Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
I know that we’re all familiar with leadership contests. Politics, business, and sports are partly made up of rivalries for the number one position. The Bible tells us about a more important leadership contest in the spiritual realm between Jesus and the devil. In this morning’s gospel, our Savior is looking ahead to his death and his resurrection, which will mean the permanent defeat of Satan. Even though he’s involved in a battle with the forces of evil for the souls of mankind, Jesus speaks in a calm and authoritative voice; he has no doubt who the victor will be. He knows who offers the only trustworthy leadership.
Jesus describes his leadership for us. Whenever he speaks, he says, his followers hear his voice and recognize it. They don’t follow strangers. He brings salvation and plenty of pleasant moments now for his people. He offers life in abundance. Where a hireling flees the people for whom he’s responsible in times of danger, Jesus stuck with his flock. He lay down his own life and took it up again.
His victory over Satan the hireling was assured from the very start. The devil is greedy; he reaches out beyond his boundaries to claim all God’s creatures and even Christ himself, but the Lord escaped his clutches not only for his own good but for the benefit of his followers and then punishes the devil by depriving him of any claim over God’s children. The devil may tempt, but we have a refuge in Jesus. Satan may accuse, but the ascended Lord intercedes for us so that the devil’s condemnation has no influence on the heavenly Father.
The 23rd Psalm helps us picture in our minds what Jesus victory over Satan means for us. King David was poised and confident, even more so was Jesus – confident that he would want for nothing, that he would rest in pleasant places, confident that His Heavenly Father would quiet for him the temporary turmoil of earthly life. Jesus was confident that his soul would be protected and that he would follow the paths that were best for him, the ways of right thinking and godly conduct. Neither would Jesus fear death nor any other evil, because His Father and the Spirit would guide and comfort him. He rejoiced at the abundance of life; he trusted that heaven’s goodness would accompany him, even into eternity.
The gifts of God that Jesus and David affirmed also come to us. Peace, God’s care, the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and evil – these fruits of salvation bring us rest and confidence and the hope to go on living. Earthly problems such as the economy, the state of public morality, and international politics have the capacity to vex us greatly. Christians are aware of these troubles and work to overcome their influence on us, not with a spirit of anxiety but with the joyful assurance that Jesus who died on the cross and rose again has already won the victory over his enemy and ours.
We overcome by taking hold of the fruits of Jesus’ victory with the faith heaven gives us – such fruits as peace, the forgiveness of sins, and rescue from the devil with the faith that heaven gives us. As we’ve said a few times, the life of faith isn’t easy. For one thing, when we’re away from the church a variety of earthly leaders compete for our attention and we may be tempted to take them more seriously than they deserve. Most folks pass through times when confusion surrounds us and we crave a leader who promises immediate relief. If we’re starting out in life or even well along and needing to make adjustments, it’s tempting to attach ourselves to well-established folks and model our thoughts and behavior on their examples. We can aspire to be as witty as our next-door neighbor or as vivacious as someone down the street or as in command of things as a boss we once thought highly of. It can take us a long time to outgrow the spirit of imitation and find our independence and the path that is right for us in Christ. It’s common to admire the rich and talented and beautiful; it’s also natural to pattern our aspirations after them. Some lost souls change their appearance and their personalities to copy prominent people like the man I saw at the Eaton Centre dressed up to look like Elvis Presley. An extreme case that doesn’t apply to anyone here. Even so, the world holds out many temptations, and our hearts may wander. We need reminds of what our Heavenly Father expects of us and also that he is forgiving and patient. As we stick to his Word, he draws us back to the leader he sent us, his Son who will never desert us.
The world challenges our faith in another way. Most of us try to keep as busy as we can – going to work or shopping, taking part in community events, spending time with family and friends. If we are with people who don’t welcome Jesus as their leader, we may temporarily forget that we are God’s children. We may even meet people who are bitter toward the church because of an incident from years ago that still has power or through a misunderstanding on their part. They may try to influence us and we may find their arguments a burden. We trust, however, that the good shepherd will stand by us, nourish us, keep us safe in his flock, and give us the will to withstand secular influences and offer our testimony to him. As we grow in strength, experience, and wisdom, we learn that the Lord will help us find wise, faithful leaders even in a culture ruled by money, possessions, and hunger for the new and glittery. At the same time, he will make us leaders on his behalf in the part of the world that’s close to us.
Still another challenge is the one that hirelings of our own day present, church leaders who stray outside the bounds of their callings. Not too long ago, we heard about leaders in other Christian communities who abused young people or mistreated natives or who stole church money. The bad behavior of hirelings in the church slows down the spread of the gospel and harms people in their care. The Lord takes the sinful conduct of hirelings seriously, as these words from Jeremiah affirm: “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,’ says the Lord. ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings,’ says the Lord.” The Lord punishes shepherds who shirk the responsibilities he has given them.
He knows the situation in the church better than we do and provides a remedy for the failings of earthly leaders. He says, also in Jeremiah: “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to the fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
As a result, the church is never corrupt to the core. Leaders and people in our day have taken strong steps to discipline wrongdoers and correct abuses. Moreover, there are always many dedicated, faithful shepherds, and the Lutheran church has its share of them. I once heard a president of our district say that there was no scandal in the Lutheran Church-Canada, a condition for which we give thanks to the Lord in hopes he will keep us on the right track.
Good things happen when the church and her people focus on Christ, her good shepherd, who promises that none of his beloved sheep will be missing from his flock. Jesus calls you and me and all believers out of what a Christian centuries ago called a mass of perdition to live in faith with him in his flock, to live abundantly, to enjoy the good things of life, to grow wise under his guidance, to accept the forgiveness of sins, and to rejoice that we fear no evil, even the evil of death.
So – to conclude – leadership is a big question in every phase of our lives. Good leaders are a blessing, bad ones weigh on us like a stone around our necks. Jesus our good shepherd shows us the kind of leadership our souls need and that he promises to provide. We find in him a loving care for us that even the best of earthly leaders cannot aspire to. We thank him for revealing to us his perfect love and never-ending concern and giving us the hope that one day we will live with him face to face, far away from our own sins, the imperfections of human life, and the failings of human leaders. We rejoice that he leads us now. We ask him to keep us in his flock and use us to lead others to knowledge of his loving goodness. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.