May 8, 2022, Adonai Is My Shepherd, I Lack Nothing, John 10:22-30 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today we read about a confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. It happened in December, or kislev in the Hebrew calendar, when Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem, during the Feast of the Dedication, which we call Hannukah. Most of the festivals we read about in the Bible were appointed by God in the Law of Moses, religious festivals like the Feast of the Passover, and the Day of Atonement. But the Feast of the Dedication celebrated a much more recent event in Jewish history.
Less than two centuries before Jesus was born, a Greek king named Antiochus Epiphanes IV was building himself a nice little empire, and he conquered Judea and Samaria. He persecuted the Jews and outlawed all Jewish religious rites. He entered the Temple in Jerusalem and set up an altar to Zeus. And he sacrificed a pig on the altar, a ceremonially unclean animal, intentionally desecrating the Temple.
So in 167 b.c. there was a revolution, led by a Jewish hero named Judas Maccabaeus, who defeated Antiochus and purified the Temple and re-dedicated it to the true God. The Jews made Judas Maccabaeus king, and he and his descendants became a new dynasty for about 100 years, until the Romans swept in and took over Judea, and set up Herod as their puppet-king. And that’s the story behind the Feast of the Dedication. It’s all about nationalism and religion – and very much about politics.
And the reason that is important to know, is that it helps us understand that the confrontation with the Jews was less about religion and much more about worldly powers and politics. Our translation says that the Jews gathered around Jesus, which sounds kind of friendly, but the Greek word really means they surrounded him, demanding to know who or what he was claiming to be. “Listen, it’s time for you to stop beating around the bush. We want a straight answer: are you the Messiah or not? When are you going to tell us?”
They had been observing the miracles he did, the healings and other works of power, but they were getting impatient for him to begin fulfilling the political ambitions they thought he should have, if he were really the Messiah. This was not a friendly discussion. It wasn’t even an academic debate. It was a dangerous situation. The very next verse tells us that they picked up stones to kill Jesus.
But Jesus answered them, “You’ve already seen the answer for yourselves; the works I do prove that I come from the Father. The real reason you don’t believe me is you don’t belong to my sheep. My sheep know my voice.” It was a question of belonging: where does your loyalty lie? Where have you placed your trust? Those Jewish leaders couldn’t recognize the voice of the true Messiah, because they were listening for the kind of Messiah who would come with military strength and political power; somebody who would vanquish the Romans like Judas Maccabaeus vanquished the Greeks – they were looking for a Messiah who would make Israel great again.
But remember what Jesus said, when he stood before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it was, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
It is easy for us to see where the Scribes and Pharisees went wrong. But we aren’t immune from making the same mistake. It is always a tendency for us, even those of us who love and serve the Good Shepherd, when we are surrounded by all the competing voices of the world, to get a little bit confused about where our hope lies. It is very easy to sort of slip into the habit of putting our trust in the kingdom and the power of this world. Like first-century Israel under the Roman occupation, we live in scary times. Where do we look for hope when we see the brutality and recklessness of Russia making war on its neighbor? Where do we find our grounding in the battle between pro-choice and pro-life factions? How do we navigate the constantly-changing risk-levels of a pandemic entering its third year? What will happen to us if the economy crashes?
It is a good and important thing, as human beings and residents of this nation, to be as thoughtful and intelligent as we can be in the things of the world. It’s important to search our conscience and be well-informed, to make good use of our right to vote and our common sense, to make wise choices and to actively oppose injustice. But when all is said and done, our central truth is that our hope and our trust and our belonging are in the Good Shepherd.
Those who belong to the Good Shepherd have abundant life, eternal belonging, unconditional love. That is the truth; that’s the good news of the gospel. The problem is knowing what to do with that truth. Some Christians get caught up in using the politics and power of the world and forget to put their hope in the Shepherd’s promises. On the other hand, some Christians hunker down with their good news and leave the world to deal with its own problems, “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.”
We should ask ourselves: why has the Good Shepherd chosen to pasture his beloved sheep right smack in the middle of what seems very much like the Valley of the Shadow of Death? If we are his own beloved sheep – and we are – what are we doing here? And the answer is this: we’re here for the same reason he was here. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” The Shepherd came into the world out of love, because he was their only hope. And we are here for the same reason: because we who follow the Good Shepherd have what the world is dying for. We need to work for justice and vote our conscience, and to be responsible citizens. But our ultimate identity and our real power in this world is that we belong to the Good Shepherd.
William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, is famous for saying that: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” In other words, we sheep are here, not for our own good, but for the good of the world around us, the world that is beloved of the Father, the world for which our Shepherd laid down his life. The world is being healed, being brought back to life, and we, dumb sheep that we are, have been called to be part of the healing process.
No servant is greater than his master, Jesus told us. Because the good shepherd came in the love of God to serve this world, we are also here to serve in his love. We aren’t just middle-class Americans: we are the light of the world. And our light isn’t political clout or military strength or superior intelligence or money, or even morality. It’s grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and kindness and gentleness and compassion. Those are the rays of light that can pierce the world’s darkness.
The good shepherd is such a familiar, beloved Christian image, that we might not realize Jesus was referring to an Old Testament prophecy that was more than 500 years old. Speaking through Ezekiel, God condemned the kings of Judah who had ruled in wickedness and in greed, seeking their own gain rather than the good of the people. (That might have a contemporary ring to it.) They were like evil shepherds, God said, who devoured and scattered the sheep like wolves instead of feeding and caring for them. So, God made a promise to those scattered, fearful, wounded sheep: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them in justice.”
Like Jesus, we are so often confronted by the powers of this world, surrounded by their voices. They call us to put our trust and our hope in its powers – financial security, political influence, our reputation or education or success. They deny and demean our very identity. But we belong to the good shepherd. We know his voice, and we know where our good is found; we know where to rest our hope. I want to close by reading David’s psalm, Psalm 23, again. This translation is from the Complete Jewish Bible. The word Adonai is the Hebrew for Lord:
Adonai is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
He has me lie down in grassy pastures,
he leads me by quiet water,
he restores my inner person.
He guides me in right paths
for the sake of his own name.
Even if I pass through death-dark ravines,
I will fear no disaster; for you are with me;
your rod and staff reassure me.
You prepare a table for me,
even as my enemies watch;
you anoint my head with oil
from an overflowing cup.
Goodness and grace will pursue me
every day of my life;
and I will live in the house of Adonai
for years and years to come. +