11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (ESV)
1 Peter 2:21–25
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (ESV)
11 [Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (ESV)
All we like sheep have gone astray. We were born as lost sheep trapped in a thicket of sin with no ability to break free and find our way home to God. Completely estranged from God, we lived under the sentence of death and damnation. But then Jesus—God’s Son—came as the Good Shepherd…[who] lays down his life for the sheep. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;…He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5).
Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down His life for us straying sheep. But His death is no defeat; rather, it is the greatest victory the world has ever known. For on the cross, Jesus freed us from sin and death and He defeated the devil—that menacing predator who loves to devour straying sheep. The Good Shepherd died for sheep who love to wander, and in His dying for us, Jesus has given us a new life. Now, we no longer live estranged from God and trapped in death and damnation.
Jesus died and rose for you, to give you a new life. Your new life is a life of freedom, for the Son has set you free from sin, death, and the devil. Your new life is eternal, for whoever believes in the Son has eternal life (John 3:36). Your new life is a life of healing, for by [Jesus’] wounds [we] have been healed. Yes, Jesus’ death is the divine victory that gives freedom, life, and healing to us straying sheep. His resurrection shows us that His victory over sin, death, and the devil is complete. And in the still waters of Holy Baptism, Jesus has transformed us to be the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand (Psalm 95:7). Yes, you and I are members of the Lord’s holy flock, His Church. And Jesus, the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls, is ever leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to the house of the LORD, where we will dwell forever.
Now you would think that with our victorious Lord Jesus leading and guiding us in the way of life and salvation, that the journey would be smooth sailing. If you and I were to paint a picture of the Christian life, we would want to paint a peaceful scene of a shepherd leading his flock through gently-rolling lush green hills on a sunny day with a few billowy clouds.
But if we were to paint the Christian life as it really is, then our painting would have to present a reality that is much more grim. For starters, look at the Shepherd Himself. See the wounds He bears. These are the death-wounds He suffered while saving His sheep. That alone should tell you that this holy flock is not taking an easy stroll through the park.
And that is another point. Look at where the Shepherd is leading His flock. He is not taking them away from the valley of the shadow of death, but right through the heart of it! And in that dark valley, His sheep will suffer all kinds of afflictions and finally death itself.
Now look at the sheep. See how injured and weak they are! Yes, the Shepherd has set them free. Yes, the Shepherd has given them eternal life. Yes, the Shepherd has healed the sheep by His very wounds. But as long as they are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death, the sheep will continue to be afflicted by life’s trials and by temptations to stray back into the ways of sin and unbelief.
As you look closely at this true picture of the Christian life, you will see a terrifying sight. There is a side path leading away from the Shepherd! And there are actually sheep heading down this evil path. On top of that, there is a predator loose—the devil himself. Though he is a defeated enemy, he still seeks to work what destruction he can upon the Shepherd’s flock; he loves nothing better to devour straying sheep.
A true picture of the Christian life would have to depict a Shepherd bearing death-wounds leading sheep who are injured and weak through a deep, dark valley of affliction, with some sheep going astray and with a defeated predator still loose. Not exactly a comforting picture, is it? And yet, there is indeed great comfort in our life in Christ. The great comfort is found not in us, but in Jesus, the Good Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls, the One who is leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to the house of the LORD.
In the still waters of Holy Baptism, Jesus the Good Shepherd has placed you on the path that leads to heaven, to the house of the LORD, where you will dwell forever. But the path leads through the valley of the shadow of death. In this fallen world, we have an enemy within us, for we still possess a sinful nature that ever tempts us to satisfy the desires of the flesh. And we have enemies outside us—the devil and this evil world. And so, it is still possible for the people of [the Lord’s] pasture, and the sheep of His hand to go astray, to abandon the hard way that leads to life for the easy way that leads to destruction. How can we stay on the straight and narrow? How can we remain faithful to the end, so that we may be saved?
The prophet Ezekiel helps us answer that question. He speaks of fat and strong sheep. Of course, he is speaking of people’s spiritual condition. The fat and strong are those who think they do not need the Lord, that they do not need to repent. A terrible doom awaits these self-sufficient sinners, for the Lord says: the fat and the strong I will destroy.
Ezekiel then mentions sheep who are lost, strayed, injured, and weak. These sheep are not self-sufficient. Rather, they know they cannot save themselves. They know they need the Good Shepherd to save them. These are the Lord’s sheep, who listen to the Shepherd’s voice speaking a gracious word of forgiveness. That is why the sheep of [the Lord’s] hand gather faithfully each week. That is why the Divine Service begins with Confession and Absolution. Here, lost, strayed, injured, and weak sheep come to God, acknowledging and lamenting that they are ever sinning and going astray. And to all to come here to confess their sinning and their straying, our Lord Jesus gives a gracious promise: I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. That is the Good Shepherd’s Word of Absolution speaking to us His peace, His forgiveness that heals and restores our souls, so that we remain faithful, following the Good Shepherd all the days of our life.
It is not at all by our own strength that we remain faithful, but only by the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. It is Jesus the Good Shepherd who faithfully leads [us] in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. When we fall into sin, Jesus restores [our] souls through His Word of Holy Absolution. When we grow weary and faint-of-heart, Jesus prepare[s] a table—the feast of His Holy Body and Blood—before [us] in the presence of [our] enemies. Our Good Shepherd Jesus guides us along the path of His righteousness that leads to eternal life, and He never leaves us nor forsakes us. His goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life.
In the still waters of Holy Baptism, your Good Shepherd Jesus has given you heaven and He has placed you on the path that leads to eternal life. Oh, on this path, you will encounter suffering and sin, and the devil will always seek to undermine and destroy your faith in Jesus. But your Good Shepherd Jesus knows how injured and weak His sheep are, how vulnerable you are to the devil’s attacks. And so through His Holy Word and Sacraments He ever works to restore your soul and to lead you in the paths of righteousness for His own name’s sake. In the midst of your sufferings and sins, then, remember that Shepherd Jesus bears the death-wounds that put to death your sin, for He himself bore [your] sins in His body on the tree. And now, in the midst of your fierce struggle to remain on the hard path that leads to life, Jesus comes to you, speaking a Word of Absolution to restore your soul, to keep you right by His side. He says to you: “I forgive you.” He comes to you, preparing a table before [you] in the presence of [your] enemies. He says to you: “Come, eat, drink, and be sustained by My body and blood so that you may continue your journey on the way that leads to life.”
Here is how the prophet Isaiah describes Jesus: He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young (40:11). This morning, you have come to Good Shepherd Jesus, bearing the injuries of your sufferings and sins. And Jesus gathers you up in His arms and He carries you in His bosom. He whispers into your ear and heart the peace of His forgiveness and He places on your tongue His very Body and Blood, given and shed for you.
And having thus restored your weak and injured soul, Jesus keeps you right by His side, to protect you from that roaming predator, the devil. You are never on your own, without help. For the Good Shepherd goes with you each day, giving you His humility to repent of your sins; giving you His strength to resist the attacks of the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature; giving you His love and compassion to serve your neighbour and to forgive those who have hurt you; giving you His bold confidence so that in spite of your sufferings, you fear no evil; giving you His grace to continue in your journey through the valley of the shadow of death so that you safely arrive at the house of the LORD, where you will dwell with Him forever.
To depict the Christian life accurately, you must paint it with all its suffering. Yes, you must depict the Shepherd bearing death-wounds and the valley of death and the weak and injured sheep, with some sheep going astray and with a defeated predator still on the loose. But you must also depict the Good Shepherd’s loving care of His sheep, as each day He guides us through the dark valley of this fallen world and leads us in the paths of His righteousness.
And to paint a complete picture of the Christian life, you must include one final glorious scene—the scene of you safely arriving at the house of the Lord, where you will finally see with your own eyes the Good Shepherd Jesus, who has gently led you your whole life long through all the dangers and deceptions of this fallen world. There, in heaven, your Good Shepherd Jesus will guide [you] to springs of living water, and [He] will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes (Revelation 7:15-17). And there, with a heart finally free from sin and suffering, you will say with great joy: surely goodness and mercy [has] follow[ed] me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Amen.