Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sermon: Misericordia Domini (Easter 3)

5 April 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 10:11-16 (Ezek 34:11-16, 1 Pet 2:21-25)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The readings for this Sunday in the church year all have to do with sheep and shepherding. In fact, many know today as Good Shepherd Sunday, even though it is technically Misericordia Domini – that is “the goodness of the Lord” of which the world is full, according to the Psalmist, just as we sang in our Introit.

For indeed, our Lord is the Good Shepherd, whose goodness fills the earth. Our Lord’s mercy is without limit. His love for His sheep knows no bounds. He will sacrifice everything, even His own life, for the sake of His sheep – especially His lost sheep, His wounded sheep, His sheep that are constantly assaulted by wolves and lions.

Our Shepherd is no mere hired hand. He is the Owner of the sheep, the Creator of the sheep, the very Author of the sheep. His interest is vested, not by virtue of having a boss overseeing His work, but because He is the Boss, the “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

The metaphor of sheep and shepherd is perhaps the most comforting imagery in the Bible. Millions of saints have been laid to rest, amid peaceful green grass and still waters of cemetery grounds as statues of Jesus carrying a lamb look upon their graves, even as the pastor and his flock spoke the words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

In our culture, being free from want means “having it all” – anything our twisted hearts desire. It is a mindset of materialism and self-centeredness that seeks to bend or buy the wills of others to conform to our whims. “I shall not want” to most people means money, power, sensuality, and never having to submit to anyone. It is freedom from authority, and freedom to spend every waking hour playing games.

But the holy psalmist has something else in mind, as does our Blessed Lord.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “is my shepherd” in Psalm 23 is really understood as “leads me” or even “rules me.” The Lord is not my genie who grants all my wishes at my command, by my whim, and according to my will. Rather, the Lord is my overseer, my ruler, my master, and in submitting to Him is where we find green pastures and still waters.

We don’t “partner” with God, nor is he a kind of wizard who is there to make our wildest dreams come true if we follow the right spiritual program. Rather, He is the Lord, the slave-master, the ruler, and we find our happiness in submission to Him. The old Latin title for this blessed 23rd Psalm is “Dominus Regit Me” – which means literally: “The Dominator rules me.”

This is what it means to be a sheep. This is what it means to have a Shepherd. For when we sheep foolishly decide we don’t need to submit, when we become convinced we can “go it alone,” we wander off only to become food for the wolf. The last thing we sheep need to do is to listen to the world’s siren song to “think outside the box” and “leave our comfort zones.” Oh, what wonderful advice to sheep when it comes from a hungry wolf! But we are safe from the evil one in the “comfort zone” of our flock. There is safety in numbers, and most of all, we are protected when we are ruled by our Lord, when we let God be God, and we allow ourselves to be herded.

Our Lord Jesus is a true Shepherd. He is not a temporary employee and not a hired manager. He indeed “gives His life for the sheep.” The hireling, on the other hand, runs away from trouble and will not fight. But the Shepherd bears the crook, and does not hesitate to crack the skull of the enemy rather than see His beloved sheep threatened. Our Lord both gave up His life for us sheep and was victorious over the evil wolf when He Himself, the Shepherd, became the Lamb; when He, the priest, became the victim; when he the Master, humbled Himself to become a Slave to His slaves.

The Good Shepherd knows His sheep by name, for they have been christened, that is “Christed” – anointed and named with Christ – in the still waters of Holy Baptism. The Good Shepherd is also known by His own, for the Lord’s sheep do not follow the beckoning of every false shepherd and wolf in sheep’s clothing. He knows us, and we know Him. And it is in submission to Him who shepherds us that we want for nothing, we drink cool water, and we eat rich grass. It is in this submission that we are protected from the wolf, and are even rescued by the Good Shepherd when we, by our own rebellion and stupidity, wander from the flock. For as Ezekiel the shepherd prophesies: “I Myself” that is, the Lord, “will search for My sheep and seek them out… and deliver them…. I will feed them in good pasture.”

And listen to what this means for us sheep. Having been sought out, rescued, and led to safety by our Shepherd, listen to St. Peter, whom the Lord commanded: “Feed My sheep.” Peter, who was himself crucified for the Gospel, in turn shepherds us with this Word of the Good Shepherd: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth,’ who when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered; He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Our Shepherd saves us from the evil wolf not only in protecting us from his wiles, but also in protecting us from our own sinful flesh. Our Shepherd is our Lord, not out of a lust for domination, but rather in selfless love for His dominion. And His use of authority - not for greed or self-aggrandizement, but rather out of love and mercy - serves as an example of authority for the whole Church on earth.

And this example is especially for pastors. “Pastor” is the Latin word for “shepherd.” Pastors are given stewardship over the Lord’s sheep. The pastor is to use his authority from above not for greed, gain, or domination, but rather in love, selflessness, and service to the sheep – even as the Shepherd of the shepherds, the Pastor of the pastors, the Bishop of the bishops, has done. Pastors need always remember that they must be willing to lay down their lives selflessly in service for the sheep, and the sheep, for their part, must realize that their pastor loves them, and lovingly guides them to the Lord who is our Good Shepherd, the Lamb who has ransomed the sheep, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. It is He, the Lord, who defends us all against ravening wolves and guides us to green pasture and still waters.

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am His
And he is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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