepherd. The world likewise is no longer a scary place. Jesus guides us by his Word, as he says in John 10, “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” The world would be an incredibly hazardous place in which to live if we were left to our own devices. There are dead end paths, snares and briars, temptations and threats, thieves and beasts. Who knows in what rocky abyss our bones would be scattered if we sheep had to journey through this world by ourselves. We would quickly lose sight of the right path, fail to distinguish right and wrong, follow temptation, fall to sin, and end in death.
But Jesus goes before us and guides us by his Word. He points out the right path, the path of his commandments, the path of faith and love. Jesus alerts us to the dangers on the right hand and on the left. Jesus speaks in his Scriptures and in sermons to conduct us through this world. And we’ll never know in this life how many times some danger was about to take us unaware and our Lord intervened, stood in the breach, and fended it off with his staff. We catch glimpses here and there of how dangerous a place this world is, and those are terrifying times. It seems life itself hangs by a thread or calamity like a thunderhead is about to rain fire and sulphur on us. Jesus occasionally lets us see the dangers that loom about us, not to terrify us, but to demonstrate his loving care and protection. If he allowed us to see everything that stood against us, we would die of fright. But a glimpse here and there is sufficient for him to prove that he is with us still. In such times he gives us confidence to say, “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.”
So the world has lost its danger as well, so long as Christ is our Shepherd. And the sinful flesh likewise in Christ holds no peril. We do still by nature have a tendency to go astray. But with our Good Shepherd we have the forgiveness of sins. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” it says in Isaiah 53; “we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” For his little lambs our Shepherd became a Lamb, and was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as the Lamb of God he took away the sin of the world. The Shepherd seeks the sheep that has gone astray and when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Our Shepherd bears your sins and he bears you on his shoulders, and he rejoices to do it, because it means your salvation.
Certainly the forgiveness of sins is not a license to sin. Some crass people say, “I love to sin, and Jesus loves to forgive.” In truth, such people don’t care that they’re sinning at all, and deceive themselves with false comfort. The forgiveness of sins is a comfort for those who recognize their sins. If we claim we’re sinless, we lead ourselves astray, and that’s the truly dangerous sort of straying. But if we recognize and confess our sins, then our straying is easily mended. Jesus has shed his blood once for all and covers over all iniquity and transgression and sin. We confess with the psalmist in Psalm 119, “ I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” And Jesus says, “Yes, I do seek you. I seek you with my Word, with my Absolution to take away your sins. I seek you through my ministers and comfort you with my Gospel. Your sins are forgiven, and I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
Therefore, the sinful nature is not our greatest danger, neither is the devil nor the world. With Jesus as our Good Shepherd these things are no dangers at all. So what is the greatest danger for us Christians? The greatest danger for us Christians is to be without our Shepherd. And since Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us, our greatest danger is to forsake him. If we depart from him, if we stop listening to his Word, if we learn to despise his Sacraments and shut the doors of our ears against the mouths of Christ’s ministers, then the devil, world, and flesh regain their danger, and we get death and hell along with them.
So keep listening to the voice of your Good Shepherd. Keep hearing the Word of Christ. Flock to the green pastures and still waters. Graze at the table that Jesus has prepared for you, where your cup runneth over. The devil would love it if you thought of listening to the Word of Jesus as a bore or a chore. The devil would love it if you only thought of the Word as that thing that cuts you to the heart. The devil would love it if you learned to scorn the Word simply because it seems despicable and unpopular in the eyes of the world. Yes, the devil wants to make Christ seem like a dull professor, or a cruel taskmaster, or a has-been, instead of your Good Shepherd.
But consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 11, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus is a pleasant Shepherd for his sheep. He brings you into the fold of his Church and nurtures you kindly and guides you by the Word of his cross and feeds you with his own body and blood. Jesus is not a bore, and he is not cruel, and his honor never passes away. He is our Savior, who has redeemed us from every evil. Remember, all other dangers are no danger at all, so long as we have Christ as our Shepherd, to whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.