Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:05 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If there was any doubt about what Jesus appeared in the world to do, He clears it up in these few verses from John 10. Five times in these verses, He says that He lays down His life. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep; I lay down My life for the sheep; I lay down My life that I may take it up again; I lay it down of My own accord; I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.
This is what the Good Shepherd does. The hired worker, on the other hand, to whom the sheep do not belong, who’s only in it for the money, he doesn’t hang around to see what happens when the wolf appears. He runs away from the wolf and leaves the sheep alone. And the wolf comes and snatches and seizes and scatters the sheep.
But the Good Shepherd never runs away from His sheep. Instead, when He sees the wolf coming, He lays down His own life and allows Himself to be devoured and consumed by the wolf. He tells the disciples this. Just before He is going to lay down His life, He tells them that the hour will come and has come when they will all be scattered to their own, leaving Him alone. But of course, He says, He is not alone, but the Father is with Him. The sheep are still scattered when the shepherd is struck, but because He lays down His life instead of them, He rises from the dead in order to gather them together again. The wolf’s jaws are broken, and death only appears to have power over us.
He says, I am telling you all these things so that you will have peace. You are going to have trouble in the world, but be courageous—take heart—I have overcome the world. I am victorious over the world. He speaks in order that they have peace in the midst of the world of trouble. Take heart, He says. And when He rises from the dead, He shows them His hands and feet and side and says, “Peace to you.” Peace in the middle of the world of trouble.
This is how we know love, John says, because He laid down His life for us. This is the love of God, that Jesus lays down His life and takes it up again. There is, in fact, no greater love than this: that this Man lays down His life for His friends. He says to His disciples, I don’t call you servants; I have called you My friends. And He lays down His life for them and for us. And this love, spoken to us by these words, by this Man is how we console, how we set our hearts at ease in the midst of the trouble of the world.
We tend to associate our hearts with our feelings and emotions. And it is certainly true that our feelings are back and forth, up and down. But “heart” in the Scriptures is associated with our thoughts and our thinking. Feelings are associated with our guts; and John says that we ought to feel it in our guts when we see a brother in need, and do what we can to take the stuff of our life, and lay it down for him or her.
But whether they are our feelings or our thoughts, they can be here or there, like a see-saw or a roller coaster. We think now one thing and now another. We feel one thing, and now another. We get pulled inside our feelings or our thoughts and sometimes it’s hard to get out. We get pulled into our little self-invested circles, and that’s not always a nice place to be. Paul puts it this way: that our consciences are now, at one point, excusing us, and now, at another point, accusing us. How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the constant push and pull of our thoughts and feelings? Like this, John says: by hearing the word of God, who is not within us, but outside of us. He is not subject to the whims of our on-again-off-again experiences, feelings, thoughts, ideas, opinions. He is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.
Whenever our hearts or minds or guts, our thoughts or feelings, become greater than God or His Word, then they become god. We will sacrifice everything to them. We will work at all costs to satisfy what we think, or what we feel. And there is no safe harbor, no firm ground, no baseline. We are like those whom Paul says are tossed here and there by every wave of teaching, first here, then there, and never coming to rest. But God is greater than our hearts, whether they justify or condemn us. And He knows everything! No matter how much we have thought, or felt, or experienced, we can never have any more than a tiny sliver of feeling or thought or experience. But God knows all things, and He speaks a word that is beyond all of it, the Word made flesh who appeared in the world not to condemn the world but to lay down His life for the sheep.
When you find yourself tossed around, groundless, hopeless, thoughts and emotions running wild; when the troubled world offers no shelter or harbor; when your own self refuses to let you rest, hear the Word of the God who is our rock and fortress, who does not change. “If you are sick, if death is near, this truth your troubled heart can cheer: Christ Jesus saves your soul from death; that is the firmest ground of faith” (LSB 571:5). Because Jesus didn’t lay down His life unwillingly. He wasn’t forced to do so by His Father against His own will. He has authority to lay down His life, and He has authority to take it up again. He does it willingly, as the command He has received from His Father, by the will He shares with His Father.
That is the commandment He received. That is His call, His vocation: to lay down His life for the sheep and take it up again. Only He can do that. But we have a different command: to believe this word, to believe in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ; and to lay down our lives—not for the whole world, not as the Good Shepherd—but for one another, as we serve them in love; not in words only, but in work and in deed, in action. This is the entire Christian faith, to love God by hearing His word and believing Him, and to love our neighbor. So after Jesus gives us the body and blood that He laid down in death and took up again in resurrection, we pray that by this same meal, this same sacrament, we would be strengthened in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. This is the Christian faith summed up.
And the Lord who had authority to lay down His own life and take it up again, and who did so—when you have laid down your life in death after serving in your vocation, then He has the authority to take up your life again and give it back to you. He knows His own, and you know Him. And God has wakened from death the Shepherd of us, His sheep. He has granted us the Holy Spirit so that when we hear the voice of our Shepherd, we will follow where He leads us, even through the jaws of death’s wolf, and into life eternal.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/24/21