My sheep hear my voice

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 21, 2013

John 10:22-30:  22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ

The text says it was winter.  It’s one of the few places in the story of Jesus that we get a detail like this.  And the interesting thing is that John has already told us that it is the feast of the dedication, it is Hanukkah.  That information, by itself, would tell us it is December.  So if it’s December, why would John go on to tell us it is winter?  I think John is telling us that it was raining, for the word ‘winter’ can also mean rain.

It was Hanukkah and it was raining.  When I think about Jesus and his followers, the picture that comes to mind doesn’t ever involve rain.  Somehow, that simple reference makes this moment in Jesus’ life more vivid.

It was Hanukkah.  It was raining.  They are under the shelter of the portico on the east side of the temple square.  It’s a covered area, two rows of columns, 28 feet tall, each made out of a single piece of marble, with a ceiling of cedar.  Across from them, rising above the walls that marked the boundary between the outer courtyard, the court of the Gentiles where anyone could enter, from the first inner courtyard – called the court of women, where only ritually clean Judeans could go – above those walls rose the temple proper, covered in gold.  Before it was the great “altar,” the fire on which the sacrifices were offered.  Within it stood the anteroom, with the candles ever burning and the bread of the presence and the incense.  And behind the curtain, the holy of holies.

There on Solomon’s portico, in front of the temple, out of the wind and rain, Jesus is being attacked by the Judean leadership.  Our translation has “How long will you keep us in suspense.”  But the literal phrase is “how long will you take our spirit away.”  “How long will your rob of us our right mind?”  “How long will you rob us of our peace of mind?”  “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”  It is not a friendly question.  At best it means, “If you are the messiah, prove it.”  Mostly it is a challenge to provoke Jesus into saying something that will give them cause to kill him.  It’s is one of those loaded questions like, “Have you stopped beating your wife.”  There’s no way to answer it without getting into trouble. If Jesus ducks the question, he loses honor.  If he answers it, he is guilty of blasphemy.  It’s like the questions people ask in politics today.  They are not questions looking for information or truth; they are questions designed to gain power by shaming an opponent.

Our reading this morning stopped with Jesus saying: “The Father and I are one.”  It gives it a nice, upbeat ending.  It makes his discourse seem spiritual and religious.  But the very next sentence declares: “They took up stones to stone him.”

When Jesus says he and the father are one, it means that he and God are bound together in a tight relationship of loyalty and common purpose.  There’s no space between them.  They are bound in perfect trust.  In marriage we say “the two become one” not meaning that they somehow morph into a single being, we mean they bind themselves to one another in a relationship such that to deal with one is to deal with the other.

God has done the same thing with you.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”  God binds himself to you so that any word of forgiveness you speak God will stand by.  Jesus prays that we will be one with him, even as he is one with the Father.  Jesus prays that for the world to encounter us is for the world to encounter Jesus.

Jesus claims that to deal with him is to deal with the Father – but that’s the job the high priests have claimed.  They are the ones who speak for God.  That’s why they take up stones.  This hick preacher from Galilee is trespassing on their turf.  He is claiming to be Israel’s shepherd.

In the rest of the story, in the verses that follow, Jesus brilliantly stops them by asking for which of his good works are they going to stone him.  Because he healed a blind man?  Because he healed a lame man?  Because he saved a family from dishonor by providing wine at their wedding?  Because he rescued a woman from shame at Jacob’s well?  They don’t have an answer to this.  They say it’s because Jesus makes himself God.  And to this Jesus has a clever Biblical argument that leaves them all stumped.  They try to arrest him, but he escapes.  When they try to take Jesus down, his honor in the eyes of the crowd rises even higher.

But what’s most important in this interchange happens in the text we have read:  It is raining.  It’s cold.  It’s in the darkness of winter.  They are under the portico with the temple before them.  It is Hanukkah, the festival of lights, honoring the cleansing of the temple after Antiochus Epiphanes had desecrated it.  Jesus is under attack.  But Jesus takes their hostile question and turns it back upon his attackers: they want to know if he claims to be the good shepherd.  He asks them if they are true sheep.

God is the shepherd of Israel.  The people are the sheep.  The people are supposed to hear God’s voice.  Jesus and the Father are one; they speak with the same voice.  If the people don’t hear God’s voice in Jesus then the real question is “Are they God’s sheep?”

They say, “If you are the messiah tell us plainly.”  And he answers, “I have told you.”  All the things he has done in the name, in the spirit, in the power of the Father, proclaim who he is.  But they have not heard because they do not belong to the sheep.  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

Jesus’ opponents are fierce defenders of God’s honor.  They are deeply religious men and women.  They are inheritors of an ancient tradition.  They are the guardians of the temple and all its religious rituals.  They are the guardians and interpreters of God’s commands.  They are the keepers of the holy writings.  But they are not God’s sheep.  They are not listening to the voice of their shepherd.  They do not recognize that everything Jesus has said and done is straight out of the mouth of God.

It’s troubling to consider that you can have the name of sheep and not be sheep. You can have the name of Christ and not be a Christian.  In Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus say “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father.” (Matthew 7:21)

Please understand.  It’s not that some people are better Christians than others.  It is simply that some hear and follow and others don’t.

Those who hear and follow find an imperishable life.  Nothing will ever snatch them from the God’s hand.

Shepherds in our country are like shepherds in almost every country – they herd the flock from behind; they drive the sheep.  Shepherds in Palestine at the time of Jesus – and still today – walk in front of their flock , and the flock follows them.  They lead the sheep.  The flock recognizes the voice of their shepherd and follows.

I worry that Christians today are not very good at recognizing the voice of Jesus.  We listen to the voice of the news.  We listen to the voices of politicians.  We listen to the voices of fear.  We listen to the voices of consumerism.  It’s like we walk around with earbuds in our ears and do not hear the voice of the one, true, noble shepherd: the shepherd who lays down his life for us.

And I worry that, being unable to recognize the voice of Jesus, we fail in our task of speaking for him, of giving voice to his voice.

Fox News and CNN aren’t in the business of giving voice to the voice of Jesus.  They are in the business of making money and shaping public opinion.  Bank of America isn’t in the business of giving voice to the voice of Jesus; they are in the business of making money by getting you to spend more money on your credit card.  The politicians aren’t in the business of giving voice to the voice of Jesus; they are in the business of gaining and keeping power.  You are the ones God has sent into the world to give voice to the voice of Jesus.

If we don’t hear, we can’t speak.  And if we don’t speak, who will?

I think about this poor young man who was captured wounded and bleeding in a backyard boat.  He is just a kid.  And what voices filled his head?  The voice of his brother, I am sure.  And what voices filled his brother’s head?  Voices of resentment and bitterness I am sure.  Voices that claimed to speak for God, but did not.  I think about this poor kid, and I wonder: “Was there no one near him to speak Christ’s voice?”

Jesus is the good shepherd.  God is our good shepherd – and Jesus and the Father are one.  To see one is to see the other.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  And he’s not just our good shepherd; he is the noble shepherd for all the earth – for God is the noble shepherd, the true shepherd for all the earth.

He feeds us with good pasture.  He feeds us good food.  He provides us with an imperishable life.

The other voices bring death to the world.  The voices of fear and greed and envy and power – they bring death to the world.  Jesus brings life.  The Father brings life.  He brings healing.  Hope. Compassion.  Generosity.  What are the fruits of his Spirit?  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)

The question is not whether Jesus is the good shepherd.  The question is whether we are his sheep.

Amen.

The Prayer of the Day for the 4th Sunday in Easter, year C

Gracious Heavenly Father,
shepherd of our souls and guardian of our way,
in the resurrection of your son Jesus Christ
you have opened for us the way of life.
Continue to lead us by your Word and your Spirit
that we may dwell with you in that life which is eternal.

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