A Sermon on John 10: 11-18
If I were to ask you to recall a comforting voice, whose voice would come to mind? Would it be a parent or a grandparent? Maybe it was a sibling. Often the voice we recall as comforting is someone who kept us safe. When I was a child on the playground at school, I knew my sister would come to protect me. If I cried out, she was the first one by my side with her fists up. Her call of ‘I’m coming!’ comforted me. I knew when I heard it I would be fine. That is what the shepherd’s voice is like for the sheep.
In our reading today Jesus refers to himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’. But shepherding is absent from most of our lives and realms of experience today. The movement of people from rural areas to cities is increasing rapidly. In 2007, city dwellers formed the majority of the world’s population for the first time in history. By 2015, three million of us were moving to cities every week. In addition to the switch from pastoral to urban living, we also live in a ‘post-wolf’ Europe! Wolves are actually being REintroduced into the wild. So for us, the image of a shepherd protecting his flock from a pack of wolves is one that is increasingly hard to relate to – in those terms.
So what does a shepherd do? He calls his sheep every morning. He leads them to safe pastures for feeding and clear water for drinking. He guards and watches over them. At the end of the day, he leads his sheep to a safe place to spend the night. Sounding a bit like Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not know want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” The next day he does it again. The shepherd is nothing, if not completely reliable and present for the well-being of the sheep – always. So the psalmist ends Psalm 23 with the assurance that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
It is interesting to note that today’s reading from John chapter 10 is sandwiched between two miracles: the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 and the raising of Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11. After the healing of the blind man, the Pharisees are giving Jesus a hard time. Yes, he had just healed a blind man, but he did it on the Sabbath – and we know that the Pharisees loved rules. They said Jesus couldn’t be from God because he had healed on the Sabbath. He had broken a rule – actually a commandment – to keep the Sabbath holy. Jesus answers by telling parables about his relationship to the people using the sheep / gate / shepherd / hired hand motifs. Jesus says that the shepherd comes through the gate, and not over the fence – only a thief comes over the fence. The true shepherd also doesn’t abandon the sheep when trouble comes like a hired hand will. In other words, he is the real thing – over against the Pharisees of his day, who clearly did not care for the sheep like the owner does. A shepherd will not look to see what day it is when one or more of his sheep is ill or threatened. That need is NOW, and must be answered. Jesus is also not pretending to be someone else. Jesus isn’t going to show up under the Metoo hashtag as yet another person who curried public favor in order to hide his dark deeds – something which he very much accuses the Pharisees of. There is no deceit in Jesus. He IS the good shepherd.
And then Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Then as if to underline that last statement about Jesus’ power, the author of John gives us the story of raising Lazarus, a man who had been “in the tomb for four days”. Jesus had power not only to give life to others, but to himself also. This is yet another proof to the early Christian community that the resurrection could happen. It was clearly within the remit of Jesus’ power.
What does this mean for us today? Well, let’s return to that comforting voice image. In the verses just after today’s reading, Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice.” The voice of the shepherd is comforting. A comforting voice is one of healing, reassurance and solidarity. Words of comfort are often lacking in today’s society, sometimes even dismissed or belittled, but they are incredibly important to our mental and spiritual well-being. First Responders know this well. The very first thing they do is start talking to the injured person with comforting words. In the aftermath of the shootings in Las Vegas, the badly injured who survived were those who had someone staying with them and talking to them, telling them that help was on the way. In the stories I have read – and heard -about traumatic births, the young mothers who suffered mentally afterwards often had one thing in common – no one spoke words of comfort to them when the situation felt out of control. They desperately needed to hear “This is normal. You will be fine. I promise to be right here for you.” Words of comfort. Words of solidarity. Words that heal. Words that protect.
We often don’t think of words as protecting us. Protection is normally assigned to the realm of physical protection from harm. We know that words can harm. Words can also protect. Comforting words especially. They don’t hide the truth – or dismiss it – in fact, words of comfort will speak the truth first. Yes, you are dying. Yes, you have been abandoned. Yes, you did lose your job. Words of comfort, though, always move to an important reminder: BUT you are loved by the God of Glory who is present with you. You will not fight this battle alone.
The 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote of visions she had while deathly ill. In one of the visions, she is seriously upset by the presence of sin in our lives. She writes:
But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’
Later she writes: “And so in the same five words said before: I may make all things well, I understand a powerful comfort from all the works of our Lord God which are still to come.”
Words of comfort draw on the future for their protective power – on what God will do because God is in the future too. Julian recovered from her illness and lived another 33 years. She had been calmed and comforted with a blanket of words that wrapped her in love.
Whenever you feel like God has abandoned you, listen to the voices around you. Pay close attention to those who are speaking words of comfort. Words that remind you that you live, breathe and have your being in the love of God. They may be words from someone here at church or a family member or neighbor. They may be scripture verses that you memorized as a child and suddenly come to mind again. They may be from a vision. The Holy Spirit has many ways to speak to us. Are you listening? Whenever I despair about a situation in our family, my mother-in-law centers me with the words, “What would we do without the love of Jesus?” I hear in her words the voice of the shepherd reminding me that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”:
Not life, in all its messiness
Not death, in all its pain and grief
Not angels, with their messages
Not rulers, with their decrees – and certainly not politicians
Not things present, that tempt and pull us in different directions
Not things to come, whether peace or war
Not height, and its thrill of success
Not depth, not even the depth of the grave
Not anything else in all creation.
When I entered the church this morning, I noticed above the door is the sculpture of Jesus as The Good Shepherd. You should look at it on your way out. It is a great reminder that our risen Lord, is present with us in all situations, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.”