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Sermon for Sunday 8 May 2022

First Reading: Acts 20:17-35

17Now from Miletus {Paul} sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. 4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Second Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Gospel: John 10:22-30

22At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30I and the Father are one.”

Blood of the Lamb, The Voice of the Shepherd

It might be a strange question for you and me, but there are a multitude of folks that ask the question, who is Jesus?  If the individual has a basic understanding of the Holy Trinity, they might ask the question this way, how are we to understand God’s Son?  In the novel, The Brothers K, David James Duncan tells the story of the Chance family, a family of four boys, two girls, an agnostic father, and a mother of passionate fundamentalist faith.  Understandably, they all have very different ideas about who Jesus is.  

One of the boys, Kincaid, describes how each family member tries to make sense of Jesus and religion: Kincaid said, “It’s strange the way everybody has their own pet notion about Jesus, and nobody’s pet notion seems to agree with anybody else’s.  Grandma, for instance says He’s “just a defunct social reformer.”  Then there’s Papa, who once said He’s God’s Son all right, and that He survived the crucifixion just fine, but after the two-thousand-year-old funeral service his cockeyed followers, called Christianity, probably made Him sorry He did.  

Meanwhile, there’s Freddie, who’s six now, and who told me she saw Christ hiding under her bed one night … And Bet, who spent a whole day making a Christmas card for Uncle Marv and Aunt Mary Jane last year, then got so proud of the card, that she refused to mail it to anybody but herself … Then we looked to see what she was so proud of, and it turned out to be this whole army of crayon angels, in this gold sort of football helmet, charging into Bethlehem, while in the sky above them, huge red and green letters, copied from a Christmas carol book Bet couldn’t yet read, proclaimed:“Joy to The World!  The Savior Resigns!””

And elsewhere in the novel one of the children said: “Personally, I’m not sure just who or what Christ is.  I still pray to Him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too — and I’m getting less and less sure there’s a difference … Mamma tried to clear up all the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the Bible says He is.  But what does the Bible say about who Jesus is?  On one page, He’s a Word, on the next a bridegroom, then he’s a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and He’s the Messiah, then oops, He’s a Rabbi, and then a fraction — a third of the Trinity — then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread.  I guess even God, when He’s human, has trouble deciding just what He is.”  It’s sad that there’s so much confusion in this world over who Jesus is.  This is why you and I are so important in God’s plan for the Kingdom.

This is why Jesus’ last earthly command to “go” is so important even today.  As was in Jesus’ time, so it is today, people still don’t know who Jesus is and it’s up to you and me, and every member of the church, to help explain to the masses who Jesus is.  But we don’t have to try to figure this out on our own; today’s readings make it very clear who Jesus is.  First of all, when you see Jesus, you see God.  In our gospel reading for today Jesus reveals to us that, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).  When you’ve seen and heard Jesus, you’ve seen and heard God the Father, it’s that simple.  And the revelation of who Jesus is doesn’t stop there.  We have several more passages that help us to understand God.

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus also uses a total of seven “I AM” statements to describe Himself.  Recall if you will, that the first time God explains Himself was to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3).  From this “I AM” statement, the Hebrew people derive the holy name of God.  In the gospels Jesus uses this statement to prove that He and the Father are one.  If you were to turn back just two chapters to John 8:59, the religious leaders asked Jesus to identify Himself, and it’s here that He says, “Before Abraham was, I AM”.  Of course, this didn’t sit too well with the religious leaders.

In actuality, this all started back in chapter 6 when Jesus, after feeding the 5000 said, I AM the Bread of Life (vs. 35).  Then over the next nine chapters Jesus continues to describe Himself to the people by saying, “I AM the Light of the World” (9:5), I AM the Door” (10:9), “I Am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25), “I AM, the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:6), I AM the true Vine (15:1) and of course the one descriptor most people are familiar with, is found just prior to today’s reading, “I AM the good Shepherd” (10:11).

Jesus uses this descriptor to illustrate our relationship to God: The Shepherd and His sheep.  Today’s gospel brings to a conclusion Jesus’ extended use of what, for Christians over the centuries, has been one of the most important images to describe Jesus and His relationship to us:  the good Shepherd.  Jesus is the good Shepherd, and we are His sheep.  And to further help us in our understanding, that same image is used in today’s reading from Revelation.  

But in the case of St. John’s vision, Jesus is a Lamb.  Recalling images of the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb of the Exodus, Jesus is the Lamb whose blood was shed on the cross to set free all of God’s people who have ever suffered.  Then John takes the image one step further.  Jesus isn’t just the Lamb, but also the Shepherd who “will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God [the Shepherd] will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

These must have been amazing words of comfort to the suffering and persecuted Christians at the end of the first century to whom John addressed these words.  In the midst of a world that was falling apart, John reveals to them the truth: Jesus is the good Shepherd reigning victoriously from His throne in heaven.  And that victory would soon be theirs to share in.

With the way today’s lessons are filled with images of sheep and shepherds, we shouldn’t be surprised that this fourth Sunday of Easter has historically been designated by the church as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  Growing up I dated a girl who raised sheep as part of her Future Farmers of America project.  And of the many things she taught me, is that, contrary to popular opinion, sheep are not that dumb.  She said that cattle ranchers are the ones responsible for spreading that ugly misunderstanding, because sheep do not behave like cows.

She said that cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that won’t work with sheep.  Stand behind sheep and make loud noises and all they will do is walk around behind you, because they want to be led.  You push cows, but you lead sheep, and they won’t go anywhere that someone else doesn’t go first — namely their shepherd — the shepherd leads to assure the sheep that everything is all right.

The implication of this connection of sheep to shepherd is obvious and helps in our understanding of our relationship to Jesus.  When John calls Jesus our Shepherd who reigns over the universe from His heavenly throne, he’s reminding us that there’s no place in this universe that Jesus hasn’t gone before us, including death itself.  This we were reminded of during Holy Week.  

Like the Passover Lamb, His blood was shed on Good Friday, and as we’re reminded in this Easter season, the grave was not the end of Him.  On Resurrection morning, He was raised from the dead.  He now reigns as King in glory from a throne in heaven.  All the enemies of God and have been destroyed.  And humanity’s last enemy to be destroyed, that is death, will be destroyed at His second coming.  Therefore, as our good Shepherd, we can follow Him, we can trust Him, and we can walk in His steps with complete confidence.  And as our Psalmist reminds us, we have nothing to fear, not even death itself.  And because Jesus lives, leads us, and provides for us, we too will live.  But there’s even more for us to understand about the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd.  Sheep tend to become fond of their shepherd.  

Any shepherd who has grown up among sheep will tell you that they can walk right through a sleeping flock of sheep without disturbing a single one of them, and yet, a stranger cannot step foot in the fold without causing total confusion and chaos.  Sheep seem to consider shepherds as part of the family and the relationship that exists between the shepherd and his sheep is quite exclusive.  They develop a language of their own to which outsiders are not privy.  A shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, and the sheep learn that a single syllable can mean food, or a two-note tone can mean that it’s time to go home.

Even in Palestine today, it’s still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly witnessed 2,000+ years ago — that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures where they have grazed during the day.  Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together — eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep.  But the shepherds aren’t concerned about the mix-up.  

When it’s time to go home, each one uses his or her own distinctive call — a special shrill or whistle or a particular tune on reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep will withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home.  They know to whom they belong.  They know their shepherd’s voice, and it’s the only one that they will follow.

It reminds me of some of the research done by Dr. Barry Brazelton on human behavior.  He showed how even very tiny infants quickly become aware of the identity of their parents and can recognize their parents just by the sound of their voices.  He took an infant in his arms and asked the audience to watch the infant’s eyes.  He spoke to the baby.  Then he asked other people to speak to the infant.  There was little reaction or recognition from the baby in both cases.  However, when the mother of the baby spoke, the baby’s eyes visibly brightened, and the infant turned toward the sound of the mother’s voice.  It was obvious that the child knew it’s mother’s voice in distinction from other voices.  We are blessed to be the sheep of God’s flock.  

God is our loving parent; therefore, we are His beloved children.  We know the voice of our Shepherd when we hear it, just like we know the voice of our mother when we hear it.  We’ve been listening to the voice of God ever since we were baptized as an infant.  And unlike the other unfamiliar voices, God’s voice isn’t frightening to us.  His voice has been assuring us and comforting us for as long as we could ever remember.

            God’s voice, unlike any other voice, has been saying, “You are the apple of my eye.  You are the crown of my creation.  You are my beloved son and daughter.  I’ve loved you from your conception in your mother’s womb.  And there’s nothing in the entire universe that can separate you from my love.”  It’s a love we cannot earn, nor do we have to prove ourselves to remain in it.  All we have to do is follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.  God loves us simply because He wants to.  All we have to do is look to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb who shed His blood, to see all He has done for us.

This doesn’t mean that following God’s voice is easy.  The voices of the world around us, combined with our own self-doubt and insecurity, are constantly vying for our attention.  Additionally, the evil one is doing everything he can to lure us away from God’s voice.  As a result, our trust in the good Shepherd can waver, and at times even seem to disappear.  But the good news is, our belief or unbelief isn’t the point.  The point is that we’ve gathered here this morning to once again listen to the voice of our good Shepherd; to be led, and to be fed.

We’re here to listen to the Lamb who reigns over the universe from the throne of heaven.  We’ve come because we need to hear that gentle voice again.  It might be because you’ve had a tough week and you need to hear a word of comfort.  It could be that you’ve come because of all the other voices of this world have you confused and you don’t know which way to turn.  It could be that the troubles of this life have you afraid and you simply need to hear words of forgiveness and reassurance.  We all need to hear that everything is all right in this sin filled world, because Jesus is in control and on the throne in heaven.  We know we aren’t going to hear the words of God’s love and grace anywhere else, but we know that we’ll hear them here.  God calls, God gathers, and God leads us to green pastures and beside the still waters so that our souls are restored.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the worthy Lamb on the throne who is able to break the seals of the scroll.  We’ve come today because He is the One who will shelter us in His presence forever.  As St. John reminds us, in eternity, “[We] shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike [us], nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and He will guide [us] to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”


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