“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” (Zechariah 13:7)
A few days after the events of Good Friday, the risen Lord Jesus walked alongside dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus. They struggled to make sense of the events of the cross, struggled to see its meaning, struggled to see it as part of God’s purpose and plan. They did not recognise Jesus but his words to them were plain: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
Perhaps these words from Zechariah were in Jesus’ mind as he spoke to those disciples. Because Zechariah knew very plainly and spoke very plainly about the Messiah who would need to suffer. “Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” says God through the prophet. God’s man, his shepherd, the messiah king, would be struck down. In the mockery of a trial, in the mockery of the soldiers, in the nails of a cruel Roman cross, the sword is awoken against the man of God ─ the shepherd of God’s flock is struck down.
‘Strike the shepherd,’ speaks Zechariah, ‘and the sheep will be scattered.’ The flock is flung into fear and confusion by the events that attack the shepherd-king. If you know anything about sheep, you will know that they are easily confused and easily spooked. An unexpected event, a frightening noise, will send a flock of sheep running in the opposite direction. And in running from what confuses them can cause them to run straight into danger. Sheep are easily scared and often wayward animals. They need to be steered and cared for, directed out of danger and into safety. When the shepherd is lost, the sheep wander, going their own way, putting themselves at risk.
These words of Zechariah point to the work of Jesus at the cross. And as he prepares for his crucifixion, Jesus applies these words to his disciples directly:
This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:‘“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” (Matthew 26:31)
“Not I,” says Peter, ever the bold and brash disciple. “That might be the others, but it will never be me.” “Yes, even you Peter,” says Jesus, “Three times. This very night.”
The sheep will be scattered. Those who pledge like Peter ever to remain faithful find that very night that they are unfaithful, wandering, wayward sheep. Each one falls away. Each one fails the test. Each one finds their fears overcome them, their temptations prove too much. These men who knew Jesus so well, who had walked with him and ate with him, who he had shared so much with, at the final hurdle found themselves to be frightened sheep and unfaithful friends.
But where they are unfaithful ─ and where we are just as unfaithful too ─ we find that Jesus is faithful.
“If we are faithless,” writes the apostle Paul to Timothy, “he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” We see that at the cross. Where we are unfaithful, he is faithful. Where we are scattered in fear, he goes to bear all our suffering. Where we are unable to stay the course, he goes the distance. The sword is awakened against the shepherd, and strikes our friend.
Here is our divine friend who is faithful when we are not. “This very night, you will all fall away,” says Jesus. But he did not fall away. He did not walk away. He went to the cross for those who could not follow, could not stand, could not be faithful.
And so, says Jesus to his wayward disciples, “after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” He knew their unfaithfulness, just as he knows ours. He knew their weaknesses and their frailties, just as he knows ours. And he says to them, “I will go ahead of you.” Though you will be unfaithful, I will be faithful. I will be waiting for you. I go ahead of you. In going to the cross, and through the cross, I take your unfaithfulness and transform it by my faithfulness. I go ahead of you. Come, meet me there.