Readings Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30
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I was about 10 years old, when I first encountered the 23rd psalm. I never went to church when I was a kid. Church simply was not part of my family’s life. But one summer, my brother and I were left in the care of my Mother’s aunt who lived down in the Adirondacks, and as a way of filling our days, Aunt Madge sent us to a local Vacation Bible School. I don’t remember much about the five days we spent attending Vacation Bible School. But, I do remember very well the glimpse of God that I encountered that week. To this day, I can still recite word for word just what I learned that week:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I can still hear the minister carefully translating each phrase into language that children could understand. I remember thinking that I had learned some secret knowledge that had been hidden from me all my life. For the first time in my short little life, I caught a glimpse of God and he wasn’t some angry old man who was sitting up on a cloud thinking up ways to punish me. He wasn’t some mean Father who sent his only son to die on a cross.
For the first time in my life I caught a glimpse of God the shepherd, who wanted nothing more than to take care of me, who provided beautiful green meadows with lovely rivers flowing through them, were I could feel the warmth of the sun and know that even if hard times were just around the corner, God would go with me, and take care of me. Best of all, this God would fill me with so many blessings that my life would be just like a chocolate mike-shake that was so full that it would never end. I had absolutely no idea what a shepherd was, or what a shepherd did. I simply knew that God is my shepherd and following God was the greatest, safest, most rewarding thing I would ever do.
The metaphor of God as my shepherd carried me to a place beyond the words of the 23rd psalm, to a paradise more sublime than my ten year old self had ever imagined before. A place of beauty, safety and security, that at the tender age of ten, I was already longing for.
Metaphors are quite literally words strung together to carry us beyond the words themselves, and for me and for millions of people, generation after generation, the words strung together in the 23rd psalm have carried our longing souls far beyond the words themselves to into the midst of our hopes and dreams. As a ten year old, who was always the new kid in town, the nomad, wandering from new school to new school, the mere mention of a being led to a place of safety, where I would find comfort and rest from the shadows that haunted me, was all the goodness and mercy that I needed to know about in order to want to know more about this Shepherd. Those first glimpses of God, still comfort me.
My life has not been particularly difficult. I am blessed, I am loved, I am privileged, I am wealthy, my cup does indeed overflow with goodness. But, like all people, I have my dark valleys were the shadows of death frighten me. There are moments of longing in which I long to be swept up into the arms of a Good Shepherd, who will hold me close in an embrace of LOVE so that I will be able to rest, knowing that I am at home. But I’m not ten years old. The metaphor of a shepherd no matter how good or great that shepherd might be, cannot satisfy my longing to know the One who is at the very core of our existence.
The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. Hanukkah, a time for celebration. Just a few hundred years earlier the people were in the same difficult predicament as they were in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ people were oppressed by the Romans, but Hanukkah reminded them of the time their ancestors had been oppressed by the Syrians, when a leader, a Messiah, a Saviour, a Christ rose up among them and lead them to victory and they overcame their Syrian oppressors.
Hanukkah was their celebration, of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was walking in the Temple area during Hanukkah, when the Temple Authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” They’d been waiting, longing for someone, anyone to lead them out from under the vicious rule of their Roman oppressors, they were ripe for revolt, ready to take up arms in the same way their ancestors had taken up arms during the Maccabean revolt. They didn’t want to just celebrate Hanukkah, they wanted to be led into a new Hanukkah so that they could once again be free.
Jesus, “If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Are you the Shepherd? Are you the one who will lead us? Are you the Messiah?, the Saviour, the Christ? They were longing for, hoping for, dreaming of a Messiah, a Saviour, a Christ who would lead them in a military victory over their oppressors, be the answer to their longings and so they demanded of Jesus that he put them out of their misery and tell them once and for all, if he is their Messiah.
I don’t know about you, but I suspect the very fact that you are here this morning, when you could be a thousand other places, you too want to know the answer? Tell us now, Jesus are you the Messiah? Can you be our Saviour? Are you the Christ? And like all those who have gone before us, the answer we are given isn’t quite what we’d hoped to hear. Jesus replies: “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The Work I do in my Abba’s name give witness in my favour.” You can see in my life the answer you are looking for. “But you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”
Gee thanks Jesus. Your sheep hear your voice. Where does that leave me? I think I hear you. Maybe it’s you? I’m not sure? Am I your sheep? Do you know me? Will you give me eternal life, and will I never be lost? Surely you won’t let me be snatched from you? “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Like our ancestors, we too are still looking for the Messiah, a saviour, the Christ. While we seek the Good Shepherd of our hopes and dreams, the peoples of the world continue to languish, the earth continues to tremble, valleys of shadows of death lay before us, while we long for our particular understanding of a messiah to come and save us. “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”
The people who confronted Jesus, never got the messiah they dreamed of. Their particular brand of saviour simply wasn’t Jesus. We too have hopes and dreams for a particular kind of saviour, and we have crafted in our own way, the kind of Christ we want for ourselves. But what we’ve got are some words designed to carry us beyond the words to the ONE.
The anonymous gospel storyteller that we call John, tells us his story the way he tells it to point us beyond the words to the ONE. Listen to the words, words meant to carry us beyond the words:
“My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost.
No one will ever snatch them from my hand.
Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God.
For Abba and I are One.”
This Abba of ours is not only stranger than we think but stranger than we can think. “Abba and I are One.” The ONE who is the Good Shepherd we have been taught to long for, this ONE who inspires us to lie down in green pastures, who moves us toward the still waters, who restores us, this ONE in whose name we are compelled toward righteousness, or as we would say, justice, this ONE in whom the very valley of the shadow of death is, this ONE who is the very meal laid out in the presence of our enemies, the very oil with which we are anointed and the LOVE that runs over us. This ONE is the ONE. This ONE is the Christ. This ONE is the Messiah.
This ONE is the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. This ONE the Abba to whom Jesus pointed and said, “I and Abba are ONE,” this ONE, is the ONE Jesus is pointing us to and modelling a way of being in the world that would have us say, “I and Abba, are ONE.”
This ONEness, into which we are drawn is the shepherd we become when we live and move and have our being in the LOVE that we call God. Are you the ONE, are you the one sent to save us? Are you the ONE, the shepherd who will lead us to green pastures?
You and the Abba are ONE. In God we live and move and have our being. At the very heart of who we are is the Christ who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us.
Let the metaphors that nourish ground and sustain us in LOVE carry us beyond the words, to the ONE in whom we live, and move and have our being, let us become ONE with the Good Shepherd we long for, so that in us creation’s cups continue to overflow with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives.