“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). In the second lesson for this Good Shepherd Sunday, so does the heavenly elder explain to John the identity of the uncountable host arrayed in white and standing “before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9). They are waving their symbol of victory (palm branches) and their eyes are unclouded by tears.
We have not yet “come out” of the “great tribulation”; we are still in it. We are still very much in the midst of that great pressure and pressing, that narrowness we feel as life’s challenges press in on us. That pressure comes at us from every side. Most challenging and discouraging of all is that which arises internally, compelling us to cry out: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And that internal pressure is mirrored externally, as pressures arise from a scoffing, unbelieving world and even from within an all-too-often skeptical and struggling visible church. In Sunday’s gospel (John 10:22-30), Jesus was simply walking in Solomon’s Colonnade when the religious leaders of his own people pounce on him like a pack of dogs!
How weak we can feel as the pressure mounts. We “are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36). Under the pressure tears often cloud our eyes and blur our vision. The temptation grows to hold up a white flag rather than a palm branch. We grow tired of the struggles and long to just get along at whatever the price!
Vulnerable, defenseless sheep. Against enemies far too strong for us. That is reality.
But so is this. A voice calls to us in the midst of that “great tribulation.” Amidst all the pressures pressing on us both internally and externally, a voice rises above the tumult even though it is neither shouting nor fearful but confident and composed. You know this voice. It is the voice of your Good Shepherd.
Right in the “presence of [his and] my enemies” (Psalm 23:5), he calmly says this: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). This Shepherd knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our weaknesses – his all-seeing eyes understand them better than we. He knows our enemies – he is never caught off guard by the pressures that press in on us. He knows the “great tribulation” is far too strong for us – he knows that we are dust.
But our Shepherd also knows this: all these pressures pressing in on us are not too strong for him who is one with his Father (10:30). As this Shepherd speaks, though it may still take us awhile to stop shivering, we suddenly notice that our enemies have begun to shake. They have all already taken him on with all they had as they pressed him into a grave, only to watch him step away unscathed three days later. Every enemy, internal and external, can only listen helplessly as he assures us that what we really feel closing in around us are his nail marked hand cupping us in safety and security.
By all this he assures us that we are not the helpless victims of all the pressures pressing in on us from within and without; we are actually victors. We are not owned by the heartaches that fill our eyes with tears; we are his sheep. We are not bound to lose as a wicked world flexes its muscles; no one and nothing can snatch us from him.
So, even now, he presses into our hands our practice palm branches for the big celebration day, and he assures us we will not be ashamed to have practiced waving it. Even now, he assures us that the white robe of his holiness are already securely wrapped around us. Even now, though our remaining tears may blur our vision of that final victory and eternal security, he assures us that all that matters is that he speaks the truth.
Invulnerable, defended sheep. Secure against all enemies foreign (external) and domestic (internal). That is the ultimate reality. Now and forever.