This is the sermon I preached Sunday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Bemus Point, NY. The gospel was John 10:22-30.
Many of you know that I lived in Bethlehem, the Holy Land in the 1980s with my then-husband and children. One of the delights of Bethlehem life was the view we had from our upstairs aa. We often saw a herd of sheep filling the street below; led by a young boy. He would occasionally say something to them in Arabic. Did you know that sheep understand Arabic? He rarely looked back to check to see if they were all following him. He didn’t need to. He knew his sheep.
Today’s gospel demonstrates such a relationship. Jesus’ followers are likened to sheep, highlighting their relationship to the Father and the Son. Additionally, there are benefits because of that relationship: protection and eternal life. Life is a major theme of John’s gospel. Relationship punctuates the conclusion of today’s gospel—that between the Father and the Son that we have the privilege of entering into.
Jesus is pretty black and white here with the Jewish authorities. They are not able to believe because they are not Jesus’ sheep. They are not sheep because they do not listen to Jesus. They do not listen to Jesus, so they are not Jesus’ sheep. This may seem like circular logic, but it reiterates the essence of the relationship of discipleship of Jesus.
Believers hear Jesus’ voice just as the sheep in Bethlehem heard the young shepherd’s voice. I was visiting with one of our members the other day. We talked about the noisiness in our society today. People are loud and sometimes nasty. They are talking on their phones or listening to music as they’re out and about. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that these can hinder one’s hearing of our Lord and Shepherd. With all the noise, it’s harder to hear.
The heart of this gospel passage is this verse, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (v. 27). They not only hear but recognize Jesus’ voice. Think of the people whose voice you recognize immediately on the phone simply from them saying, “Hello.” The really tough part for us is recognizing Jesus’ voice.
Hearing is good, but that isn’t the end of the matter. When my son, Christian was young and living at home, I would be fretting about getting the garbage out in the morning before leaving for work. He would say, “Don’t worry about it Mom. I’ll take it out before I leave.” That was certainly a relief, however, I would get home and somehow Christian didn’t get the garbage out to the curb. When asked about it, he would say, “I forgot.”. Even more, than we love and forgive our children, nieces and nephews, God forgives us; calling us, continually calling out to us to follow him. The essential thing that stands out about being a part of the flock of Jesus’ sheep is hearing the shepherd and doing what you’re told. They’re intertwined.
Jesus knows his sheepy followers. He sees deep into our grubby little hearts and loves us anyway. How can we not follow someone who showers such love upon us?
God is ever the gift giver, no matter how undeserving we may be. Jesus gives his sheepy followers eternal life. This is not some pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. This is for the nasty now and now AND for the future life in the church triumphant with the saints.
In Jesus’ day, real sheep were in constant danger of being snatched away by thieves and wild animals. Jesus protects his sheepy followers. He says they/we will never perish. On top of that, no one can snatch them out of Jesus’ hand. The One who loves us most holds us the tightest, protecting us with his very life.
The activities of the Son and the Father parallel each other. Jesus gives to his sheepy followers. The Father gives to Jesus. I used to think that Jesus was still talking about followers when it came to what was given by the Father, but we are not greater than all else. Then the same thing is said concerning the Father as the Son, only for the Father, “no one can snatch it.” We aren’t its. What Jesus is talking about is life. The life God gives is “greater than all else” because it’s the very life of God. That Jesus preserves those whom God has given him is a dominant theme in John’s gospel (6:39; 17:12; 18:9).
Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” John uses God-language for Jesus without ceasing to be a proponent of there being only one God. He incorporates Christ’s unity with the Father into the confession of the one God. Jesus and the Father act together in love and obedience. Jesus’ sheep are in a relationship of oneness to him, their shepherd, like his to the Father. The Jewish leadership sees this as blasphemy.
Throughout scripture, faith is both human decision and divine choice in a paradoxical unity. God does it all and yet we are required to enter the flock. This is a radical understanding of grace: all is of God, not of our choosing. And yet, whosoever will. Christian faith lives by and witnesses to both statements.
What difference does all this make to our everyday lives? I hear several things over and over from people today: they’re afraid with the war in Ukraine that we could get dragged into it, even more, they’re lonely and depressed from lack of contact with people over the past two years, they don’t know what to do to get out of their malaise. Enter the sheep flock, be still and listen to God’s voice, follow the shepherd and you won’t get lost. After all, Jesus laid down his life for you and loves you more than you can imagine. Amen.
Fred B. Craddock and M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Karoline M. Lewis, Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries: John
Gerard Sloyan, John: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
The Jewish Annotated New Testament