May 8, 2022 Fourth Sunday of Easter The text is John 10:22-30.
It was then the Festival of Lights in Jerusalem, and it was wintertime. Jesus was walking about in the temple area, in Solomon’s Colonnade. Judeans surrounded him. “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” they kept asking. “If you are the Anointed, just say so.”
Jesus answered them, “I did tell you, and you don’t believe. The things I am achieving in my Father’s name are evidence on my behalf. But you don’t believe me, because you’re not my sheep. My sheep recognize my voice; I know them and they follow me, and I provide them with real life; they’ll never be lost, nor will anyone snatch them away from me. What my Father has given me is greatest of all, and no one can wrest it from the Father. What goes for the Father, goes for me too.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, just like it’s written in your worship bulletin; but what’s not noted is that this morning we also celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday”. And, historically, this has been observed on the third Sunday after Easter itself. So, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the 23rd Psalm has been chosen by the wider church to be read this morning. “The Lord is my shepherd” seems like a good place to start when sheep are involved as Jesus describes his relationship with his followers. “My sheep recognize my voice; I know them and they follow me”, Jesus responds when questioned as to whether he is the Messiah.
And this concept of sheep and their shepherd appears throughout Scripture; not surprising, since shepherding was one of the most widely practiced vocations in the Middle East during biblical times. Being a sheepherder ranks right with farmer and fisherman in terms of how people earned their living.
And, references to “sheep” occur over 500 times in the bible, and to “shepherds”, over 200 times. It only makes sense that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible made use of shepherding metaphors when describing the relationship between God and the people. And, this symbolic depiction of Christ as our “Good Shepherd” is one that we hold quite dear. The Sunday School image of Jesus holding an innocent lamb is one that I’m sure we all can recall. And, this portrayal of Jesus as shepherd to the sheep he has called wouldn’t be lost on those who questioned him that day during Hanukkah as he strolled in the Jerusalem temple. It is truly a lovely image and we find ourselves comforted by the knowledge that we, as sheep in Christ’s flock are called, protected, and follow our “Good Shepherd”.
But, as is often the case, if we examine the metaphor with an open mind, we might just cringe a bit. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but sheep aren’t too bright; they tend to wander about aimlessly, they can easily stray away from the flock, and will only go somewhere if they are led there. Think about it, if they were prone to discipline and cooperation, would there be any need today, for sheepdogs? So, perhaps all these biblical references to shepherds are less about the innocence of sheep, and more about their propensity to actually need, to truly require the shepherd’s guidance. Predatory animals were quick to dispatch any of the flock that found themselves outside the sheepfold, and thieves weren’t above climbing into the fold at night to steal away with any lamb or ewe they could grasp. So, it was necessary that the shepherd was there to provide for the sheep of his flock.
And, what enabled the shepherd to ensure that his flock followed him was that his sheep were familiar with his voice. Don’t forget that shepherding was a lonely job and one that generally took place outside of the towns and villages where most people congregated. The flocks would graze in the fields and hills during the day and would be kept in the sheepfold during the night. The shepherd didn’t have much company so most of the time it was his sheep that heard the sound of his voice. And, even in the often-communal sheepfolds, when several flocks might be kept together, a shepherd would be able to call his flock out, accustomed as they were to the sound of his voice.
When Jesus tells his questioners, “my sheep recognize my voice; I know them and they follow me”, they surely would have understood this reference. He also makes it quite clear to them that those who recognize his voice are the ones who acknowledge that he cares for them, provides for them, and, in a very real sense, blesses them with what he calls, “real life”. They are his sheep, his flock, his responsibility. And, simply by trusting in Jesus, by confessing their faith in him as Savior, and by recognizing and accepting that his is the voice of truth, they are willing to follow him. And, on the flip side, Jesus tells the ones who ask if he is the Anointed One, the Messiah, that they are the ones who do not acknowledge this truth, which is right in front of them. He says to them, “I did tell you, and you don’t believe. The things I am achieving in my Father’s name are evidence on my behalf. But you don’t believe me, because you’re not my sheep.” They are the ones who don’t hear the truth that Jesus speaks; they don’t recognize that he has come to offer up his very life for the flock that is entrusted to him, just as any good shepherd would. Those who follow Jesus belong to him, in this life and for eternity.
Thus far in his ministry Jesus has walked on water, fed the 5,000, and restored the sight of the man born blind. He proclaims to his questioners that all these, as well as the other signs Jesus performed, have been achieved in the name of his Father; all these point to Jesus as the Anointed One. “Do you need me to any plainer? What more can I do to have you understand? You ask me to just tell you outright that I am the Son of God; I already have, and I have shown you this to be true, through the miraculous signs I have given you. It’s not that I haven’t done all that I can to convince you of my divine nature, it’s really that you simply aren’t willing to accept the truth of it. It seems that these other sheep, the ones that have not become part of Jesus’ flock, are listening to other voices. And, these may be the voices of those who might cause them to be lost, or to be snatched away, as Jesus tells his interrogators in the temple. For, the voice that Jesus’ followers hear is the one which holds them forever, for it is the very voice of God. The Good Shepherd speaks the message of truth; of the love, grace, and mercy that come only from God. “They will never be lost”, Jesus assures the Judeans, and us.
So, the easily led astray sheep that we are, it’s vitally important that we’re always listening for the voice of truth that Jesus promises us he speaks. And, just as importantly, we need to be sure that we’re not distracted by other voices that may call out to us. The best way to avoid this is to distinguish among the myriad voices that assault us on a daily basis. And, we all know what these are; they are the words and actions of anyone or anything that would seek to draw us away from God; anything that would “snatch us away” from Jesus. These voices, these distracting noises surround us; they may even come from within ourselves. They are whatever is contrary to forgiveness, compassion, servanthood, selflessness. We can easily differentiate between these and the voice of our Good Shepherd, for his is the voice that calls us to follow him to the cross…and beyond.
We recognize the voice of the One who, through his rising confirms the promises of God; the shepherd who secures for us life abundant, now and eternal. We follow our shepherd because, as witnesses to his resurrection, we acknowledge his willingness and ability to provide for us all that we need. His death and rebirth answer the question he was asked that winter day in the temple; “If you are the Anointed, just say so.” And, even though we follow Jesus’ voice, we know that actions speak louder than words. Who, but the Anointed Son of God would sacrifice himself for his lost, wandering, disobedient sheep?
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to close our ears to those voices that would pull us away from you. Open our hearing to the voice that speaks the truth, that of your Son. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose voice of grace and mercy we follow; the Good Shepherd who calls us to real life.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Preached by Minister Tom Houston at Grace Ministries when he presided at service there on Sunday, May 8, 2022.