Sermon: Easter 4 RCL C – “Shepherd”

The podcast is available here.

After having dug to a depth of 10 feet last year, New York scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 100 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 100 years ago. 

Not to be outdone by the New Yorkers, in the weeks that followed, a California archaeologist dug to a depth of 20 feet, and shortly after, a story in the LA Times read, “California archaeologists find 200-year-old copper wire: They have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech communications network a hundred years earlier than the New Yorkers.” 

One week later, a local newspaper in Louisiana reported the following: “After digging as deep as 30 feet in his pasture near Lafitte, Louisiana, Boudreaux, a self-taught archaeologist, reported that he found absolutely nothing. Boudreaux has therefore concluded that 300 years ago,”Louisiana had already gone wireless.” 

Today’s Gospel reading needs a bit of a history lesson to get the full meaning and we’ve got to go back further than Boudreaux to get at the heart of it. 

The lesson seems innocent enough, Jesus is once again using the shepherd and sheep imagery, so how bad could it really be? So it is a bit surprising to discover that in the verses immediately preceding our reading, the religious leaders said of Jesus, “He has a demon, and is insane.” And in the verse immediately following our reading, Scripture says, “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” Shepherd and sheep sounds innocent, but clearly something more is going on. The clue to understanding it lies in the history of the Jewish people and our clue as to where begin is in that first verse of the lesson: “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.” 

Alexander the Great, the architect behind the Greek Empire died in the year 323 a.d. Following his death, three of his generals began to fight for control, and is the case in so many of these struggles in that region of the world, Israel was in the middle. The armies battled and eventually Antiochus III prevailed. At first he allowed the Jews to practice their faith, but would then attempt a Hellenization of the empire, forcing the Jews to worship the Greek God’s. A rebellion ensued leading Antiochus to withdraw the Hellenization orders, but following his death, his son, Antiochus IV restored them and did so forcibly. Eventually, Antiochus conquered Jerusalem and ended all Jewish practices. He desecrated the Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus within it and sacrificing pigs (as you know, that area of the world is not fond of bacon). 

In the year 167 a.d. under Antiochus rule, a Greek official attempted to force a Jewish priest named Mattathias to make a sacrifice to Zeus. Mattathias said, “I don’t think so,” and ended up killing the Greek official, which led to an open rebellion against the Greeks, led by Mattathias and his five sons. That family became know as the Maccabees, taken from the Hebrew word ‘hammer,’ referring to the fact that Mattathias and his sons and the army they raised hit the enemy like a hammer. Antiochus attempted to put down the rebellion, but like so many others, he misjudged the will and strength of the Jewish people. It took two decades, but the Maccabees eventually forced the Greeks out of Israel. 

Going back earlier in the battle, in 165 a.d., when the Maccabees had recaptured the Temple, Mattathias ordered it to be cleansed and rededicated, but as part of the rededication, the menorah (sacred candle stand a.k.a. hanukkiah) had to be lit, but there was only enough of the pure oil, consecrated by the priest, remaining to last a single day. They proceeded anyway and the oil that was only to last a day, lasted eight days, which was long enough for the preparation of more oil. This is the miracle of the Dedication of the Temple. It is also known as the Festival of Lights or Hanukkah. 

Now, when the Maccabees had forced out the Greeks, it was Mattathias who became king, followed by his sons. Their rule of Israel lasted eighty years until the Romans showed up and it all started over again. 

I will exalt you, O Lord,
because you have lifted me up *
and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried out to you, *
and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; *
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

To the Jewish people, they had essentially been dead under the rule of the Greeks, but under the kingship of the Maccabees, their life was restored to them. So every time the festival comes around, the people are reminded of how God miraculously restored the Temple and their nation. Not only that, they are also reminded of the role that the kings of Israel played in this great restoration. 

“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” 

When Jesus went walking through the Temple, the people were being reminded of their freedom and their kings during the reign of the Maccabees, but even as they celebrated, they know that they are once again oppressed, this time by the Romans. So there is this great tension in the air. People are on edge. People are wondering if another ‘Hammer’ will rise up and free them once again. It is into this tense atmosphere that Jesus walks. 

In his wake is this new teaching about God and the word of the miracles he has been performing. The religious leaders say he is demon possessed, because only a demon possessed person would say such things about God and certainly only a demon possessed person could perform such miracles. Someone, one of Jesus followers, points out that no demon could speak such wise words and certainly no demon could perform such miracles. 

Tension around the feast day and tension around Jesus. A single spark and the entire thing blows. Jesus is happy to oblige. 

The statement seems innocent: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” 

Rephrase: You are looking for a king like the Maccabees, but when the people hear my voice, they are hearing the voice of the One True King, and they follow me. Through me, they will receive eternal life, my Father has seen to it. And, by the way, my Father is God and… I am God’s Son. Boom! “The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” 

What does this mean for us? This past Wednesday was the Feast of Dame Julian of Norwich and we discussed her “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” statement. I won’t re-preach that sermon, but in that revelation to Julian, Jesus summarized what he meant by saying “All shall be well,” and it is actually quite simple: “I [the Lord] am keeping you very safe.” 

We live in a world that is fraught with tensions. The Psalmist speaks true: 

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”

However, the Psalmist answers those who would plot against the Lord and His people: 

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.

All shall be well. I, the Lord, your Shepherd King, am keeping you very safe. 

In the midst of trials both great and small and even in death itself, I, the Lord, am keeping you very safe, and no one and no thing will snatch you out of my hands. 

The words of that very familiar Psalm that we read today only confirm this message of eternal salvation, so to close, let’s once again read… proclaim the promises contained within. 

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways
for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me
in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! 

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