1A Psalm of David
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
3He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his names sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
You rod and your staff - the comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The great mystery of faith.
Though Christians have been asserting that mystery for nearly two millennia now, we’ve got no explanation or proof to support that claim.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
But just because we can’t explain it, or have no proof, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
We’re here on the Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, one of uncountable days of worship in the life of Christ Church, and the fact of our presence testifies to the truth of our faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
If we’re trying to pin down absolutes, in our life of faith together, John seems helpful at first, but ends up raising more questions than answers.
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Setting: date and time, a semi-historical marker that tells us when and where we can find this story on the timeline of God’s relationship with his people. It’s the first century equivalent of starting a story by saying, “So I was in hallway of the church before the Christmas eve service…”
God intervenes in creation, and acts within history, continuing to create, redeem, and sustain everything that exists. But Jesus is not bound to one location, he does not pull up a chair on the front porch of the church and watch the world go by. He's moving through the world, walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
But that doesn't stop up from trying to pin him down. We're much more comfortable with a God who is always available in one location, who answers us immediately and does whatever we ask. We are less comfortable with a God who is free to go wherever he wants, work around whomever he chooses, and act in ways that seem, to our eyes, totally foolish. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The mystery is harder to trust.
This is nothing new. Folks who suspected that Jesus was someone special tried to end the mystery and pin Jesus down. "So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
There it is: give us a definite answer, Jesus. Tell us plainly and remove all doubt. Enough with this ambiguity that's open to interpretation. Give us an absolute so that we know where you stand.
And before we jump all over the Jews for their stiff-necks and hard hearts, let's remember that even we who know that Jesus is the Messiah also ask to end the suspense.
The wealthy businessperson, wanting to be faithful, asks "How much should I give to charities? Give me a dollar amount or a percentage of income so I can put it in my budget and don't have to think about it..."
The overcommitted parent, hoping for some peace, asks "How many church activities do I need to attend in order to be seen as a good parent and a reliable member? Give me a list of dates so I can put more things on my calendar..."
The anxious youth, searching for affirmation, asks "How many church activities and service projects do I need to attend so that my college application looks good, but doesn't hurt my grades? Give me a to-do list so I can fill up my resumé..."
The weary retiree, looking to be understood, asks "How many changes in the life of the church do I have to adjust to in my lifetime? Give me a plan so I know what to expect..."
"So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It’s as though we’re looking for a checklist that will allow us to control God. If I live this kind of life, if I pray this prayer, if I believe this statement, then that will be enough, God will save me/approve of me/give me what I want and I’ll be done.
But the freedom of our sovereign Lord cannot be bound by our attempts to pin God down. God is greater than that. God answers our definitive questions with mystery and ambiguity. Even Moses, whom God knew face-to-face, found his question, “What is [your] name?” answered with mystery: I AM WHO I AM. Translated another way, “I will be who I am. My actions will reveal my identity.”
So Jesus, in the portico of Solomon, walking in the temple during winter in Jerusalem, at the time of the festival of the Dedication. Answers the questions set before him in a way that raises more questions. “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;”
The works he does in his Father’s name: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. The great mystery of faith. My actions will reveal my identity. The ambiguous answer that we had hoped would not come. There’s not a checklist of faith that lets us sit still. If we’re going to see who this person named Jesus is, and if we’re going to know the God whom he calls Father, we must continue to follow, to watch the works that he does in his Father’s name.
Even the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the most well-known passage in scripture after John 3:16, urges us to keep on the move. Our shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures, sure, but we don’t stay there for long. Look at all the moving verbs! He leads us beside still waters, he leads us in right paths for his name’s sake. When we walk through the darkest valley. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me.
The Lunch Bunch read this passage and spent thirty minutes grappling with mystery and ambiguity and uncomfortable silences. The part in the middle where Jesus skewers those who gathered around him was particularly troubling. “…you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Faith, it seems, is a gift to those whom Jesus has already claimed as part of his flock.
But how is that good news to someone who is struggling with doubt? How is that good news to someone who is searching for faith? One person remarked “I don’t believe Jesus ever counts anyone out.” That got me thinking that perhaps those of us who are struggling with doubts are just lost sheep. Still sheep, still part of the flock of the good shepherd. But stuck, somehow, by one of life’s many struggles. Or perhaps we are all rebellious sheep, resistant to following the one who would restore our soul, whose rod and staff are used to comfort us.
If we’re stuck, if we’re struggling to find God, that search is proof enough that we have heard Jesus’s voice, even if we cannot figure out where to look first.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Jesus is constantly on the move is that he is finding the lost sheep and chasing down the rebellious ones who wander off. There is good news in a God who is always on the move, even if that means we don’t get graze on green pastures forever, it also means that we don’t stay in the darkest valley forever either.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The great mystery of faith, promising us that God is not finished with this world yet. Jesus is leading his flock and we are called to follow.
We rebellious sheep, who are still beloved of the LORD, may find ourselves gathering around Jesus, trying to pin him to one spot where we feel like we can control him, rather than following him wherever he may move.
I had the opportunity to sit with one of our older church members this week. This person and I sat and chatted about all sorts of things, neighbors, weather, family. The whole time, this person sat in a rocking chair, moving back and forth, back and forth, never stopping for very long.
She mentioned that rocking chairs are very helpful to her because if she stays still for too long, her joints get stiff and moving gets painful. The rocking chair helps her keep moving.
I wonder if the People of God get that way too. I wonder if we spend too without moving if we get spiritually stiff. I wonder if too much sitting still might leave our faith to calcify, making it harder to follow Christ when he does something new in the world. When we’re stuck, we’d much rather gather around an absolute that is always exactly where we left it. That may be easier, but it’s not the God we worship. The LORD is free to intervene in the world in whatever way he chooses.
Our shepherd is on the move, and we are to follow. Yet even in the ambiguity of a LORD who is free to move whoever he chooses, we do have some absolutes: I shall not want. God is with us. Our cup overflows. Our home forever is in the household of God.
But the household of God is a mobile home. God is greater than we can pin down, the challenge of faith is to follow.
Jesus promises us that “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Our assurance that we are claimed by God also comes with a challenge that we follow Christ wherever he is moving in the world. We’ve got to stay in suspense, to live in the ambiguity, because the King of Love is also the God of mystery.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The great mystery of faith. The LORD is keeping us in suspense a little while longer, but while we move through ambiguity, we know that we shall not want. We know that what the Father has given Jesus is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. Not even lost, rebellious sheep.
The household of God is a mobile home. God is greater than we can pin down. The challenge of faith is to follow Christ, who has died, is risen, and will come again.