Good Shepherd Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Today on this Good Shepherd Sunday we hear the words of Christ delivering one of the sweetest and most comforting ways of describing God’s relationship to his people. The richness of this refrain has rung out over church services and secular gatherings, joyous times and times of sorrow, the brightest high holy day and the darkest funeral side. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And every time I hear those words it never ceases to amaze me how even in the most somber circumstance, even with the body of one of God’s saints laying before all to see and the specter of death looming large over the entire congregation, how these simple words throw open the gates of heaven and bring light and life to all. For this reason I think we do well to hear these words anew in our present somber circumstances of darkness, uncertainty, and suffering not only for ourselves but for the church.

One of the first things I think we do well especially to remember is that if God is our shepherd and we are his sheep then this has some implications for us and our life, who we are and what we do. Most pastors and theologians I’ve talked to and most sermons I’ve listened to about sheep imagery in the NT always focus on how sheep are really quite stupid animals and make foolish decisions (which is true, sheep are very dumb and there’s really only one thing that sheep have going for them). But I think what is missed by this emphasis on the dumb nature of sheep is picked up by Hermann Sasse where he says our life, as the flock of God, is one that is marked by wandering. The church of God on earth will always be an ecclesia migrans, a wandering church. To be the flock of God is to be like the children of Israel, delivered out of the land of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”, to be carried out through the waters of the red sea to safety, but to come face to face with the wilderness. To be in the wilderness, wandering around, not still in the house of slavery, the land of bondage which is Egypt, but also not in the promised land, not in Canaan where they belong and where God said they would go.

So also we Christians, the church of God, as “sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd”, are sojourners. We are aliens, foreigners, and wanderers. While we walk on this earth we feel that we are indeed strangers here and this is not where we should be. The strangeness of this world strikes us in many and various ways. It could be something as silly as stubbing your toe, but it could also be something as serious as losing your job. It could be the frustration of not doing well in classes or at work or not being able to remember things like you used to; or it could be your water heater cracking, unexpected plumbing bills, or very expected insurance bills that you know you won’t be able to pay off. It could be seeing injustice go unpunished, evil running rampant in the world outside. It could be whole countries being consumed by fire, hurricanes decimating entire coastlines. All of which we’ve seen in this rather eventful year.

Day by day we come face to face with a conflict, a contradiction. We see and hear the promises of God which are sweet and wonderful, but we also see and hear the contradiction of God’s promises in our daily experience with the wilderness, with evil. And as such you could also say that we as Christians live not only in the wilderness of this world, but in a rupture between two ages. The old age where sin, death, and devil are lords and the new age to come where Jesus Christ alone reigns as Lord, Redeemer, and the Bishop of our souls. And thus also in our own bodies we feel this conflict as simultaneously old people under the law and subject to death and new people free from all things.

As we stand in this conflict, the contradiction, in a world ripped in two, in all the tension of our wandering our great hope is that we do not wander alone. The flock of God which has been scattered across the world, driven, and divided by thieves and robbers, the devil and his hordes, now has been given a good shepherd to guide them. The church has been given her one true bishop over all (and his name isn’t Francis!) who is Christ Jesus alone.

And our good shepherd does not abandon us to the wolves that would seek to devour us, but takes up arms for his church. With that mighty rod, holy and most blessed cross, he beats down the lions that would devour us and the thieves who would steal us away. With his strong staff he guides us in the way we should go, even when all around is a treacherous valley of shadow and death. And even though we have yet to inherit that promised land God gathers his people, as he did the people of Israel, to the eight sided rock which wells up sweet water from which we daily drink and receive life. He leads us to the still waters of baptism by which we are restored and refreshed, receiving the forgiveness of our sins, life, salvation, light, and joy.

And these waters received once for our salvation are the waters that we daily return to morning and night as we confess our sins before God and our neighbor and receive the forgiveness of sins from God through our neighbor. Here at the washing away of our sins, God also salves the wounds that are inflicted by sin. He heals, binds up, and mends the brokenness that sin brings to our ruptured world as a foreshadowing and fulfillment of the restoration that is to come.

And just as God rained down bread from heaven on the people of Israel during their time in the wilderness so also God has given us today the bread of life which is Christ’s very body. By this bread we are continually sustained, fed, and nourished in our faith in God’s promise. And likewise by this bread, this food of scarcity, we are reminded that though we gather for a meager feast in this life, there is an even greater feast to come where our cup will continually overflow.

So, despite the many and various ways we daily confront the evil of this world, God has prepared for you abundantly more and various ways to receive his word, to hear the voice of your shepherd, and to inherit all of his benefits. In the face of this ruptured world God does not abandon his people, but rather never stops delivering his promise, never stops giving his gifts, and never stops delivering his Son, the Bishop of our souls and our very own Good Shepherd who will one day take us from our wilderness wandering and finally give us rest in our own promised land, one flowing with milk and honey. “He has spoken and he will do it.” “Come Lord Jesus.” Amen.

About Vicar Bartelt

Philip Bartelt is currently working to attain a master’s in Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University, Irvine where he studied Theology, Philosophy, and Biblical Languages. He is devoted to the historic liturgy and subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions including the Formula of Concord articles V and VI. He is married to Jaclyn and father to Anastasia. Together they enjoy movies, books, theatre, and art.

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