The Shepherd Speaks to His Flock
Rev. Kurt Lantz Easter 4 C Acts 20:17-35
May 08, 2022 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear flock of the Good Shepherd,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I talk to my dog. More than just “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Come,” I say a lot of things to my dog which I know are beyond its comprehension. I am sure that spending long days in the fields with no other person to talk to, it would not be all that unusual for a shepherd to talk to his sheep. I mean more than just “Here now,” “Go on,” or “Get out of there!” Do you talk to animals, to birds, to fish, to plants?
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, talks to His sheep. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). But not all listen, understand, or believe Him. “So the Jews gathered around Him and said to Him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe.’” (John 10:25).
The shepherd speaks to his sheep, but they don’t always listen, they don’t always understand, they don’t always believe. This is what the Apostle Paul experienced as he shepherded the churches throughout Asia. At the end of his third missionary journey, while he was on his way back to Jerusalem, he commented, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:18-21).
He declared to them everything that was profitable. He taught in public and in private. He testified to both Jews and to Greeks of repentance and faith. But there was not a universal repentance among his hearers. There was not a common faith that permeated all who heard the message. The shepherd spoke but not all the sheep listened or understood or believed.
My dog doesn’t always listen even when it understands what I am saying. It has anxiety toward other dogs and will sometimes break out with aggression if it doesn’t feel safe. At those times the words that I know it understands are not heeded. It will not sit, or stay, or lay down. In its fearful rage it has even bitten me as I have given the commands while restraining it.
St. Paul experienced the same reaction from some of his hearers. While he preached to them of repentance and faith, in a fearful rage they broke out against him, beating him, stoning him, driving him out of town, and it would not surprise me if he was even bitten once or twice. He suffered with tears from the plots of the Jews who would not listen and would not believe even such gracious words that were spoken to turn them from the dangers of their sins. He did not shrink from declaring to them anything profitable. The shepherd speaks but the sheep do not always listen.
There was a time when Paul did not listen either. As a young Pharisee he had rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He stood approvingly at the stoning of Stephen as that young man spoke the words of Jesus (Acts 6-7). Paul, then known as Saul, persecuted any who spoke such things. He arrested Christians and had them imprisoned so that they could be treated like Stephen. At that time Paul would not listen to the shepherds who were speaking the words of repentance and faith to him. He was a ravenous wolf seeking to destroy the whole flock.
The Good Shepherd Himself, our risen and ascended Lord Jesus, had to have a talk with Him (Acts 9). In glory and majesty, He spoke to Paul from a blinding light and opened Paul’s ears to hear His voice, not only His direct, divine, almighty voice, but then also the voices of Ananias and Barnabas and James, shepherds who spoke the words of Jesus to His sheep.
Hence, Paul was able to hear and listen to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, and after three extensive missionary journeys during which Paul served as a shepherd speaking the words of Jesus to His sheep, near the end of that long time of service, the Holy Spirit began to testify to Paul in every city that imprisonment and afflictions awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). Most sheep would not have listened. They would have denied that anything bad could happen to them while they were such good Christians. They would have refused to go to Jerusalem at all. They would have closed their ears to a God who would allow such bad things to happen to good people.
But Paul had heard the voice of the Good Shepherd. He had listened and understood and believed the words of repentance and faith in Jesus for forgiveness and everlasting life. And so his response to the voice of the Good Shepherd calling him to Jerusalem and to suffering was, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
This sheep listened to the voice of his Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. He knew that he was forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He knew that the Good Shepherd had called him to speak this good news to the sheep. He knew that not all would listen and that meant that he would suffer at their hands. Yet, because he listened and knew and believed, he was confident of God’s love for him in Jesus and of his salvation to eternal life when his life in this world was ended.
What a message, if we would just listen and not run the other way or snap and bite at the shepherd speaking to his sheep. Even sins so heinous as Paul’s persecution and murder of the first Christians who spoke the words of the Good Shepherd, are forgiven in the death and resurrection the One who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Those who lashed out at Paul with their beatings and stoning and driving him out of town, would have come to know the love of God that forgives even such brutal treatment of those whom He has called to His service.
And this precious message of forgiveness and grace is spoken to you so that you might have the comfort and peace of knowing that you are forgiven in Jesus for all of the times when you have not listened to those sent to speak the Word of the Lord to you, whether they be pastors or mothers or grandmothers, like the two who had such an influence on the young man Timothy who became a fellow worker with Paul (2 Timothy 1:5).
This very message St. Paul shared with the pastors of Ephesus whom he had summoned to meet him on his way to Jerusalem. On his way to finish his course and the ministry that he received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God, having heard the testimony of the Holy Spirit that imprisonment and afflictions awaited him, knowing that those among whom he had gone about proclaiming the kingdom would not see his face again, Paul commended them to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32), these same words of the Good Shepherd that Paul heard and preached.
For these pastors would continue shepherding the flock of God in Ephesus. They would testify to the grace of God. They would preach repentance and faith in Jesus. And there would be sheep who would listen and believe, and those who would not. In fact, some of them would become fierce wolves, not receiving any command and instead lashing out and biting the shepherds and not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). The Shepherd will continue to speak but not all will listen and believe.
Still the shepherds, or in Latin “pastors,” speak a message that proclaims an unimaginable grace coming from the heart of God. He not only deigns to speak to rebellious, sinful humanity, but He even sent His Son to suffer and die from the ravenous wolves that sought to silence His speaking. And rising from the dead, the Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep continues to speak and offer His grace, even to those who have bitten and devoured His precious lambs.
Listening to this message coming from the lips of the Good Shepherd Himself, or from the pen of St. Paul, or from a pastor sent to be a shepherd who speaks to the flock among whom you graze, you can be confident that your sins are forgiven, that the Good Shepherd laid down His life for you, that you have been saved through His death and resurrection.
This is the voice of the Good Shepherd that has sounded out from this congregation in South St. Catharines for 57 years. This is the voice that so many heard and believed. The voice thundering over the water in the baptismal font. The voice declaring your sins forgiven. The voice speaking the very words of the Good Shepherd from the lectern and the pulpit. The voice imparting to you the body and blood that was laid down for the sheep.
Different shepherds over 57 years speaking the same words of the Good Shepherd to you, in different ways. They did not shrink back from declaring to you anything that was profitable, teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying to all of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Still not all listened to the voice of the Good Shepherd sounding forth from them. Some even became fierce wolves that sought to destroy not just the shepherd, but this whole flock. Yet to all who listened and believed, the promises of the Good Shepherd gave them faith and strength to meet every imaginable trial and affliction that could come. The sheep of this congregation, whom the Good Shepherd washed and fed and to whom He spoke, were led right through the valley of the shadow of death to dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23).