Sunday, May 2, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Easter
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat: for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

We begin today’s scripture readings with an image of Peter on his knees, seeking help from God for the sake of the congregation in Joppa. A woman named Tabitha became ill and died. She was a woman who lived her faith, doing good works of charity. The community heard that Peter was nearby, so they sent for him to come. When he arrived, they took him to the place where they had laid the body. They had already washed and prepared her body, but they did not bury her immediately as was the custom in those days. Outside the city of Jerusalem they could delay burial for up to three days, but health concerns and the smell made quick burial a practical choice.

We don’t know why the disciples in Joppa called Peter. Perhaps Tabitha was a friend and they thought he would want to mourn. Perhaps the widows were so overtaken with grief that they needed a more experienced pastor to aid in the comfort of the congregation. Perhaps they expected a miracle.

What we do know is that last week Jesus told Peter to follow Him. After three years of being a disciple, Peter was sent out into the world to be an apostle, to share the kingdom of God. He was present when Jesus raised Jarius’ daughter. The stories are similar. Jesus spoke and the girl got up. Peter spoke and the woman got up. Peter was truly following in the footsteps of Jesus, sharing the power of God with those in need. This miracle was quickly made known and many came to believe in Jesus.

Belief was not always so easy. Jesus performed a great number of miracles and yet there were still those who could not believe. In the Gospel lesson for today, they came to Jesus wanting to know without doubt if He was the Messiah. It was the time for the Feast of Dedication, that Jewish festival we now know as Hanukkah. This festival would have been rather new at the time of Jesus, based on the miracle in the temple at the time of the Maccabees, just two hundred years prior.

The temple had been profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes as he tried to make the entire world worship and live as the Greeks. All Jewish practice was suspended for a time – no circumcision or Torah reading, but Judas Maccabeus refused to stand aside and allow his faith to be destroyed. After three years, the Maccabees took over the temple and restored it to the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the temple was desicrated. Antiochus Ephiphanes had slaughtered a pig on the altar and pour urine over the furnishings. The building had been left to ruin because the priests could not continue their work in its upkeep. So, when Judas Maccabeus took control of the temple, the first thing that needed be done was for the building be rededicated to the Lord God. Unfortunately, there was no oil for the lamp, except a small portion that would light one of the seven cups in the lampstand for a day. It would take eight days for new oil to be produced. They lit the one candle and it stayed lit for the eight days, a sign to the people that God was with them. They realized that God’s holiness far exceeds the filth of creation.

So, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication, the presence of God incarnate in the flesh of man. He was the light of the world and He told them so. He spoke with authority and performed miraculous deeds of healing and forgiveness. Yet, there were those who did not recognize Him. “Tell us plainly,” they said, “how long will you keep us in suspense?” A more literal translation of this verse in Hebrew would be “How long will you annoy us?” They were tired of guessing whether or not Jesus was the Messiah or if He was just an imposter.

Jesus answered, “I have told you.” But they did not believe. He tells them that they do not believe because they are not His sheep. We have some difficulty with the idea that God would purposely leave some people out of His kingdom. This passage seems to indicate that there are certain people that are chosen to be saved and others who will not be. While there is no such thing as universal salvation, we must be careful to understand what Jesus is saying about the sheep who hear His voice.

His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive thing in the scriptures. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Those who have small children are quite familiar with selective hearing. Kids hear what they want to hear. When they are outside on a sunny summer day, the last thing they want to hear is Mother’s voice calling them for dinner. So, they don’t. Perhaps they hear it with their ears, but they don’t hear it with their mind or their body. They don’t respond. There have been times when there is no way my kids could have not heard my yelling, yet they don’t hear because they do not want to leave their fun.

Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of who He was. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and yet 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 because He had rejected them, but because they had rejected Him.

Jesus talks in this Gospel passage about being the Shepherd. Earlier in this chapter we heard other references to shepherds. This is an image with which we are not very familiar, except through out Bible studies. We do not know what it is like to be a shepherd or to have sheep. Yet, we find great comfort in this image of Jesus as the Shepherd. A shepherd takes care of his sheep, ensures they are fed and safe. He guards and protects. He searches out the lost sheep and keeps the flock together. He loves them even to giving his own life. Though we may not know what it is like to be a sheep or a shepherd, we do know the peace we have with God as our shepherd, leading us in the right paths.

So, we love to see Jesus as our Shepherd, calling our names to follow Him. Yet, we are not always good about actively hearing His voice. Like the sheep that wanders away, we wander away from our Lord Jesus. The Jews had wandered away from God, obedient to their laws and rules but without being men after God’s own heart. They no longer knew the God of their Fathers, He was lost to their self-righteousness. They couldn’t hear Him when He called.

So, it was not enough for Jesus to be just a shepherd, to come to be the good example of how to live a life of faith. There was a divide between God and man that could not be overcome with the ordinary sacrificial practices. The lambs and bulls that were slaughtered in the temple did nothing to bring God’s presence or forgiveness for the sins of the people of Israel. It would take a greater sacrifice, the sacrifice of God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ to restore the people to their Father.

The passage from Revelation for this day 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. 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 belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” They sing out praise and thanksgiving to God for to Him belongs the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever.

In this passage, we see the Lamb once again as the Good Shepherd who will guide them to springs of the water of life. They will no longer hunger or thirst; they will not mourn as God wipes the tears from their eyes. This is such a vision of hope and promise, that God is with us and will lead us just as the shepherd in the psalm for today.

The Twenty-third Psalm is probably one of the most beloved passages from the Bible, a message that even non-believers recognize the comfort that comes from the words when they are seeking a higher power in their times of need. This psalm is often read at funerals and I’ve heard countless stories of the dying seeking the words to that prayer as they enter into the valley of death. It is a song that puts the control back into the hands of the One to whom all the world belongs and defines the work of His hands.

Remember how we saw Peter on his knees at the beginning of our readings? Perhaps he was praying something like this prayer. Marty Haugen wrote a hymn based on this psalm, making it a prayer for God’s presence. “Shepherd me 0 God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” This is a statement of faith, seeking God’s hand in our lives. Peter did not expect that the power to raise Tabitha would come from his hand, but from God. So, he knelt and prayed for God’s will and spoke the words that freed the woman from death into life. He followed Jesus in the most incredible way, not only believing what He said but also doing what He did. Faith in the Shepherd leads to our own following in His works. Isn’t it wonderful that the Shepherd trusts us to be shepherds too, to pass on the comfort and peace that He has given to us? Thanks be to God.

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