The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Days like today are actually very difficult for a pastor. With so much good, well-known material to work with, how do you decide what to preach on? Just look at the Gospel lesson. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep. The hireling isn’t at all like the Good Shepherd. He’s more like the thief (vv 1-10), who only comes to steal and destroy and kill. This hireling—NOT to be confused with pastors, teachers, and other professional church workers, which is how this is often mis-taught and misunderstood by folks who claim to be “spiritual/faithful,” but who also have an axe to grind with “organized religion” and anyone telling them that they may actually be wrong in some parts of their belief—is really nothing more than a mercenary or a prostitute. That’s actually what the Greek word “misthotos” is driving at.
This term isn’t referring to somebody who receives support in their vocation as Christ’s faithful servant and under-shepherd. No. This word refers to a person who is nothing more than a “wage taker.” They’re only in it for money. They only care about their bank accounts; about themselves. They don’t care one whit about anyone or anything else. “As long as I get paid!” Open communion? As long as I get paid. Don’t want to make waves or offend anyone. Visit the sick, the shut-in, the imprisoned? Am I gonna get over-time for that? Easter attendance broke 100. Do I get a bonus? Do I get a raise? Call sin what it is—sin—even though it might make our biggest givers upset and create some empty spaces? Well…we don’t want to do that. It’s bad for business. This is a “misthotos.”
Luther called them “belly servers.” Now, such a designation certainly can, regrettably, pertain to those who hide behind the title of pastor or deaconess or teacher, but it is certainly not restricted to those offices either. Many a person is founded and grounded in the concerns of mammon. Many a person lets the mammon, the worries, the self-serving glory-hound–in-the-mirror do all the talking, drowning out anything that the Good Shepherd might have to say (which He does say through faithful preachers, teachers, and heads of households, who faithfully and humbly let the voice of the Good Shepherd do the talking). Many a congregation and many a pastor is threatened by belly-serving, wallet-serving, glory-seeking folks, who make it a point of letting everyone know that they put money in the plate and they’re not going to continue to pony up if they’re not going to get what they want. “I’ll take my business elsewhere!”
Boy…there’s a sermon, right? The wolf comes, trouble heats up, and the misthotos splits. Some pastors don’t put up a fight, opting instead to hit the ejection seat and take a call to a different congregation, leaving the flock to be slaughtered by the wolves in their midst. That’s a misthotos. Principals and teachers do it too. So do parishioners. It happens all the time. And yet…the voice of the Good Shepherd still rings out…in spite of us. The Good Shepherd doesn’t abandon us. He seeks us out. He loves us. He stands and fights for us. He comes to us to feed us, even as the wolves and thieves and the misthotos are all about. He takes us up and guides us, leads us, protects us, provides for us, His rod and His staff comforting us; His voice bespeaking, bestowing, and imputing His peace upon us.
And that’s really where I want to focus in on today: The Good Shepherd and His service to us and for us. I know that this concept—this divine reality—of the singular, unifying, life-giving voice of the Good Shepherd is understood by most everyone here. We get it. It doesn’t matter whether that voice is heard through a faithful pastor, faithful teacher, faithful deaconess, faithful elder, faithful head of the household, or even a faithful little child. The Good Shepherd speaks through all of them. “Those who hear you, hear Me.” It’s His voice that is heard. The other sheep who will hear His voice? That’s us! We get it. His voice makes all of us one holy, Christian, apostolic Church. His voice unites us—from Adam to Abraham to Moses to us today—in Himself and His love. We are a communion of saints in Him and because of Him. We get it…at least, I hope we do.
What I want to focus on in these last few minutes today is the reason Jesus gives for the Father loving Him: “Because I lay down My life for the sheep.” Now, I know that everyone here knows exactly what this is referring to: the death and resurrection of Jesus. You’re absolutely right! But…did you notice something here? We automatically fill-in the resurrection blank. Jesus never says here that the Father loves Him because He lays down His life and takes it up again. He has the authority to do that, which He does make clear, but the Father’s love isn’t based on this authority. It’s based on Christ’s sacrifice; the very fact that He does lay down His life for the sheep.
And here, surprisingly, is where a lot of good Christians tend to get it wrong. Jesus dies for the sheep. This is good, right? This is why the Father loves Him. He even says so. Okay…so what good does that do the sheep? If the shepherd is dead, now the sheep are left unprotected, right? Without the shepherd around, now the wolf can take his time as he scatters and slaughters the sheep. There is more to it than simply dying. There has to be. There must be. Every time I read this portion of Gospel, I’m reminded of a conversation Gen. George Patton is supposed to have had with a young, hard-charging and motivated enlisted man. “I’m ready to die for my country, sir!” Sounds great, right? How patriotic. How brave. Patton wasn’t impressed. “Son, you don’t win wars by dying for your country. You win wars by making the enemy die for his country.”
This is what’s so often missed in these words of Jesus. It’s not just that Jesus dies for the flock. Yes, we are saved because Jesus died for us, once for all. You know as well as I do that this [the crucifx] is often ignored or forsaken. People don’t like this. It’s “too Catholic.” It’s too gory. It’s too old-fashioned. It offends people. Good! It should offend you! Your sin is so great that God Himself had to die for you! But…there’s more to the story. Like St. Paul says, if Jesus is still dead, we’re to be pitied most of all. Our faith and our hope is all in vain. If Jesus is still dead; if His rotted, decayed remains still reside here on earth in some tomb or ossuary or crypt, we’re dead. We have no future, no hope, no salvation.
Folks: God the Father doesn’t love Jesus simply because Jesus dies fighting for the sheep. No! That would be no different than the young private dying while fighting for his country. It’s brave. It’s noble. It’s heroic. But…that’s not why the Father loves Jesus. God the Father loves Jesus because Jesus offers up Himself in place of the sheep. There’s a difference. You see, death is required. That’s the wage of sin. That’s the price of being at enmity with God. That’s the price of rejecting Him and His grace and His love. That’s the price of self-serving, glory-hounding, misthotos-type unbelief: Death—temporal and eternal; physical and spiritual.
If the debt of sin is going to be paid, death is required for payment. Blood must be shed. But here’s the problem: All the blood of Adam’s offspring could be shed, and it still wouldn’t be enough to pay for even one single sin, let alone an eternity’s worth of them. No matter how good or noble or heroic you may be; even if you laid down your very life to make atonement for sin, you would come up empty. You simply don’t have the right currency. Only the blood of the sinless can cover over and make atonement for sin.
Well…there’s only One sinless one—Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He willingly lays down His life in place of the sheep. His love for the sheep is so deep and so full; His love for His Father is so deep and so complete, that He willingly gives His life so that the sheep will not have to die. And He does this with all divine confidence and peace and assurance. After all, the Father has given Him all authority over death. Jesus already knows that He will vanquish death. He has nothing to fear. As He’s laying down His life; as the blood is pouring forth from His wounds; as the life is ebbing away, and the weight of all the sin for all mankind—the whole righteous wrath of God against sin crushing down on Him—He remains faithfully at peace. He knows. He trusts. Yes, He will die…and He will rise again three days later. He will die, and to heavenly paradise will His soul go…AND His soul will be reunited with His body three days later, and He will be raised again from the dead—body and soul complete. He has the authority to do that. He—and He alone—has the authority of His heavenly Father to take up His life again, which He does three days after He lays it down in humble obedience and love.
This is precisely why we faithfully fill in that “resurrection blank” when we hear Jesus foretell how He will lay down His life for His sheep. We already know the rest of the story. Not only that, but we know, by faith and through faith, that Jesus’ death isn’t like any other death. Jesus’ death is actually offensive; that is, it actually serves to destroy and kill the wolves, the thieves, and all those unrighteous, belly-serving misthotos. This [the crucifix] is God doing something about your sin and your death sentence. This is where the head of that wicked serpent was crushed. This is where all sin, death, and the devil was defeated. This is where Christ Himself declared, “It is finished!” This is what it’s all about!
I say all this only because it’s very easy to look around at the world we live in—this valley of shadowy death and darkness—and be terrified and depressed and hopeless. It’s very easy to become paralyzed with fear; to say nothing and do nothing because of all the offense and grief and shame that being faithful would incur. It’s very easy to look around at all this darkness and fear and death and despair, and wonder if God even knows or cares what’s going on here. It’s very easy to doubt Christ’s Word of cruciform victory. “What’s finished? The devil is still winning. Evil is still triumphing. What’s finished?”
My dear fellow lambs: Don’t trust your eyes; trust your ears! Behold, your substitute! Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away all the sin of the world. Behold, your Good Shepherd, who has laid down His life and taken it up again for you. His death and His victorious proclamation declare your victory and your peace, for you are baptized into Him; into His death and resurrection. And that’s just it. His resurrection gives you peace and confidence and assurance. He is the first-fruits of all who believe. His resurrection will be your resurrection. The empty tomb; the pierced hands and riven side that our Lord and Savior still bears in His resurrected body…all proof, all receipts for that divinely-atoning Good Friday transaction, which was made all for you. Jesus died for you. Jesus rose again from the dead…for you. Jesus lives…for you. And because Jesus lives, you too will live. His victory is your victory. His joy and peace is your joy and peace. It’s not something you have to wait for, as if you’ll never know Christ’s peace and joy until you get home to heaven. Yes, it will certainly be better in heaven, but you have that peace and joy right now. The victory is yours right now. Your Good Shepherd is holding it out to you and proclaiming it to you in your hearing right now!
May this Gospel Truth of your ever-present Good Shepherd give you the confidence, the blessed assurance, the joy and the peace that comes only from Him and surpasses all human understanding.
In His most-holy name…AMEN.
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