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Fourth Sunday of Easter
Numbers 27:12-23; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9-17; Joh 10:22-30
One of my favorite books is a post-apocalyptic story called A Canticle For Leibowitz. I don’t want to give spoilers because you really ought to read it, but essentially, the world is wiped out by nuclear war, and some of the survivors form a Catholic monastery for the preservation of knowledge, to help hasten the reestablishment of civilization. The premise is fascinating, and the story vacillates between being hopeful, and bleak. The reason is that despite the monks hope that the knowledge they saved will be used for good in their future, the story, spanning a thousand years or so, shows that even so great a catastrophe can’t change human nature. The Church, we might say, acted the part of the shepherd, but throughout the story, there are all too few who listen. “But why must it all be acted again? The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering” is the answer the book gives.
This is how we can understand the bewilderment of the Pharisees and company in John 10. Here, they are pushing Jesus to give them the answer straight: Are you the Messiah? This is the key question of the whole Gospel of John. Jesus says, I’ve already told you, but more importantly, that is what my works portray. I have told you, and you do not believe. Many will hear, but not all will listen and understand, because only some are God’s “sheep.” It is humbling, perhaps insulting, for them to hear this, because it means that the gift of grace is not earned nor deserved, but is a gift of God, given not to the wise and powerful, but to “sheep.” But to them, to those who understand and follow, The Messiah will give eternal life that can never fail because he is one with God the Father.
They came to him not because he has been utterly ambiguous, but because they are through with Jesus. The tone in this verse is hostile, pushing, saying “why are you plaguing us?” And so he answers. Now the setting is relevant, and in fact helps us make sense of the meaning. The Feast of Dedication was a winter festival that commemorated when Judas Maccabeus drove the Greek overlords out, and cleansed and rededicated the Temple after they had sullied it with pagan religious practices. In other words, it is a celebration of the victory of a merciful God, giving his people a renewed opportunity to worship him. And here, that is being revealed to be Jesus himself, fulfilling the promise of the Feast. How so? Jesus is the shepherd, the one calling the sheep to follow him. The sheep, when they do, are being led to the one they worship, to God, to be renewed and empowered to worship as never before. Jesus is the shepherd, and he is doing the work of the Father to heal, show mercy, call people to repentance, and restore. And Jesus Christ and the Father are one.
A shepherd is an interesting image. Sheep are, of course, domesticated herd animals, fairly incapable of survival on their own in the wild. They are kept by people. But its not enjoyable to care for the sheep. They wander. They are weak and vulnerable. They smell terrible. Getting the shepherd job is a huge responsibility, but not posh or glorious. You are outside a lot, making sure these fluffy idiots don’t die. Jesus the Christ, Son of God, one with the Father, descended to care for us. It is not glorious by worldly standards, but it was what the triune God desired: To restore all people to fellowship with God. When Jesus reveals himself as Messiah, he reveals the very mission and heart of God. One of my favorite ancient Christian images is that of the shepherd: taken from pagan images, Christians used this image to reflect what Christ does. He takes us, the sheep, places us on his shoulders, and carries us home.
But those asking have seen, and heard, what Jesus has done, and they do not believe. Because they are not sheep, but wolves. Like the rest of humanity in A Canticle For Leibowitz, they know they should listen and believe, but they do not. They hear the voice of God speaking to them, but refuse to follow. Thus the cycle of Death continues, on and on and on and on and on. They take the role of those who sullied the Temple, while Jesus comes to cleanse and to restore worship of God. They think they are the faithful ones, but when faced with the word and works of God they do what their ancestors before did as well: They did not listen, and they did not believe. And the challenge therefore is also posed to us: Are we sheep who believe and obey?
Sheep follow the shepherd, knowing the voice. And God’s sheep will not be lost. They are promised eternal life. God’s sheep cannot be snatched from his hand, protected from the enemy, Death, by the power of God. “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.’ – We, who follow Jesus and hear God’s voice, are his sheep, those considered “greater than all else” of God’s creation. We follow, and God loves us, and therefore, we can have confidence, assurance, trust that God who is our shepherd will keep us from ultimate harm. All that is rotten and broken and marred now will be preserved through Death, and into eternal life. And this is on the promise of Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father: one being, and therefore a completely aligned will: what the Father desires, the Son desires, and what the Son promises, is the Father’s promise, and will be done.
My quote from Canticle For Leibowitz earlier ends by saying, “neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.” Generation after generation reject the Lord because they hear, but they do not listen, and they do not follow and obey. But Jesus Christ has accomplished this, as he is the Messiah, and he promises eternal life which we know cannot be taken away because he and the Father are one. It is for us to simply be the sheep: Hear the shepherd’s words, believe them, and obey. Amen.
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