The Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
St Paul Lutheran Church, Manito, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
Christ has risen! He has risen, indeed! Alleluia! This morning we remember that the one who rose from the dead is our Good Shepherd.
In the time and place that Jesus first spoke the words we heard in today’s Gospel, sheep grazed on the open range. There were areas of land that were not of much use for crops, but they still grew vegetation that sheep could eat. It was in these wild, desolate areas that shepherds led their flocks during the day.
Although sheep country was not that great for agriculture, the rocky terrain produced a fine crop of stones. Shepherds often used those stones to build sheepfolds … an enclosure with walls high enough to discourage both animal and human predators. Other times the shepherds would use caves or other natural rock formations for sheepfolds. As the sun went down, the shepherds would bring their flocks together and lead them into one of these sheepfolds. The sheep spent the night in the relative security of the sheepfold.
There was only one opening to the sheepfold and during the night a shepherd would sleep in that opening. That shepherd became the door. No predators could get in and no sheep could get out without waking the shepherd. The only way in or out of that sheepfold was by that shepherd who had become the door of the sheep.
In the morning, each of the shepherds needed to lead his sheep out of the sheepfold. Now how do you make sure that the right flock of sheep goes with the right shepherd? Well, the sheep would know the voice of their shepherd. A shepherd would come to the entrance to the sheepfold and talk or sing to the sheep. The sheep in the shepherd’s flock knew that this voice meant food when they were hungry … water when they were thirsty … and safety at all times. They followed the voice. The sheep in the other flocks didn’t know the voice and they ignored it. All the shepherd had to do was start talking or singing and lead his flock out of the sheepfold to green pastures and still waters.
A man by the name of H. V. Morton was an eye witness to this very thing. Apparently, while he was in the Holy Land, he was up early one morning in the countryside around Bethlehem. Later, he recorded his experience in a book. He wrote, “Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem. Two shepherds had evidently spent the night with their flocks in a cave. The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions. One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call. First one, then another, then four or five animals ran towards him; and so on until he had counted his whole flock” (H. V. Morton, In the Steps of the Master [London, 1935] quoted in L. Morris, The Gospel According to John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971] p. 502 n. 17).
This is the reason that shepherds made sure that the sheep knew their voice. They spoke to the sheep. They sang to the sheep. The sheep grew used to the voice of their shepherd. That voice became a source of comfort and security. This confidence in the voice of the shepherd was very important for the sheep.
Jesus used this figure of speech to teach about His church. The shepherd is Jesus Himself. The flock of sheep is His church. The thieves and robbers are the false prophets and teachers who would tempt His people to leave His church. The voice that the shepherd uses to call his sheep is the Bible as it is taught in its truth and purity. In essence, Jesus said that the members of His church will follow His word in the same way that sheep will follow the voice of their shepherd. Christ’s Word is our source of comfort and security.
Jesus words become even more interesting if you look at their context. Jesus had just given sight to a man who had been born blind. Jesus performed this miracle on a Sabbath and that really offended the Pharisees. Perhaps you remember that the account of this healing was the Gospel reading about six weeks ago in the season of Lent. You may remember that the Pharisees excommunicated the man who was born blind and they condemned Jesus as well. By then, the man didn’t care because his faith was in Jesus and not in the Pharisees or the synagogue.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees by declaring that, even though they claimed to have spiritual insight, they were spiritually blind. And because they insisted that they had spiritual insight, their guilt remained. Then He began the teaching that we heard in today’s Gospel. Therefore, when Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber,” (John 10:1) He was speaking directly to the Pharisees who condemned Him and who had thrown the man out of the synagogue. He was saying that they were the thieves and robbers.
The Pharisees serve as reminders to us. There are still false teachers today who want to lead us away from our Good Shepherd. They, like the Pharisees at the time of our text, are experts at taking the Word of God out of context. They replace the true meaning of Scripture with their own opinion. Jesus would condemn these false teachers even as He condemned the Pharisees and said, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:7–9) Such false teachers will be with us until the Lord returns on the Last Day.
There are millions of false opinions out there. They come in all sizes, shapes, and styles. At first, this might seem overwhelming. How can we guard against false teachings if there are so many? While it is never easy to guard against false teachings, it does become a little easier when you realize that all false teachings have one central teaching. In some way, shape, or form, they all teach that you are at least partially responsible for providing your own salvation. There may be all kinds of rituals. There may be all kinds of teachings. There may be many approaches. But, in the end, somewhere inside it all, you will hear a condition … a condition that says, “When (or “If”) you do something, then you will receive something.” It all depends on you.
It can sound ever so simple, such as: “God wants to bless you. All you have to do is think happy thoughts and then He will give you a life of victory.” At first, this sounds tempting, but then we realize, “I am the one who has to think happy thoughts. I am the one who has to do something.” It sounds so harmless and uplifting, but as soon as any part of the process depends on you, it is false teaching. It is a robber or thief trying to get into the sheepfold. Any system that depends in any part on me will fail in the end because I will fail. In the end, we all must stand before Almighty and Holy God and give an account of ourselves. Those who listen to the opinions of the false prophets will depend on themselves and not pass the final test.
Those who listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd will depend on Jesus Christ who has already earned eternal life for all. His voice gives us His body for food and His blood for drink. His voice is our safety from sin, death, and the power of the devil. His voice is our comfort and security. His voice is our comfort and security especially when we realize that we cannot pass God’s test in our own power.
Instead of looking to our own power, the voice of Jesus tells you that He, the Good Shepherd, is the door to salvation. When you go before God and confess, “I do not love You as I should,” the voice of Jesus tells you that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to do that for you. When you go before God and confess, “I do not love my neighbor as I love myself,” the voice of Jesus tells you that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to do that for you. When you go before God and confess, “I cannot bear the punishment I deserve for my sin,” the voice of Jesus tells you that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to do that for you. When Jesus hung on the cross for three hours and cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” He endured the eternal punishment of hell for you. The truth proclaimed by the voice of Jesus is that God does all the work that gives us salvation. We do nothing. God does it all. God the Holy Spirit even gives you the faith that receives this salvation.
We hear Jesus’ voice when we hear his teaching. When Jesus instituted Holy Baptism, He also instructed the church to continue His teaching. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18–20) Teaching the things that Jesus taught is an ongoing part of the church’s ministry to the baptized. Baptism brings us into the flock of Jesus Christ. Teaching the things that Jesus taught keeps us in that flock. Hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd in His teachings makes it possible for us to recognize His voice and ignore the voice of the false teacher.
Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. It is He who loves God perfectly for you. It is He who loves His neighbor perfectly for you. It is He who died for you. It is He who rose from the dead for you. It is He who ascended for you. He is the one whose body is the door to salvation. It is He who calls you by name. He has done all that you need. And He has done it so that you can live with Him forever. Amen