A Shepherd For The Dark Valley Of Death

The following is posted with family permission.  May the Lord give to the family of Marie Hickman and to all who mourn, comfort in their grief and a sure confidence in the Lord's loving care.

Texts:  Psalm 23:1-6 and John 10:11-16

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sheep tend to be fairly helpless animals.  They don’t have fangs or claws or a mean spirit where they will lash out and attack.  They are powerless to defend themselves from hungry predators.  Thus, there is a great deal of comfort when we see a shepherd next to the sheep.  In a sense the shepherd is heroic.  They tend to the sheep.  They protect the sheep.  They lead the sheep to shelter, good food and fresh water.  They typically have ownership and investment of the sheep.  The sheep know the voice of the shepherd and there is trust. 

There is a reason why the scriptures constantly use this metaphor and there is a reason why Jesus chooses this illustration in John chapter 10.  You see, Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd, “I… I am the good shepherd.”  Therefore, if Jesus is the good shepherd, we obviously are what?  We are His sheep.  Jesus chooses this illustration, not only because it is used in the Old Testament, but because it is a fitting image of our relationship with Him. It is a picture of being under His protection and authority.

Indeed, there is great comfort to being a sheep of Jesus.  Consider the great comforting words of the twenty-third Psalm where it states that the shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, restores our soul, and leads us in paths of righteousness for His name sake. 

Marie Hickman
But what do we make of this ‘sheep-shepherd’ relationship when we are obviously here in this sanctuary due to Marie walking through and into the shadow of death, the darkest of all valleys?  Otherwise stated, it is comforting to hear that the shepherd provides for our daily needs, but what happen when sheep like Marie and sheep like you and me face the dark valley of death?

There is a temptation for us when looking at the wolves and the dark valleys of danger in life, especially looking into the finality of death, to believe that we can survive and make it on our own.  We can advertently and inadvertently assume the role of the shepherd ourselves.  We think to ourselves, “I can handle this.  I have a pretty good grasp on things.  I have been around the block a few times.”   The problem with this is that if we are the shepherd, and if we are in charge of our own life, that means that everything is dependent upon us.  If we are the shepherd that means that the pressure of life and all that goes with it is on us.  When the wolves come, it is up to us to fight for ourselves.  When the grassy food runs dry, it is up to us to find more food.  When we need to find safe land to graze, it is up to us to find it.  When it comes time for rest, we can’t totally rest because we will always have to sleep with one eye open to make sure that we won’t be attacked. 

Dear friends, we don’t have what it takes to be the shepherd.  We can’t defend ourselves from the Evil One.  We don’t have the wisdom to find the green pasture land and we certainly are unable to die for our own sins.  We do not have what it takes to walk through the valley of the shadow of death on our own and by our own strength.  It is too dark; it is too deep.

You, who have ears, hear this.  The good news of the Gospel though is that we can take comfort and rest in the fact that we are sheep and that Jesus is our shepherd.  He is our shepherd—the good shepherd.  There is no doubt about it that we falter and run in the midst of attacks—that is when we try to be shepherds; false shepherds run as well when the going gets tough; however, Jesus shares in our Gospel reading from today that when the wolves come, He will not run and He will not forsake you.  Furthermore, in Matthew’s Gospel, the twenty-eight chapter, Jesus says that He will never leave you nor forsake you, that He will be with you to the end of the age; He will journey into the shadows of death and will certainly be with you in the valley of death.  Yes, we belong to Jesus and that is the reason why He lays His life down for you.  He lays down His life for the safety and welfare of His flock—for you, for me, and for Marie. 

You, who have ears, listen to the good news of the Gospel.  Jesus holds us tenderly in His arms, protecting us from everything that would destroy us.  In fact, when sin, death and devil come charging at us like a pack of hungry wolves to devour and steal us away, to confine us to the hell we deserve, our Shepherd says, “Take me.  Take me instead.  For I am the Good Shepherd.  You will not touch them nor have any authority over my sheep.  They belong to me.  I have promised to keep them safe.  Take me instead, for I will gladly give myself to you for the sake of my sheep.”

Jesus truly lays down His life for the sheep—sheep like Marie.  He did this on His own accord.  He did this because He is the good Shepherd; He did this so that He might take His life up again. He did this because He has a furious love for His sheep.

Yes, we belong to Jesus; we are sheep and He is our Shepherd.  He leads us through the Word.  We are sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  He washes us in our baptism.  He feeds us in His Holy Supper.  He rebukes us through the Law.  He mends our wounds through the Gospel. 

My friends, due to the Shepherd’s death, resurrection, forgiveness, and embrace, we can say of Marie that Christ died for Marie, a sheep.  To the death that He died for her sin and ours, He joined her by Baptism, and He joined her to His life that is stronger than the little death of our mortality.  Thus, just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so Marie should also walk in newness of life.  Yes, Marie, too, is in a newness of life brighter than we can imagine.  Jesus is her staff and stay; all the accusations of the Law are left behind, with no shadows of death, no deep valley of pain, no threats of wolves, but life unimpaired in the arms of Jesus’ rest. 

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us—that is you and that is Marie—from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord and Good Shepherd of the sheep.  

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, your Good Shepherd.  Amen.

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