April 17, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript for my sermon for Sunday, April 17th, 2016. 4th Sunday of Easter, Year C. Good Shepherd Sunday.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen. Or who’d like to listen along.
Same question, really
How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.
I must admit, when I hear this challenge in my mind, it is not some Judean stranger’s voice I’m hearing. It’s my own.
Sometimes Jesus tests my patience. Like these Judeans, I want plain answers to my questions. I want black-and-white solutions that I don’t have to think too much about. I want Jesus to tell me what to do. And truth be told, I hope what he tells me to do is what I wanted, anyway. How long will you keep me in suspense, Jesus? Change that question mark over my head into a lightbulb.
And you know what? I don’t even have as good an excuse for trying to pin Jesus down as these Judeans did. My problems are First World problems, and mostly of my own doing. I’m not living in occupied territory. I’m not at the mercy of bottom-feeding tyrants. I’m not in danger of literally being crucified for saying the wrong things around the wrong people.
I say all that because we are trained to be judgy with the Jewish opposition in the Gospels. But they had troubles most of us can’t even imagine.
Anyway, here’s something interesting. You know who else asked pretty much the same question? Jesus’ cousin, the greatest prophet of all time: John the Baptist. While John was in prison, he sent some people to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else? (Luke 7.19-20)
John wanted to know the same thing these Judeans in our Gospel lesson today wanted to know. Are you the king God has anointed to set us free? Give me a straight answer. Stop leaving me hanging. Everything is at stake.
How long will you test our patience? Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.
It’s all the same question, really. Isn’t it?
What’s Hanukkah got to do with it?
It’s not just the question that these Judeans, or John the Baptist, asked that’s important.
It’s when and where they asked their question.
John was rotting away in prison. We know how that story ended up: Herod executed John on a dare. And I’m sure John knew his days were getting shorter when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus.
But these Judeans asked Jesus at the temple. And they asked Jesus during the Festival of Dedication. We now know this festival as Hanukkah.
Well, what does Hanukkah have to do with anything? That’s a great question.
About 160 years before Jesus was born, Palestine had been invaded by a wicked Syrian king. This king banned the Torah; threatened to kill anyone who circumcised their children; and chased the priests out of the temple. Things finally came to a head when the Syrian king sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the temple altar. A family from the legitimate priesthood assembled a rebel army, led by a young man named Judah Maccabee. Maccabee was his nickname, by the way. It meant The Hammer. It took three years, but the Hammer and his guerrilla forces liberated Jerusalem and chased out the Syrians.
Judah Maccabee’s first order of business was to purify and rededicate the temple. Hence, the Festival of Dedication, or Hanukkah.
The book of 1 Maccabees, from the Old Testament Apocrypha, tells the rest of the story:
So they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and joyfully made entirely burned offerings. They offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with gold crowns and small shields. They restored the gates and the priests’ chambers, furnishing them with doors. The people were extremely glad, and the disgrace the Gentiles brought was lifted.
Then Judas, with his brothers and all the assembly of Israel, laid down a law that every year at that season the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and happiness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. (1 Macc 4.56-59)
In the temple, on Hanukkah, those Judeans wanted to know: How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly. They wanted to know if Jesus was the one God sent to do for them what Judah Maccabee had done for their ancestors. Would Jesus raise up an army to chase off the Romans and the Herods, and put the rightful priests back in the temple?
Jesus, have you come to rescue us? Have you come to set us free?
John the Baptist, from his dungeon, asked Jesus: Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?
Jesus, are you coming to rescue me? Is anyone coming to get me out of here?
Or should we look for someone else? Jesus, if you’re not going to fix it, should we go find someone who will?
I suspect most of us can sympathize with John the Baptist’s question. He’s in prison for doing the right thing. He’s suffering for his faith. He understands that if someone doesn’t spring him, he will never see daylight again. He’s a martyr in the making, and he sees Jesus as his only way out. If you’re the Messiah, cousin, make your move quickly. Or I’ll die in here.
When John asks, Are you the one who is coming?, I hear someone who is nearing the end of his rope.
Whose dreams have been deferred indefinitely. Whose hopes are unraveling.
In our Gospel today, some Judeans asked Jesus a question a question that sounds a lot like John’s question. How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.
It sounds the same. But was it?
The only difference
Let’s listen to how Jesus answered John. And let’s listen to how Jesus answered those Judeans.
This is how Jesus answered John: Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor. Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me. (Luke 7.22-23)
He told John’s disciples to tell John the signs they had seen, and the good news they had heard. And his final words to John were, Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me. He’s basically saying: You know what I’m doing. You know what I’m saying. Am I the Messiah? You know, John. Don’t fall away now.
But this is how Jesus answered the Judeans in today’s lesson: I have told you, but you don’t believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep.
Just like he had with John, Jesus didn’t give a direct answer. He didn’t come right out and say plainly: Yes, I’m the Messiah. Instead—just as he did for John—he pointed to his words and his works. But then he says: But you don’t believe. You don’t believe because you don’t belong.
John gets a beatitude. The Judeans get the door slammed in their face.
What’s the difference?
Here’s what I suspect the difference is. And it’s the only difference. But it’s the most important difference.
The difference is that John is afraid Jesus might not actually be the Messiah after all. But the Jewish authorities are afraid Jesus really is the Messiah.
John—in prison, and waiting to die—can feel deeply his own need. And so he is able to identify with the people that Jesus is working with and among. The poor and the outcast and the sick and the disabled. John the prisoner—helpless and weak and totally dependent on God, himself—would see very clearly that Jesus was doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Those Judeans, on the other hand, will only be happy if the Messiah does their will. Which they had unfortunately confused with God’s will. The Judeans were the movers and shakers. The people Jesus was healing and preaching good news to were the kinds of people who were always being moved and shaken down by the Judean elites.
Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me, is how Jesus had left things with John.
But Jesus knew full well that these Judeans would be stubbing their toes and stumbling all over everything he did or said.
My sheep hear my voice
Those Judeans had heard and seen the same things that John’s friends went and reported back to him. They had seen the blind regain their sight; the paralyzed walking; the lepers made clean; the deaf hearing; the dead raised. They had heard Jesus preaching good news to the poor. They had seen and heard it all. But, Jesus told them, you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.
This raises all sorts of questions: Do the sheep listen to Jesus because they’re his sheep? Or are they his sheep because they listen to him? Do they follow because Jesus is their shepherd? Or is Jesus their shepherd because they follow?
We’re talking about choices here, church. Has God already decided who Jesus’ sheep are, and given them to Jesus to shepherd? If so, this sermon is over. I have nothing more to say about the matter. None of us do.
On the other hand, can we choose whose sheep we are going to be? Can we decide to follow a particular shepherd? I think we can. So I’m going to preach a few minutes longer.
This sheep and shepherd talk had started way back in the chapter. Before our Gospel lesson today. Jesus was talking to some Pharisees, and he told them: All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them . . . The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10.8, 10-11)
Jesus says he is the good shepherd who comes to lay down his life for his sheep. Who endures humiliation and suffering and death to save them. Who brings life that endures, rather than death. The leaders of the people were working off their own agenda, for their own gain. Jesus called them thieves and outlaws; and says they are only out to steal, kill, and destroy. They weren’t trying to establish God’s kingdom, God’s reign. They were only concerned about their own power and authority. They weren’t trying to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. They were doing their own will, and calling it God’s will.
Jesus’ sheep are the ones who can see through that. They won’t follow a stranger, Jesus said; but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice (John 10.5).
Why do you think that Jesus did most of his work on the edges of his culture? Why do you think that he was so beloved by the poor, and the prostitutes, and the tax collectors, and the sinners, and the sick and disabled? Why do you think he called his disciples from the fishing boats and the tax collector offices and—in the case of Simon the Zealot—the front lines of the anti-Rome protests? Instead of the religious and social elite—like the Judeans we met in our Gospel lesson today? It’s simple, really. Because the things he was doing and saying made sense to the people on the outskirts of society. Because he took them seriously when no one else did. In Jesus’ works and in Jesus’ words, they saw and heard good news. They found someone willing to lay down his life for them. They ran away from the Pharisees and the Judeans and the priests because all those people had ever done was stolen from them and kicked them when they were down. But they flocked to Jesus and followed him.
But that’s not the sort of Messiah those Judeans wanted. They wanted a strong Messiah for a strong people. They wanted a Messiah who agreed with them that might makes right. They wanted someone to preach that God helps those who help themselves. They wanted a Messiah and a God who saw things their way; and who would make sure the world worked to their advantage. Like I said before, I suspect that they were more afraid that Jesus was the Messiah than afraid he was’t. Jesus the Messiah would be bad news for them.
They could choose to listen to Jesus and follow him. We all have that choice. We can choose whose sheep we will be, who will be our shepherd. But some of us have to give up more to follow.
And Jesus knew those Judeans well enough to know that they weren’t willing to make that choice.
The only reason they weren’t his sheep is they refused to be shepherded. At least not by Jesus.
No one will snatch them from my hand
Now here is what Jesus wants everyone to know about his sheep. He wants the Judean authorities to know this, because the time will come when they will harass and bully and even kill Jesus’ sheep, trying to snatch them away from Jesus. And he also wants his sheep—his little flock who are so vulnerable in the world, so often at the mercy of merciless thieves and outlaws—he wants his sheep to know what he has to say, too. And treasure it up in their hearts.
Jesus says: I give my sheep eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
I give my sheep eternal life. They will never die, Jesus says. Not, I will give my sheep eternal life after they die. But right now, I give them eternal life. Eternal life begins here and now. We tend to think of eternal life as afterlife. A life that really only begins after we die. But that’s not what Jesus says. A few chapters back in John 5.24, he had said: whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life. Jesus’ sheep have eternal life already, because their lives are in the hands of the eternal Father, and the Word through whom life was created. The lives of the sheep bound to the life of the good shepherd, who has become one of them. We heard about this in our lesson from Revelation today: the Lamb … will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water (Rev. 7.17).
No one will snatch them from my hand, Jesus assures us. No one and nothing, as brother Paul says: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created (Rom. 8.38-39) can snatch the sheep from our shepherd Lamb.
Furthermore, Jesus assures us that no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. Jesus the Son and the eternal Father are one in heart and will and plans and ways and desires. When Jesus is your shepherd, and you are his sheep, no one and nothing can snatch you from him. Because the Son leads you to his Father and yours; and the Father wills that the Son bring his sheep safely into eternal life.
Jesus had said that his sheep are the ones who listen to his voice and follow him. If you hear the voice of the eternal Father in Jesus’ words; if you have caught a glimpse of the Father in the works of the Son; and you are drawn to the Son because you know fullness of life—everything that is true and beautiful and merciful and trustworthy; everything that endures—is found in him, then you are his sheep. And that is your choice alone. No one else can make that choice for you. And Father God will not make that choice for you.
Oh but church, there are so many voices out there! So many competing voices that make claims on our lives; make demands of us; shame us; manipulate us with guilt and fear. But sheep know their shepherd’s voice. And they know their shepherd’s voice by listening. Little flock, we must listen. We must discern. We must know our shepherd’s voice, and follow him.
Our good shepherd says that God welcomes the poor into his kingdom. Any voice that does not welcome the poor is not our shepherd’s voice.
Our good shepherd says that those who mourn will be comforted. Any voice that tells us not to offer comfort to mourners is not our shepherd’s voice.
Our good shepherd tells us to welcome strangers and pray for our enemies. Any voice that tells us to fear strangers and curse our enemies is not our shepherd’s voice.
Our shepherd stood between a disgraced sinner and an angry mob about to stone her to death. Our shepherd was willing to lay down his life for her—to suffer the stones they would have tossed her way. Any voice that tells us to pick up stones—even the stones of our words or our judgment—to toss at our neighbor is not the voice of our shepherd.
Our shepherd’s voice guides us to freedom. Any voice that abuses us or puts us down or leads us into bondage is not our shepherd’s voice.
Our good shepherd’s voice reassures us that we are his sheep, and nothing can snatch us from his hand. Any voice that says, If you do all this perfectly; and think the right thoughts; and do what I say and never ask any questions, then perhaps you are my sheep; is not our shepherd’s voice.
Those are the voices of thieves and outlaws, who come only to steal, kill, and destroy. We can choose to stop studying those voices. Just as we are free to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him. As we follow our shepherd, those other voices will fade away and grow silent.
And the only voice that will matter then is the one that tells us: I am your good shepherd. I know you. I give you eternal life. And no one can snatch you from my hand.