Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 12, 2019
All stories—especially Biblical stories—are set in a particular time and place. The time of this story is wintertime—during the festival of dedication, or Hanukkah, as it is more familiarly called. Hanukkah is a celebration that commemorates an event that took place on the 25th of December—or Kislev in the Jewish calendar—in the year 164 BC: the day a man named Judas Maccabee rededicated the temple in Jerusalem.
On that same day three years earlier a Greek king had conquered Jerusalem and placed an altar to Zeus in the temple. That king and that altar are described in the book of Daniel like this: “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.” The Greek occupation of Jerusalem set in motion two forces: the Hellenizing of the Jews—forcing them to follow Greek customs and religious practices—and a Jewish uprising. The rebellion allowed the Jews to take their city back and restore temple worship. From that time on, the rededication of the temple is commemorated by lighting eight candles during Hanukkah: one for each day of the temple rededication. It is also called the Festival of Lights because it celebrated the relighting of the temple candelabras after a time of darkness and oppression.
The particular time is Hanukkah. The particular place is Jerusalem, at the temple complex, in Solomon’s portico. As usual during festivals, the city is packed with people who have come to celebrate the temple and temple worship. They’ve come from all over the world, speaking many languages, wearing many styles of clothing, and practicing their faith in many different ways. One commentator notes that archaeologists have recovered an ancient warning, saying: NO FOREIGNER IS TO GO BEYOND THE BALUSTRADE AND THE PLAZA OF THE TEMPLE ZONE WHOEVER IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME FOR HIS DEATH WHICH WILL FOLLOW. Solomon’s portico, where Jesus is teaching on this day, was in the court of Gentiles, the one place in the temple grounds where people of different nationalities were allowed to go. And in the midst of this great diversity, the Jews of the city gather around Jesus and ask him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It is a politically charged request. Because this festival celebrates the taking back of Jerusalem from Greek occupation, and because the city is currently under Roman occupation, the hope for a new Messiah expresses the hope that Israel will one day overthrow its Roman tyrants as it once overthrew its Greek tyrants. It evokes the hope that God will one day send a new king who will restore Israel to its former glory in the days of King David. And it evokes the hope that God will one day give liberate Israel from Roman oppression as God once liberated Israel from Egyptian, and Assyrian, and Babylonian, and Persian, and Greek oppression. Messiah encapsulates thousands of years of hope for political and religious freedom. And during the Festival of Dedication, particularly in Jerusalem, it is a hope for the return of a golden and light-filled age. It is the hope for a return to a time when God was worshipped in truth and with a pure spirit. “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” What a politically charged question!
Jesus answers by talking about . . . sheep? Really, Jesus? “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!” . . . Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” . . . Huh! . . . Well, thanks for the explanation!
The metaphor of shepherd and flock for God and God’s people goes back over a thousand years before Jesus. We know it best in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This Psalm of David takes us back to his youth, when he was a shepherd boy who was so adept with rocks and slingshots that he could kill even Goliath, the largest, strongest, fiercest enemy of Israel. This psalm evokes God’s tender care for God’s people, like a shepherd who will never forsake his flock. But we also know it in Isaiah 53: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” If God is a faithful shepherd who will not forsake God’s flock, then we are dumb sheep who are prone to wander off aimlessly. Silly sheep!
Some years ago when I first saw Carolina Ballet dance to the music of Handel’s Messiah, they interpreted this verse quite literally. A line of dancers came on stage in sheep costumes and pranced around foolishly wagging their head and tails. It was quite funny, quite irreverent, and quite in keeping with the common understanding of sheep as hapless animals likely to go astray. “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them.” Silly sheep! . . . Or so I thought before I read about them on BBC Earth.
It turns out that sheep rarely go astray and hardly ever turn every one to his own way. On the contrary, sheep are very gregarious animals. They don’t like being alone, and so they are more inclined to stick together than to wander off:
Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. . . . [Sheep are so smart, in fact,] that they can recognise and remember at least 50 individual sheep faces for more than 2 years. That is longer than many humans. . . . Sheep show clear behavioural signs of recognising… individuals by vocalising in response to their face pictures, . . . [and they also] can differentiate facial expressions, and prefer a smile to a frown. . . .[What’s more,] they establish firm friendships and look out for one another in times of need: “Rams . . . form long term relationships… [they] intervene on behalf of weaker colleagues and support each other in fights. . . . “
We could learn a lot from sheep about the power of memory, about sticking up for one another, about feeling compassion when we see another’s suffering, about treating each other as the unique, individual creations that God made us to be, about maintaining friendships and looking out for one another in times of need, about intervening on behalf of weaker colleagues, and about supporting each other in fights.
But in answering the Jews anxiety about who will free them from Roman occupation, I think Jesus is doing more with this sheep analogy than evoking the memory of David the Shepherd King from some idyllic past. I think Jesus is trying to convert the people from their tribal way of thinking into a more inclusive, united mindset.
We often worry and sometimes even despair about the divisiveness in our world today—especially in American political life. We are so polarized politically that we mistrust our system of elections and our congress is unable to function. But sharp divisions are nothing new. In ancient Jerusalem, people were just as divided by tribes, by sects, and by political polarities as we are. There were the twelve tribes of Israel, the religious sects of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and the political sects of Zealots, Publicans, Herodians, and Samaritans. And all of these different categories could intersect in ways that made it hard to tell who you could trust and who you could not trust.
The apostle, Paul, is a good example of what can happen when we put aside tribal thinking and adopt a more inclusive vision for what community can look like. Paul writes of himself in Philippians like this: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul is out to convince the church in Philippi that no amount of pride and pedigree, no amount of law and legalism, and no amount of reputation for righteousness can put them right with God: only grace can do that: grace that is born of a loving God made manifest in humility and self-sacrifice:
I am the good shepherd; [Jesus says] I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
In clinging to their old tribal way of thinking, those who look for a Messiah who conquers the political powers that be, who favors one nation over another, who favors one people over another, will never be able to see Jesus as the Messiah he truly is. The Messiah they are looking for will restore their earthly kingdom, only to lose it again to the next world power that sweeps across their land. But the Messiah whom God has sent is one whose kingdom will have no end.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. . . . if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
One flock, one shepherd, one God and Father of us all made manifest most perfectly in Jesus Christ. And we who are called into the flock of Jesus Christ are not divided into clans or tribes or sects or movements or political parties or denominations or high church or low church or black church or white church. For in Christ we are all beloved children of God and we are one as God and Christ are one.
To be a member of Christ’s fold is to take delight in the vast diversity of God’s people. This expansion of the sheepfold of Christ is the vision that John of Patmos holds up for the culmination of history as envisioned in the book of Revelation:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
There are endless ways in which we divide ourselves from each other. But there is one shepherd who knows us and calls us and gives us abundant life. May we who strive to follow Christ’s voice, see that in the great diversity of thought and language and custom and political persuasion and color and background and nationality and sexual orientation and gender identification and physical ability we are one flock. What unites us to each other is the voice of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. . . . and gives us eternal life, so that we shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of his hand. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Amen.