Choral Vespers
Good Shepherd Institute
Concordia Theological Seminary—Fort Wayne, Indiana
All Saints’ Day, A.D. 2015
Psalm 23

In the name . . .

The 23rd Psalm is virtually universal. When you go to a funeral home, it is nine times out of ten the “go-to” Bible passage printed on the back of those little memorial cards that you take home. Tonight, we were nourished by one of at least three cantatas composed for Good Shepherd Sunday for the saints in 18th-century Leipzig, and for generations to follow of those who have ears to hear. And then, there’s that picture in our mind’s eye of the Good Shepherd. It’s one our earliest childhood memories—from the time we got that first children’s Bible illustrated with what the Shepherd of Psalm 23 must have looked like (coincidentally, a lot like the picture of Jesus later on in the New Testament!). And then that image was forever personalized as we sang in Sunday school, “I am Jesus’ little lamb . . .”

 

I.

The psalm, of course, begins with the Lord: “Yahweh is my shepherd . . .”, it says. But it also says “my shepherd.” Though the Lord is running the verbs, the psalm is clearly written from the perspective of the sheep. With the Lord as my Shepherd, I will not be in want because he feeds me in green pastures (the good stuff!) and gives me drink from still waters. This evening’s cantata interpolated: “das wohlschmeckend Gras seines heilsamen Wortes”—the tasty grass of His holy Word. That’s the good stuff that the Good Shepherd feeds His sheep—God’s Word, written, preached, spoken, and sung into your ears and so into your heart, into your soul, restoring your soul. You see, the Good Shepherd is all about feeding and caring for you—the whole you, the you that is alive in Him and that will live with Him forever.

But sheep are sheep, and sheep are prone to stray, even though their Shepherd leads them in paths of righteousness. Let’s face it: we sheep are incredibly fearful. It doesn’t take much to shake us, does it? A nasty rumor in the congregation, a painful setback at work, a doctor’s report that wasn’t what we expected, a family conflict that just seems to fester. And sheep wander. We have wandering eyes. We have wandering imaginations. We have wandering fears.

But you have a Good Shepherd. Even though you may wander through that deep, deep shadow of death, the Good Shepherd doesn’t wander. He sticks right with you, because he himself has already “been through that valley, done that death.” You see, the Good Shepherd became a lamb, like you; but unlike you, a lamb of sacrifice on Calvary’s altar—once, for all people, for all sins, for all time. As we heard in this evening’s reading: “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10). Or as we sang just moments ago:

From God’s joy can nothing sever,
For I am
His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever;
I am His because He gave me
His own blood
For my good,
By His death to save me. (LSB 756, stanza 4)

 

II.

The Good Shepherd who laid down his life for you, now also prepares a lavish table for you. There, you see, the Shepherd becomes the Host . . . and the Meal. At the Good Shepherd’s banquet, he feeds you with his own body and blood, sacrificed for you on Calvary as the Lamb, now given you to eat and drink, for strength in the presence of your enemies. And he anoints your head with oil. Or, as this evening’s cantata interpolates: with the Holy Spirit, the oil of joy. St. Paul proclaims the Spirit’s anointing when he writes: “[God] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior . . .” (Titus 3:5) From table and font, your cup truly runneth over.

And so, “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Once again, the cantata adds: “On earth, in the Christian community.” How remarkable, but not surprising! Luther said, “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (SA XII 2)—your Shepherd, the Shepherd who showers you with his goodness and loving-kindness, through his Word and his Sacraments, in your congregation this morning, here tonight, throughout your life . . . and forever. Yes, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The cantata adds: “with Christ, my Lord.” Christ says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish . . .” (John 10:27).

Just this last Wednesday, seventeen years ago, my mother was suddenly killed in an automobile accident. That was the day that my family and I were packed up and ready to move from Michigan to St. Louis. Our phones had been turned off, so Pastor Heckert from a nearby congregation drove over to deliver the news of a “homecoming,” as he put it. Instead of driving to a new home in St. Louis, we drove to rural Iowa to celebrate that “homecoming” at my mother’s funeral.

As I mentioned, all of this happened the week prior to All Saints’ Day, and so on All Saints’ Sunday, my family and I were gathered in the house of the Lord—there in rural Iowa, there at the table of the Good Shepherd. And we heard those words of the communion liturgy, words we had heard so many times before: “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven . . .” “. . . with all the company of heaven . . .” That All Saints’ Sunday, I heard those words in a way that I had never heard them before—that the loved one I had suddenly lost was now with Jesus; and that Jesus was now with me, feeding me his very body and blood, for comfort in my time of sorrow. You see, together with Jesus, we are together with each other . . . and “with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven . . .”

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Whether in this house, or in the halls of heaven, or at the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep, feeds his sheep, abides with his sheep . . . “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

I.N.I. Amen.