A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
May 11, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 10:1-10
For hundreds of years, the Jewish people were largely ruled by foreign governments. First, there were the Egyptians. Then they were governed by the Syrians and Babylonians, followed by the Persians and Greeks. In the days of Jesus, of course, they were occupied by the Romans.
During the exile of the sixth century B.C., finding themselves taken from their homelands and living in Babylon, the Hebrews sought to write the history of where they had been, in the hopes that this might enable them to make sense of where it was they were going. Still confident they were in the providential hands of their God, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) was written. This is when the stories of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and Moses came to be known.
Only for brief periods of time, during all these centuries, did the Hebrew people truly know actual independence. And for that reason, the world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born was yet another period of time in which his people found themselves in relative servitude to a stronger, more powerful government. As you can imagine, that made daily life, for the common people at least, quite difficult.
A typical day in the life of a first-century Jew would have probably looked like this…
Herod was in another of his building frenzies. Not only was the elaborate temple still under construction (less a house of worship to God than a monument to himself), but he employed workers for his ports and palaces and fortresses. With his penchant for elaborate stone-work, craftsmen were kept busy, and the sounds of hammers and chisels could be heard constantly for miles around. Yet, the first-century economy of Israel was in deep difficulty because the Romans and wealthy Jews conspired together to enrich themselves while the poor became poorer and poorer. Lands which had been in the possession of families for many generations were being taken from them at an alarming rate, even though the Law forbade it. And while it appeared on the surface that things were in order, in truth the peoples’ teeth were set on edge from the difficulty of their daily challenges.
If you weren’t engaged in the kind of labor that Herod provided, chances are you could be found at one of the local markets selling your wares, such as agricultural products, live produce, or leather and cloth goods. Near the markets and public places you would hear the cries of the lame and the blind, and those who were considered to be demon-possessed, what we would know today as mental illness.
The woman of the house would spend every day, all day, preparing for her family’s meals, the upkeep of her simple home, and worrying about how best to deal with the issues that accompany such things. There were no child-labor laws, so families were large, not only because of the high rate of death, but because children became a part of the family’s work force. All day, every day… work, work, work. There was little to gain from it all, but still, there was work, work, work.
Add to all this the heavy taxation of the Jews by the Romans. In addition to basic taxes, if there ever is truly such a thing, there were duties imposed on imports and exports, as well as a sales tax on all purchased and sold goods. All roads were toll roads with additional taxes for crossing a bridge, entering a market or town or harbor. If you owned a cart, to be used in your work, there were charges for each axle, as well as an additional tax for the animal that pulled the cart. All of this, in addition to the temple tax which paid for its elaborate construction and provided an income for the priests.
As you can see, creative taxation is not a modern phenomenon.
After observing, for just a little while, the comings and goings of the people who lived in first-century Palestine, you would no doubt come away with the feeling that this must have been a terribly difficult way to live. Not only did you go through each day with the oppressive feeling that you were low-class, you had the Romans looking over your shoulder at every moment reminding you that this was indeed to be, now and always, your station in life. Anything done to try and change such things, like a political revolt for example, was met with instant and heavy, not to mention violent and bloody, repression.
You’ve heard the saying that if you’re not the lead dog the scenery never changes? Well, that was the lot of the large portion of population in the world of Jesus. The scenery, and their way of life, never changed.
So, if you were a Jew in first-century Palestine, what did you do to break the monotonous cycle of labor and abject poverty? Were there any options? Yes, there were.
One thing you did was celebrate your heritage. From time-to-time, and on a regular basis, the people held their religious festivals. Not only did these times of celebrations provide an opportunity to emerge from the terrible tedium of life, but they offered you the hope that perhaps one day the Messiah would truly come and free you from the tyranny of occupation. Some day, God would fulfill the promise that your people would live the abundant life first promised to your ancestors. Some day God would once again shepherd his people. Some day…
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, the prophet Isaiah says;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (40:11).
The Jewish people would be reminded of this hope especially during the Feast of Dedication. It was a winter festival also called the Festival of Lights – and known today as Hanukkah – which celebrated the triumph of the Maccabees over the Syrians, led by Antiochus Epiphanes, two hundred years before Jesus came preaching. It was during this time that the hope of a coming Messiah was given impetus.
Another passage of scripture the people will hear during this festival is from the prophet Ezekiel: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (34:15-16).
It was during this festival, when the people would be hearing over and over and over how God would send his shepherd to guide his people, that Jesus stood up in the temple and said, “Amen, amen, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Now, here’s the question… how can you have abundant life – joyful, jubilant, triumphal, exhilarating life (after all, that’s what the word abundant means) – when your days are spent just getting by – laboring, sweating, working, worrying – under such an oppressive system? What did Jesus mean and how does he provide such a thing? And how does what he said – “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – translate from his world to ours?
After all, this is the way it usually is for people like us…
You get up in the morning and you say, “Boy, this looks like a nice day!” You have your list of things to do, and then one of your children says, “There’s something wrong with the dog.”
“Well, let’s get it in the car. I’ll take it to the vet.”
Then, as she pulls out to go to the vet, one of the kids says, “Mama, I have a red throat. My throat is sore.”
“Okay, I’ll take you and the dog.” She puts the sick child and the dog in the car, and she goes to the doctor and she goes to the vet and she stops downtown, but then the car stalls. It must be the battery. She calls home. “I’m going to be late. The battery’s dead or something. I’ve got to get somebody to fix it.”
“Mama,” says a voice on the other end. “One of the commodes is backed up.”
“I’ll call a plumber,” she replies, and she does.
“I can’t get there till late today, lady,” the plumber says.
“But I’m all backed up, and I have company coming. They are going to spend the night.”
“Lady, you’re not the only one backed up. I’m backed up a week. I can’t get there.”
She goes home. Her company is coming, and she thinks about how the day started. Such a beautiful day. What happened? Life happened.
What Fred Craddock just described could be considered as “First-World Problems.” In the Third-World, most people would love to have these kinds of issues. It would mean they could afford to have a dog and an indoor bathroom, and a car, even one that has a dead battery. They would love to be able to pick up a phone and call a plumber, even one that is backed up for a week.
But Craddock’s point is well-taken. “If you’re going to have any joy, and purpose, any peace,” he says, “you are going to have to put it together out of fragments, because you are not going to get twenty-four smooth hours in a row. It does not work that way.”1
So how do you find abundant life when life itself is put together out of fragments? I would encourage you to consider this…
Jesus came into a world, his Hebrew world, that majored on scarcity. People lived every day with what they didn’t have, not with what they had. Freedom was scarce, the means by which the people lived their lives each day were scarce, the religious establishment under which they labored operated from a system of scarcity, and the Romans conspired with the wealthy Jews to make sure the common folk had less and less. In other words, the Romans’ method of operation was to maintain a system of scarcity, and hold it over the heads of the people they dominated. It is a philosophy still in operation today in many parts of the world.
And then Jesus came and what did he do? He preached abundance. Not the kind of abundance that you hear on TV from the preachers who espouse the gospel of prosperity. Jesus did not proclaim prosperity, he embodied in word and deed the gospel of abundance, and there is a big, big difference between the two.
A tiny mustard seed, planted in the rich soil of God’s grace, becomes the largest bush or tree of all…
Forgiveness is not a one time thing, or even seven times, but seventy times seventy…
A vineyard owner provides the same wages to those who came and worked the final hour of the day as to those who had labored all day…
In his visions of the kingdom, Jesus painted the picture of a God who wants to give and give and give to his people. But because such abundance does not fit within the narrow framework of what so many think life is destined to be. God’s good grace is cast aside for lesser things.
But he didn’t just come to talk about abundance. He embodied it in the way he healed the sick and fed the multitudes. The way of the kingdom is like that, he revealed, where there is no illness and no hunger. It could be like that here on earth, he says, if we would but follow him.
“In the juvenescence of the year,” says T. S. Eliot, “comes Christ the Tiger.” In reflecting on that, Frederick Buechner adds, “Not the soulful-eyed, sugar-sweet, brilliantined Christ of the terrible pictures that one can buy. But this explosion of a man, this explosion of Life itself into life.”2
We tend, you and I, unfortunately, to live on the basis of our scarcity rather than our abundance. We do it here in our church when we let financial needs dictate the extent of our ministry. We do it when we cling to the old, more comfortable forms of church life instead of creatively looking for ways to meet people and their needs where they are. We do it when we make church solely into a place and time to gather rather than as a center where we get our marching orders to go out and be the presence of Christ. Jesus went to the synagogue and temple, yes. There is ample evidence of that. But it is not where he did his work. His work was found on the seashore and in the homes of the people who so desperately needed what he and he alone could provide. Christ the Tiger did not stay in his den, but roamed the countryside responding to the needs of his people.
So if you ever feel that you are not living life as somehow you think it is supposed to be lived, the chances are you have turned your eyes away from this Christ who wants to give you abundant life. Take a deep breath, and then an even deeper look into the heart of your soul. Ask yourself if the word abundant would describe who you are and what you are doing… not based on what you have, but on who has you. If you don’t particularly care for the answer you receive, there is something you can do about it. I have a feeling I don’t have to tell you what that is; you already know. The question is, what will you do?
Give us this abundant life of which you speak, O Lord. Give us the courage to receive it and then share it with others. Walk with us. Fulfill your promise. And then give us the power of your Spirit to help us do the same. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 20-21.
2Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: The Seabury Press, 1966), p. 93.