Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter - May 7, 2006

I’ve been a pastor for ten years now.  I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things during that time.  One of the things I’d like to think I’ve learned is that there are some parts of the Bible that you just don’t mess with, at least from the pulpit.  There are some texts that have such power that it is best to just get out of their way.  It’s a hard and humbling message to learn though because at seminary you get trained to dissect biblical texts, to analyze them, read the commentaries, get into the theology in order to come up with something profound to say on Sunday morning.  You’re made to believe that what you have to say on Sunday morning is pretty important because from the beginning, Martin Luther put heavy emphasis on the preached word.  Sometimes it works; but I have learned that there are some stories and images in the Bible that my profound words cannot add to.  

Christmas is one such example.  On Christmas Eve my preaching tends to be pretty spare, because the Christmas story is so well known that I think it’s best to just step back and let the words sink in.  The story speaks for itself; it has a power to touch people that my in depth exegetical analysis just isn’t going to improve.  So I pretty much just tell the story and let it affect people as it will.

That’s one example.  More relevant for today though is the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  It’s another thing I don’t want to mess with.  Without question it is one of the most beloved and comforting images of Jesus that we have.  Like me, many of you probably remember a picture from your childhood a picture of Jesus holding a lamb with other sheep and lambs at his feet in a very pastoral setting.  It might have been a picture in your home or in church or in a Sunday School classroom.  I haven’t…  When the people at Bethany wanted to commission a mural to be painted in the fellowship hall last summer, it came as no surprise that they wanted Jesus as the Good Shepherd to be the basic theme.  It is a beloved, comforting image on many levels.

Every year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It’s not officially designated as such on liturgical calendars, but the gospel, always from John, always has shepherd and sheep imagery; the Psalm for the day is always the 23rd which is the best known, most loved of all the psalms, arguably the best known, most well loved passage in the entire Bible.  So every year the preacher faces this imagery along with the temptation to overanalyze it. 

You’ve probably all heard a sermon where the pastor talked about shepherds as scoundrels and low lives, about how sheep are among the dumbest of God’s creatures, things like that.  I’ve given that sermon.  In the first year or two of my ministry I started working on a sermon where I was really going to analyze the 23rd Psalm but fortunately, before I got too far with this I realized, “If I do this I might ruin this psalm for some people,” and I think a good rule of preaching as in medicine is that while you can’t always be sure you’re doing something good you should at least try not to do any harm.  So I’ve learned that the shepherd imagery of the Bible is something I choose not to mess with. 

I’m still inclined though, to wonder why these texts have such impact on people. The Lord is my shepherd, Jesus as the Good Shepherd is comforting imagery, but why?  Why is this image so lasting and so meaningful.  Most of us don’t know a whole lot about sheep or shepherds; they’re just not part of our world; but maybe that’s part of the answer.  Because we don’t know much, our minds don’t instantly make all kinds of other associations and connections when we hear this.  There’s a child like simplicity and purity to the image that remains unaffected and doesn’t get shattered by the trials and cynicism of life; it doesn’t lose the charm and magic that can be lost by knowing too much about something.  In this case our naiveté is to our advantage.   

That may be part of the comfort of the shepherd, but even more I think it is simply because we need this image.  We need this image of God.  We need the Good Shepherd because maybe more than any other image we have of God this is the one that best brings home to us the nature of the relationship we are offered by the Risen Christ we celebrate during this Easter season.

If you think about it, the Christian understanding of God as Trinity invites many images.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit…well there’s three right there, but then within that there is Father as the all powerful, all knowing creator and law giver and judge; there is Jesus as teacher and friend and sacrifice and healer; there is the Holy Spirit as sanctifier, sustainer and advocate and for all three persons of the Trinity there are other descriptors we could generate.  The doctrine of the Trinity was the effort of the early church fathers to put into words the nature of God which really can’t be put into words.  They did a good job, which is why Trinity is still the framework from which we talk about God; but still we’re left with a variety of ways to image and think about God.

We do need those images.  At one time or another they all mean something to us.  We need Jesus as teacher and friend and sacrifice and healer; we need God as all powerful, all knowing; we need God as law giver and judge too.  But we also need the Good Shepherd, because that image does uniquely describe the God we need when we feel threatened, when we feel vulnerable, when we feel overwhelmed.  We do have those times.  There are times when our own resources and the resources and good intentions of others are not enough.  There are times when the therapeutic answers of our society are insufficient.  There are times when we need the Good Shepherd; times when we just need to hear and to know, Thou art with me. 

In fact, that too is probably part of the attractiveness of this imagery.  Jesus as the shepherd and us as the sheep cuts through our illusions of self-sufficiency, it lets us stop pretending and take off the masks which we sometimes hide behind.  It more honestly acknowledges who we are and who God is, but the beauty of it is that it doesn’t do it in a way that beats us down and makes us feel worse.   It does so with a remarkable sense of gentleness, tenderness, attentiveness, a sense of reassurance that things really are going to be OK as we’re held in the arms of the Good Shepherd.  We can honestly acknowledge who we are with all our vulnerability and frailty and imperfection, and know that the Good Shepherd still loves and cares for us.

We need that.  The world needs it.  Because it isn’t just an image; it’s real.  It’s the reality of the divine relationship that we are offered.  More than anything the Good Shepherd is a relationship.  It’s a relationship that recognizes our vulnerability as we express profound confidence in the Lord, Jesus.  It recognizes vulnerability but it doesn’t let it have the final say.  It is this relationship and the companionship that is imaged so well in the shepherd that transforms life and brings hope and the possibility of new life into every situation.

Thou are with me says that God is on my side, on your side, not on the side of the illness or the accident or the terrorist or whatever evil or danger lurks out there and sometimes make the world seem like it’s spinning out of control.  The Good Shepherd knows that evil is present in the world but he lets us know that he will take it on.  He will walk with each of us so we need not live in fear. 

Most of you know this Easter God.  You know the good news of the Good Shepherd who is with you.  You know the comfort of the shepherd.  It’s a comfort the world needs and needs to know.

So I hope I haven’t ruined anything for you this morning.  I hope I haven’t gotten in the way of these texts.  May you dwell in the house of the Lord, in the arms of the Good Shepherd, forever.     


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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