THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
4th Sunday of Easter / Christian Family Sunday
Acts 9: 36-43
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30
John 10: 22-3022 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25
Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
Who is Jesus Christ?
You know: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, the unique God-and-Man of the Christian religion. Who is he?
I see Him everywhere. He is on TV and in movies and on the covers of magazines. He is in art and in music and all over the internet. He is on T-shirts and bumper stickers and statues. So, who is He really? Is He the Messiah or God Himself?
This may sound like a silly question for a person to ask, especially coming from a minister in a church… shouldn’t we, in the church, know the answer to this question by now? …and yet don’t we attempt to ask and answer this question every week together?
Who is Jesus?
According to the text we have just from the Gospel of John, this question was asked of Jesus Himself, in his own Temple, by others who perhaps “should have known” the answer.
John tells us:
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25
Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
In our wondering along-with those in the Temple who demanded that Jesus make his identity plain, the answer we receive from Jesus Himself is that we are the sheep and He is our protector.
But look closely and notice:
Jesus, when asked whether or not He is the Messiah, gives his answer in a very unique way:
-He does not answer the question directly
-(this is not so interesting, Jesus never answers the question of the Temple authorities directly)
-He answers very indirectly, and His answer is focused completely on His sheep…
Like the Jesus depicted on the stained-glass window above us, the Jesus of John 10 is focused so directly and lovingly on His sheep that He doesn’t name Himself anything at all.
His answer does not include the word “shepherd.” Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus does talk about Himself as shepherd but not here. Here, Jesus talks lovingly and caringly about His sheep. He is completely focused on the objects of His care: providing for them and keeping them safe.
(A very nice, maternal image of God…)
In the Scriptures we have read together this morning, there is a clear theme: a shepherd, the sheep, and a lamb.
If God does not put it plainly for us this morning, allow me to do be so bold as to do so now: we are His sheep, He is our shepherd, and above all of this, He sits as a slain lamb upon the throne of the universe. Thanks be to God.
Whenever I think, or pray, or preach on this biblical “sheep” imagery, my mind and my heart go back to a very specific place in my life… and indeed, this glorious time of year also brings me back to it.
In May of 2015, during this same magical time when the whole world is in bloom, I took on a two-point summer ministry in the NE BC towns of Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. This was a wonderful and call affirming time that I am sure I will speak about again in the future, but for now, let me tell you about the sheep:
One of the things I enjoyed most about this summer ministry was the 1-hour drive between Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. Between these two towns lays the first 57 miles of the Alaska Highway, there called BC-97: a stretch of two-lane asphalt that slowly rolls its way through forest, up a near cliff, across prairie plateau, and high above the Peace River, always under an endless sky of blue and clouds.
In the constant to-and-fro between my charges, I would always look forward to passing one specific sight that stood out, even amongst all the beauty around, and that was a sheep farm. A pastoral little field of lush green grass, set down a gentle slope from the highway, where a hundred sheep could be counted upon to be running and grazing upon the land when I drove by in my little blue station wagon:
Every time I looked out to see, they would pass across the field like a cloud, moving all at once, sometimes clumping together; sometimes spreading out; always their snow-white fleece bodies standing out against the deep green of the grass.
They seemed to move with a sense of joy and of purpose, usually running at impressive speeds for their fluffy round bodies, seemingly called by an unseen master.
As they ran and jumped and bumped together and played, they moved with what appeared to be total freedom.
Looking at these sheep each time I passed and throughout the summer, I started to understand why God-in-Scripture seems to have a clear fondness for sheep and shepherd imagery:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” (Psalm 23: 1)
“He will feed his flock like a Shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40: 11)
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7: 10)
And in the Gospels:
“[Jesus] had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6: 34)
“My sheep hear my voice… No one with snatch them out of my hand” (John 20: 27-28)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10: 11)
In the intersection between each of these parables and images, we get a clearer sense of who Jesus is:
Jesus is both shepherd and lamb:
The shepherd who tends the flock, the shepherd who calls Peter to feed His sheep when He is gone, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep
The shepherd, but also the lamb:
The lamb who takes on the sins of the world, the lamb who is worthy to be praised, the lamb who sits on the throne of the universe, the lamb whose blood was spilled as a ransom for many.
Jesus is both shepherd and lamb;
And yet, when asked who he was in the Temple, Jesus answer is all about us.
Who are we, that: when Christ speaks about who He is, He talks about us?
Who are we, that: rather than being told to find our identity in Him, the Son of God seems to find His identity in us?
Who is this shepherd? Who is this lamb?
When asked whether He was the Messiah or not, Jesus answered “you do not know because you do not belong to my sheep”
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.
Not an easy Scripture lesson, but a truly life-giving one.
And more challenging than the one who loves his sheep in John is the lamb who sits upon the throne in Revelation.
Friends, I must honor a couple of rare opportunities this morning.
The first, is the chance to preach on Revelation, a book so interesting and yet so difficult that even John Calvin would not go near it in his interpretations.
The second related opportunity, is to share with you the key to understanding imagery such as we have heard from Revelation this morning:
-Figures in white, angels, praising the Lamb of God, day and night.
-A heavenly palace room that has upon its throne a lamb, a slain lamb
-The promise of a lamb who is not only a lamb, but a shepherd, one who will guide us to springs of the water of life, when God will wipe away every tear
Allow me to be so bold as to share the key to these texts, which I learned from my VST preaching professor Jason Byassee, a man whose Carolina accent I really wish I had at the moment.
“A slain lamb sits on the throne of the universe”
“That’s weird y’all! And yet, it’s true”
The lamb and the sheep and the shepherd are, for us, wonderful opportunities to trust in Christ like we have never trusted before.
-God and Scripture tells us that a slain lamb sits on the throne of the universe.
-Jesus Himself tells us that we know who He is because of His care for us.
-God promises to lead us beside still waters, to restore our souls, to protect us from our enemies, and ultimately, to wipe away every tear at the end of the age.
And in moments such as this, when we behold the shepherd and the sheep and the lamb, when we look at this stained-glass and when we think about the absolute freedom that sheep enjoy because they are safe and loved by the shepherd, what should our response be?
How shall we respond to the Christ who calls each of us by name and says “I am the shepherd because you are my sheep”?
“Thanks be to God”?
only we would reply so simply if we had the faith of saints.
For most of us, certainly for myself, the answer is a bit more complicated.
Our hearts struggle with the “yeah buts” that keep us from praising the lamb and trusting in our shepherd.
The “yeah buts” in our hearts cry out in disbelief “Yeah but you don’t understand! I’m not as worthy as those around me”
I’ve sinned! I’ve lied! I’ve cheated! There are still things I’m trying to make right.
And the most difficult thing for us to accept is that we are beloved by the shepherd and saved by the lamb anyway.
That, indeed, we are beloved and saved only when we come openly before God and confess our sin.
Allow me to share just one last thing and one last story from my time in Peace Country; an event that allowed me to finally start at least faithfully trying to live as freely as the sheep I saw each day.
One day I was having coffee with a congregant from Dawson Creek.
Though I liked this man, I would be lying if I said that we saw eye-to-eye. Prior to this coffee meeting, he had been poking weekly holes in my preaching; calling it “too academic,” “too dry,” that there wasn’t enough “good news or love in it.”
A true witness to my early preaching.
Toward the end of our meeting, he hit me with a double barrel of Grace and Christian fellowship, saying two things that have always stuck with me:
First, that he was praying for me, that he hoped God would shower me with every blessing and joy this life has to offer.
And second, that—if he could offer a little advice—I should try to “let go and let god” a little more often.
As someone whose sin lives in the place that makes grace hard to accept, you can imagine how I struggled to accept these heartfelt gifts so many formative years ago.
That evening, as I was driving back to my basement suite in Fort St. John, I passed a familiar sight: a sheep farm…and for once, the sheep were not running or jumping or playing, they were all laid down, resting. Secured in the knowledge that should any danger come to them, that they would be protected by their unseen shepherd.
And may each one of you come to know this peace and this love and this security in our shepherd, Jesus Christ.