Sermon, April 17, 2016

Sermon.04.17.16
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-17; John 10.22-30

In many churches, this Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is easy to see why. Three of our readings directly connect to the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 begins “The Lord is my Shepherd” (NRSV). In John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, we are told those who stand before the throne will no longer hunger and thirst for “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7.17; NRSV). Last, our reading from John follows Jesus’ declaration, “I am the gate for the sheep…I am the good shepherd” (John 10.7, 11; NRSV). Jesus further tells the Jews and the Pharisees the Father loves him because he lays down his life of his own accord and takes it up again, that he has the power to do so, and in doing so, he follows the command of the Father.
That must have really set the Jews and Pharisees on edge! Some said Jesus was demon possessed and out of his mind; they asked, “Why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10.20-21; NRSV). The question of the day was, “Who is this man?”
Sometime later, in the winter, during the festival of Dedication, or the Feast of Lights (what we now call Hannakuh), Jesus was walking in Solomon’s Portico on the east side of the Temple. The people’s hopes were high; expectancy was in the air. The celebration commemorated the “restoration and purification of the temple by Judas Maccabeus three years after its desecration by the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes in 178 B.C.” (Fredrickson, Roger. John, The Communicator’s Commentary, p. 186). Josephus wrote of Antiochus Epiphanes as follows:
Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Antiochus_IV_Epiphanes).
The victory of Judas Maccabeus was cause for celebration. It also gave rise to the hope that God would send another liberator: “Would God’s divine deliverer come at this time to set His people free” (Fredrickson, Roger. John, The Communicator’s Commentary, p. 186).
Thus, the Jews once again gather about him, and they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10.24; NRSV). How was Jesus to answer? Had Jesus responded, “Yes, I am the Messiah” they would not have understood, for, by “Messiah” Jesus meant something far different from what they had in mind. They were looking for someone who would free them from the oppression of Herod, Pilate, and Caesar; they were seeking a “this worldly” messiah. In contrast, Jesus was and is the Messiah for a heavenly kingdom, for a spiritual realm, in which the King is crowned on the cross.
So Jesus answered, “I have told you and you do not believe” (John 10.25; NRSV). He reminds them that the works he has done in his Father’s name testify to who he is, but they refuse to believe for they do not belong to his sheep. Jesus then says, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them; and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What the father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10.27-30).
The following verses, verses beyond today’s reading, note the Jews took up stones with which to stone Jesus. Jesus knew if they were to stone him to death, they had to have a specific charge, so he said, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” (John 10.32; NRSV). The Jews replied they were not going to stone him for any of those works, but rather for blasphemy, for though only human, he was making himself out to be God. Again, Jesus turns the tables and asks,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Thereafter, they tried to arrest him, but he escaped.
They were expected to believe on the basis of what they had seen. We might also note this is the same answer Jesus gave John the Baptist when he inquired from prison if Jesus were truly the Messiah or if they should wait for another: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22; NRSV).
Let us once again note Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them; and they follow me.” Do you hear his voice calling you to follow him? For that matter, how do we hear God’s voice? How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? Just how normal is it to claim that we -hear God’s voice?  It has jokingly been said, “When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.”
When Jesus spoke of the sheep hearing his voice, he was drawing on an example that would have been common knowledge in the ancient Middle East. Though there were several shepherds in any given village, at night the sheep were kept in a common sheepfold. This practice afforded protection from predators. In the morning, the gatekeeper opened the gate, and each shepherd called his sheep. The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice; they would follow their shepherd who would lead them to graze in the surrounding hills and pastures. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23.2; NRSV). The sheep spent a great deal of time in the company of the shepherd.
In much the same manner today, our pets come to know our voice, and most respond if they are called. Many dogs and cats know the specific sounds of the car or truck we drive, and greet us at the door. My niece’s Australian shepherd knows the couch is off limits. When she is home, the dog never gets on the couch: when she is gone, it is another matter. If she happens to drive by her place without stopping and glances in the picture window, she can see the dog diving off the couch. A more dog-friendly set of rules applies when she is not at home.
If we are to know the Good Shepherd’s voice, we must spend time in his presence. How do we accomplish this? Through spending time in the green pastures of God’s word and being led beside the still waters. Christ calls us to follow him, to come away from the cares of this world, and to spend time in his presence. In doing so, we come to know him and his voice.
We also spend time in Christ’s presence when we attend church and experience the liturgy of the word and sacrament. And like the sheep, when we are with the rest of the flock, we are more inclined to recognize the call of, and to follow, the Good Shepherd. I suspect most of us, being Episcopalians, do not really hear God speak audible words. Words are not really necessary, for we hear God’s call through the Spirit. As the Spirit abides in us, communication most often takes place at deeper levels – heart speaks to heart.
As the Collects says, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

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