Sermon on Matthew 9:35–10:8, Pentecost 4, June 28 & July 2, 2017
There are many parts of Scripture that point us to the Lord as our Shepherd. The twenty-third psalm comes to mind first, but there are many. Today’s psalm says “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (or poetically, “And for God’s sheep God does us take” Psalm 100) In John chapter 10, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. We have our window. We have countless hymn versions and musical settings of Psalm 23. What it says about our Good Shepherd and about his care beautiful. But today I’m going to flip the focus around to us, the sheep of his pasture and why we call ourselves his sheep—how we need his care. When King David wrote “The Lord is my shepherd,” might he have been thinking of the Bathsheba incident when he went so far away from his Shepherd’s path of righteousness and needed to be led back.
I. He sees sheep without a shepherd
- This is what Jesus saw on the plains around the Sea of Galilee. As he walked from town to town, a crowd gathered because they heard about his teaching, but even more, they were following because they wanted something. Some want d healing. Some wanted to see for themselves what they heard about. Some had ideas of this wonder-worker becoming some kind of a king. Jesus knew. He looked at the people and had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. What does that phrase mean? It means that the people were wandering aimlessly—not just physically, but spiritually too. Where were their minds? Isaiah wrote “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
- This is what we see in our world, too—it is what we see in ourselves. What do people value—or consider most important? Isn’t our culture building itself on the value of an individual’s choices and ambitions? That sounds nice, but think about what it means. “Do your thing, whatever you please.” “Pursue your goals and give no thought to what it might mean for you in the future.” “Give no thought to how your choices might affect others.” “Your personal goals are supreme, so pursue them with all you’ve got.” What does that mean? It means no intervention for the person going on a self-destructive path, after all, he’s pursuing his goals. It means no guidance for society as a whole, because everyone is doing as they see fit. In our first lesson today (Numbers 27), Moses appointed Joshua to be his successor first like a vice-president, and he would eventually take Moses’ place. But after Joshua everything fell apart. In the book of Judges, the key verse is “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). And how was life during the time of the judges? It was a lot like we picture the Wild West. From time to time a new sheriff would appear and bring order, but for the most part the people were running wild. Idolatry, adultery, murder, mayhem. That’s what “sheep without a shepherd” means—no guidance, aimless, hurting and being hurt, harassed and helpless, troubled and downcast.
- Aren’t the most painful failures the ones when you didn’t want to listen to anyone. Your plan failed, and then you had to deal with the consequences of what you did. “No Mom, I’m not overdoing it with the partying. Don’t worry, I’ll be just fine.” What comes next? “I did a sufficient job. Who’s going to know or notice my shortcut?” What comes next? “No dear, I don’t think I have a problem. Why are you carrying a suitcase?” That’s what comes next. Failure. Disappointment. All because someone wouldn’t listen or take correction—like sheep without a shepherd.
II. He establishes a ministry to reach them (us)
- What is Jesus’ reaction when he sees sheep without a shepherd? “When he saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were troubled and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd.” Compassion means love—very much like sympathy. Both mean that your heart feels the pain with someone else. Sympathy has this sense: “I’ve been through something like that, and I can understand the pain you’re going through.” Compassion has more the sense of mercy and pity: “I see you’ve gotten yourself into a terrible mess. I see you need help and can’t help yourself, and so I must help you.” “Compassion” is the word Jesus used to describe the father of the prodigal. Mercy, pity and love.
- So what does Jesus do when he sees the people like sheep without a shepherd? He establishes a ministry. He calls his twelve disciples by name and sends them out to help. He tells them, “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” The ministry he gave his disciples was to do what he had been doing. After I sent the bulletin to the printer, I thought that my second part was ambiguous: He establishes a ministry to reach them (us). And I thought, “What a wonderful mistake!” He establishes a ministry to reach us when we are like sheep without a shepherd. Where would you be without the gospel of Jesus? Where would you be without brothers and sisters in Christ to lead you to Christ, encourage you, and seek you out, sometimes correct you and lead you back? You’d be wandering, troubled and downcast, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The ministry Christ has established to reach the lost sheep is the people of his flock. This is where the word picture (metaphor) of the sheep shifts. The sheep become shepherds. The straying and lost who have been led back then go out to bring back others who are straying and lost. This is the public ministry of your pastors. This is your personal ministry as brothers and sisters in Christ—Christian friends. We are the body of Christ and each of us is a part—and if one part hurts, the whole body hurts (1 Corinthians 12:26-27).
III. He proclaims and establishes his kingdom
- The message Jesus gave his disciples was “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Some in that crowd of troubled and downcast people were thinking of a kingdom. It was 1700 years before George Washington, but I think they would have liked George Washington—a revolutionary general who would throw out the foreign power, the Romans, with all their taxes and all their soldiers and make Israel a great kingdom again. But Jesus didn’t come to be a George Washington. He came to be a Savior. He came to get people out of a worse bondage and slavery than the oppression of the Romans. He came to free them from sin—the aimlessness of the life the world sets before people, and the sin from within that leads people astray. No, Jesus didn’t want to rule in Jerusalem. He wanted to rule in their hearts, as he wants to rule in our hearts. When we studied “Your kingdom come” in the catechism, we learned “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father sends his Holy Spirit so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live godly lives according to it, here on earth and forever in heaven.” This kingdom of Christ, this ruling in our hearts with his Word, is Jesus’ solution to our aimlessness—like sheep without a shepherd. He wants to guide us—for our own good and for the good of his whole flock—his kingdom.
- “My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them and they follow me.” Jesus lays down his life for the sheep because he is compassionate. He nudges us with his rod and staff—he guides us, corrects us, and sometimes even disciplines us because he is compassionate. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Sometimes wayward? Yes. But that doesn’t stop his compassion. Straying is never good, and the great compassion of Jesus is not our permission to be wayward. That would be like saying the lamb has permission to walk near the edge of a cliff because it has a shepherd watching. When straying becomes rejection of the Shepherd, then it is the wayward sheep’s loss. Sin is still sin, and danger is still danger. And compassion is still compassion. This life is our time of his grace and compassion. It’s our time to hear his voice. It’s our time to live under him in his kingdom, for our good now, and for our eternal good.