Easter 3: Our Good Shepherd Brings Us from Exile to Green Pastures

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lessons: Ezekiel 34:11-16, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:21-25, John 10:11-16

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Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ serves as our Good Shepherd. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter and laid down His life for the sheep. He was the sacrificial Lamb who took away the sin of the world. And now that He is risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father, He shepherds His Church.

Good Shepherd Sunday is a joyous day not only because we observe it during the joyous Easter Season, but also because the Biblical teachings concerning Christ as our Shepherd are comforting and His work as the Good Shepherd continues today in churches across the globe through ministers Jesus has sent.

But this year, there’s a level of somberness or melancholy because the sheep are scattered. They are not gathered into the sanctuary of Christ’s Church; they are told to stay at home and engage in social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not only that, but at this time of the year, Wednesdays With the Word would be wrapping up and often we have had our children sing on this Sunday.

The activities at Church remain suspended out of an abundance of caution and to fulfill the orders made by our civil authorities.

Not unlike the present time, there was an era in the Old Testament in which God’s people were separated from the house of God. This separation brought about much mourning and grieving among God’s people. This did not happen by chance. God punished His people for their idolatry and sinful behavior. Many refused to listen to the shepherds God raised up. They replaced the truth for lies.

God warned them many times. Even before they settled the Promised Land in 1406 BC, Moses warned them, but He promised abundant material and spiritual blessings if they remained faithful to the Lord. God raised up judges and prophets to lead His people to repentance and faithfulness to the Lord. God was extremely benevolent and patient with them as they regularly engaged in immorality, worshipped idols, and rejected God’s truth.

Because this had been happening by varying degree from their settlement in the Promised Land for over 800 years, God raised up the Babylonians to conquer Israel and deport His people into foreign lands. It was during this context that the prophet Ezekiel lived. At 48 chapters, this lengthy book of the Bible was written during the Babylonian exile. Chapter 33 begins the final theme of the book: God promises restoration for His people who have been chastened by these events. Chapter 34 speaks of God shepherding His sheep. We heard a portion of this chapter in our Old Testament reading.

The sadness of God’s people during their Babylonian captivity and separation from the house of God is captured in Psalm 137, which reads, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”

When compared to the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the time of their captivity was short. But compared to their own lifespans, the time of their captivity was very long. It lasted 70 years. For 70 years, God’s people were displaced from the Promised Land and lived in foreign lands, unable to gather at the Temple, which laid in ruins.

The time of our own isolation may seem long, even though it will be over soon. For those who rarely attend church, they may not even notice. But for those who, in love to their Lord and in their desire to be shepherded by Christ, attend every Sunday, this has been a long time. We last celebrated the Divine Service here at Grace five weeks ago.

Just as the people in Ezekiel’s day remembered Zion and sat down and wept, so also we grieve as we stay in our homes without the gathering of God’s people.

Now, there are some who may prefer this arrangement. Some may like watching church at a time that suits their own schedule. They may think they don’t need to dress up since they aren’t going out. They may like the idea of not having to interact with others when they don’t want to. They can adjust the volume so that they can hear well. They can hit pause or rewind the video. They can even fast-forward.

While these flexible options may seem nice, online worship does not match our Lord’s intention for the Church. You see, the Church is not virtual. While theologians may describe the true Church as invisible (that is, all true believers on Earth and in Heaven which we cannot measure or see), the Church does not remain invisible. For the Church is understood as sheep who gather around their Good Shepherd. As Luther wrote, even a seven-year-old child knows this.

God never intended for churches to do their work privately, in the comfort of individual homes, apart from the gathering of believers. Instead, the Church is engaged in the public ministry. Therefore, God established local congregations. He sends undershepherds who feed the sheep the Word of God and administer the Sacraments.

The Church is incarnational. The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. He sends pastors to serve in His stead. That way people do not need to search their hearts, gaze at the stars, or look in nature to determine who God is and what He thinks of mankind. Instead, God teaches us. He teaches us that He sent His only-begotten Son to die for us and to give us the gift of everlasting life. He gathers us together as His flock and feeds us His Body and Blood.

If we could divorce Christ and the Church from the incarnation and somehow operate the Church through a virtual medium, we would still be lacking the Sacraments. When the Word is spoken in Holy Baptism and water touches the person being baptized, God is doing His saving work. When the Word is spoken over the simple elements of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ are present, and Christians gather together to receive this sacrament for the forgiveness of sins.

God sends men to pastor His people. Just as shepherds feed flocks of sheep, move them all at once to greener pastures, and tend to them together, so also much of the work of pastors is done corporately. Pastors preach to the congregation, administer Holy Communion to the congregation, and address the congregation collectively through reports, letters, and newsletters.

There are times, however, when shepherds need to tend to sheep individually, like when it’s time for lambing, wounds need to be mended, or a sheep is lost and the shepherds seeks after it until he finds it. In the same way, pastors need to address God’s sheep individually at times, like baptizing, visiting the sick and shut-in, calling on the delinquent, curing souls, driving hardened sinners to repentance, and comforting troubled consciences with the Gospel.

These works cannot be done by some sort of virtual church, for the sheep would go astray without anyone knowing. In fact, there’s lots of false information and false belief that is distributed online and through many televised serviced.

Sheep are to listen intently for the voice of their true Good Shepherd. That is, sheep are to ensure that they are not listening to the false voices of human opinion, lies of Satan, or the desires of their own sinful flesh; instead sheep must listen to the pure Word of God as He reveals it in the Bible. Sheep are to test the teachings of their pastor with the Scriptures to ensure they are being fed the truth.

Did you know that the word Pastor is found just once in the Bible? The work of pastors is found throughout the Scriptures and the Bible uses other words for pastors, such as bishops, elders, overseers, bondservants, stewards, etc. The one use of the word Pastor is found in Ephesians 4:11. Some translations translate that word as Shepherd instead of Pastor. This is because the same Greek word for Pastor in Ephesians 4:11 is the same Greek word that Jesus uses in John 10 when He says He is the Good Shepherd. Shepherd and Pastor are the same word. Shepherds work in green pastures. In fact, both pasture and pastor are brought into English the same Latin word.

The Scriptures connect the work of our Good Shepherd with protection from hardship and comfort during difficult times. As we know in Psalm 23, His rod and staff comfort us. While we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us. And it is written in Revelation 7:17, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” For Christ, our Good Shepherd will bring us to Himself in Heaven.

I mentioned earlier the hardship endured by the Israelites as they lived in foreign lands. Pastors are sent in part to pray for God’s people in hard times, work with God’s people as they struggle with sin, and prepare Christians to be received into the Church Triumphant. We live in a fallen world, marked by sin. The world provides little security or safety. But Christ, our Good Shepherd, is always present, loves us, takes care of us, hears our prayers, blesses us with the forgiveness of sins He earned for us when He died for us on the cross, and grants to us the gift of eternal life.

Despite the trying times we are enduring as we are separated from the gathering of believers, we can still have joy. For Christ Jesus is not dead, but lives. He has conquered death and the grave. He lives to Shepherd His flock. He lives to give us life. Amen.  

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen