Easter 4: Want?

Psalm 23
Acts 4:5-12
John 10:11-18

Easter 4

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.

But I am.

Looking around here this morning, watching the news and social media and listening to people around me tells me that there is a lot of want in the world. What do you find yourself wanting this morning?
Who do you want your wants from?

We are presented with some challenging readings this morning. Peter and John have been arrested and thrown in prison. We can assume they did not want to be there. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that his leadership looks like that of a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. A dead shepherd leaves his flock alone and exposed. What good is that?!

The Good Shepherd Jesus is often portrayed in a white robe with a fleecy white lamb on his shoulders. Gentle and mild. It is a nice picture even if far from reality. Shepherds lived on the margins of society, uneducated, rough and tumble types looking after animals that cannot look after themselves. What kind of shepherd do you want? What kind of sheep are you? The Christian writer Max Lucado, ‘Now sheep are pretty dumb! Have you ever seen a sheep do tricks? Know someone who has taught a sheep to roll over? Not only dumb – but sheep are defenceless. They have no fangs or claws. They can’t bite you or outrun you. What’s more – sheep are dirty. A cat can clean itself. So can a dog. We see a bird in a bird bath or a bear in a river. But sheep? They get dirty and stay that way.’

Shepherds needed to be robust, strong and able to manage living outdoors in harsh conditions. Maybe the shepherds in the fields of the nativity story comes to mind. They were not strolling beside still waters and green pastures. Shepherds were constantly having to look for pasture and water to keep the sheep alive. A fight for survival in harsh conditions is not what Psalm 23 brings to mind.

In John 10, Jesus starts by telling off the false shepherds of the day for looking after themselves instead of the sheep. Jesus then announces that he himself will search for the sheep and look after them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd will rescue the scattered, search for the lost sheep, take care of those sheep who have been injured and strengthen the weak sheep. Jesus is the gate for the sheep and is here to bring abundant life. I came across this description of the ‘gate’ for the sheep. ‘In ancient times the sheepfold was a circular stone corral with a single narrow opening. After the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie down across the opening, using his own body to form the gate or ‘door’ of the sheepfold. Nothing could enter or leave the fold without the shepherd knowing about it.’

Jesus is the shepherd who knows everything. How does the shepherd know his own and his own know him? This sounds very straightforward but I have found that a life of faith is often not so certain and straight. We all have fears and doubts, there are things we do not understand. We might question if we even believe at all sometimes. There can be barriers between Jesus’ assurances and my/our faith; barriers of pain, doubt, guilt and doctrine. The shepherd is the gate for the sheep and he is also the undoer of the barriers I build. Maybe Jesus is as straightforward as this passage is saying. I know you and you know me. You belong to me. The conviction of this goes as far as laying down his life for us.

What a beautiful image. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, using his body for our benefit. He did this once for all on the cross of Good Friday. This is not a vision of a gentle shepherd nor of a hired hand who deserts the sheep when the wolf comes. He does it still, day by day as our Good Shepherd who leads us to salvation.

This is Peter’s message to the rulers, leaders and scribes the morning after his and John’s arrest in Jerusalem. A night in jail may chasten some people, but not Peter. He comes out swinging! Jesus had been rejected as the Messiah and Peter wants the crowd to know this was the wrong thing. Jesus’ work carries on in his name and Peter will not deny it. It is only through Jesus that salvation comes by which we are saved. For some people this is hard to swallow, it begs many questions and makes some shy away not wanting to push into what this means.

There are no better alternatives. Left to our own devices we can easily get lost, distracted and end up in a mess. There are the hired hands (think political or social leaders, influencers, people with loud voices, conspiracy theorists) who will run away at the first sign of trouble. The hired hands are temporary at best. There are the rulers and elders of our day who rule with power and greed.

If these are the who the world has to offer, The Lord is still my Shepherd and I shall not be in want is far more attractive. It is a messy world. Let us not pretend that it isn’t. I need a Shepherd that calls me by name and knows me. I want to be able to hear his voice from the masses of others that claim I should listen to them.

The Christian writer and speaker Elisabeth Eliot: Experience has taught me that the Shepherd is far more willing to show His sheep the path than the sheep are to follow. He is endlessly merciful, patient, tender and loving. If we, His stupid and wayward sheep, really want to be led, we will without fail be led. Of that I am sure.
As we go from here today, let’s make sure we are following the right leader. The one who we can dwell with forever.

Sunday Before Advent: Christ the King

Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24
Matthew 25:31-46

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

Today is the final Sunday of the church year; this is New Year’s Eve! Happy New Year!

This Sunday is a hinge that helps us to look in both directions: firstly pointing to the end of time when the kingdom of Jesus will be established in all its fullness to the ends of the earth. Secondly, it points us to the immediate season of Advent, the beautiful time of expectation and preparation as we look ahead to celebrating the birth of Jesus. In both directions we are reminded that Jesus is King.

Christ the King is a recent addition (1925 so very new) to the church calendar and a Roman Catholic one at that! Pope Pius XI instituted this Sunday in response to issues he was facing in the Catholic church and in the civic life of Rome as secularism was growing in wider society after World War 1.

There was an enormous crisis of faith and many people left the Church (both Catholic & Protestant) in Europe in the wake of the First World War. The men had left for war and they did not come back; and the women left the church and God. This context led the Pope to establish Christ the King Sunday as a reminder of Jesus’ power and authority above all else.

The Bible is full of reference to kingship. In the Old Testament, God warned the Israelites about the dangers of a human king but they insisted. God yielded and Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. In the New Testament, the earliest followers of Jesus were looking for him to be a king who would smite their enemies and bring Israel back to prosperity. Again a need for a very human king.

However, both the Old & New Testaments offer a vision of a king like a shepherd. The sheep are a metaphor to represent the people of Israel. They are God’s flock and they are a mix of strong and weak sheep.

Sheep are not the brightest animals in creation, they are not able to take care of themselves the way other animals can, you cannot teach them tricks, they need a lot of care and attention and they need to be guided. Hence the need for shepherds.

God acts as the shepherd for his people; he will search and seek out the lost, the lonely and the oppressed. He brings back the strays, strengthens the weak, binds up the injured. He feeds them, he will make them lie down – 23rd Psalm anyone? This is a picture of a King who gets deeply involved with his mixed flock of strong and weak out of deep love and concern.

Both readings present a King who judges as there is inequality in the flock. There are both strong and weak sheep living together. The strong are not looking after the weak the way that they should. The fat sheep are the ones who butted the weaker animals, took their food, and tread down the pastures for their own gain. The fat took advantage of the lean by mistreating them and will be punished for this.

Regarding judgement, we need to hold on to some important truths: God does not judge the same way we do. I am very glad of that. God judges out of love; not hate or pride or envy. For this King love and judgement go together. We need to remember that we will be judged by the same standards that we judge others.
We all make judgements every day. I also know that the standards that I hold myself to are far less than the standards I hold other people to.

We do need a God of judgement; otherwise He quickly becomes ineffectual and untrustworthy. If God did not judge between the two what is He saying?

To the fat sheep: you can do whatever you like to serve yourself without consequence. I do not love you so I will ignore what you do.

To the lean sheep: you are not worthy of help. I do not love you enough to want to help you. You are on your own.

This is similar to the picture of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel. The separation of sheep and goats seems to emphasise that ultimately every person on earth will be called to account for the use of the opportunities to serve others. It also suggests that there will be some surprises. People who did kind things for ‘insignificant people’ will find that what they did was done to God himself. Other people will be punished for failing to make use of opportunities to serve the lowly and thereby failing to serve God.

The world does not operate as it should. It does not take much imagination to work this out. We do not treat people as we should; whether that is the people next door or the people on the other side of the world. The injustice in the world is rampant: socially, politically, and economically. We have active global examples at present.

It is not all bad news though.

It might be helpful to hold that this is not the full picture of judgement. This passage only deals with works not grace, faith or the atoning work of Christ.
Works are the evidence on which people will be judged here, not the cause of salvation or damnation. It is common to all of scripture that we are saved by grace and judged by works. The works we do are the evidence of either the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace.

Out of love God wants the fat sheep to care for the lean sheep; to share food, protect them as he does. Love your neighbour as yourself! We will be judged on this. We have a King of love and of judgement. Whatever season of life we are in, we have a King who loves us and will defend us. This will come to pass at the end of time.

As we look ahead to the imminent Advent season, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the Son of God. Who was born into the world as both God and man, died so that our sins may be forgiven and rose again so that we may live with him forever. We also look forward to his glorious return at the end of time. Advent helps us to remember that God is present in the world today.

The Advent season falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas. We may live in dark times but the light of Christ will show us the way.

But we do have to wait. Wait with expectation and anticipation. We wait in the light of new hope. The King is Coming.

Proper 11: Sheep without a Shepherd


Proper 11/Trinity 8

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-24; 53-56

Compassion of Christ

In the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are presented with a very busy Jesus! Mark sets a tone and pace for his readers that is frenetic and fast – it presents a picture of Jesus going from one place, one person to the next – hardly stopping to catch his breath.

Mark keeps Jesus and the disciples in Galilee as Jesus preaches, teaches and heals the masses whilst spending time teaching the disciples. But the side of Jesus that we are presented with today is one who recognizes, honours and tends to his own tiredness. Jesus also responds to the tiredness and exhaustion of his disciples with care and compassion. His response turns into action as Jesus tries to do something about it.

To give this morning’s reading the right context it is important to look at the whole of chapter 6 to understand why everyone is so exhausted. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus in his hometown, where he was dishonoured and ended up amazed at their unbelief. Who were the unbelieving? His family, friends and those who had known him since childhood.

Hang on to that for a moment; the people who have known you the longest completely dismiss you and the work you are doing. How draining that would be; not to mention disappointing! Remember that Jesus was a human being, he felt things: experienced grief and rejection, felt frustration, was disappointed and let down. Emotional exhaustion by any other name.

After this visit home, according to Mark, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples in two’s (v 7) to start doing what he has been showing and teaching them to do – teaching about repentance, casting out demons and anointing the sick and curing them. The disciples have been given the authority to go out along with some rules about how they are to conduct themselves. This is the beginning of their ministries. You can maybe imagine the enthusiasm they set out with! Jesus would now appear to be on his own.

Mark then turns back to the ongoing saga of John the Baptist. Mark interrupts this part of the narrative with the news of John’s death. Jesus had sent the disciples out and they (now referred to as apostles) are back together. They seem to be very anxious to tell Jesus about all the amazing things they have done and taught.

They started off full of energy and enthusiasm and have likely returned shattered! Jesus recognizes this and wants to take them away to a deserted place by themselves. The apostles are tired, Jesus is mourning the death of his cousin. Very good reasons to get away. Jesus calls them to come away with him to a deserted place to rest a while. Not sure how long ‘a while’ is but Jesus wants to provide the rest and recuperation for the apostles and himself.

What do we learn about Jesus in this passage this morning? He was human – in some of the ‘throwaway’ lines in Gospel that usually precede the big events we see this humanity – his hunger, his need for sleep and food, his inclination to hide, the need for rest and solitude. Our God rests and it is important for us to know that. As we stand on ‘Freedom Day’ tomorrow and whatever that may bring, the need for rest will be even more important.

However, the plans for rest and refreshment go awry. Jesus is also like us in that his best-laid plans went sideways! The crowd, those sheep without a shepherd, follow Jesus and apostles to their supposed place of rest. I suspect that many a human reaction would be one of disappointment – to say it mildly.

This is where we see that Jesus is decidedly un-like us; he does not turn away or throw a strop. He has compassion, He recognizes that the needs of the crowd in the moment are greater than his. He begins to teach them. Not only does he teach them, he then feeds them. All 5000 of them! This is a sermon for another day but the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus and the apostles is set in the midst of their exhaustion and grief.

A second attempt after dinner is made to get away. Jesus sends the apostles back across the lake in the boat. He went up to the mountain to pray. Jesus then comes back down and walks on the water, across the lake to the boat – again a sermon for another day!

As Jesus and the apostles arrive on the other side of the lake, still searching for the rest that seems to be eluding them, they are met with the crowds. Once again Jesus is recognized, the crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed. Once again Jesus meets them with compassion, they might touch the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I think I envy Jesus and his stark understanding of need. I ashamedly find it easy sometimes to pass the buck on compassion when I am hungry or tired or needing some solitude. It is tempting to say that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not the last stop – am I? I think one of the big lessons this week is the tension between compassion and self-protection. Jesus lived with it too and that is good to know.

Debie Thomas – a writer and essayist I greatly admire writes: ‘On the one hand, he (Jesus) was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to blunt his compassion. Unlike me, he realized that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds — those sheep without a shepherd. Unlike me, he practiced a kind of balance that allowed his love for others, his own inner hungers, and the urgency of the world’s needs to exist in productive tension.

Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. Strive for balance? Recognize weariness when you feel it? Don’t apologize for being human? Take breaks?
Yes. All of those essential things. But maybe also — and most importantly — this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly.
While balance remains the ideal, it won’t always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will have to “err.” We’ll have to bend out of balance.
If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week’s Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. Seek rest, of course. But err on the side of compassion. Jesus did.’

Jesus lived a busy, frenetic life. His humanity shows in his need for food, sleep and time away; Jesus and the apostles shared common human emotions of grief, mourning and great excitement. Jesus also acknowledged the need for rest in those around him and worked to do something about it. His best laid plans didn’t work out – again – we see his humanity and the shared experience of disappointment when things don’t work out the way we wanted.

Yet – Jesus always responds in compassion to those around him. This isn’t the easy option! But it is to compassion we are called.