Sheep Get Like Shepherds, and Shepherds Like Sheep

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter Sunday 4
May 8, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : There's no question that those who encounter Jesus in the Gospel of John are transformed, but the gospel also seems to show that Jesus, God's presence on Earth, is transformed as he comes to understand what it means to be human. Say what you like, but this is good news!

We're closing in on the 75th anniversary of "The Lord of the Rings." Although once consigned to the literary ghetto of the fantasy novel, the book and subsequent movies are now part of our common currency, and most people have at least a vague idea of the difference between humans, wizards, orcs, goblins, balrogs, dwarves, elves, hobbits -- and ents.

Although, mind you, the characters in the book aren't always sure themselves. In one scene, after the hobbits Merry and Pippen find shelter with an extremely long-lived tree-like creature named Treebeard, he attempts to describe just exactly what ents, his species, are: "We are tree-herds, we old ents. Few enough of us are left now. Sheep get like shepherds, and shepherds like sheep, it is said; but slowly, and neither have long in the world. It is quicker and closer with trees and ents, and they walk down the ages together."1

I'm not sure we'll get much deeper into the relationship between trees and ents, but shepherds and sheep -- well, that's biblical. David, the boy shepherd who became a shepherd king, is famous for having sung, "The Lord is my Shepherd." Jeremiah and Ezekiel cried out against kings who proved to be evil shepherds.2

Today's passage from the gospel of John is preceded by a passage in which Jesus proclaims himself to be both the gate to the sheepfold and the good shepherd. These words were spoken in response to the opposition from the religious and political authorities who were proving to be poor shepherds. Jesus had just restored sight to a man born blind. When the authorities objected because Jesus broke their interpretation of Sabbath law by healing on the holy day, Jesus seems to be saying they were the false shepherds, and the truly blind.3

Lights! Lights! Lights!

Fast forward to today's passage. [Editor's note: Depending on the lectionary you use, your reading may not include verses 22-26. You may wish to narrate the following background nonetheless.] It is now, John tells us, "the festival of the Dedication," or as we know it, "Hanukkah" It's winter, it's colder and Jesus is walking, we are told, "in the portico of Solomon" no doubt to keep out of the wind and stay a little warmer.

The gospel of John revolves around religious festivals, and Jesus' attendance at them. This is the only reference in John to Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. That's an apt image for this gospel; God's first act in creation is to pronounce, "Let there be light" and the first chapter of John, intentionally matches majestic "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth" of Genesis with the equally majestic "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" of John.

John goes on to say about the Word, who we come to know is Jesus, "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."4

The Festival of Lights celebrated a key moment in the history of God's people. From the time of their liberation from the oppression of the Babylonians, until approximately 167 BC, God's people lived comfortably within the larger society, maintaining their beliefs, customs and religious practices, while participating in the economy of their neighbors. In return, their faith was tolerated by government authorities.

That all changed when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to eradicate the faith practiced by Jews. His brutal attacks resulted in slaughter, slavery and destruction. He profaned the Jewish temple in an unspeakable fashion, an act remembered as "the abomination of desolation," the memory of which was later referred to by Jesus in his apocalyptic discourses.5

In response Judas Maccabeus and his brothers led the people in a guerilla war that ultimately resulted in their oppressors' overthrow. When the Maccabees rededicated the temple, they discovered there was only enough oil to light the altar for a single day -- yet the light of the lamps miraculously shone for eight days. In Jesus' time (as well as in our day) the Feast of Dedication was marked by eight days of celebration at the onset of winter.6

It's during the commemoration of this glorious military victory and accompanying miracle that Jesus was asked, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." They were asking if he was going to be another military Messiah, this time throwing off the shackles of Rome, leading the people to a military victory.

But Jesus responded as a sacrificial Messiah (remember that John the Baptist, the one who came to "witness to the light," identified him as "the Lamb of God"7). If they had been paying attention, as his sheep have, they would have known this. His sheep knew this, because they listened. His questioners did not.

You cannot distinguish Jesus' work from God's work. God gives life. Jesus gives life. God judges. Jesus judges. Jesus' power is not that of someone who comes to bring political liberation. Jesus brings life. And then Jesus enraged them by identifying his aims as the same as the Father, adding, "The Father and I are one."

This led to an attempt by some to stone him. Their attempt failed.

The shepherd becomes like the sheep

This brings us back to the image of sheep becoming like their shepherds, and more importantly, of the shepherd becoming like the sheep, because of the time they have spent together.

The gospel of John revolves not only around the religious festivals, but also around a series of dialogs that change lives. Though Nicodemus struggles to keep up with Jesus when it comes to being born from above,8 when push comes to shove, he stands up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin,9 and carries a 100-pound sack of spices through a public street on the eve of the Passover prepare Jesus for burial.10 The Samaritan woman at the well catches on pretty quick by what Jesus means by living water, and soon her whole village becomes followers of Jesus.11 Receiving his sign, the man born blind becomes a believer while the blindness of those who accuse Jesus becomes apparent.12 Martha scolds Jesus for not arriving in time to heal her brother Lazarus to keep him from death yet confesses, from the depths of her soul, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."13 Signs and wonders point to Jesus as the Messiah, and those who get it, follow him.

But something else occurs because of these meetings. The Word made Flesh changed too. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus is almost rude when his mother informs him the wedding feast is about to run out of wine: "Woman, what's this to me and you? It's not my time."14 Is he ridiculing Nicodemus for not keeping up when he says, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"15 Do we detect just a trace of an "Gotcha!" moment when he responds to the Samaritan woman's admission that she has no husband by saying, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband"?16

And it seems almost callous when Jesus answers the question from his disciples "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" by answering, "Neither, this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."17

The final straw seems to have been his deliberate delay upon hearing Lazarus was sick, so that he would be dead by the time they arrived "so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."18

When Mary weeps at the tomb of Lazarus Jesus weeps as well! This seems to be the moment when Jesus truly understands what it means to be human, to be rejected, to suffer. The Shepherd has been changed by the sheep just as the sheep have been changed by the Shepherd.

After Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave, he defends Mary when she is criticized for anointing him with expensive perfume, admits his soul is troubled by the looming crucifixion, humbly washes the feet of his disciples, introduces the Beloved Disciple and Mary his mother as mother and son, performs the duty of a son instead of snapping at her, deals gently with a doubting Thomas and re-admits Peter, who denied him, into the company of the disciples.

We have been transformed by Jesus. Is it too much to say that the Good Shepherd was also transformed by a personal relationship with the sheep? This is a comforting thought. We are walking together, Lord and disciples, down the corridors of eternity, transformed -- together.


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