Sermon on John 10:22-30 by Luke Bouman
John 10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So 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." 25 Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. 30 The Father and I are one."
The Image in the Window
I have a memory from my childhood. I do not remember the location or even the name of the church. I do not even remember any of the other windows of the church, though surely there must have been some. I remember only this window. It shows Jesus, as a shepherd, holding his crooked staff in one hand, carrying a lamb in the other hand. This gentle image of the "Good Shepherd" captured the attention of at least one young worshiper who could not follow the sermon on that particular Sunday. Stained glass still serves its ancient purpose, to pass on the faith.
This portrait in glass represented Jesus, the shepherd, as the one from Luke's Gospel who goes out to find and bring back the lone lost sheep, even at the risk of the ninety-nine others. I had a habit of wandering and straying, so I always imagined the comfort of this image and perhaps that it why it captured me so as a child. This image is burned into all of our minds with texts like Luke's or the 23rd Psalm to reinforce it.
John's Gospel, at least at first glance, seems as far from this gentle image of a shepherd as we can imagine. John's shepherd messiah is fiercely protective, to be sure, but the image of holding the sheep safe from the snatching hands or jaws of nameless others is far from gentle. And then there is the business of those who don't belong to Jesus' flock. Is it just me, or did I imagine that God's love was for all humanity? Even the people of Israel at least assumed that their shepherd God would own his own flock.
Finally, as if to add insult to injury, Jesus provokes those Judeans who were asking him the questions by challenging them to think of him as so connected to his Abba, his God, that they two of them are one. I can only imagine that such a statement may well have driven those pious believers over the edge of reason into unrestrained violence. It is no wonder that the case begins to mount against Jesus.
None of these things matches my image and concept of Jesus from the window of my childhood. But that isn't surprising, is it. Jesus is many things, none of which can be captured in a single word or picture. This may have been the thought behind the command not to have graven images for God. Each one limits what we see and how we comprehend God. Once ingrained, it is hard to imagine God in other ways, and thus we end up with a God of our imagination, not the unpredictable, unfathomable complexity of the God that is. There is more to God as "good shepherd" than we find in our windows, or even in our favorite sheepish stories.
Shepherd and Lamb
On of the interesting juxtapositions of our lessons for today is that Jesus is cast in two roles where the flock of sheep is concerned. He is cast in God's role of Shepherd of Israel, or at least of faithful Israel, and he is cast in the role of the "lamb who was slaughtered" in Revelation. At first this seems a terrible contradiction. It is not. In fact it is key to understanding and following, at least for me.
First of all, it is a comfort for me to know that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus joined us in the sheepfold, so to speak. He knows and has experienced life as one of God's lambs. It is clear that with a God who loves us so deeply as to take all of our joys and sorrows into himself will surely know how to lead and guide us better. It is this intimacy with us that makes Jesus statement that he and his Abba are one even more meaningful. This shepherd has a depth of intimacy with his sheep. He knows our wants and needs from the inside, and thus can supply them.
Jesus, the shepherd, also protects and shelters his flock. The problem is that he doesn't do this in the way that we would expect or anticipate. We like to think that this protection means that we will not face problems, pain, suffering or death. Then when we do face such things we either imagine that Jesus doesn't keep his promise, or that we are not worthy. Either way, we are left out in the cold. While I suppose one could understand Jesus saying that no one can snatch us out of his hand to mean that kind of protection, I take it to mean something else.
This shepherd serves us best, not by changing life's rules for us, but rather by leading us into and through those painful times and places. What he is saying, I think, is that though our lives encounter pain and suffering as well as joy and happiness that none of these things can separate us from his love and care. Not even death places us beyond our shepherd's reach; He, who has been through death and come out the other side, guides us through as well.
All of this leads us back to the troublesome notion that belonging to God's flock is not automatic. There are, apparently, some who are outside of the flock, whose lives do not depend on this shepherd. The classic approach to those folks is one in which we state that God's love and guidance is offered to all, but not all will take it. This seems an easy solution to the problem. It is not God's fault if we don't follow. But with that thought comes something that gnaws away at my spirit at the deepest possible level. Where is the security in this way of thinking?
If I can imagine others who place themselves outside of God's love, if God does not have a way of overcoming their barriers, then how can I be so sure of God's love for me? What if I have not followed well enough, or long enough? What if I am distracted from following at some point? These questions always arise when salvation belongs, not to God and the Lamb, as our middle lesson from Revelation puts it, but to us, depending on our response, if not our action.
Certainly this is the horrible conclusion to the group collectively known as "the dwarves" in C. S. Lewis' Narnia series. In the final book, "The Last Battle" the dwarves, who have mostly been faithful to Aslan, the lion, throughout the book, have become so skeptical that they cannot see the new creation that is all around them expanding out from what appeared to be a small stable. They chant things like "the dwarves are for the dwarves" and "we refuse to be taken in." They have a feast laid before them, and instead of the food, the taste dirt and other foul things that they imagine inhabit the floor of a stable. Some have concluded that Lewis is inferring that some who have followed God will not finally reach the destination to which their shepherd is leading them.
But I think this ignores the open ended way in which Lewis concludes his series. He does not tell us what happens to the dwarves. He does not tell us if their eyes are opened in time. He does manage to show them included in Aslan's country, even if they won't or can't enjoy themselves at the moment. I, for one, always live in the hope that they will one day open their eyes and come to enjoy the feast. I live in that hope because of the shepherd of the sheep. He is the one who holds us in hand and protects us from being snatched out. He does this, not us. And I am certain that he will do whatever it takes to bend to his will even Judeans who ask him hard questions. I hope so, because that allows me to live secure knowing that he is doing it for me as well.
God's flock, after all, is always going to be larger than I imagine it. It will include people that I might wonder about. Other people might wonder that it includes me. But therein lies the mystery of God's grace. It isn't something that we earn or take. It is something that God simply gives, and how strange would it be if God gave it only to some and did not offer it to all? That brings me back to the image in the window of the Good Shepherd. There is something intimate and consoling about a Shepherd who would take me, his little lamb, in hand and shelter me through life's storms. There is something awesome and mysterious about a Shepherd whose shoulders are broad enough to take on the weight of an entire broken world.
When I was a new father, It was a duty that fell to me on my free nights to sing my son to sleep. We sang a variety of songs, sometimes he would listen, and when he was old enough, sometimes he would sing. One of the songs we would always sing was one that I remembered from my childhood. The words echo the 23rd Psalm, but are intimate and comforting as they are strange and disturbing:
I am Jesus' little lamb,
Ever glad at heart I am;
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my need, and well provides me,
Loves me every day the same,Even calls me by my name.
Day by day, at home, away,
Jesus is my Staff and Stay.
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me,
Into pleasant pastures leads me;
When I thirst, He bids me go
Where the quiet waters flow.
Who so happy as I am,
Even now the Shepherd's lamb?
And when my short life is ended,
By His angel host attended,
He shall fold me to His breast,
There within His arms to rest.
(Text by Henrietta L. von Hayn, TLH # 648)