Sermon 22 April 2018 B – Easter 4

Todays reading for Sunday Easter 4 in 2018 Year B 
Acts 4:5-12 
Psalm 23 
1 John 3:16-24 
John 10:11-18

Transcript of the Sermon preached by Reverend Roberta Hamilton:

‘The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want” This is one of our favourite psalms, isn’t it, and for many people it is the only bit of the bible that they know off by heart. When I go to people at the end of their life it is always what they want to hear. I don’t know about you, but growing up in rural NSW we sang it every morning at the start of our school day, so it is very firmly in my head. But sometimes familiarity leads us to take the thing for granted, so let’s just look at it. There are two big pictures here in the psalm- and the first one is that of the Shepherd. For all it is an agricultural image it doesn’t translate very well in our culture. In fact, when the Rainbow Serpent Elders were talking about totems to represent different aspects of their faith, they made the point that they couldn’t understand the shepherd images because the way Australian farmers treated their sheep was entirely different from the way that the bible describes it. They had to find a different way of understanding the shepherd pictures and interestingly they chose the sheep to be the totem representing the white man and his culture. The psalmist was writing out of a different culture to ours. However when we read the 23rd psalm we still get a strong sense of what it means. It is an intensely personal image, not just THE shepherd, but MY shepherd. The psalmist describes the relationship with the good shepherd, that is, that when you are walking with the shepherd you lack nothing. Green pastures, quiet waters- so physical needs are met, but also your spiritual needs, which are for a restored soul, and to walk in righteousness. The psalmist tells us that even when death is threatening and our lives feel precarious, even then God is looking after us and we feel protected and safe because God is there. It amazes me that the psalmist, and we are pretty sure that this was David, could feel that certainty even before Jesus came. David obviously had a very close relationship with God, for all the things that he did wrong in his life and here we see reflected his great love for God, and God’s great love for him. The fact that David was frail and broken just like the rest of us made no difference to his relationship with God, which should reassure all of us. This is such a consoling picture- one that many people want at the funeral of a loved one because it touches on living and dying and the assurance that God is with us. When Jesus says in John 10, “I am the good shepherd” he is claiming several things at once. Primarily he is saying, “I am your loving and nurturing God”. Not just in the 23 Psalm but all the way through the OT there are references to the good shepherd, that is God. But there are also references to other shepherds who are bad shepherds because they don’t care for their flocks. Jesus is claiming that he is the one foretold in Ezekiel to be the good shepherd who would come and lead his people into the way of righteousness as it says in the Psalm. Jesus says that he is the one who will lead us to green pastures and quiet waters. So he is saying that he is God and that he is the God who cares and loves and nurtures. But in this passage he says quite a bit more. Not only is Jesus the good shepherd, he is the shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. We have just celebrated Easter, and remembered Jesus laying down his life for all of us to restore the relationship with God and this is what he is foreshadowing- and he is telling the disciples and all those others listening that he is doing it willingly, he is laying his life down- not having it taken from him. And not only is he laying it down, but he is going to take it up again. Over the last few weeks we have looked at various passages that are the stories of what happened post-resurrection and the disciples’ confusion was evident, so perhaps they didn’t really understand what Jesus is saying here. I don’t blame them because it is all fine in theory but when you are confronted with the reality of someone dying you aren’t expecting them to come back. Here Jesus is trying to convey to them that while his death is the end of things- sin and the separation from God, it is not the end of the relationship- because Jesus is God- he is able to be restored to life and to continue the relationship with them. Of course, for us, our relationship is always with the risen Christ, so it doesn’t seem strange to us. We are approaching ANZAC day and I am always struck by the way that we remember our dead and their sacrifice. We don’t forget that people have laid down their life for us, do we? And that sacrifice is enough for us to honour them and to continue a relationship even tough it is very one sided. The difference with Jesus was that he didn’t just die for us, as those ANZACs did, but he rose again for us as well, to give us the opportunity of ongoing relationship with God. Of course the reason our ANZACs were prepared to die for us and so many of them died in a self-sacrificing way, is because of the hope of eternal life, because of the hope that Jesus offers and because of the example he set. These are values handed down as part of our Christian society. It is commonly said, and I think it is probably true, that when a Islamic person becomes a suicide bomber they believe that they will be a martyr and rewarded in heaven with a whole lot of virgins, (I don’t know what the female ones think) but none of the young men who died at Gallipoli were expecting to be rewarded, they simply did it because that was what they were asked by their country to do. This is the attitude that was displayed first by Christ. Jesus says that he is laying down his life for the sheep because of his relationship with the Father. It is what his Father is asking him to do and he does it because of the great love between them. But why does God ask it of him? I think that it is because it is the way to reconcile us to God. It is the way that the pattern of scapegoating is finally broken. It is because of God’s great love for us and his desire to be our shepherd, that Jesus is prepared to die. The good shepherd, he says is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. And Jesus isn’t talking only to the good people, or the people that are already in relationship with God he is prepared to lay down his life for other sheep that aren’t in the fold. If you remember, in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us the story of the lost sheep and the fact that the shepherd will leave his 99 sheep to go and find the lost one and then there will be a party in heaven. Jesus says he has sheep in other folds that he is also dying for and bringing into the kingdom. This is usually understood to mean that the Gentiles, or non-Jews will also come in- which is good for us because we are all Gentiles, I think. But we must hear this as an inclusive invitation. Jesus wants to welcome in everybody, not just those who are in the safe little religious group but all of those who are in other sheepfolds as well. And just like the shepherd who finds the one lost sheep, there will be a party in heaven for every person who comes into the fold. The party is described in the second part of the 23rd Psalm. The banquet takes place in the presence of my foes- I wonder if that means the people who we have perceived as foes are included in the banquet? Anyway, the banquet is set a table loaded with food, so much drink that your cup is overflowing, perfumed oils to anoint your head, in other words to make you special and precious just like Jesus. And this party will go on eternally, because we will keep dwelling in the Father’s house for ever. So while we are on earth, if we choose to follow our shepherd into the sheepfold His goodness and love will be with us for all the days of our lives and the party will go on for ever. This is a most comforting and beautiful image that we need to carry with us through all the ups and downs of life. This week as we go out we should go out remembering that we are the little lambs of God, held comforted and nurtured by him. And so should we stretch out our arms to welcome others in to the sheep fold. We need to tell them of what Christ has done for us and what he wants to do for them. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “who lays down his life for the sheep”. Rainbow Serpent Painting by Darlene Devery