A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
John 10:22-30, Psalm 23
How many of you have a cell phone with you today? Those of you with cell phones, how many of you sometimes have difficulty hearing and understanding the voice on the other side of the line? Several years ago, Verizon had a commercial depicting a Verizon employee roaming about in strange places, testing Verizon’s cell coverage by continuously asking, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Good.” Ads like these work because we know what it’s like to get a bad connection, to drop calls, and to experience the frustration of trying to hear a voice that comes across garbled, broken, and difficult to discern.
In today’s Gospel lesson from John, we see Jesus in the midst of a conversation with the Pharisees. Like a cell phone call on a bad connection, the Pharisees were having a hard time understanding Jesus. For several chapters now, these Jewish religious leaders have been asking Jesus: “Who are you?” Jesus responded with cryptic statements like, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). When Jesus claimed that his Father sent him and gives witness to him, the Pharisees asked, “Where is your father?” Jesus responded, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” In John chapter 10, Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd of the sheep. But when Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10: 6-7). Light. Shepherd. Gate. After two thousand years of repetition, interpretation and explanation, we have a better chance of understanding Jesus’ responses as recorded by John, but I imagine that it must have been frustrating for some in Jesus’ time to fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ sometimes cryptic words.
Jesus’ teachings and miraculous healings led some to belief, but for others, especially the religious leaders, it led to more questions. In the verses right before our lesson for today, the Jewish leaders were divided regarding their take on Jesus. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” These leaders were trying to judge and decide who Jesus is, and they could not come to a consensus.
It came to pass that Jerusalem was celebrating the Festival of Dedication, more commonly known to us as Hanukah. Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, which originally was part of the temple Solomon built and served as a court where the king would make judgments and exercise justice. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this was the area of the original temple that was not destroyed by the Babylonians, and in Jesus’ day, this became the place where the teachers of the law met to hear and answer questions. And so, at Solomon’s Colonnade, the Jewish leaders placed Jesus on the docket.
They asked, “Jesus, how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. Don’t give us any of your cryptic, mystifying sayings. Tell us plainly.” Don’t we all wish sometimes that Jesus would stop keeping us in suspense? Don’t we all wish sometimes that Jesus would just speak to us plainly? At our staff meeting last Monday, we talked about hearing God’s voice. We talked about how, sometimes, we wish that God would just get out a blackboard and clearly write out God’s plan for our lives. We want to follow God; we want to hear God’s voice. Perhaps many of us have found ourselves asking the same questions that the religious leaders asked Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Some among us have asked: How long will you keep me in suspense about my health? If you are the Great Physician, tell me plainly.
How long will you keep me in suspense about my job? If you are the Lord who Provides, tell me plainly.
How long will you keep me in suspense about the pain and the sorrow I’m experiencing? If you are the Great Comforter, tell me plainly.
How long will you keep us in suspense about the senseless evil committed by people against innocents? If you are the God of Justice, tell us plainly.
How long will you keep us in suspense about our future? If you are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, tell us plainly.
When those religious leaders asked this question, some were merely attempting to trap Jesus. But I can also imagine there were others who were genuinely and sincerely interested in Jesus speaking plainly. Jesus answered those religious leaders, “I did tell you, but you do not believe.” Throughout the fourth Gospel, Jesus is recorded as having made rather explicit claims regarding his divinity, his oneness with God. However, the religious leaders were quite resistant in accepting and believing those claims. Actually, throughout Christian history, every Christian leader has had his or her fill of detractors, even or especially leaders like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham. Of course, these folks didn’t claim to be divine. Even so, we tend to judge people according to our criteria and filters, and we criticize those who don’t measure up to our view of justice, mercy, love, and so forth. That was no different in Jesus’ day. For many Jewish leaders, Jesus did not measure up to their preconceived notions of what a Messiah was supposed to be. Therefore, no matter how clear, explicit or plain Jesus’ statements were regarding his identity, they either could not hear it or they refused to believe it.
Before we criticize those Jewish leaders and Pharisees, let’s see if we are any better. Sure, we say that we believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but do we really believe and live out everything Jesus taught us? Is our understanding of Jesus focused mainly on him as a friend and less as a Lord? Do we believe in the Lordship of Jesus enough to worry less about tomorrow – what we will eat or what we will drink, or what we have in our IRAs or savings accounts? Do we believe in the Lordship of Jesus enough to pray for our enemies? Do we see Jesus more as One who comforts and much less as One who challenges? Does Jesus challenge the way we spend our money, the way we treat other human beings, the way we understand our sexuality? I’ve heard it said that if there is nothing in the Bible that challenges us or makes us feel uncomfortable about God or the teachings of Jesus, then more than likely, we’ve made God into our own image, or we’ve put Jesus into a box. Jesus’ reply to the religious leaders of his day reminds us that we often have our own preconceived notions of how a divine figure ought to act, and then we judge whether Jesus or God measures up to our standards.
In addition to making the Messiah into their own image, these religious leaders assumed that belief in Jesus was simply a matter of intellectual assent: if Jesus would just provide enough data and evidence, they could then “believe.” But belief is not simply the logical conclusion of data and evidence. For a long, long time, people believed that the earth was the center of the universe, as evidenced by the observation that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Copernicus proposed the counter-intuitive belief that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Such a shift did not come solely as a result of data and evidence; for a while, both sides could marshal data to support their belief. It took a conversion to a new paradigm, a new way of thinking that challenged old, cherished assumptions that allowed Copernicus to see the universe in a whole new way. As time went on, new astronomers trained in this new paradigm became part of the Copernican school.
Similarly, when Jesus said to the religious leaders, “you do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he was saying that they were not his disciples, his flock, his school of thought. They were stuck in an old paradigm; that’s why they could not make sense of Jesus’ words and actions, no matter how much evidence Jesus provided. They needed to let go of old, cherished assumptions and to be converted and incorporated into a new community led by Jesus.
When I was seven, my family and I moved to the United States. That was a conversion experience. I left behind a cherished culture, language, and customs, and it took a while to be incorporated into a new culture and language. While I was able to listen to the new sounds of English, it took a while in a new community for my ears to hear actual words and for my mind to understand the language. Like that Verizon commercial where that same Verizon employee had to ditch an iPhone on the AT&T network and switch to a Verizon iPhone, I finally was able to say, “Yes, I can hear you now.”
We, too, need to be converted, to set aside our old ways of thinking and to learn to listen and understand God’s ways. How do sheep learn to recognize the shepherd’s voice? I hazard to guess that sheep learn first to follow the flock as the flock follows the shepherd. Over time, the sheep connect the voice of the shepherd to the actions of the flock. Eventually, the sheep recognize and follow the shepherd’s voice regardless of whether or not the rest of the flock is nearby. Jesus did say, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” As a people raised on the value of individualism, we assume that hearing and following our Good Shepherd is solely an individual matter. We seek to hear God audibly, directly and individually. While God can certainly speak in this way, it seems to me that God also speaks through communities of faith, through the voice and action of its members as they follow Jesus. Like sheep, perhaps we are first called to follow the flock in order to learn to recognize and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
That’s why church is important. The church community provides the place for us to see and to learn what it means to hear and follow Jesus our Shepherd. In ancient times, rulers and leaders were often called shepherds. Biblical heroes such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos were all shepherds. At its best, the church is the flock that learns to submit to the lordship of the Good Shepherd as revealed in Scripture. The church as a body listens collectively to the voice of the Shepherd and the first thing the flock hears is not, “Go there!” or “Do that!” Of course, those directives may come later. The first thing the flock hears from the Good Shepherd is “I give you eternal life, and you shall never perish; no one will snatch you out of my hand!” Once secured in the fold of the church community, we may better learn to hear and follow the Shepherd. For those who need a plain word about their failing health, God may use us to speak of word of healing and extend a hand of care. For those in the flock who need a plain word about their need, God may use us to lead them to green pastures and still waters so that they are not in want. For those who need a plain word in the midst of their grief, God may use us to be the shepherd’s rod and staff of comfort. The flock of Jesus learns to walk the paths of righteousness and proclaim the justice of God for the benefit of our community. The church is also the place where we see and hear how followers of Jesus entrust their lives and their deaths into the hands of our heavenly Father as they travel through the valley of the shadow of death.
During this Easter season, Jesus our Good Shepherd appears and asks, “Can you hear me now?” To his flock, our resurrected Lord speaks plainly these words, “I give you all eternal life, and you shall never perish; no one will snatch you out of my hand. My Father, who has given you to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch you out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
May we as the flock of Christ hear these words and follow our Good Shepherd. Amen.