Under the Protection of the Shepherd
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 shepherd 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 desire 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 innocent 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.