My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
Texas is spectacularly green this spring. It is also blue, purple, red, yellow, pink and white with wildflowers, which is stunning, but there’s something comforting about the green grass fields. When the grass is green, rather than golden or brown, we can see that God’s creation is new and growing. The cattle happily graze in these fields looking very healthy. Healthy herds mean a good harvest for the ranchers. This will be passed on to the consumer with better and perhaps even more affordable meat. We don’t really think about this when we see the green fields; the green is beautiful and gives us the hope that comes from knowing death does indeed lead to new life.
The psalmist writes, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Having lived in Texas for more than six years now, I can tell you that the pastures are not always green. Sometimes they are brown. Sometimes the plants are eaten down to the roots, leaving barren wasteland in the wake of the herd. There is great comfort in the statement that the shepherd makes the sheep lie down in green pastures because in this we know that the good things we need to survive will be plentiful.
Have you ever been terribly thirsty and the only source for water was a maladjusted water fountain? You approach the fountain with the hope of having a nice cold drink of water, but when you push the button the water flies in your face getting you wet. As you step back, you see that the water pressure is too high and it is sending the water flying well beyond the fountain. So, you try, with little luck, to push the button more carefully so that it won’t come out so fast. I hate to admit how many times I’ve done this, only to have my hand slip at the last moment and the water end up in my nose instead of my mouth.
The psalmist writes, “He leads me beside still waters.” We’ve all seen creeks that are fast moving whitewater as it moves across rocky areas but then empties into deep pools that appear still. Those pools are still part of the creek, so the water is moving, fresh and clean. Have you tried to get water from those fast moving areas? The water washes right over your cupped hands. But it is easy to drink at those deep, still pools. The shepherd takes the sheep to those still waters so that they might drink well.
A few weeks ago I took a trip to a local state park to try out my camera. The park had several major hiking trails, although I planned on taking only two. There is a creek that leads through the park with waterfalls on both ends. I wanted to take pictures of the waterfalls. I followed the path from the first parking area and found myself on a large field of granite. The creek was right in front of me, but I could hear the waterfall to the right, so I followed what I believed was the path to the falls. It didn’t take very long before I realized that the waterfall was behind me and the path was going the wrong direction. I turned around and found my way. When I looked at a map, I realized that I would not have gotten very lost on that other path, but it would have led me to places I did not need to be.
The psalmist writes, “He leads me in right paths…” There are lots of ways we can go, but sometimes those other paths are a waste of time, leading us to places we do not need to be. Most of the time our wrong choices mean we are lost for awhile but we eventually find the right way. Sometimes, however, the wrong path is dangerous. When we go those ways we can lose faith, lose hope and worst of all lose sight of our God. Our shepherd leads us on the right path, guiding our footsteps so that we are going His way.
The psalmist writes that the shepherd makes the world safe for the sheep, being present, protecting, providing, anointing and restoring. Even when the world seems dark and frightening, the sheep have no reason to fear. As long as the shepherd is nearby, the sheep are blessed with all they need. The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want, for He will provide everything we need.
The most important thing we learn in this week’s passages is that it is the Lord that provides. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior.
In today’s first lesson from Acts, we hear the story of Dorcas, a disciple in Joppa. Her generosity was well-known. She made clothes for the poor and took care of the widows. And then she died. Some of the disciples knew that Peter was close-by, so they asked him to come. When he came, he saw all the wonderful work she had done as the widows showed off some of the clothing she had made. Peter went into her room, prayed and then told her to get up. He gave her back to the community so that she could continue to do the work of God.
Peter did not allow anyone in the room when he was with Dorcas. It would have been very easy for the people in Joppa to give Peter the credit for raising the woman. Though we are well aware of God’s hand in the course of our lives, we tend to focus on the tangible, earthbound vessels of God’s grace. We know that God provides the food we eat, although we are very good at taking credit for the work we do that earns the money to go buy food at the grocery store that has been grown and prepared by others. God is the ultimate source of all things, but the food we eat comes to us through the hands of many, each one deserving of our thanks. They don’t, however, deserve praise. Yet, it was possible that the act of raising Dorcas might have made the people believe in Peter.
Imagine what it must have been like for Peter. Three years or so earlier, Peter was nothing but a fisherman. Though he was probably in charge of his own boat, his crew was likely little more than his brother and a few others. Then he spent three years under the Master, learning about being a disciple and seeing the most amazing things. Finally, he was given the charge to be a leader among the disciples. It could easily have gone to his head. He had such an intimate relationship with Jesus; he was part of the inner circle, present at the most incredible moments. I wonder if any of us would have gone about this healing in the same manner as Peter. Would we have sent everyone out of the room or would we have wanted to have an audience that could verify that we did something spectacular. Peter knew that it wasn’t his gift to give, but that he was blessed to be a blessing and that blessing came from God.
Luke tells us in Acts that when this story became known around Joppa, the people believed in the Lord. They knew that the power and authority that was manifest in Peter was not his, but was from God. To drive home the point that Peter is not the source of the power in this story, we are told that he went to stay with a man named Simon, who was a tanner. This detail is interesting because tanners were not well received in the community. Tanning is the process of preparing leather using such unpleasant ingredients as urine and dung. It was disgusting and smelly. The tanners were located in isolated places, far from the center of the community.
This story sounds much like another story with which we are familiar: when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. He took her by the hand spoke to her, and then helped her to stand. As Peter grows into his vocation as an apostle, we see him remembering the experiences of his time with Jesus. Though we often think of Peter as bumbling, especially when he makes so many foolish mistakes, we see here that he did watch and learn from Jesus. We see that Peter does indeed have the authority to continue Jesus’ work, and we see Him following Jesus not just in words, but also in action.
One of the hardest words of Jesus for us to understand is in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” I think this is hard for us to understand for two reasons. First of all, I’m not sure I have found anywhere in the scriptures where Jesus tells us plainly that He is really the Messiah. He says many things that lead us to believe in Him and know that He is indeed the Messiah, but plainly? The other thing that bothers me is that they do not believe because they are not Jesus’ sheep. Doesn’t God love all His creation? Doesn’t He promise His grace to all? How can there be sheep that do not belong to Him?
His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive verb in the scriptures. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Have you ever heard of selective hearing? I know that there are times I have called for my children and they did not respond despite my loud and urgent voice. They have claimed they did not hear, but I’m sure they simply were not listening. I am sure I had selective hearing when I was a child; my mom had to call me more times than necessary because I did not listen even though I should have been able to hear. The last thing a child wants to hear on a pleasant summer evening is Mom’s voice calling them to go home. Perhaps they hear it with their ears, but they don’t hear it with their mind or their body. They don’t respond.
The Jews demanded proof. They wanted to see Jesus do and say what they expected from the Messiah, and Jesus didn’t fit their mould. He refused to do so because God had already proven Him. In the signs (especially in John’s Gospel) and in the words He spoke, Jesus’ authority and power were established for all to see. Saying He was the Messiah would not do what they thought it would do. I’m a writer, but the only way you know that is by reading my words. I’m also a photographer, although most of you only know that because you’ve heard me talk about my adventures. To really believe I am a photographer you would have to see some of my photographs.
I once knew a woman who claimed she was a prophet. She’d heard me chatting in an online chat room and was impressed by what I said. “You are a prophet, too,” she said. She asked if I would take some time and look over some of her writings and sermons. She wanted me to say she was a prophet, but after looking at her work I could not do so. Besides the terrible spelling and grammar (which would not prove she wasn’t a prophet), her interpretation of the scriptures were so far off the mark that I began praying for her home church. When she asked what I thought, I shared a few thoughts. She accepted one or two, but realized that I was not going to call her a prophet. She quickly decided that if I would not accept her words, then I must not be a prophet. She knew she was and she didn’t have to prove it to anyone. The difference between this woman and Jesus is that His words and the actions proved Jesus was who He said He was. Her words and actions proved she wasn’t.
Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of His identity and purpose. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and they did not hear because He was not what they wanted for a Messiah. He could not be a king; He could not deliver them from their enemy. His teachings were different than the established Jewish thought. They did not want to hear because they had rejected Him. He did not fit into their expectation, so they ignored His voice. They were not His and it was not because Jesus rejected them. They rejected Him.
There is another parallel in today’s texts. A few weeks ago, we saw the crowds cheerfully welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with a parade. They treated Him like a king, throwing their cloaks in front of the humble donkey on which He road and waving palm branches in His path. On Palm Sunday we gathered together and processed with palms as they had done on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. The Romans would have understood this to be a victory parade, since palms were used to reward returning heroes and the champions of the games. The Jews were also known to carry palms at festive times. As a matter of fact, palms played an important role in the Feast of Tabernacles, as the people presented their offerings in thanksgiving to God they were also to wave palm branches as they rejoiced over His blessings.
The palm branch means many other things. In Judaism, the palm is a symbol of peace and plenty. It is also believed that the palm represents the Tree of Life. The Muslims believe that Mohammed built his house out of palm branches because they are considered a symbol of hospitality. To the ancients, palms were considered a symbol of the connection between heaven and earth and were also a symbol of longevity. It is said that at the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh’s reign, the Pharaoh was given a handful of palm branches to hold. The marks on the midrib indicated the number of years the Pharaoh would continue to rule.
Today’s passage from Revelation describes Jesus as the Lamb of God whose blood sets us free. In this vision of heavenly worship, a great multitude from every nation and tongue are standing before the throne of God in white. They are waving palms, just as been done in religious ceremony for generations. The symbolism here can mean many things—God’s victory, His hospitality, His peace and strength. It can represent the joy of the multitude and their thanksgiving for God’s blessings. The white of their robes does not come from their own righteousness, but because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, “Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.” They sing praise and thanksgiving to God for to Him belongs the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever.
It is all about God, what He can do and what He has done. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior. We might buy the food produced by others to fill our empty stomachs, but it is God who provides. We have no needs or fears that God can’t overcome. Peter didn’t raise Dorcas from the dead, God did it through him. We believe because we heard the words God spoke. He does not need to prove Himself because He has given us the ears to hear.
God’s sheep are those who are active listeners. They not only hear the word but they put it into action. They are like Peter; they continue to do the work of Jesus in the world. Peter remembered when he saw Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter and he did the same for Dorcas. Will we raise people from the dead? I don’t know. I do know that we can reach out to those who are wallowing in darkness and give them the Gospel so that they might have the hope, peace and life that come from faith in Jesus.
Though we may not raise someone from physical death, it is up to us to actively follow Jesus, continuing the work He began by speaking His word into the lives of those who are without faith. Who knows? We might just be the vessel through which God’s voice gets through and as we reach out to them and tell them to get up, they might finally respond and join us in the great company of saints singing God’s praise and thanksgiving at the foot of His true throne.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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