Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sometimes, when you have to decide which readings to preach on each Sunday, you ask yourself, “what was the lectionary committee thinking when they assigned this reading?” Not because the verse is somehow weird or “not good”–all of Scripture is good and profitable for teaching and fair game for a preacher. But some days the lectionary committee blesses us with an embarrassment of scriptural riches, and choosing just what to preach on can be pretty tough.
Just look at the Gospel reading for this week. Twenty verses of pretty serious teaching from Jesus that we can delve into. When asked who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven by his disciples, Jesus tells them that they must become like little children, to become vulnerable, dependent, totally reliant on ones greater than they are for their life. To trust in God and his greatness, and not themselves. And then he tells them some hard sayings, that if anyone should harm the faith of his “little ones” by tempting them to sin, it would be better for that individual to have a millstone tied around his or her neck and to be hurled bodily into the ocean. Drowning’s too good for them. And then he goes on to tell them that if anyone is tempted to sin by any part of their body, they should cut it off. What does Jesus mean by that?
But then, Jesus continues. He says that God is like a Shepherd with a flock of one hundred sheep. When one of the hundred goes missing, he, as a matter of course, will leave the ninety-nine in the sheepfold to go search for the lost sheep and bring it home, rejoicing to the rest of the flock. That’s what God desires for his flock, that none of his little ones go astray. The disciples are to model this good shepherding behavior of God; they should seek to restore those who go astray from the flock, because Jesus came so that they might be restored.
And how to do this? Well, says Jesus, if your brother sins, you should go talk to him about it and bring it up gently with him in order to restore him to the congregation through repentance. And if he persists in it, then to bring some friends in who know about it, and if he won’t listen, then to bring it to the congregation, and finally, if he really persists in wrongdoing, to bar him from the fellowship of the congregation. Tough words, but words with a focus on love.
But can you imagine how difficult this all must have sounded to the disciples when they heard this from Jesus? They not only had to have faith like children themselves (and how does a grown man become like a child?), they also had to make sure that anyone else who had faith like a child didn’t go astray, and certainly not on their account. This was a tall task, especially given that, if they were thinking of what God told his shepherd and prophet, Ezekiel, then they might have imagined that, were they to fail in what God asked of them, God would require the blood of those who had gone astray from them. Certainly, that is the case. One must be either very negligent, or must really hate someone, if one knows that his or her brother is going down a bad road and yet does nothing to warn them or bring them back into right-living.
And who are the lost sheep of Israel that Jesus is talking about, the ones that God desires to be sought out and not lost? Well, in the context of this morning’s Gospel reading, they are “little ones,” “baby” believers who get themselves into some kind of trouble; who, on account of their infant faith are not yet mature enough to be able to stand up to certain temptations and who fall into unbelief due to their own misunderstanding. Real sheep often get themselves in trouble wandering after something that interests them, leaving the safety of the flock to pursue the desires of their stomachs or eyes. A wandering sheep can get tangled up in brambles, get trapped in a hole or crevasse, or fall afoul of predators and rustlers.
And so it is up to shepherds to go out and find them and bring them back, who might use their shepherd’s crooks to pull the errant lambs up from dangerous places, to keep them from wandering off a ledge, to steer them away from danger, or to fight off a predator. But in the human world of shepherding sheep, sometimes a shepherd won’t deem it worth leaving ninety-nine other sheep to find the one errant one. That one sheep that has gone astray can be considered an acceptable loss so long as the ninety-nine others make it to market. This is where God differs from people–there are not acceptable losses for God. It is not his will that any one of these “little ones” should be lost.
And who are these “little ones” to us? The task Jesus puts to the disciples isn’t just for them, it’s for the whole church, too. Who are the “little ones” we need to watch out for? Well, perhaps it’s your neighbor who has stopped coming to church because they don’t think it’s all that important to be part of the assembly of believers, instead trusting that God is wherever they find him. Or maybe it’s your friend who was baptized but was never really instructed in the faith who now, thanks to a misconception about what the church teaches, has left the faith. Or maybe it’s your brother or sister who, on account of the apparently hypocritical behavior of fellow Christians in the church has been tempted to write the church off as a place for phonies and the Gospel as something not to be trusted. Or maybe it’s a friend who grew up in the church, but has embraced a sinful, self-serving lifestyle while still embracing the title of Christian, causing others to think that faith in Christ is something it isn’t. These people are all errant “little ones” that God does not desire to fall away into unbelief and the “sin unto death” as St. John writes in his first epistle. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no desire for the death of the sinner. I would rather that a sinner should mend his ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).
But, nonetheless, the task seems daunting. How can we bring back these erring sheep into God’s fold when we are but sheep ourselves? Jesus provides comfort for us at the end of our Gospel reading. He says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19-20, ESV). Do you hear what he’s saying? Jesus isn’t making any sort of minimum attendance requirement for church or saying that any prayer to God the Father needs at least two people praying for it–Jesus is saying that any prayer spoken by believers, even if only a few, will be answered by God because Christ is present with them. He will be there with them in every situation, interceding with the Father for them, even if their task is difficult or daunting, like bringing back an erring member of the flock of Israel. Indeed, it is Jesus who will do this. Even if the erring “little one” they are praying for decides, stubbornly, to reject the gifts he or she has been given in faith, those who try to restore that person will still have Christ with them in their efforts. He will hear their prayers and he will guide them in their actions toward one-another. As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, writes: “This Jesus, the Shepherd who was struck down for the salvation of the sheep, can motivate and lead his disciples, then and now, into thus not neglecting or ignoring one another and to reaching out to keep one another in the fold of their Shepherd.”1
When you called me to Messiah to be your pastor, you extended this task to me, to watch over the flock of God in this place and to watch out for God’s little ones and to seek out those who are erring and bring them back into the fold. And not only that, but to guide and care for those sheep here who are not errant but who nonetheless need care and encouragement in faith lest they become so. How does a pastor do this? At the very least, by preaching God’s word to the people in Law and Gospel and by rightly administering the sacraments he has given the church, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But as you and I know, there is more to it than that. Sometimes a pastor needs to deliver a hard word to someone, to say to someone determined to err, as God instructed Ezekiel, “O wicked one, if you do not turn from your current path of sin, you will die!” And pastors are always called to speak to the one who repents from error the words of forgiveness, “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. You are forgiven!” And pastors must teach, and console, and comfort, and guide the flock, all the while trusting in Jesus to bless our efforts and to give us the strength to say what needs to be said to the people who need to hear it. Without that trust in Christ, that he is present as he promises, as Luther says in his sacristy prayer, “if I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago.”
But you know, it’s not merely a task given to the pastor alone. In all of this, we pastors serve as undershepherds of THE Shepherd. Or, to put it another way, we’re his sheepdogs. But while God’s words to Ezekiel and Jesus’ words to the disciples do at first blush seem to be pastorally oriented, they’re not merely for clergy. They are for the entire church, for the whole priesthood of all believers.
You and I both have a responsibility to the errant sheep of God’s flock in our daily lives, and we can help to bring them back into the fold because each of us, regardless of our vocation is a member of the priesthood of all believers. When we were baptized, we all became part of this priesthood; we were all given faith and the Holy Spirit to guide us in our walk in faith, and so with his help, we can care for our fellow flock-mates. Guided by the Holy Spirit, you can aid a wandering “little one” by speaking the Good News to them–telling your neighbor about the Gospel is not something only a pastor can do! When you see them doing something harmful to their faith, you can encourage them to repent of that sin, speaking the truth to them about what they are doing in all love and in all humility. You can motivate a fellow lamb of God’s flock to persist in the faith through teaching, words of encouragement, and by wrestling with difficult concepts with them (and parents, you can do this with your children!). You can share the comfort of God’s word and your Christian friendship with them when they are going through difficult seasons in their lives, when they are hurting from loss or questioning their faith.
Remember, God desires not the death of the sinner. It is not his will that any one of his flock to fall away into sin and unbelief (though some doggedly do), and while God works faith through the Holy Spirit, we also act as little Christs to our brothers and sisters in the faith, modeling Christian love and humility and loving correction, doing the works that the Holy Spirit has set up for us to do in our lives. We have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and forgiven. Because of this, we can do what Jesus asks us to do in this morning’s Gospel reading–we can “be” the church, mirroring our good-shepherd God who seeks out and saves the lost, because in whatever we do, regardless of however many of us are gathered together, he is there with us.
1Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 11:2-20:34. Concordia Commentary Series. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010: 913.