Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Had a Little Lamb

sheep

Texts used – John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17 (embedded in sermon)

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • It’s a classic story of love, compassion, and devotion, isn’t it?
    • A little girl
    • A beloved companion
    • Separation
    • An epic journey
    • Rejection
    • And, in the end, a blessed, joy-filled reunion
    • Is it Disney? No. Tolkien? No. Harry Potter? Nope. Not that one either. It’s the story from a treasured, time-honored ballad. Sing it with me, friends: Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, Mary went, Mary went, everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.
      • Lamb = Mary’s beloved companion → follows her to school → entertains Mary and her friends but to the detriment of their learning → banished from school by the teacher → waits for Mary and reunites with beloved friend at the end of the school day
    • A beloved companion … separation … rejection … and in the end, a blessed, joy-filled reunion. Hmmm … sounds a little like the story of the gospel doesn’t it? “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …”
  • Before we dive into our Scripture readings this morning, let’s talk about sheep a little bit. I mean, throughout the gospels – and especially throughout the gospel of John – Jesus frequently likens his followers “sheep.”
    • Descriptions uttered in protectiveness and endearment → Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd[1], speaks of worrying about a bandit coming to steal the sheep away, charges Peter to “feed my sheep” during one of his post-resurrection appearances[2]
    • Also used in parables – Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Mt[3]
      • Parable in which we hear that well-known phrase “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”[4]
      • Parable begins with the Human One (Jesus) enthroned with all the angels around him and the nations gathered before him → separates the people of the nations: sheep to the right, goats to the left → sheep = those who did give food, water, welcome, etc.
      • So time and time again, Jesus compares those who love and follow him to sheep in a positive, endearing sort of way.
    • So let’s talk about sheep! Full disclosure: I was preparing to talk about how they’ve made their way into popular culture (especially baby décor) as soft, fuzzy, adorable things while in actuality, they’re pretty dumb and smelly animals, and I was trying to figure out how to spin that in a way that didn’t sound … well … dumb and smelly. But then I discovered an article posted online by the BBC[5] a couple of years ago that talks about how sheep are actually both intelligent and complexly social creatures.
      • Beginning of the article: “Reputation: Sheep are stupid, defenseless and harmless creatures that mope about on hillsides doing not very much. They are good for two things: being eaten and producing wool. Reality: Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter.”
      • Speaks of …
        • Sheep learning to recognize and remember 50 individual faces for more than 2 years
        • Sheep learning the way out of a complicated maze and being encouraged by the sight of fellow sheep at the end
        • Evidence in the way sheep’s brains are organized that indicates they may be able to differentiate different facial expressions in people and may respond to their own situations with some emotional activity
        • Sheep forming long-term emotional bonds – friendships! – and coming to the aid of their friends in times of need
      • And it cannot be denied that sheep are a staple of many cultures around the world. → used for wool (both within the culture and for sale or trade), for meat, for milk
      • So maybe it’s not so bad to be considered a sheep after all. “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …”
  • Back to our Scripture readings for today – Gospel passage first
    • Gospel context: passage directly following part of John in which Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd
    • Begins with quite the setting description: The time came for the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon.[6]
      • Festival of Dedication = still celebrated today, though we know it by a different name: Hanukkah
        • Origins
          • Syrians had conquered Jerusalem → forced people to sacrifice to Syrian gods while in control – burn those (blasphemous) offerings on the holy altar in the temple
          • Maccabean revolt defeated Syrian army and expelled them from the city → demolished the profaned altar brick by brick and replaced it with a new one which was then rededicated, hence “Festival of Dedication”
        • 8-night celebration
        • Explains why Jesus and the disciples were in Jerusalem
        • Explains why Jesus was in the temple
    • Text: The Jewish opposition circled around him and asked, “How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”[7]
      • Hear a bit of their desperation in this – Gr. “test our patience” = literally “keep our souls in suspense” → word for “keep in suspense” is kind of this odd word that means both taking up and removing, sort of an “in limbo” kind of word
      • Also hear some challenge in their words – Gr. “plainly” (“If you are the Christ, tell us plainly”) has all sorts of interesting connotations: speaking plainly and openly, yes, but also publicly, with boldness and confidence, with courage and fearlessness, and speaking joyously → So those who have surrounded Jesus to ask him this question – “Are you the Messiah?” – have done so both to get answers for themselves and to pressure Jesus into making some sort of public pronouncement … the kind of pronouncement that would surely get him arrested and convicted of blasphemy.
    • Jesus’ response = typically evasive → Throughout the most of the gospels, Jesus doesn’t really admit to being the Son of God or the Christ. He lets other people say it for him. He acknowledges it when it is proclaimed by disciples and banished demons alike.
      • John’s gospel = a little different → a little more forward and blatant in its theological proclamations
        • Written roughly 100 yrs. after Jesus’ death → plenty of time for that “Messiah/Son of God” theology to develop
      • Text: Jesus answered, “I have told you, but you don’t believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep.”[8]
    • Meat of today’s gospel text = Jesus brief discourse on eternal life and protecting the sheep – text: My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand.[9] → This is the promise of the good news of the gospel, right? This is the good news that we cling to and proclaim even in the midst of the grief of funerals – that the Kingdom of God awaits us “on the other side,” an eternal life of protection and joy and unconditional love in the presence of God.
  • And this is where today’s New Testament text comes in. – [READ REV TEXT]
    • First, let’s talk about Revelation as a whole for a minute.
      • Lesson one: Revelation, not RevelationS (singular, not plural)
      • Historically one of the older books of the New Testament – written even before the gospel of John, probably closer to the time that both Matthew and Luke were writing their gospels from 60-70 C.E.
      • In terms of literary genre, Revelation is apocalyptic literature: a singular vision given to one of the disciples → Throughout his ministry, both before his crucifixion and resurrection and after, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God coming. We have to understand that in the disciples’ minds, that meant coming imminently – like, within their lifetimes. They believed the end was near, and that was the message they passed on.
        • E.g.s
          • Jesus in Lk: “Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”[10]
          • Paul in 1 Thess: The Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.[11]
        • Fairly popular literary genre at the time → many other “apocalypse”s written, both concerning Christian faith and concerning other faith traditions at the time as well
        • Genre full of veiled imagery, metaphor, and allegory → not meant to be read literally, historically, or as something to be decoded like a Biblical tarot card reading
          • Scholar: The role of revelation, akin to God’s answer in the final chapters of the book of Job, is to stress the puny nature of human understanding in the face of the transcendence of God, to stress the ultimate victory of God’s righteousness and to urge the need for those committed to the ways of God to continue in the narrow way that leads to salvation.[12] → So it’s about delivering hope in the midst of desperate, destructive, desolate times. It’s about bringing the good news in a powerful, evocative way to a people in the throes of great darkness.
            • John’s revelation (today’s text) = imparted in time of great political and cultural upheaval: Jewish uprisings, Roman sieges, the destruction of the temple → Into this fracas, John dispatched this cryptic and mystical vision fraught with meaning and promises of something better to come.
    • And part of that promise is what we read today – text: Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[13] → This is John’s image of hope that the words that Christ spoke to the Jewish leaders in our Gospel passage this morning will indeed come to pass – that those who have fought the good fight, who have run their race despite obstacles and harassment and persecution and even death, that those who have lost all for the sake of their faith … that these will indeed not be snatched away from the hand of God but will spend their eternal days worshiping and praising at the feet of God in heaven. And that, friends, is indeed good news. “Jesus had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb …” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Jn 10:11-18.

[2] Jn 21:15-19.

[3] Mt 25:31-46.

[4] Mt 25:35.

[5] Harriet Constable. “Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either,” from BBC Earth. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either. Apr. 19, 2017, accessed May 11, 2019.

[6] Jn 10:22.

[7] Jn 10:24.

[8] Jn 10:25-26.

[9] Jn 10:27-29.

[10] Lk 21:27-28.

[11] 1 Thess 4:16-17.

[12] Christopher C. Rowland. “The Book of Revelation: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 505.

[13] Rev 7:13-17.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s