In case our readings for this morning didn’t already give it away, today is the Sunday in the church calendar when we celebrate “Good Shepherd” Sunday. We celebrate that God in Christ is our good shepherd.
And even though most of us have little or no experience with actual, real-life sheep or sheep-herding, we have at least some idea of what a shepherd does. We know that shepherds are responsible for the wellbeing of their sheep, which is a 24/7 job. Shepherds guide their sheep to food and water, they protect them from predators, and they find shelter for them when things start to get stormy. They help the sheep to survive and flourish. It’s a position of trust; like Jesus says in our gospel reading, the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd and they follow it.
Now, in this world, even though there may not be a ton of people working with actual sheep, there are still lots and lots of different kinds of shepherds. There are lots and lots of voices clamoring for people to follow them, promising to show them the way to health and wealth and prosperity and long life. Not all of these voices belong to good shepherds, or even to so-so shepherds. In fact, many of them are even downright bad shepherds. You’ve no doubt heard some of their voices before. There are the consumerist commercial shepherds telling us that the way to life and happiness is just to buy this gadget or to drive this car or to take this pill or to try this diet.
And even worse, you’ve probably heard the voices of the not-so-good shepherds who claim to preach in God’s name – especially the voices of those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel. These are the shepherds who will tell you that God loves the rich and that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. There’s no shortage of these kinds of shepherds, ready to tell you that if you just think positive and believe hard enough – and, of course, send them enough money – all your dreams will come true! Salvation and a good life are within your reach – you can achieve it all if you just have enough faith! And of course, when you do inevitably experience suffering and illness and loss, it’s just because you just didn’t have enough faith, or enough of a positive attitude!
When the going gets tough – as it always does eventually – these bad shepherds will leave you stranded high and dry. They preach a kind of salvation that depends on human efforts, salvation that hinges on you doing or saying or buying or being the right things. But we know well as Lutheran Christians that humans are limited and prone to failure – we know that no one can earn their own salvation. And that’s why – in the face of life’s biggest struggles and questions – these other shepherds have nothing good to offer their followers.
Thankfully, this is not the kind of shepherd that we see in the scriptures. Not at all. The scriptures show us a shepherd who has compassion and love for his flock. This shepherd searches high and low to find even one lost lamb who has wandered away from the rest of the flock. This shepherd leads his sheep through danger to safety, beside green pastures and still waters. He wipes away the tears from their eyes. He even lays down his own life for the flock.
Our good shepherd is none other than Jesus Christ, God made flesh. And he doesn’t wait for us to somehow figure out the path to our own salvation. Jesus is constantly seeking us out, constantly coming after us to bring us back into the fold when we wander away. We don’t find Jesus or accept Jesus into our hearts – Jesus finds us. Jesus accepts us into his heart. And our salvation isn’t by our own actions; but rather, we have been saved and redeemed by what God in Christ has already done for us. Jesus never expects or demands that we be perfect. Instead, he is continually pushing and pulling and coaxing us to grow more and more in holiness; he is continually taking us by the hand to lead us back to the path of life. He is continually helping us to become more like him.
And Jesus, our good shepherd, never promises us that he will keep us from going through difficult times of trial and tribulation – far from it. Instead, he is honest about the fact that there will be struggle – and there will be a lot of it. He warns his followers that by becoming his disciples they have made themselves enemies of the powers of this world – and that far from escaping suffering, they will likely suffer all the more because they bear his name. Because we bear his name. Just in our readings for today, we see that there are enemies and evil, hunger and tears, tribulation and death. Jesus does not sugarcoat these realities. But he does promise to be by our side through every single moment of it. He will never abandon or forsake us. He reassures us that nothing and no one can snatch us away from him. He will lead us even through death itself to the springs of the water of eternal life.
Neither salvation nor everlasting life are dependent on us behaving perfectly – and thanks be to God – because we simply cannot reach these things on our own. Instead, we have salvation and redemption and life through our mighty good shepherd. And our salvation is no guarantee that we will never again experience suffering or loss or death. But we are guaranteed that none of those things can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Christ our good shepherd is more powerful than anything else in all creation – he is even more powerful than death. He loves us forever and guides us always on the path that leads us to life.
I think this message is especially important for us to hear today. We are preparing to send our two soon-to-be-high-school-graduates, Brayden and Connor, off on the next new adventures in their lives. I encourage you both – and all of us here – to be mindful of the fact that there are many shepherds in this world. There are many voices that will call out to you, offering you wealth and happiness and instant salvation. But you know your shepherd’s voice, and he knows you. Listen for his voice. He will lead you in right paths for his name’s sake. He will not abandon you when the going gets tough. And he will bring you even through death to drink deeply from the springs of the water of life.