An Irresponsible Shepherd and His Wayward Flock: A Sermon for Misericordias Domini on St. John 10:11–16

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Sermon audio here.

Imagine you just got hired for a job as a shepherd. You go to orientation and they start telling you what it means to be a good shepherd. You’d expect them to say things like “feeds the sheep”, “makes sure they have plenty of water”, “makes a reasonable effort to keep them safe.” Things like that. In other words, care for your sheep.

A shepherd knows there are wolves and other predators out there licking their chops, just waiting for the right moment to strike. Being a shepherd is a dangerous job, and the cold hard truth is that some sheep are going to die. Companies are always prepared to experience some loss. That’s why they have loss prevention programs. They try to minimize the damage, but they recognize that some loss is the cost of doing business.

This is the mentality of the hireling, according to our Lord. He says the hireling flees when he sees the wolf coming “because he cares nothing for the sheep.” Now we’ll give Jesus as pass for saying this since He’s the Lord and all, but if anyone else said something this harsh, we wouldn’t let them get away with it. Just because the shepherd isn’t willing to die for his sheep, does that mean he “cares nothing” for them? Any responsible shepherd would live to fight another day. And besides, who’s more important here, the shepherd or the sheep? As long as there are wolves out there, sheep will die. Some things just can’t be helped.

But according to our Lord, they can. The Good Shepherd loves His sheep so deeply that He’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for them and lay down His life. When Jesus talks about the “Good” Shepherd, He’s using the term “Good” the same way we use it when we talk about Good Friday: He’s talking about a dead shepherd.

Our Lord has an entirely different way of doing business from the world. He says the Good Shepherd is the one who lays down His life for the sheep. He doesn’t care if the world thinks it’s irresponsible. Can you imagine any employer saying you needed to die before losing any of your product? They’d have all kinds of lawsuits for even suggesting such a thing! But Jesus isn’t a responsible shepherd. He’s a Good Shepherd. He’s not willing to lose even a single lamb. He’d rather die than let anything bad happen to you.

That’s great news, but it gets really uncomfortable when we hear our Good Shepherd say “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,” (John 13:34). This is the part of the Good Shepherd’s message we conveniently tune out. The apostle Peter reminds us that Jesus’ suffering and death was not only redemptive, but also an example, that you might follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). You’ve been quick to receive Jesus’ benefits, but reluctant to assume the responsibilities of belonging to His flock.

Who wants to belong to a dirty, smelly flock? Other sheep can be really irritating at times. And what will become of the flock after the wolf has finished devouring the shepherd anyway? With the shepherd gone, the rest of the flock are easy pickings for the wolf. Isn’t that poor stewardship? When it comes to rationalizing sin, we’re virtuosos.

And then there’s the poor, misunderstood wolf. Who ever tells his side of the story? He’s not trying to be evil, he’s just trying to make an honest living and provide for his family. You’ve gotta eat! What else would a wolf do? Can you blame him? It’s frightening when you think about it, but Satan’s actions often make more sense to us than our Lord’s.

You have a hard time blaming the wolf because you have something in common with him. All too often you’ve acted on your own behalf, failing to consider the impact of your actions upon others. What’s good for you could be detrimental to someone else. Like a ravenous wolf, you’re always looking out for number one, failing to consider how what you say and do affects those around you.

This is what sin does: it curves you inward, making you concerned for your own welfare above all else. It’s the American way. If Lutherans cling to the doctrine of justification, Americans are known for their obsessive lust for independence. Any sort of reliance on others is considered shameful and embarrassing.

But there’s nothing more destructive to Christianity than the illusion of autonomy. A sheep who wanders away from the flock is a sitting duck. You not only need a Good Shepherd, you also need the rest of the flock whether you want to admit it or not. And the rest of the flock needs you. Long ago St. Paul said “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 2:21). Times haven’t changed.

But it was not this way from the beginning. God created us to live together as one flock in His Church. Luther’s Flood Prayer for Holy Baptism compares the Church to the Ark, which keeps you separate from the multitude of unbelievers. The Church could also be compared to a flock in which the Good Shepherd keeps you safe from the wolves. Lone sheep are easy prey for Satan.

There will not be any selfish individualism in the New Creation, not even among the beasts. For there the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and they will not hurt or destroy in all the Lord’s Holy Mountain (Isaiah 65:25). If only we understood that now! Jesus didn’t zap down divine aid from the comfort of heaven! He took on human flesh and got His hands dirty as an example to His sheep.

You were straying like sheep, the Apostle says, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:25). In Holy Baptism you died to sin that you might live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). The Good Shepherd’s radical, irresponsible act of self-sacrificial love is the pattern for the Christian life. St. Paul says the husband’s job is to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, who looked not to His own interests, but to the interest of His Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:25; Philippians 2:4).

“Let no one seek his own good,” the Apostles says, “but the good of his neighbor,” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Elsewhere he says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (Philippians 2:3).

In the hymn we pray:

Grant me grace, O blessed Savior,
     And Thy Holy Spirit send
That my walk and my behavior
     May be pleasing to the end;
That I may not fall again
Into Death’s grim pit and pain
Whence by grace Thou has retrieved me
And from which Thou hast relieved me.
(TLH, 207; st. 5)

Satan’s a mad wolf, obsessed with devouring Christ’s flock. And like sheep, we see the wolf coming and panic. Life is hard. Sometimes it seems we have no end of troubles. We get into self-preservation mode.

But self-preservation is precisely the problem. To rely on yourself is the opposite of relying on Christ. That’s not only idolatry, it’s irrational. Sheep aren’t much good at defending themselves or providing for their own needs, and Satan’s out for blood.

This is why not just any shepherd will do. You need a reckless, irresponsible Shepherd, one who is willing to die for His wayward flock. You need a Good Shepherd, and you have one in Jesus. There is nothing more precious to Him in the world than you. He not only walked through the valley of the shadow of death, He drank of its bitter cup.

Things looked bad for the disciples after the Shepherd was struck, and things often look bad for us, too. But He didn’t leave them as sitting ducks. He rose, He came to them, He comforted them. Nor will He ever leave you or forsake you. He conquered your final enemy when He took up His life again on the Third Day.

O little flock, fear not the foe!
[Satan’s] might is but a joke, a mere facade.
His seeming triumph lasts but a little hour.
(LSB, 666; sts. 1, 3)

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5).

And even now, during the night, He restores your soul. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). Morning has broken into the night; death has been swallowed up by life. The Lord is your Good Shepherd. He refreshes you here with His Word and Spirit, and He leads you in paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 10:11–16
Misericordias Domini, 2015: “An Irresponsible Shepherd and His Wayward Flock”
Zion, Summit:
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Steadfast Throwdown:
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