Under the Protection of the Shepherd – Sermon for April 19/20

Under the Protection of the Shepherd
John 10:11-18
Third Sunday of Easter (Misericordias Domini)
April 19, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  Familiar words. If Family Feud asked 100 people to quote something from the Bible, the opening to Psalm 23 just might be the number one answer.  It seems that everyone, Christian or not, knows the biblical imagery of Jesus as a shepherd.  And the image usually goes something like this: warm, lazy summer day, sun shining, maybe a brook or a steam trickling in the background, harmonizing with the continuo of buzzing bees while birds chirp their descant. It’s enough to lull you to sleep just thinking about it! The focal point of the imagery is always Jesus standing there, holding his little lamb in his arms, smiling, maybe even laughing, enjoying the moment.  It makes shepherding look like the job to have.  It makes the life of a Jesus-the-Good-Shepherdshepherd look pretty cushy.  The Lord is my Shepherd, and he’s sitting back, soaking in the rays, and loving every minute of it.  Leading me beside still waters, making me to lie down in green pastures, restoring my soul.  It’s enough to make anyone want to be a shepherd.  The only problem is, that’s nothing like what the life of a shepherd was actually like. When the Bible calls the Lord our Shepherd, the imagery it is trying to call to mind is quite different.

Shepherding in those days was not as easy as pastoral art would lead us to believe.  It definitely wasn’t just sitting around in the sun while your sheep safely graze.  Shepherding was actually quite dangerous, and definitely not for the faint of heart. One of the main tasks of the shepherd was to protect the sheep from predators like wild dogs or lions.  The shepherd carried a staff not as a walking stick or as something to prop himself up against during the long mundane day, but as a weapon to fight off beasts who would eat his sheep.  The shepherd was a warrior of sorts.  And so David, a young shepherd boy, was able to stand up to the giant Philistine Goliath.  Much like bullseyeing womp rats on Tatooine prepared Luke Skywalker to take out the Death Star, David’s training and experience as a shepherd actually prepared him for battle against a skilled warrior.  He was able to slay the giant with a stone because he was a sniper with the slingshot, an accuracy he had developed with the weapon as a shepherd.  He had to be accurate when protecting his sheep.  If he missed a shot, sheep died.  If sheep died, he was in deep trouble.  Because he was a shepherd, David was also a warrior.  He did not sit back taking naps and soaking in rays while his sheep basically took care of themselves all day long.  Being a shepherd was hard work.

The hired shepherd is surely skilled and capable, but he is not like David.  David was protecting his father’s sheep, protecting his own sheep.  He was sure to do everything possible to protect them.  For the hired hand, however, when things get tough, he runs away.   The hired hand has no real interest in the sheep.  If a lion picks off a sheep, it’s no skin off his back; they’re not his sheep.  It’s not his family or his children or his children’s children who will be affected.  If he loses too many sheep to lions or wolves, he can always get another job.  The hired hand has no real reason to protect the sheep.  His wolfdesire in shepherding is simply to make his job as easy as possible, and fighting a lion to save a sheep is anything but easy.  The hired hand epitomizes the cliché: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Except he gets going the opposite direction.  When the lion attacks, the hired shepherd becomes a lion himself – a cowardly lion who he flees the scene like that fearful feline fled the Wizard of Oz, diving head first through the window, just trying to save his own skin (or fur as the case may be).  The hired shepherd is the same way.  He too flees like a coward when the sheep are in true danger.

The sad thing is, we sinful people often prefer the hired hand to a true shepherd.  We sinful people prefer to entrust ourselves to the hireling who has no vested interest in our wellbeing. We choose this rather than entrusting ourselves to an actual shepherd.  We prefer the hireling because we want control of our own lives, and we can manipulate the hireling, for we pay his salary. We are tempted to find for ourselves someone who will tell us what we long to hear rather than someone who will really guide and protect us by speaking the truth of God’s Word.  We find someone, be it an author whose book we found in the spirituality section at Barns & Noble, a Daytime TV talk show host who likes to pontificate on spiritual matters, or a smooth talker in a nice suit who uses Christian language without saying Christian things. We prefer someone who will allow us to continue along our chosen path, even if that path leads to destruction. Our sinful flesh doesn’t want someone putting us back on the right path; we don’t like to be corrected.   We are like the spoiled child who always demands his own way.  He will not listen to good advice.  He will only listen to the words he wants to hear.  He eats only ice cream and Skittles because he doesn’t like vegetables, but ends up with a stomachache.  He won’t play outside because he thinks watching TV and playing Xbox is more fun, and grows up terribly out of shape.  Is a parent who raises their child by letting the child make all the important decisions for himself truly protecting him?  Yet so often we act like spiritual spoiled brats, listening only to those who tell us what we want to hear, who scratch our selfish itch.  But these things always come back to bite us, for the ultimate problem is sin, and you can’t fix sin by ignoring it, making excuses for it, or explaining it away. There is only one who can protect us from the threat we actually face.

The only true protection comes from the only true Shepherd: Jesus.  Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees.  He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the Good Shepherd.”  The Good Shepherd protects his sheep by waging war against the evils of sin and death.  The Good Shepherd uses his skills of engagement, his warrior capabilities, to fight our battle against death and the devil.   Jesus, like David, comes as a shepherd into battle.  And Jesus, our greater David, slays the Goliath of death with the stone of his holy precious blood and his innocentpolls_05_08_12_cross_at_sunset_web31_2742_684070_answer_1_xlarge suffering and death, a stone flung from the slingshot of his perfect obedience and his complete fulfillment of God’s Law on our behalf.  He bears our punishment, he pays our debt, he jumps in front of us to take the bullet of God’s wrath. He lays down his life to protect us.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Jesus offers the only true protection there is. In his death and resurrection, he has defeated our true enemies: our sin, death, and the devil.

And now our Good Shepherd brings us into his flock where he continues to protect and defend us. His protection was not a one-time deal that somehow ended when he ascended to the right hand of the Father.  He continues to protect us. He continues to be our shepherd.   Even though it is sometimes difficult to see, his protection is in fact there. He protects us from the predators that would devour our hope, be they death, despair, grief, persecution, shame, or any other attacker that would steal us from the flock of our Lord. He protects us from the dangerous paths of false teaching, from the sinful and misguided understanding of existence that we are immersed in. We live in an unbelieving world that has a philosophy all its own, and it’s always beckoning us to come and be part of its deception. We need a shepherd to guide us onto the safe path.   Our Good Shepherd protects his sheep.  Just like David used tools to protect his sheep, Christ uses tools to protect us.  Instead of a rod, He uses his Word. The voice of the Pastor speaking words of Christ’s forgiveness fend off would be attackers.   The words of his scriptures studied and prayed in our devotional lives are a light to keep our feet on the safe path.  Instead of stones, the sling of our Lord is loaded with the bread and wine that are his own crucified and risen body and blood given and shed for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  And because we are his children, the sheep of his pasture, he uses these stones to fend off the attacks of the devil, who prowls about as a roaring lion seeking to devour us.   Christ still Shepherds and protects us his sheep today, using the instruments of his Church to do it.

The Lord is our Shepherd.  We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

JESUS IS THE GOOD SHEPHERD WHO PROTECTS YOU IN HIS FLOCK.

What joy we have to live under the care of our shepherd! May the Lord our shepherd continue to guide and protect us with his precious word throughout the days of our earthly life, and bring us safely into the pastures of our heavenly rest.

 

Joy in the Fray – Easter Sunday 2015

Joy in the Fray

1 Corinthians 15:12-25

Easter Sunday

April 5, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Today is a day of joy. The lilies are out in full force. The tympani and brass are here. The voices of God people fill the sanctuary and threaten to shake the rafters with joyful singing. Today is a day of joy, and nothing will rob us of that joy. For today is the daychurch_easter_2007-139-web.gifof resurrection. Earth, tell it out abroad. From death to life eternal, / from sin’s dominion free, / Our Christ has brought us over / with hymns of victory.[1] And here’s the best part about the joy of resurrection: it’s not for today only. It’s for tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that, and each and every day we walk this side of heaven. Today may be Easter Sunday, but the joy of the resurrection is ours every day. And nothing can rob us of that joy.

Although, if I’m going to be completely honest with you, I have to admit that I’ve felt my joy has been under attack lately. Our theme for this past Lent was “Life in the Fray,” and I’ve been feeling the fray lately. Maybe you have too. I’ve been bombarded with summons to sadness. I’ve been frustrated and hurt and even angry. Some of it is due to the way our country and the people around me have been portraying Christ and his Word in the ongoing debates about religious freedom in our country. I’m not one who usually gets drawn into political debates or the accompanying social outrage, but this past week I haven’t been able to pull my eyes away.  The current debate strikes me to the core, for it seems that everywhere I look the teachings of our Lord and of his church are being misrepresented in order to set them up as vicious straw men. It’s frustrating to sit by as our Lord and his Word is dragged through the mud by those who don’t care to understand it past a snide headline or picture they can forward on to their followers.

But it’s not really the present circumstances that have been trying to steal the joy from my life; it’s fear for the future. It’s the realization that if things continue down the path they are currently on, there will be a day in the not too distant future where I and every Christian pastor across this country will face the choice to either capitulate to the demands of a secular society or face jail time, crippling fines, or worse. Once all the Christian bakeries and pizzerias are out of business, the Church could be next. Christian pastors have already been subpoenaed in Texas to turn over their sermons as evidence of hate speech. It seems that we are at the dawn of a new witch hunt, of a new inquisition, and man-with-tape-over-mouthbecause I cling firmly to the unchanging truth of our Lord’s Word, I’m now a target. I honestly fear for my future as a Christian pastor, and for the future of all who publically confess the truth. I fear for your future as Christian men and women in a world that is no longer content to simply mock and deride Christians by lobbing insults from the cheap seats, but rather seems intent on stomping out the confession of the truth all together. That fear has been trying to steal my joy this week

But that’s not the only would be thief looking to snatch my joy. There’s the poor woman in Colorado whose unborn baby was ripped from her womb and left to die in a bathtub. And while I grieve for her loss, I’m frustrated and angered by the fact that the woman who did this to her will not face murder charges.  It frustrates me that our society decided long ago that the unborn are not worthy to be considered people, that they can be aborted or killed with no consequence, as long as the mother herself is the one doing it. It saddens me that this recent tragedy is simply the next logical step in the progression, that if the unborn aren’t considered people when their own mothers want them dead, why would it be any different if a stranger takes their life?  It saddens me that we live in a world so determined not to control its lust and greed that it would rather see innocent children murdered than reign in the passion of the flesh or put a career on hold. It is hard to be joyful in a world that so casually embraces death and turns a blind eye to the consequences of its actions. It’s hard to be joyful in a world that clamors and complains about the rights of one person who can’t get the cake they want while at the same time largely ignoring the brutal murder of the unborn. How can we be joyful in a world whose priorities are so distorted?

There’s also the things that strike closer to home that try to take our joy. There’s the onslaught of cancer and death that keeps popping up not in the nightly news, but in our own lives. We’ve had more than our fair share of it around here. Young children and parents of young children.  Older men and women who had dedicated years of their life to this church and school. The banner of names we had last November for All Saints’ Day was as full as I’ve ever seen one. Death and the threat of death has spread its cloud over my family recently. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with it too. Family members. Close friends.01109800.interactive.a Coworkers. There is not a single person alive today who has not been scarred by cancer, disease, or death in some way. And it gets tiring. Seeing the pain on people’s faces as they grieve, or feeling the hurt in our own hearts gets to be too much to handle. It tries to suck the joy out of our lives.

But that’s why today is so special. For today we are reminded that even amid the fray of life in this fallen creation, amid the daily battles and struggles of our existence, nothing can rob us of our joy, for Christ lives. And because Christ lives, we know the victory is won. Because Christ lives, we know paradise awaits us. Because Christ lives, and because we know that we too shall live in paradise, we know each and every day of our lives here and now is filled with meaning and purpose. Christ lives, so now we set out to live the lives he has given us to live, in the families he has given us, in the jobs he has given us, in the neighborhoods he has given us.  If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is in vain and our faith useless. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our lives have no meaning beyond the present hardships. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Christians are the most pitiful people on earth. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then neither will we be raised from the dead. Then this life with its sorrow and heartache and bitterness and bickering will be all there is. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then the loved ones who have died in the faith and whom we look forward to seeing again are in fact truly gone for good. If Christ is not raised from the dead, then death has won. Then we are all just food for worms, circling the drain in this toilet bowl of life, waiting for our number to be called and our time to be up.  If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiful people on earth, for we would have placed our hopes in an empty dream. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we have no hope, and we have no joy.

But Christ has been raised from the dead, and that changes everything! Christ lives! And He is but the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. His resurrection was the first of its kind, but it won’t be the last. He’s the firstfruits, and we’re next. When this world tries to rob us of our joy, we rejoice that this world can’t touch our joy, for our joy is safe with Christ, as are we. Politics and media misrepresentations and slander and hatred and name-calling and mudslinging cannot take our joy, for Christ lives. A culture of death cannot take our joy, for Christ lives. A world marred by disease cannot take our joy, for Easter_Christ_is_risenChrist lives. Christ lives, which is why the people of God are now, and always have been, a people of joy. As our own President Harrison notes, joy is everywhere you look in the Scriptures. There’s joy in the Psalms, even the penitential ones. There’s joy in Moses and the Prophets and the wisdom of Solomon. There’s joy in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus, and on the lips of those whose life he touched. There’s joy in Mary and Elizabeth and at the manger and at the empty tomb. There’s joy in life and joy in the midst of death. There’s joy in worship and joy in hardship and persecution and suffering. There’s even joy in God himself, for there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 self-righteous people who feel no need for repentance.[2]

Our Lord is a Lord of joy. Our Lord is the one who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame.[3] He endured it for you, to win you back from this melancholy world mired in misery and mourning. Redeeming you is what fills our Lord with joy, and he has done it. He has won. He lives! So now with Paul we rejoice at all times,[4] even in the midst of suffering and persecution,[5] for Christ lives. The victory has been won. Let the world rant and rave and rage all it wants. They are but the death throes of a conquered foe.  They are the last frustrated outbursts of an enemy whose ship is sunk. The sufferings of this present darkness are not even worth comparing with the joy of the life to come.[6] Yes, they still hurt; and yes, they still produce tears. But all the tears of this life added together are but a drop in the ocean of eternal joy that awaits us as the people of God. For Christ lives, and if Christ is for us, who can be against us? What shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[7]

So rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again, rejoice.[8] Scatter the darkness, break the gloom; / Sun, reveal an empty tomb / Shining with joy for all our sorrows, / Hope and peace for all tomorrows, / Life uneclipsed by doubt and dread: / Christ has risen from the dead![9]

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

______

[1] “The Day of Resurrection” (LSB 478 st. 1)

[2] Harrison, A Little Book on Joy: The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World p. 2-3

[3] Hebrews 12:2

[4] Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16

[5] Romans 5:3

[6] Romans 8:18

[7] Romans 8:35-39

[8] Philippians 4:4

[9] “Scatter the Darkness, Break the Gloom” (LSB 481 st. 1)

Love Like Jesus – Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2015

Love Like Jesus

John 12:34-35

Maundy Thursday

April 2, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Jesus left us a new commandment, a new way of doing things. That night in the Maundy-Thursday-Backgrounds-3upper room, after he had washed the disciples feet, Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Christians have held these words in high regard for centuries. They will know we are Christians by our love. We take pride in these words, we take pride in our loving actions. We set up food banks and hold clothing drives. We hold our tongue when that coworker is especially rude. We do our best to respect our boss or the other authorities in our lives. We genuinely want people to experience the love we have to share. We want people to know we are Christians by our love.

And yet, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” Pay attention over the next few days, for we will see exactly how Jesus loved us, and see what it means to love others in that way.  Pay attention over the next few days, for we will see what the world thinks of that love. Pay attention, for we will see what we can expect Satan, the world, and our sinful flesh to do when we set out to love one another just as Jesus loved us.

Jesus loved us by being betrayed into the hands of his captors by the kiss of a friend. Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-31-_-_Kiss_of_JudasWho has betrayed you? Do you feel betrayed by a society that was at one time more favorable to the Christian way of life, but now seems intent on tearing down every last vestige of the faith you hold so dear? Do you feel betrayed that God’s gift of the family is being assaulted on every side, that the notion of man and wife, which was once a fundamental part of the American dream along with a few kids and a white picket fence, is now viewed as out-of-date, oppressive, or downright silly? Do you feel betrayed that a society that at one time largely reflected Biblical morals and values in many spheres of life has turned in the opposite direction? Maybe we have been betrayed by our culture. Maybe we put our trust in the wrong place to begin with. Maybe the culture was never as Christian as we took it to be. Maybe we could speculate until we’re blue in the face. But all speculation aside, one thing is certain. Jesus loved us by being betrayed. If he has called us to love like he did, why should we expect anything else?

Jesus loved us by being put on trial for his confession of the truth. He stood before Pilate and was accused of many things which were true, but which did not sit well with the Jews or the Romans of his day. His confession of the truth made them uncomfortable. His confession of the truth threatened the way they wanted to look at the world.  “Are you the king of the Jews?” Of course he is. He’s the king of the whole universe. In him all things jesusandpilatelive and move and have their being. But they didn’t want to hear that. They were not interested in truth, they were interested in continuing to live the life they chose for themselves regardless of whether it was in line with God’s design or not.  They did not want to hear that Jesus is truly king, for if he is truly king, then they are truly his subjects. They have to listen to all that he said concerning their hypocrisy and empty rituals, about their being white-washed tombs, about the axe being at the base of the tree, about the branches being thrown to the fire.

If Jesus was put on trial for speaking the truth, why would we expect anything different? If we speak the truth about sexuality, why would we expect the world to greet our words any more favorably than our Lord’s? When we speak the truth about greed or contentment, about jealousy or pride, about envy, or anger, or life, or death, or anything else in our Lord’s Word, why are we so surprised when the world won’t listen? Why are we surprised when the truth is rejected in favor of the lie? It’s what happened to Jesus. It’s what happens today.

Jesus loved us by watching as the crowd demanded the release of a hardened criminal over his freedom.  The crowd was determined to get Jesus out of the way, to silence his voice and the words that made them uneasy, so they chose to release a convicted murderer. They chose a man of death over the Lord of life, for they were not prepared to live the life that the Lord designed. Why would we expect anything different? Why are we surprised when our world embraces the death of the unborn just so that it does not have to control its sexual desires? Why are we surprised when our world trumpets greed as a virtue with no regard for who may be oppressed or killed in the process? Why are we surprised when the world chooses tyranny to the self, becoming slaves to every passion and base desire known to man, and calls it freedom?  Is an addict free simply because he has the ability to drink or use whenever the desire presents itself? Or is the addict slave to the addiction? Are we actually free when we give in to whatever passion crosses our hearts? Or are we slaves to desire? How often do we choose slavery and call it freedom? How often do we choose death and call it life?  Our Lord loved us by watching as his own people chose death over life. This is how our Lord has called us to love the world.

Finally, Jesus loved us by being executed in our place. Even though he had done Crucifixnothing wrong, he allowed himself to be spiked to a cross, stricken, smitten, and afflicted. He did not speak up in his defense, for he knew his purpose. He knew that he was headed to the cross from the moment he became submissive to his Father’s will and agreed to leave heaven. He always intended to show his love by dying for us while we were yet sinners, by loving us while we were yet unlovable. And that is how we are called to love the world. That is how we are called to love one another – to love the unlovable, for the unlovable has been loved in us. To forgive the unforgivable, for the unforgivable has been forgiven in use. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

This is the life we are called to live. This is the love we are called to love. One of betrayal. One of trial. One of rejection. One of self-sacrifice. And ultimately, a love that overcomes all these things. For Jesus overcame all these things for you, even death itself.

Jesus lives. He loved us in overcoming death, overcoming the betrayal and the rejection. And because he now lives, we also live. For on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “Take and eat. This is my body for you.” In the same way also he took the cup and, having given thanks, gave it and said, “Take and drink. This is my blood of the new testament for you.” As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are united to and participate in the body and blood of Christ himself. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, I no longer live, Christ lives in me. And if Christ lives in me, then Christ loves through me. Just as Jesus loved me, so also I love others, for Christ lives in me and loves through me.

When the world betrays me, I rest in the knowledge that it betrayed him first. gal-2-20-home-wideIndeed, it betrayed him worse, for he had done nothing wrong. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We deserve the betrayal that we experience, for in our hearts we betray others all the time. We betray the confidence of another with careless gossip. We betray the people around us by selfishly seeking our own needs above the needs of others. We betray the people of God when we greedily cling to our dollars rather than supporting the work of the kingdom. Yet for all my betrayal, Christ lives in me to renew me, strengthen me, and use me in service to his Gospel. I no longer live, Christ lives in me, and Christ loves through me.

When the world puts me on trial for the truth, I rest in the knowledge that it tried him first. Indeed, it tried him worse, for he spoke genuine truth. Often my words are tainted with the residue of mixed emotions. So often my sinful flesh would rather listen to the words of the world and believe the lies, for the lies let me justify myself. The lies make me comfortable. The lies excuse my sin rather than deal with it. Even when I do speak the truth of the Scriptures, I have my moments where I struggle with doubt. My words may have the veneer of truth, but often the wood is rotting underneath.  Not so the words of Jesus. His words are not just true, they are truth itself. His words bring life, they bring life to me as the rain brings life from the clouds. For all my doubts and double speak, Christ lives in me to renew me, to speak through me. I no longer live, Christ lives in me, and Christ loves through me.

When the world chooses to embrace death over life, I rest in the knowledge that it did so for Jesus first. When the world ignores the life-giving gospel of forgiveness and instead dives headlong into its sin and self-deceit, we recognize that it did so for Jesus first. And he took it. And he suffered the consequence, dying to redeem the very ones who condemned him, winning life for those who chose death. And now, I no longer live, Christ lives in me, and Christ loves through me.

So come be fed by the body and blood of the Lord. Be united to your living Lord and Savior. For through this precious meal Christ now lives in you. Christ now loves through you with a new and perfect love, a selfless and self-sacrificial love. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”  As we approach the celebration of the Resurrection, as we hear again of the betrayal and suffering and death of our Savior, know that as Jesus loved you, so also you now love the people around you. In spite of their betrayal, in spite of their ridicule and accusation, in spite of their mockery, you love them with like Jesus. For Christ lives in you. And Christ loves through you.