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Sheep, Wolves, and the Good Shepherd

Matthew 7:15-23; Jeremiah 23:16-29

Pastor Jason Zirbel

8th Sunday after Trinity
Grace Lutheran Church  
Greenwood, AR

View Associated File

Sun, Aug 11, 2019 

The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.

Out of everything said in these appointed lessons for today, it’s the language of the wolf in sheep’s clothing that tends to really capture the imagination and get all the attention.  I don’t know about you, but if you’re like me it’s difficult to imagine that a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing would be able to fool anybody.  “What a big wolf nose you have.  What big wolf paws you have.  What big wolf teeth you have.” “All the better to eat you with!” Maybe Little Red Riding Hood was dumb enough to get eaten by the big bad wolf, but we’re Christians, right?  The old satanic wolf can’t get us!  Dear children of God: This is PRECISELY why our Lord teaches us to beware!  Complacency kills.  Over-confidence kills. 

Now, before I go any further, I want to point something out, and it’s very important.  Our Lord Christ Himself says this in the Gospel of John: “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, they follow me.” The false prophets our Lord warns us about are not speaking the Word of the Good Shepherd.  “The one who hears you hears Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects me rejects Him who sent Me.” That’s precisely what makes them false!  It’s not simply the fact that they’re wolves pretending to be sheep that makes them false.  It’s the fact that the one pretending to be a fellow sheep is claiming to speak for the Good Shepherd.  The devil isn’t dumb.  No one would trust a wolf, but you’d probably trust another sheep that looks just like you, sounds just like you, and struggles with the same struggles you do.  You’d trust a fellow sheep if they were telling you everything you want to hear. 

Consider the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time.  The folks weren’t a bunch of demonic Baal-worshipping outsiders trying to lure Israel away from Yahweh.  They weren’t even fellow Israelites who were guilty of preaching against Yahweh.  These false prophets that God is warning about actually believed that they working for God!  Remember: “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord!’ will be saved.” They were guilty of giving false comfort and assurance in God’s name.  They were giving people the lie they preferred, and then telling them that the lie was God’s Truth. 

Think about this, because it’s our problem today too.  The problem was wrongly bespeaking God’s comfort and approval to a situation that called for the condemnation of sin and the preaching of repentance.  Scripture tells us very plainly that Israel was unfaithful and stiff-necked and dead-set in their proud and sinful ways.  However, I’m sure if you asked Israel, they would disagree with that assessment.  They weren’t all those terrible things.  They were good people who loved God.  Just ask them.  God loved these fools enough to send Jeremiah to them to speak His Truth.  Jeremiah was sent to tell it like it is, call sin “sin,” and to call the people to turn from that sin and turn back to trust in the one true God. 

The people didn’t want to hear that message of repentance though.  Why?  Because they didn’t have a problem with what they were doing, believing, and practicing.  I know that sounds so crazy to our ears, but it shouldn’t.  They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong or sinful or evil, and they were rather offended when they were told to repent.  They weren’t bad and terrible people!  They could all point to “real evil” in their Gentile neighbors.  They weren’t evil like those wicked Gentiles.  Why should they have to repent?!  And this is where the false prophets thrived.  Rather than preaching the Truth of God’s Word and Law, the false prophets (on their own, not sent by God) were wrongly preaching God’s approval.  They didn’t preach for God.  They preached instead of God.  They didn’t preach what God wanted the people to hear.  They preached what the people wanted to hear. 

We do that too.  We do that all the time.  For example: Normally such-and-such behavior would be a sin, but it’s different in this particular case.  God’s angry at a particular sin when “rank sinners and pagans” commit it, but He’s okay with it in our case.  It’s different with us.  God’s okay with it when our loved ones do it.  It’s different.  After all, He knows our hearts.  He knows we love Jesus, even though the fruits we bear are dead-ringers for thorns and thistles.  “What big wolfy paws/teeth!” Pick your poison.  Fill in the blank.  Despising God’s Word and Sacraments because we’re tired or the lawn absolutely needs mowing or the pool absolutely needs cleaning this morning?  It can’t wait!  Shacking up outside of marriage?  Pre-marital/extra-marital sex?  Pornography?  Coveting?  Lying?  Divorce?  Denying Christ’s real presence in His means of grace?  Choosing a church, not because the Word is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered in accordance with God’s Word and Will, but simply because of their big screen and their cool band or because they give away free groceries every week or free toys at Christmas?  Sure, they don’t give Christ’s true body and blood, as He commanded, but at least the kids are having fun.  Isn’t that all that matters?  “At least they’re in church somewhere, right?” Any of that sound familiar, O false prophet? 

Again, the problem here is proclaiming and/or following after the sweet song of the wolf-siren.  It’s proclaiming and/or following after the sweet-tasting poison of false comfort.  Such a deadly message is quite evident in the false gospel of works-righteousness; the false voice/gospel that gives people the false comfort that they can right their wrongs and they can achieve atonement (at-one-ment) with God by virtue of enough hard work and clean living.  They can win God over with enough money, enough good intentions and good deeds and personal sacrifices.  This was true in Jeremiah’s time.  This was true in Jesus’ time (e.g., the Pharisees), and it’s true today in our time…even amongst good old Lutherans.

Don’t believe me?  This is what passes for your average funeral sermon today, regardless of what denomination you claim as your own.  The message, time and time again, is a message of works.  We “celebrate the life” of the deceased, seeking peace in the remembrance of how good they were.  I’ve heard with my own ears a “pastor” give the false comfort from the pulpit that “heaven is now a better place” because the deceased was now there.  That’s how good of person he was!  He actually made heaven better!  No mention of Christ or His sacrifice.  No mention of salvation through faith alone in God’s grace alone, which God shows to us poor, miserable, undeserving sinners only because of the all-redeeming work and person of Christ alone.  Nope.  It was all about the guy in the box and how good of guy he was.  The grieving people were sent away with the “peace and assurance” that heaven is now brighter and better because the guy in the coffin was now gracing it with his presence.

That, my friends, is false comfort.  Such works-righteous false comfort robs Christ of His cross, His glory, and His all-redeeming sacrifice.  Such false comfort essentially calls Jesus a liar.  He declares victoriously, “It is finished, once and for all,” and the works-righteous corpse dares to say, “Yeah…not so fast.  I still need to do my part, and THEN it will be finished.  You did your part, Jesus, and now I need to do mine.” I understand why God is so angry at such false comfort!  Salvation through faith alone in God’s grace alone because of Christ alone (like Scripture teaches) OR salvation through good works and good intentions with a side-helping of Jesus’ blood and God’s grace sprinkled in for good measure?  “It doesn’t matter, does it?  Six one way, half-a-dozen another.  We all love Jesus.  Hey…at least we’re in church somewhere, right?” Folks: That’s comfort that only a wolf (or a serpent) would give.  That’s NOT the comfort that the Good Shepherd gives. 

Hear the voice of your Good Shepherd (who desires the death of no man): You are a sinner who deserves nothing but present and eternal punishment.  So am I.  Sin put Jesus on that cross…the sin of the world, the sin of the people you don’t like, my sin, and—yes—even your sin, even the littlest sin that you don’t think is a big deal.  That’s how great and damnable your sins really are—God had to die for them!  The Good Shepherd laid down His life for your sin in your stead precisely because there is NOTHING you could possibly do to make atonement for even one of them, let alone an eternity’s worth of them. 

But… here on this cross and in these means of grace is also the sweetest and most truly nourishing comfort and peace you will ever know.  The Gospel Truth is that your sins have been paid for in full with the blood of Christ Jesus.  Hear the voice of your Good Shepherd: “It is finished!” The Gospel Truth is that this same victorious Christ is still keeping His Word and Promise to be with you always, baptizing you into His fold, washing all your guilt away and adopting you into His heavenly household.  Here is Christ, absolving you with His unconditional peace that surpasses all understanding.  It’s not my peace I give you, but it is the peace of the Good Shepherd, spoken in His stead and by His command.  “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, they follow me.” Here is the Good Shepherd holding out to you His victorious Body and Blood for your peace, your comfort, and your blessed assurance.  “Take and eat.  Take and drink.  This is My Body/Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sin.” If you’re hearing anything else, beware!  Flee, for that is not the voice of your Good Shepherd.

If you’ve heard nothing else today, hear this: You are forgiven, in Christ and because of Christ.  Remain vigilant.  Remain on guard.  Remain in Him… and rejoice, for you belong to Him, and not even the big bad satanic wolf can you steal you away from Him.

To Him alone be all glory, praise, and honor… AMEN.



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