Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Life with the Shepherd

4th Sunday of Easter 
May 3,  Year of Our + Lord 2009                                          
Trinity and St John Lutheran Churches
Sidney and Fairview, Montana
(This sermon is from three years ago, as I was on vacation this past weekend!  Your Good Shepherd, thankfully, never takes vacation.)

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday.  Today, along with King David, we express remarkable confidence in God.  “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”  

This most famous of Psalms has offered great promise and great comfort  in times of trouble to the children of God for 3,000 years.  The prophet Ezekiel draws on the same imagery in his preaching against the religious leaders of Israel, who instead of caring for the flock entrusted to them, were preying on the flock themselves. In response, the LORD makes this promise through Ezekiel.  

 ' For thus says the Lord GOD: "Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 "As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.   "And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country.
These wonderful promises of God our Shepherd have sustained the faithful for many generations, and they continue to do so today. 

This is not to say that the faithful always are perfectly content, frolicking like lambs on a warm spring day.  We do not always wait patiently and happily for the LORD to come and care for us.  We are not always at peace.  Throughout the years the faithful have faced great evil: invasion by foreign powers, civil war, famine and disease.  We too face danger and evil, from financial crisis to moral decay, from AIDS to Swine flu.  The world is a difficult place, it’s hard to keep the faith. The prophet Ezekiel despaired in the face of the persecution he suffered, even begging God to take his life.  And sometimes we too, with David and the faithful of every generation, cry out, “How long, Oh LORD, how long?”  How long until You deliver us? 

We don’t face the fierce persecution and severe trials of King David and the prophet Ezekiel, but we do struggle.  A sober look at our situations, of the world and our place in it, may lead us to doubt that the promises of  Psalm 23 are true.  Christianity, we are told, is declining.  Life today seems very uncertain.  If the promises of God are true, we may think they are meant for someone else.  For we do not always see green pastures.  We sense that we are passing through the valley of the shadow of death, and we fear.  Sometimes we feel content, well fed and safe.  But sometimes we are afraid of being sheared, of being robbed of our warmth and comfort by illness, injury, and the ravages of time. 

Worse yet, we may feel like fools, trying to follow the Lord our Shepherd.  For we sheep look around us and see a world where it seems looking out for #1 is the name of the game, for everybody.  It’s a dog eat dog world, and the wolves are eyeing the sheep.  Friends betray friends, the words of your family members so often cut you deeply.  You try to open yourself up to others and end up wounded.  Why should we even want to be sheep, when we sense we may be slaughtered for someone else’s benefit?  Can we really trust in the LORD, our Shepherd?  Is there a place where we can we look to gain the confidence that David had?

We are not sure, so sometimes we try to hide from it all.  We try to carve out a safe existence behind high walls and quick defenses.  But God has not made us to live this way, we are made for relationships.  And besides, it doesn’t work.  We can try to make for ourselves a safe place, away from the danger and evil of the world, but we will find that evil and moral decay and dangers follow us into our safe places.  Because it’s not just the world around us that is evil.  Evil follows us into our safe places because we are evil. 
I know, we all appear to be civilized, good people.  We are here in Church, for goodness sake.  We may never act on our most wicked thoughts, but they are in our hearts and minds.  We are not so different from David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, in thought and in the actual deeds. 

And yet this same King David, an adulterer and a murderer, trusted that the Lord was truly taking care of him.  David knew his sin and guilt.  David dealt daily with evil people who tried to take away everything he had.  Yet he could still declare with confidence, “the Lord is my Shepherd.”  How is this possible? How can it be that we can know the truth of our own sin, and the reality of our world, and yet still have faith in a loving God who promises to be active in our lives?  Where can we look to gain the confidence of David? 

In a Word, look to Jesus. It was the promise of a Savior who would come with healing and forgiveness in His hand that sustained King David.  Look with David, to our Lord Jesus, who came from heaven seeking His flock.  Look to the Christ, who took on your humanity, and walked among us scattered sheep, seeking and saving.  Look to Jesus, who knows your pain and fear, because on a cloudy and dark Good Friday He suffered the ultimate persecution and evil, in order to be your Good Shepherd who delivers you.  Listen again to His words:

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, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.   He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.   I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 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." 

Yes, there is great evil in the world, all around us.  Yes, you suffer real pain.  And yes, you are a sinner, there is evil in you that you cannot control by your own power.  But your salvation does not depend on your power.  You do not walk alone, you do not face evil unprotected.  The Good Shepherd is with you, listen to His voice.  He has removed the power of evil and suffering.  They cannot cause you permanent harm.  When He laid down his life, and when he took it up again, that is when He died on the Cross and when He rose from the dead, Jesus destroyed the power of all the wolves.  In His victory over them, Jesus also forgave you all your sins.  They can no longer destroy you.  Jesus has anointed your head, with his river of living water, which bubbles up to eternal life, the prize He won for you, at Calvary.  He fills your cup to overflowing with His life-giving blood, poured out on the Cross, now given for you to drink in His Supper, for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. 

This is the table which he prepares for you here, now, in the presence of all the enemies of this world.  This little feast, a mysterious meal with the power to destroy evil, points us to and qualifies us for the heavenly feast to come, where your enemies, which today still prowl and seek to hurt you, will be forever cast out.  Yes, the evil and suffering of this life is real, and on our own we cannot face it.  But you are not alone.  In the midst of your suffering, in the midst of trial, your Good Shepherd is with you, to comfort you, and point you again to Himself, in whom all suffering and evil is forever gone.  In Jesus Christ, Crucified and Resurrected, goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life.  It is through and with Jesus Christ that you shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever, Amen. 

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