The sermon title is a slightly modified quote from Cervantes. The full quote is “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.” Does this weighty title go with this Good Shepherd Sunday text? Usually this brings bucolic images of sheep grazing on a verdant hillside? And didn’t the sermon hymn create an upbeat, peaceful, warm feeling? Isn’t the soundtrack to this text classical pastorale music? But the weighty title fits the weighty words; twice we have our Lord’s double “Amen” at the beginning of sentences which is as heavy as the KJV makes it. “Verily, Verily” Jesus says to introduce thieves and robbers. Twice does Jesus use the divine, holy OT title of God, I am. This text is a warning. It’s about more than sheep in the fold with their Shepherd. It’s about getting fleeced. “Forewarned, forearmed.”
Thieves and robbers come apart from Jesus. He warns: “All who came before Me were thieves and robbers”. And, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”. False teachers come on their own, they’re never spoken of as being sent. True ones are sent by God; false ones come of their own accord. Confessional Lutherans don’t emphasize an internal Call. We don’t recognize, since the apostles, anyone being called directly, without means, into the ministry. I know I’m sent here because I’ve been ordained by others in the office and called by this flock of sheep. Anyone who says: God told me; God laid this on my heart, run from them like your hair is on fire. He’s the thief or robber Jesus warns of.
Ministries that are parachurch’s, that means not a church but alongside it, are almost always self-called. The independent churches I’ve attended both here and Bryan are started by a husband and wife who felt called directly by God. You know enough to stay away from paramilitary organizations. Even with paralegals, you know they are not lawyers. Parachurches don’t want anything to do with traditional churches. They tell you this is to be free of institutions. I get that but they become an institution unto themselves. A mark of them seems not being transparent in finances. The best man at our wedding was a member of a non-denominational church in Cedar Park. I asked him how much they paid the pastor. He said the pastor said anyone could find that out my asking him directly.
Thieves and robbers can be identified because they come apart from Jesus. And let’s pause to be sure that we understand that what they come to steal and kill is not physical property and life but spiritual. You would not be at ease around someone out to steal your money, rob you of your property, threaten your life. So why do you hear this warning by Jesus so calmly? Why don’t you hear it as a call to vigilance? LifeLock and SimpliSafe ads get your attention. Ask yourself if you’re having trouble staying awake now why that doesn’t happen as you listen to yet another commercial about financial or property security? But it does when Jesus Himself warns you of spiritual danger and even death. Being forewarned yet sleeping that’s spiritual death. Luther was hard on the organized church of his day because they ran roughshod over souls. He changed his tune when people came claiming to have the Spirit directly without Word or Sacrament. He famously said he wouldn’t believe them even if they had swallowed the Holy Ghost feathers and all. These were thieves and robbers. SimpliSafe and LifeLock avail nothing against these.
The self-called shepherds must drive sheep because sheep won’t follow them. I’m told that shepherds in Australia do drive their sheep. Not in Palestine, here, or the UK. Spiritual sheep, real sheep of the Good Shepherd are defined in this passage by Jesus Himself: as those who listen to the voice of the Shepherd. And they follow Him because they know His voice. And they never follow a stranger. In fact they run away from Him. I have experience with cattle, not sheep. Cattle you can drive to a point, but you lose control quickly. Once while hunting a bull was going nuts in the pasture tangled up in some barbwire. I fled and got my friend who owned them. We drove back out in his truck, they recognized his diesel engine milled about peacefully. He got out of the truck, I didn’t. He walked up to the 1,800 pound bull who was huffing and swaying his head warily, and calmly unwrapped the barbwire. I the stranger drove them nuts. He their owner soothed and calmed them just by being there. Now we’re back to pastorale scenes of grazing sheep and light airy music.
A Scottish traveler in Jerusalem theorized that what sheep really followed was the shepherd’s clothing not his voice. So he dressed in the shepherd’s clothes and tried to get the sheep to follow. They didn’t, but when the true shepherd called, they followed him. Where does the voice of the Good Shepherd sound? It may or may not sound accurately in your heart, clearly in your conscience, but it does certainly in His Word, surely in His Sacraments. If you’re following someone apart from God’s Word and Sacrament, you’re following a thief and robber, someone out to steal your soul. And you’re not a sheep of the Good Shepherd. That’s what Jesus says: My sheep will never follow a stranger. Here we confront that internet phenomenon, where we’ve been educated to say I follow so and so. I wonder if anyone thinks let alone says, “I follow my pastor.” Pastor comes from the Latin word for shepherd, pastor, literally, feeder, from pascere, to feed (Macmillan Dictionary, ©1979. 736). He, of course, is the under shepherd of the Good Shepherd, but that One said of this one: “He who hears him, hears Me” (Lk. 10:16).
Legitimate Christian churches, do have pastors too. While many of them don’t recognize Confessional Lutherans as having Word and Sacrament ministries that they have no right to interfere in, Confessional Lutherans recognize that all of them do. But it’s incumbent on you the sheep to know the difference. If you don’t know you’re Catechism, you won’t be able to distinguish Confessional Lutheran from Reformed, from Evangelical, or Catholic. For example, What is the Sacrament of the Altar? The most basic question a pastor can ask someone wishing to commune. Only pastors ever answer with: “It’s the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and drink.” Catholics would say: It’s only Body and Blood; it’s no longer bread and wine, and a catechized Catholic would say it’s an unbloody sacrificing of Christ for the sins of the living and the dead. The Reformed and Evangelical and Nondenoms would say, “It’s not Jesus’s body and blood, but a symbol of these.”
Back to robbers and thieves and to being forewarned is forearmed. No false teaching leads to life. And in so far as anyone calls you to follow a teaching that is not Jesus’, be they sent from legitimate faith groups, or come all on their own, they come to give death abundantly. After speaking the truth in a figurative way using sheep and shepherds, Jesus drops the figure. That’s because they weren’t understanding Him. Jesus is blunt about this. Even the insert which isn’t a particularly powerful translation is accurate. John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;” Enough of saying that Pentecostal preacher is so full of zeal. Enough of saying that nondenominal preacher is so sincere, loving, kind. Enough of saying this college ministry is really reaching kids. Enough of saying having different doctrines is no big deal. Jesus says the uncalled, unsent, self-called, self-sent person is a thief and robber and he’s here to only kill, to sacrifice and to destroy sheep!
Haven’t you ever been out with a child and come upon a snake or a mean dog? This is a real threat. This isn’t something you take lightly and you train your kids not to. Here Jesus warns you what the person who comes to you apart from Him is really up to. Take this lightly or not at all at the peril of your own salvation. But do you see where Jesus goes after such dire, scary warnings? He says even though all who came before Him are thieves and robbers, His sheep didn’t listen to them. And then all promise, all Gospel: “I am the Door, only through Me but certainly through Me if ever at any time anyone should enter “He will be saved.” That’s a passive. Jesus will do the savings.
And don’t miss the second part: having been saved by the Good Shepherd, “[That person] will come in and go out, and find pasture.” This is a promise. His sheep don’t live in fear of not finding pasture. Jesus promises they will. I get emails from people around the country, sometimes my own sheep express this thought too. What are we going to do? Where are we going to find pasture? I’m not sure I can tell you in detail where, but I can promise Jesus sheep will find what they need: all the Word, Sacrament, Grace, Mercy, and Peace; Jesus so promises. And no it will not be from an un-sent one who climbed around Jesus. No, it will not be in a church that denies the essence or benefits of the Sacraments.
But Jesus promises even more. He promises His sheep an abundance of life. Again we’re to the pastoral music; again we’re to bucolic scenery; now were to lush green hills, still waters, and an overflowing cup. But note how David describes the Shepherd’s providing, “You prepare a table before Me in the presence of my enemies.” Jesus predicted “false Christs, and false prophets shall arise” (Mt. 24:24). And “Many will come in My name saying, ‘I am the Christ’ and will mislead many” (Mt. 24:5). St. John said about 70 years after this: “Many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). The Christian life is lived surrounded by enemies.
In his 18th century work on the fall of Rome, Gibbon has the disturbing story of the soldiers of Valentinian being "accused by an eye-witness of delighting in the taste of human flesh. When they hunted the woods for prey, it is said that they attacked the shepherd rather than his flock;” and ate him (398). This drives home the point that to get to the flock you have to kill the shepherd first. Your Good Shepherd gave His life up already carrying away the sins of the World, your Passover Lamb was sacrificed so your punishment passed over you and landed on Him. That’s not going to happen again. The Shepherd died once for all never again. So, no matter the thieves and robbers, they can’t kill Him and get to you. Forearmed with this truth we prosper abundantly, peacefully, eternally. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday of Easter (20230430); John 10:1-0