Thursday, May 3, 2012
I am here... the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep...
Every child has cried out in fear of things that go bump in the night, of monsters under the bed, and of danger hidden in the shadows. For the child, comfort begins when a door opens into the darkened room and the familiar figure of mother or father enters in. It is not what a parent says or does but simply that he or she is there. This is what comforts the child. This calms the troubled heart. The promise of the parent is not that there is nothing to fear but that mom and dad are there to face the fears with the child. There will be monsters under the bed, nightmares, and fears hiding in the shadows tomorrow night as well. But mom or dad will be there then, as well. Therein is the child’s comfort.
Every adult has likewise borne the weight of his or her fears in loneliness – until someone comes to them. Whether the solitary figure in a hospital room or a phone that does not ring or a doorbell that does not sound, all ages find themselves alone with their fears at some point or another. This loneliness is a terrible captivity that begs for help and aches with anxiety for someone to come and the fear that no one will come. We all seek comfort in the presence of others.
Now the evils of the real world are darker than the childish fears of the night. Our enemies are not made up but genuine. But our comfort is not made up, either. It is genuine. Family and friends come to sit on the hospital bed and hold our hands in our afflictions. Love comes with casserole in hand. We are not alone. That is our comfort, the presence of those who sit with us, wait with us, bear with us, and love us. This is our peace: We are not alone. And this is the comfort of God to us. Thou are with me... says the Psalmist today. I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus in the Gospel.
For Israel walking in the wilderness, the pillar of fire by night and the smoke by day were the sacraments of God's presence. Having left all things familiar in Egypt, their comfort took the form of manna from God. Not knowing the way, their comfort was the God who went before, guiding them to the completion of their journey and the fulfillment of their hope.
You and I are no different. We are pilgrims and strangers in a world that should feel like home. Sin has turned the darkness into threat and filled us with fear. There is no greater enemy than death and no greater fear than to lose our lives before we see our dreams, goals, and hopes realized. If any thing about this life is certain, it is that death is near.
We could seek comfort in packing as much as we can into the few days of even a long life. But we will always be in a losing battle against those who want to steal our peace. So we end up like scattered sheep who run wildly in pursuit an elusive dream, not even realizing how vulnerable we are until life comes crashing down upon us.
It is into this that Jesus has come. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. He knows His own better than they know themselves. He grants us His Spirit so that we may recognize the sound of His voice, know the comfort of His call, the safety of His presence, the grace that supplies all their need, the food that satisfies their hunger, the water that cleanses and gives them drink. He is not good in comparison to bad, but the Good Shepherd who can deliver His promises to His flock. He is the one who fulfills the promise of God to be with us always.
In life and in death, we are not alone. Threatened by evil and surrounded by our enemies, we are not alone. Jesus is with us. It cost Him nothing less than His holy life surrendered into our death upon the cross so we might be found and restored. He rose that the secret of this victory might no more be hidden but revealed to us and to the world. We are not alone. He is with us. His goodness is that He will never leave us and He is greater than any enemy we have and the worst enemy we have.
This is not some abstract imagery of poet or philosopher but the practical hope of children who still cry out in darkness looking for comfort and peace. This is no promise of the huckster who says if you get it right and get right with God you will have all you want of health and wealth and happiness and pleasure. This is no shallow Gospel that pats us on the back and says, "It will be okay." This is honest and real life, honest and real fears, honest and real troubles – all met by the honest and real Savior who willingly gave up heaven for the reality of this mortal life and all its wounds and hurts. This is the honest and real Savior who judged us worthy of His life offered into our death on the cross and declared us righteous and holy in the ultimate act of grace and mercy. This is the honest and real Savior who rose from the dead and now whispers to us in the midst of all our fears, "I am with you."
And so we come... to sit at the table He has appointed while our enemies stare with surprise into the God who has become the Shepherd of His people and their food. And so we come... to have our soiled and wounded heads anointed with the oil of healing and gladness by the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name. And so we come... to see our cup of blessing overflow with a generous grace it is embarrassing in its lavishness and richness.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives for God is with us. Our sin could not turn Him away and our death could not contain Him. So we shall dwell in His House here for as long as time is given and forever in the place where time is counted no more.
The great temptation is to separate Jesus from His gifts or grace, to separate Jesus from the means of His presence (the Word and Sacraments), or to separate Jesus from the good news of the Gospel. What calms our fears is not the promise that troubles will fly away or enemies disappear. What calms our fears and plants hope in our hearts is that the Good Shepherd is here and among us – amid the troubles of our lives, in the presence of our enemies, amid the disappointments, burdens, wounds, and problems of this mortal life. He is here and where He is we find the grace that cleanses us from our sin, sustains us on the journey of this mortal life, carries us through all the uncertainties to come, keeps us in His protective care, and opens to us the door of life everlasting. It is not that Jesus gives uw what we want, but that Jesus is here. Period. The Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep and takes it up again that He might give it to us.
To the child who cries out in the night, nothing is more welcome than the comforting presence of mom or dad who comes to him. It is not what they bring but that they are there. In the same way, it is not what God gives to us that is our comfort but that He gives us Himself, He is here. The Good Shepherd has made Himself everything for you – He is your pasture, water of rest, food, dwelling place, righteousness, goodness, and peace. He gathers us lambs in His arms and carries us in His bosom, and leads us young and old, where hunger, thirst, death and fear are no more (Is 40:11). His presence is His gift. That is why the Word and Sacraments are so important. They are the rod and staff that comforts us because they deliver His presence to us.
I remember once when one of our kids was small and I awoke to the sound of crying. I tried to comfort and go back to bed but it did not work. So I sat on the end of the bed. Perhaps fifteen minutes passed when a small voice filled the silence. “Are you still there?” That is the question that haunts us Christians. Are you still there, God? But the answer comes not from feelings or wishes. No, the answer lies in the Good Shepherd stands among us today. "I am here," and through Word and Sacrament fulfill the promise of His Words. He is here to forgive, to restore, to comfort, to impart hope, to sustain with grace, and to lead us home to the Father. Not in feelings or results to our prayers, but in the concrete presence of bread, wine, and water. "Do not fear. I am here. I am the Good Shepherd. I know you and you know Me." Not even death could keep Him from us. And now we know why He is called Good. He is the perfect fit for our need and the perfect answer to all our fears and needs. Amen. Amen.