It just doesn’t seem fair at all to my enemies. (Not that I really want to play fair with them anyway!) What chance do my enemies have, really, when the morning begins by being wrapped ever more tightly in the embrace of my Good Shepherd?
I mean, here my enemies have gone to all this trouble to mark me for slaughter. And this marking is done with special delight since God in his gracious wisdom has – foolishly it often seems to me – allowed others to be following me, thereby upping the risk beyond just my own life of the chaos a major stumble and loss of faith would cause! Those enemies are doing some in-advance licking of their chops as they anticipate lamb chops since they know even better than I do (I’m usually too proud to see it!) what an easy target I am with a heart so often confused, foolish, doubting, stubborn, proud, disobedient, wicked (the list could, sadly, go on!). The options of attack are so many how will they know where to begin?
But then along comes the Good Shepherd in those early morning hours – before those poor enemies hardly have a chance to get much of a roll going in temptation – and his voice quietly calls above the building commotion. [Yes, because he knows me – even better than my enemies do! – his words often hurt at first, as he identifies weaknesses I would rather not see (he seems to have to work especially hard to show me the many temptations to pride, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction so endemic to public ministers!). The Shepherd refuses to let my eyes be blind to what my enemies already know: what an easy target I still am as an unprotected lamb even after so many years of life in the flock (yes, even after so many years of leading assigned portions of his flock).
And the Shepherd, even better than I, also knows precisely what attacks will be launched my way in the coming day! Remember, as strange as it sounds, the beautiful words of the Good Shepherd chapter (John 10) sprang from the midst of the ongoing-two-festivals-long (Feast of Tabernacles and Dedication) bitter opposition in Jerusalem! That’s why his first order of business is to empty me each day of my confidence in self lest the opposition coming my way blows me completely away!
But before long – well, it depends on how long it takes him to get my attention and turn my attention away from myself! – his Shepherd’s voice begins to comfort and assure me. He reminds me that, defenseless sheep though I be, I am one of his sheep. He reminds me that he has branded me as his own: I’m marked on forehead and heart with the sign of his cross ever since my baptism. His voice woos my heart anew each day with the beauty that he knows me as one for whom he shed his blood to remove all my failures. He knows me as one he has clothed with his own personal goodness which he has given me to wear as if it were my own.
And having so washed me anew and clothed me again, he invites me for the rest of my day to remember his great love so that I can find peace in following wherever he leads. And if I begin to wonder – as I almost always do – where exactly we are going, he simply smiles and says the destination is always the same: eternal life. And as my eyes begin to notice more and more what in this new day wants to make me afraid and worried and upset, he smiles again and makes this most wondrous promise: “My dear lamb, do not worry about what opposes you! You will never perish, for no one and nothing can pluck you out of my hand. In fact, let me double that assurance! It was my Father who gave you to me as my own, and he is holding you too. No one can snatch you out of my Father’s hand. And if you ever wonder whether my Father and I are on the same page as the events of your life unfold, well, don’t worry about that, for we’ve been one from all eternity. You see, my dear lamb, nothing has filled your Father and me with greater joy from eternity than the thought of getting you – and our other sheep – safely home!”
So, my brothers, as we come to this glorious Sunday known by our fathers as Misericordias Domini (the tenderhearted compassion of the Lord), my prayer for you is the same one you will lead your people in praying:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Good Shepherd who laid down your life for the sheep. Lead us now to the still waters of your life-giving Word that we may abide in your Father’s house forevermore; for you live and reign with him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever! Amen.”