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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
2nd Sunday after Easter - 4/18/10 Is. 40:1-11; Ps 23; I Pet 2:19-25; Jn 10:11-16
The Good Shepherd had been at work since the first moment of the Fall out of the Garden of Eden, for all those hundreds of years, through the call of Abraham, the raising of the patriarchs, the selling of Joseph in to slavery, the 400 years in Egypt, the Exodus, Mount Sinai, the entry into Canaan, shepherding them along, through the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon, the splitting into the 10 northern tribes of Israel and the two southern tribes of Judah, the deepening and seemingly irredeemable rebellion and faithlessness, leading finally to the Exile. The Good Shepherd had been there. It was the Good Shepherd who had decreed the end of the Ten Northern Tribes, and the Exile of the two Southern Tribes.
The Good Shepherd was testing them to see whether they would obey His commandments, whether they would become the kind of community which could carry His message of salvation, redemption, meaning, purpose, and hope to the rest of the world. It did not look like they would make it.
But the Good Shepherd was busy at work among them, even in Babylon, where He had driven them, away from the terribly corrupted worship at the Temple, to more steps forward in developing their religion, their worship, their study of the Scriptures. They came home knowing how to build little local synagogue communities with a rabbi for a teacher of the Scriptures, something they had never had. Necessity had become, once again, the mother of invention. They now had no Temple, so God gave them synagogues and rabbis and Torah scrolls -- locally owned, studied, and read.
It was a much improved system for teaching the hearts and minds of the people, especially those a distance away from Jerusalem and the Temple. And the Hebrews (now become the Jews) became the first literate people -- because they understood that God had spoken to them through a written word, and they wanted to know what He had said.
That principle has remained. Wherever the people read and study the Bible, they become more literate, as supremely, in early America. And whenever that reading and studying wanes, the people begin to lose their literacy. As today in America.
The people in Exile learned some valuable lessons about the nature of Satan, and most of all, they learned more deeply than ever before how mighty their God was, ruling even over the pagan nations, using them for His own purposes -- to redeem the Hebrews themselves in the midst of their sin and rebellion.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people! says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her -- that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
After 70 years, the end of the Exile has come. Isaiah sees the journey home:
A voice cries: "In the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low... And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Good Shepherd has spoken."
The march across the desert and mountains will be as over a level highway prepared for the triumphant return of the Lord to His Temple.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, and fear not; say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!"
Seventy years earlier, the Spirit of the Lord had left the Temple and Jerusalem desolate. Now He is returning.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs in His arms, He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
There is no parallel to this anywhere in pagan literature. God has sovereignly led His people into the midst of a far-off pagan people, and is now sovereignly leading them home again. Pagan armies have destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple because of their sin and corruption. God then uses the homeland of those very armies to teach His own exiled people more about Himself. And then sovereignly leads them home again. God was the aggressor, not the Babylonians. The Exile, which looked like the end of the road, was in fact part of the way home. God was in charge of history, not the self-deceived pagan kings and potentates. All this, the Good Shepherd taught the newly reminted Jews.
But the Good Shepherd had His work cut out for Him, because that Satan, of which the Jews were now becoming more familiar, was also at work. It did not take long for him to find ways to corrupt the work of God through the new synagogue system. The rabbis and Pharisees, who were becoming powerful leaders among the Jews, began to hijack their religion, putting laws of men in place of the laws of God given in the Torah and other writings of Scripture. It was those "laws of men" which the Good Shepherd openly and severely rebuked when He came in the flesh.
It may have been this spiritually deadening influence which accounts for the lack of prophets among the Jews for those 400 years after the Exile to New Testament times -- until the coming of John, the Baptist, announcing the Messiah, the Good Shepherd in the flesh.
Psalm 23 is the classical Old Testament text of the Good Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.
No, not even by the waters of Babylon where we are exiled. Or, as one African refugee said, "I did not know that Jesus was all I needed -- until Jesus was all I had."
He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake.
He shall change my heart's desires, and thus lead me into truth and righteousness -- so that I can have a testimony to His truth and righteousness -- i.e., "for His name's sake..."
Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil... because the Good Shepherd is with me. His loving kindness will follow me, follow me, follow me, wherever I go, and my home base will be His house forever. Wherever I go, I will always be able to return there.
The first epistle of Peter is an epistle for suffering people, written at a time when Christians expected to suffer, an epistle teaching Christians, calling Christians to stand up in the midst of suffering. When we suffer because we do wrong, that is what we deserve, often bringing it upon ourselves. But Peter says that we must be followers of our Good Shepherd and suffer willingly even when we do right, especially when we do right -- because then we are most like our Shepherd, who
suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously: who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness... For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
We have come back home!
In the Gospel, Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, the one who, all through history, has been guiding the Hebrews and Christians, and anyone else who will listen, toward the Kingdom, the best of all possible worlds -- the place where everybody is always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful. Those three which endure. We need shepherds to get there.
Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with a hireling who has no commitment to the sheep, no serious investment in protecting them from danger, and so flees when a wolf prowls around looking for a meal.
And then Jesus makes a curious comment, that He knows His sheep, and they know Him. Of course they know each other. But He means a kind of knowing more than a casual acquaintance, a deep kind of knowing, the kind of knowing we can have only as we shed our defenses, our walls and suspicions and become vulnerable to each other, letting people know ourselves on a level that most of us would find frightening -- if we are lacking in that personal or moral stability which is our salvation. People who are saved, who know they are safe, whose lives are hidden in Christ, know that they need fear nothing. They have that power and authority in themselves which makes them real persons, able to stand before each other openly and unafraid. That is what the gift of the Holy Spirit gave the disciples at Pentecost.
If we are willing to live openly and honestly with each other, we shed those fears because we learn to trust not only them, but most of all, we learn to trust Him who is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. We know that secure in Him, we can be open and vulnerable, because in Him, we are invulnerable. We are safe. We can be real persons in public as well as in private.
I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
There is something about knowing and being known which bonds people together in that deep way. We do not let each other in at that deep level unless their is a trust between us. But that is what Jesus is doing with each of us, leading us to that kind of trust with Himself -- so that we can have that kind of trust with one another. We can have it with each other only to the degree that we first have it with Him. It will not endure otherwise. We will drift back into our self-protectiveness.
This is the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed in His High Priestly prayer in John 17, where He prays that the disciples will be one --- even as He and the Father are one, that is, that there will be no hiddenness, no secrets between them. They will be as Adam and Eve with God and each other, "naked and unashamed". That is the kind of unity which the world cannot create -- which will convince the world that Jesus must be from the Father, because only God could create such unity.
You have called me to be your shepherd, a good shepherd, one who will lay his life down for you. And you, as baptized and confirmed Christians are called to do that for each other. We are to live in the Light, as we read in I John. That is the unity which the world knows it cannot produce, and will recognize that such a unity must come from God. Only God can touch us that deeply.
Jesus goes on in the Gospel to say,
And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.
It is not clear who these other sheep are, but I would surmise that Jesus is referring to all those persons not yet reached by the Good News, and perhaps to those who had died but had not yet had the Good News preached to them. Jesus, we are told, descended into hell during those three days between the crucifixion and resurrection, to harrow hell, to set free those who would respond to His message and presence.
What does that all mean for us? Does it not mean that our relationship to God and our relationships to one another are all interrelated, all tied together, so that how we treat the one deeply affects the quality of the other?
It means that in all of our relationships, we are to shepherd one another, take care of one another, especially those in charge of others, but at the same time in the other direction as well. Parents shepherd their children, but then children come to shepherd their parents as the parents grow older. Employees can shepherd employers. We all need to hold each other accountable for our responsibilities and duties to follow the two Great Commandments. Any adult can be a shepherd to any other adult. The roles often get reversed.
If we Americans had held our political leaders responsible, had shepherded them, rather than avoiding that task, we would not be in the terrible predicament we are in.
Shepherding is a way of life, not just a job some people do. Shepherding is the fulfillment of the second Great Commandment - to love another as we love ourselves, and to love as Jesus has loved us. Every one of us must learn from Jesus how to be a shepherd, a good shepherd. We become shepherds by our relation to Jesus, not by our station in life. We are all called to be shepherds, lovers of souls, people who will die for each other. That is what our Good Shepherd has done for us, and that is what our life in the Holy Trinity brings us to do for each other and for the world.
We are walking now in those 40 day with Jesus after the Resurrection and before His ascension back to the Father. We look forward to the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, which is the summation of all that has preceded, and which points us forward into Kingdom life.
Father in heaven, keep us mindful of our Good Shepherd as we walk with Him these 40 days, mindful of where He is going, back to You, and mindful of what that means for us, as we ourselves are transformed into His body here on earth.
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