“Tell us plainly, if you are the Christ!” It is not an uncommon question in the Holy Gospels. The disciples ask Jesus much the same thing on Maundy Thursday. And Caiaphas, the High Priest, puts this question to Jesus and demands with a solemn oath by the living God that He must tell them plainly, if He is the Christ, the Son of God.
The group that poses the question on the occasion before us this morning has already surrounded Him. It is a hostile question, soon to be followed by the picking up of stones to throw at Him, to bruise Him, to put Him to death. His death is coming, but this is not that Hour; it will come according to His time, according to the good and gracious will of God. No one takes His life from Him. He will lay it down willingly, and He will take it up again. All of this He does for His sheep.
Often as not, though, it is His sheep who are asking Him, requesting of Him, and even demanding of Him, “Tell us plainly, if you are the Christ!” It is essentially the question that St. John the Baptist puts to Jesus while languishing in Herod’s prison awaiting his death. “Tell us, are you the coming One, or not? Should we look for someone else?” Tell us plainly, if you are the Christ.
It is more or less the question of St. Paul the Apostle, as well, when he three times prays fervently that God the Lord would remove his thorn in the flesh. But of course, God’s response to St. Paul is a No: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.”
You also ask of Jesus, that He should tell you plainly, if He is the Christ. To be sure, you confess Him to be the Christ. You confess His holy Name. You confess His Creed. You know that He died, you know that He rose, and you know that He’s coming again. But, “tell us plainly, Jesus!”
You’d prefer to see it a little more clearly in your life. You want to see and feel and experience that Jesus is the Christ, that He is your Savior, that He is your Good Shepherd and you His sheep. You want to hear it, see it, and feel it plainly, instead of the hidden “glory” of the Cross. Truth be told, you’d really like a whole lot less of the Cross and a whole lot more of the Resurrection.
Meanwhile, there is plenty in the world around you that is painfully clear and obvious. You can hardly glance at a screen without learning of some new tragedy or outright act of terrorism. Week after week, it’s one thing after another. Burning buildings, crashing airplanes, mass shootings, and wicked abuse and neglect within families. All of that seems far too plain and obvious.
The sins of your neighbor against you, they are plain and obvious. And sometimes, when the Law has done its work, your own sins are plain and obvious, and your guilt weighs upon you, and your anxiety keeps you awake at night. The bills are obvious. The repairs that are needed are obvious. Your health, and your children’s health, and your parents’ health, all of that is plain and obvious.
And you would long for Jesus to be at least as obvious as all of that bad stuff; that He should let you know and tell you plainly, that He is with you, that He is your Savior and Good Shepherd.
The thing is, though, that He has told you. And He continues to let you know, to make Himself known to you. He reveals and gives Himself to you. And He reveals the Father to you in Himself. He makes clear to you the good and gracious will of God, both by His Word and by His works — as He has done for Benedict this morning, and for you, as well, in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism: Here is repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, the dying of the Cross, and the rising of the Resurrection, all tangible, sure, and certain in the washing of the water with His Word and Spirit.
To begin with, the Lord your God has made His Law plain and clear to you, especially in the Ten Commandments, but so also in your vocations and stations in life. He sets your neighbor right there alongside of you, that you should love him and serve him. The Law is ultimately plain and simple: Love God, and love your neighbor, for love is the fulfillment of the Law. So, then, do it.
Honor your father and mother. Don’t simply begrudgingly obey them when you’re little and you have no choice. Relationships change and develop over time, as you and your parents grow older, but you never do outgrow the Fourth Commandment. It may not be easy, but it is plain enough.
Each and all of the Commandments address your place in life and your relationships in some way or another, and the Lord has surely explained what that requires of you in clear and simple words. So, too, His servant, Dr. Luther, has taught the Commandments plainly in the Small Catechism. Again, there is no lack of clarity in regards to the Law of the Lord and what it means for you in this body and life. There may well be times when parents, pastors, or teachers can be of help to you in clarifying your duties in particular cases. But most of the time it is not so much that you do not know what you should be doing, but that it is difficult, painful, and unpleasant to carry out.
In any event, the Lord has made plain His Word in the Ten Commandments. Why do you not keep them? He has even left you a perfect example in His own perfect life of faith and love, even unto death, that you should follow after Him and walk in His footsteps, just as He has lived and walked on His way of the Cross. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. Why do you not follow Him? Why do you not trust your Father in heaven? Why do you not love your neighbor as yourself?
The same Lord Jesus has also spoken the Gospel plainly to you, His forgiveness of all your sins. For He has taken them all away. And He offers you His own Life. Why do you not believe Him? Why do you worry and fret about where you stand before the Lord? He has given Himself for you. He has redeemed you from the curse of sin and death by His own Holy Cross and Passion, by the shedding of His holy and precious Blood. Why do you not fear, love, and trust in Him? Why do you question and accuse Him? Why do you doubt? Why are you so afraid so much of the time?
You do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because you do not listen to His voice. You do not hear and heed His Word and take it to heart. You do not follow after Him in this body and life.
And as you do not listen to His voice, as you do not avail yourself of His preaching, as you do not follow in His steps, you are no sheep of His. That is the hard Word of Jesus this morning. If you do not listen to His voice, if you do not fear, love, and trust in Him, then you are not His sheep.
Those are hard Words. But Jesus speaks them in order to call you to repentance, to call you back to Himself. Do not be unbelieving, but believe. Listen to your Shepherd’s voice. Hear and heed what He says to you. He is the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him.
Even in His preaching of the Law, He is already speaking to you in love, according to His mercy, by His grace alone. He does not write you off and give up on you. For all the times that you have not listened, in His faithfulness He keeps on preaching, that you might live by faith in His Word.
So it is that you are His dear sheep, and you do follow after Him in faith and love, but only as you are hearing the Word He preaches. Not only once upon a time or for a few years way back when, but throughout your life on earth, even unto death. For you, as for Benedict, to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd is to be a disciple of Christ Jesus, which is to live and abide in the significance of your Holy Baptism, being catechized in the keeping of all that Christ has entrusted to His Church.
Holy Baptism is a profound gift of God, it is His good work and gracious blessing. But it is not a one-shot deal that you leave behind you in the past, nor an insurance policy that sets your free to live a reckless and self-centered life. It is rather the new birth of the Word and Holy Spirit, by which you have become a child of God and a sheep of His pasture, that you should live and abide with Him in Christ Jesus, nourished on the green grass of His Word and the preaching of it.
That is why the good and gracious will of God includes (and requires) that He would keep you steadfast in His Word and faith throughout this body and life, lest you depart from Him and die.
Do you long to know Him better, to know Him as your Shepherd? Do you long to hear it plainly? Listen to His voice. Give attention to His gifts. For He knows you in love, and that comes first.
He knows your sins and your weaknesses. He knows your frailties and your failures. And yet, He chooses to know you according to His grace and tender mercy. He chooses to know you through His forgiveness of all your sins. He chooses to know you in His righteousness, by grace. And in His knowing you, He teaches you to know Him, to love Him, and to follow Him as your Shepherd.
Do you pray to Him? Do you talk to Him? That is good and right. Indeed, you should pray even more faithfully and frequently than you do. Your days and nights, your weeks and months and years should all be punctuated with prayer. St. Paul says that you should “pray without ceasing.” And your Lord Himself teaches you “to pray at all times and not lose heart.” So do it.
Pray, praise, and give thanks in the confidence that your prayers are joined to those of Christ and the Spirit, who intercede for you in love; and they are heard and answered by the Father in heaven.
But your prayer — the true Christian prayer of faith — begins not with your speaking but with His. His sheep listen before they speak. For it is by His Word that you are taught to pray and confess, even as you are thereby taught to know Him. Lay hold of Him by giving attention to His Word.
His Law truly exposes and condemns your sin and unbelief, but His Gospel truly forgives your sins and thereby calls you to faith and to newness of life in Christ. You are able to lay hold of Christ Jesus in His Word because He lays hold of you there. That is how He takes you by the hand. That is how He lays you across His shoulders. And that is how He brings you home again, rejoicing.
Everything depends upon Him. And because He is true and faithful, all is sure and certain in Him. He does and accomplishes everything, for you and for all people, by the preaching of His Word. The One who promises is faithful, and He will do it. As He has done so in the past, and as He shall do in your future, as well, so is He doing even now, all by His Word and the preaching of it.
Consider how it is for little Benedict this morning. He has not baptized himself, nor could he even bring himself to be baptized. He must rely upon his Lord, upon his parents and his pastor, and upon the congregation, to carry him and care for him, and even to pray and speak his confession for him. And mark this well, that you stand before the Lord in no other way than Benedict does.
Consider, too, the Holy Gospel at hand. Consider what your Good Shepherd has done for you by His pure divine grace — willingly and voluntarily — in love and mercy and compassion.
The Word — who was in the beginning with God, who is God, through whom all things are made — He has become flesh, and He tabernacles with you, in order to spread His tabernacle over you. He has come to you and dwells with you here in love, the incarnate Son of God, Christ Jesus. He has come down from heaven to seek and to save His little lost sheep — to seek and to save you.
So has He also laid down His life for you and all His lambs and sheep. And He has taken it up from death and the grave, that He should raise you up in His own bodily Resurrection from the dead, that you also should have life in Him. He has called you by His own Name, and you are His. He has washed you with the water and His Word. He has cleansed you of all of your sins; He heals you of all of your iniquities. He leads you to His Table, and here He feeds you from His hand.
These are His good works, which testify of Him and tell you plainly that He is the Christ, that He is your Savior and Good Shepherd forever. For so does He take you into His strong hand, and He shall never let you go. So does He know you and love you, care for you and shelter you, feed you and provide for you. And thus do you live and abide with Him in the House of the Lord forever.
Look, He has spread His Table before you. And though your enemies may surround you on all sides with big rocks in their hands, they shall not be able to hurt you or snatch you from Christ. For your Shepherd is with you, and His Cup overflows with your forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.