29 April 2012

The Lord Is Your Good Shepherd

The Lord Himself is your Good Shepherd, and, with Him, everything you need and all good things are yours.  For His goodness is not an abstraction; nor is it simply a quality of His character, an ability or aptitude or mere potential, but faithfulness in action and the fulfillment of His office and vocation.  Yes, He is intrinsically good; indeed, He is absolute goodness.  But He is also very good at what He does.  And what He does is more than noble and right; it actually meets every need.

The Lord is your true Shepherd.  That is who and what He is, and that is what He does for you.

He is not like the hirelings that you are prone to enlist and rely upon, whatever or whoever those hirelings might be.  They run out on you, in one way or the other, just when you need them most.  But they have nothing more to give than you give to them, and neither you nor they can save you.  Neither do hirelings care about you, anyway.  They care about themselves, and they are just as needy, and just as scared, as you are.

A sheep without a real shepherd is in trouble, like a child without a Mom or Dad; because there are so many needs, so many dangers, and so many enemies.  The wolf is on the prowl.  The lion is, too, you know that.  The serpent lies in wait.  But if the predators don’t get you and gobble you up, your own hunger will.  A sheep has to eat, and needs water to live.  If that isn’t provided for you, or if you aren’t content with what you’re given, then your searching and scavenging for food and drink is liable to get you lost.  Alone in the dark, in unfamiliar territory, in places where you don’t belong, you’re going to get hurt, or worse.

But your Shepherd, who is faithful, good and true, is not a hired hand who runs away from danger or lets you wander into it.  You are His own sheep, and He cares for you.  He is not working to make a living off of you, but He gives up His own life on your behalf, in order to give you life and preserve it in safety and in peace.

He saw the wolf coming, and He ran — not away — but He raced to help you.  He heard the lion’s roar, the serpent’s hiss, the big bear’s deep guttural growl, and He took His stand and set Himself between those predators and you.  He did not simply holler at them or chase them off.  Nor did He fight them, tooth and claw, as one might expect.  But He dealt them all a far more deadly and permanent defeat, in a way that has left them unable to hurt you anymore.

The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  But what good would that be, if the wolf simply waited until the Shepherd were dead and gone, and then went about snatching the sheep and scattering them?  Heroic sacrifice, great, but what’s the point if it only puts off the inevitable?

No, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, so that He may take it up again, and in His rising He obtains and preserves the life of all His sheep forever.  This is the great Mystery of His goodness, the special authority of His faithfulness and love in His keeping and fulfilling the commandment of His God and Father.

So this Shepherd, in sheep’s clothing, defeats the wolf at its own game.  He shuts the lion’s mouth and crushes the serpent’s head by giving Himself as a tasty little Lamb into their teeth.  They cannot resist this prize.  They cannot believe it is so easy!  And yet, they are in for a surprise.  For this Shepherd is the sacrifice that ruins their appetite once and for all.  He is not a hunter who kills the wolf with knife or gun, in order to open it up and bring Granny and Little Red back out, but He allows Himself to be swallowed up in the first place, in order to burst the belly of the beast from the inside-out.  That is what His dying and rising have done.  His laying down and taking up again of life in the flesh has left your enemies undone.

The predators still prowl for a little while now, and they can still act all fierce and scary, but they are toothless, and they have terrible tummy troubles.  They have no stomach for you, who belong to the Good Shepherd.  For not only does He gather you close to Himself, and stand over you to guard and protect you with Himself and His own never-to-die-again Life; but He also feeds you with Himself, so that He abides in you with His own flesh and blood, and you also abide in Him.

As you are thus fed, not only by but with your Good Shepherd, with the Meat and Drink of His flesh and blood, the wolf, the lion, and the snake, and even the big ol’ bear ought to know better than to eat you.  Oh, to be sure, they still eye you hungrily and greedily; more so than ever, ‘cause you know how it is when you can’t eat what you want!  They salivate over your body and soul, but whenever they try to snatch you and swallow you down, they taste again the Shepherd who abides in you, and they become ill.  They cannot hold His liquor.  They cannot digest His food.  Nor can they have His little lamb.

If staying with your Good Shepherd and keeping yourself close to Him depended on you and your faithfulness, well, you should already be aware, that wouldn’t work.  As it is, you wander and stray, you get yourself hopelessly lost, caught in some thicket, fallen into some deep dark hole or dangerous ravine.  Often as not, the predators don’t even have to come looking for you, because you’re out there chasing after them.  That is not as it should be, but that is how it is.

Yet, the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep.  Truly, He does.  He who laid down His life for you, and took it up again, He also takes care of you in every way.  He has defeated your enemies, and He still keeps you safe from them.  He has called you by His Voice of the Gospel to become a sheep of His fold.  He feeds you with the green grass of His Word, and He refreshes you with the cool clear waters of His grace toward you, His mercy and free forgiveness.  He provides all that you need (even though He does not give you everything your appetite craves and desires, lest you make yourself sick with gluttony and drunkenness and lust).

He guards and keeps you under His protection, so that you are able to graze freely and in peace on the good food that He provides.  And with His rod and staff, He guides and governs you in the good way that you should go, that is, the way of life, from pasture unto pasture, along the streams that flow from His Cross, from His innermost being, through the font, into Paradise with Him.

He does all of this for you, in order to give you life and preserve it; not only because He knows you and loves you as His own dear sheep, but it is by these means of grace, by His Gospel, that He actually does know you and love you.  His knowledge and His love are not so much intellect and emotion as they are activity and gift.

He has known you, in love, by His becoming like you in every way: true Man of flesh and blood, forevermore, but also having experienced all your suffering and temptation, your sin and death.

He still knows you, from now on and forever, by giving you Himself and His Life with His Word.  This is the knowledge of intimacy, the way the Bridegroom knows and loves His Bride; which goes way beyond the honeymoon and romance to the sharing of life, the sharing of one name, the sharing of the same home, the sharing of time together in conversations and activities.

Your Good Shepherd knows you that well.  What is more, He knows you in the way the Father knows the Son in the perfect unity of the Holy Triune God; in that flawless harmony of divine and holy Love.  Truly, there is nothing lacking in His knowledge and love for you.  Therefore, do not ever suppose that He does not understand or care about you.  Rather, listen to His Voice, and learn to know Him in His Word to you, even as He knows the Father in Himself.

How often isn’t it the case that you perceive and know a father in his son, because the son has received and made his own what was the father’s.  So much more do you know God the Father in Christ Jesus, His Son, who is begotten of His Father from all eternity, of one and the same divine nature and substance as He is.  And as you know the Father by His Son, so do you know the Son by the Word that He speaks, by the gifts that He gives to you, and by the Life and Love that He bestows upon you in the Gospel.  Not only do you know Him in this way, but you also become like Him, begotten of God by His grace, a son of God in Christ, through faith in His Name.

As the Good Shepherd has become like the sheep, so do you, His sheep, become like your Good Shepherd.  Not apart from Him, but always with Him, in His care and keeping; because He is always with you.  He really is with you.

Do not be afraid.  Even if you are given up as a sacrificial lamb, know that your Good Shepherd has already gone before you, and He also now goes with you, through the valley of the shadow of death, into the glorious Light of His Resurrection and His Life everlasting.

If you are commanded by God and called upon to lay down your life for your neighbor — to bear the cross for your spouse, your child, your parent; for a stranger, or in forgiveness and love for someone who hates you and hurts you — know that your God and Father will also raise you up again, as surely as He has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

His Resurrection is your resurrection.  That is the authority of which your Good Shepherd speaks: the authority of His Gospel.  Because He received both the Cross and the Resurrection from His Father, and in faith and love He took them on Himself for you.  The Father loves you for His sake.

So, then, His Resurrection is your resurrection, not only when you are faithful and true, but also when you have fallen and totally blown it; not only when you suffer patiently for doing what is right, but also when you suffer the consequences of your own faults and failings.  That is the whole point.  That is why your Shepherd has not only chased off the wolf and kept it at bay, but He has knocked out its teeth, shut its mouth, and broken its jaw.  Sin and death have been robbed of their sting, because the Law of God has been fulfilled and satisfied by the Shepherd for His sheep.  God does not accuse you, but He forgives you for Jesus’ sake.  That is what His dying for you has done, and that is what His rising for you means.  There is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus.

His rising from death is your comfort and your confidence in the face of every contradiction, in the midst of all confusion.  Face to face with the wolf, surrounded on all sides by hungry and voracious predators, your Shepherd stands fast, and He’s got you covered.  He shelters and protects you round about.  You’ve got nowhere to run, but He has come running to you, in order to be with you, to defend you, to save you, and to love you, now and forever.

When the wolf would stare you down, to intimidate and scare you with accusation, guilt and shame, your Good Shepherd stares down the big bad wolf with His Atonement and Redemption, and the forgiveness of all your sins.  So that, when your own heart quails with fear, or your own conscience condemns you, the Lord who loves you comforts and assures you with His Voice of the Gospel, and He strengthens you with peace in His presence.  Because He is your Shepherd, and He is with you, therefore, you are safe.

In fact, you are far better than safe and sound, and your Shepherd gives you much more than peace and quiet.  He does not only spare your life and provide your basic necessities, but He has brought you into His royal palace and seated you at His banquet Table.  He actually gives you a place of honor, and He glorifies you — in the presence of His Father, the great King, on the one hand, and in front of all your enemies, to their great shame and disgrace, on the other hand.

You shall not be food for your foes, but here the Lord gives Himself as Food for you, so that you shall never go hungry.  You shall not want for anything.  Though you have been thirsty and dehydrated, His Cup runs over with abundant Life, which He pours out for you to drink your fill, to be refreshed, to be revived in body and soul forever.
Though you have been unholy and unhappy, the Lord your Shepherd anoints you with the oil of gladness; He pours out His Spirit upon you, to sanctify you with His divine goodness and true joy.

Though you have been lost, alone and afraid, and sometimes you still feel that way, the truth is that your Good Shepherd has come for you; He has already found you, snatched you out of danger, and brought you home rejoicing.

In reclining at His Table, you lie down in His green pasture.  In drinking from His Chalice, you rest beside still waters.  In living here and now, by the Word of your Shepherd, you already dwell in the House of the Lord, and so shall you abide with Him forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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