4th Sunday of Easter
April 21, 2013
John 10:22-30, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17
It’s been a long week, another one filled with heartache, fear, and suspense. My Facebook pages have been filled with prayers of sympathy and hope. More than a method of keeping up with the lives and ministries of my young friends from seminary, it is a kind of bulletin board of what’s on the hearts and minds of people who are connected to people I know all over the world. Some weeks, like this last one, you witness the outpouring pain that makes you understand that you are not the only one who feels stripped of your trust that the world can ever be a safe place.
And…..and, at the same time, I have been living with these images of Jesus as shepherd; with the tenderness and the toughness of that image. What do shepherds do? They hold a world in their hands: they protect and provide for the vulnerable, both animal and environmental, and bring in a harvest when the time is right. When someone said that the people of Boston all needed a hug, I thought of Jesus, the tender shepherd providing comfort. When I read from Revelation that God would wipe away every tear from the eyes of those who had come through martyrdom, I thought of the people who had to wait to find out about their loved ones. When I read the psalm, I thought of all the people who had turned to that beloved text for comfort in pain, in worry, and in fear.
After the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm is probably the best-known verses of the Bible. It was part of the culture for so long that when we say it at the Nursing Home and invite everyone to say it with us, people are right there, word for word. The image of God or the King as shepherd was fairly common in the ancient Middle East, but this carries detail that only a deeply intimate relationship can convey. It is so rich – depicting God as lovingly leading to the places where it is safe to rest and safe to drink. God is able to find the path that is right and is willing to lead because God is that kind of shepherd. Even in the face of evil and death, God provides the assurance of protection. The lavishness of God’s provision is so vast that it is depicted as a banquet even in the face of threats, and so abundant that it overflows. This comfort and provision follows throughout life and even into God’s eternal home.
It is easy for us Christians to see the connections between the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of Jesus as gathered and presented to us in the writings of the New Testament. But I doubt that it was so easy for the people of Jesus’ day. The evangelists emphasized those connections in Jesus’ replies to his questioners and critics, and so I think that they would be more aware of them than we are. So in the story from John’s Gospel, we have Jesus in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication. It is the same festival that modern Jews call Hanukkah. “Do not keep us in suspense…” say the faithful Jews, “are you the Messiah, or not?” “How many times do I need to tell you?” is his answer. He claims that the things he does are the things that only God can do, the things that the prophets have said the Messiah will do –open the eyes of the blind, cast out evil, heal and release people to new life, raise the dead, set people free to live in response to God’s love and faithfulness. It can’t be any plainer, he and the Father are working together to make all this happen.
In the beginning of this chapter, Jesus offers the long discourse about being the gate for the sheep and the Good Shepherd, the way to God and the one willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Many people who heard that discourse understood that Jesus was claiming to be God’s Messiah and the one who came to fulfill all the prophesies and promises made to them in their Scriptures. They heard the Psalm reflected in Jesus’ ministry. But this group in our reading this morning didn’t get it. It was as if their minds were just stuck in their own expectations, and they couldn’t hear anything beyond what they were expecting. When John talks about “the Jews,” he’s not talking about a whole nation of believers, he’s talking about those stubborn leaders and scholars who refused to let go of their own understanding, and to trust what they saw unfolding in front of them. And so Jesus says that they don’t understand because they are not part of his flock.
This is not meant to be a test of who’s in and who’s out. This is, instead, the recognition that some people, confronted with all the evidence that leads to faith in other people, just can’t go there. If you are a believer, Jesus’ answer will be deeply comforting to you – you will hear that Jesus has come from God to call you onto those ‘paths of righteousness,’ to give you the rest, and green pasture, and still water that you need to thrive. You will hear Jesus’ assurance that nothing will be able to snatch you away from his love and care, because he protects and cares for you with the power of God’s own self. Jesus is claiming for you the comfort of that Psalm and all the assurance that it gives.
This is language that makes us remember that all of this is simply because God loves us. None of us deserves that love and care because we are so special or so good. As a matter of fact, we are all sinners who turn our backs on God’s love and care whenever it suits us, and often look for our comfort in all the wrong places. We are all invited and comforted and protected just because God loves sinners, and because God loves us.
On this morning when we offer our prayers for those who suffer the abuse and neglect when love and care, should be theirs simply because they are human beings, it is fitting that we can celebrate God’s loving care for the most vulnerable. It is because we understand that we are Jesus’ sheep that we care about what happens to people who are in abusive situations, especially those who suffer abuse from those who should be loving them the most. So we pray for them, we offer support in the way of shelter and supplies. We do what we can to pass on the loving protection that has been our assurance of God’s love. May you see yourself as Jesus’ dear sheep, led and fed so that you can extend that love to those who have not experienced it yet. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.