God In the Every Day: A Shepherd
John 10:11-21; Psalm 23
The Season of Lent
March 31, 2019
I have been working my way slowly through the classic historical work The Great Bridge. Though the book has been out for over 45 years, it remains a great read even though it is long, dense and detailed. If you have ever read it, then you know that The Great Bridge is specifically the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge which remains, after over 135 years, an engineering marvel and iconic American landmark.
Yet, The Great Bridge is about more than just the Brooklyn Bridge. It is also the story of bridge construction in general and thus the story of the never-ending human quest to discover a way to get from here to there or from where we are to where we want to go despite those things that stand in our way be their raging rivers or perilous mountain valleys.
These are challenges that we all face. We all struggle at times with getting from point A to point B and particularly which journeys that are a result of living through hard places, unexpected situations or unwanted experiences.
The good news is that these sorts of moments are at the heart of the I Am statement from Jesus that we encounter in John 10 in which he says “I am the Good Shepherd”. Today, I want us to hear these words in this way, “I will get you through”.
God, and ultimately Jesus as a shepherd, is one of the most ancient and often used images of scripture. You have heard before that the idea goes all the way back to one of our earliest names for God, the Hebrew Elohim. This divine name has at its roots two Hebrew consonants -Aleph and Lamad. Most Hebrew consonants were also pictures. Here the Aleph on paper looks like an animal’s head – two eyes and a nose. The Lamad, on paper, looks like a shepherd’s staff. Thus the very picture of El, which becomes Elohim, translated God, is the image of a shepherd guiding an animal under his care.
David offers us perhaps the best expression of this in the famous Psalm that we read this morning “the Lord”, David says, “the Lord is my shepherd”.
Jesus picks up this image and applies it to himself throughout the gospels. Thus, we should not be surprised that one of John’s I Am statements finds Jesus echoing again these words, “I am the Good Shepherd”.
What did shepherd’s do? Well, lots of things and thus the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is packed full of things to think about. Without question, we could easily camp out here for five or six weeks and do an entire series just on the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But for today, let me focus quickly on one idea.
The Shepherd was the one who delivered the sheep safely. The shepherd was the bridge who made a way for the sheep to get from point A to point B.
The sheep could not do this alone for a number of reasons. Sheep loose their way. Sheep wonder off. Sheep are easy prey for predators. In turn, a shepherd was needed to guide them, keep them on the right track, protect them and thus deliver them from the starting to ending point.
There is a beautiful connecting image here between Jesus saying that he was the Good Shepherd and Psalm 23:4 where the psalmist says this “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff – they comfort me.”
Notice the powerful word play – though and through. Even though this is what I face, a gulf that feels too wide and dangerous to cross, you as my shepherd will get me through it. Though this is where I am in this valley, yet you will get me through. In other words, God, no matter what my valley is, no matter my though, you will be my through.
Sometimes God’s through is miraculous, sometimes God’s through is hard to define or to even see happening and sometimes God’s through is anything but what we had wanted or expected. Yet here is God and ultimately Jesus’ promise, though this is our valley – illness, unemployment, depression, grief, marriage struggles, financial ruin, job loss, I will be your through. I am the Good Shepherd. I will get you from point A to point B. Trust me.
The great James Forbes who once pastored Riverside Church in New York hit the nail on the head with this idea. Forbes used to invite people to close their eyes and think back on the worst moment of their lives. After a few seconds in silence or quite, Forbes would invite all present to open their eyes and he would say this, “well, your still here”. In other words, despite how bad it was, God got you through.
And, of course, Christ the good shepherd, still does the same for us. Amen.
(Rob Fuquay, in The God We Can Know, Chapter Four, heavily influenced this sermon)
God In the Every Day: The Pathway
The Season of Lent
April 7, 2019
A group of over twenty of our church members just returned last night from our Spring Mission Trip to Allendale, South Carolina. We have been going to Allendale every Fall and Spring now for a number of years. Every time that a group sets out either going to or coming back from Allendale a regular question arises. The question is this: which way are we going to go?
Allendale, just like virtually every other place any of us have ever been to, is a place that you can travel to taking more than one route. And, truth be told, there are advantages to each. Some routes are more scenic than others. Some routes are a bit quicker than others. And, some routes include better restaurants along the way – I mean we are Baptists after all and it is all about the food!?! The question of which route we should take is really a way of asking is this the best route? Of all of the ways we could travel, which is the best one for us at this time?
There is a similar question, however that while similar is quite different. Beside the question of which is the best route, we can also place the question of which is the right route? This question is not so much about the fastest or most scenic way to go. This question is much more focused on simply ensuring that I am going to end up in the right place and about the need to have the peace of mind that we are heading the right way.
Just the other day, I found myself deep in the interior of Greenville Memorial Hospital. I was there to make a visit and on the way out of the area where the patient I was visiting was located, I got lost. As I tried to regain my bearings, I spotted a nurse and ask her for help. I said, “how do I get to the Atrium from here?” This was her literal response, “you get there by following me.”
In that moment, I wasn’t interested in a philosophical debate about all of the best routes from ICU to the Atrium. I didn’t care which routes included the most interesting hospital scenery. Instead I had a more basic, pressing need – I just needed some help and some assurance that I was headed the right way.
Again, her response, “you get there by following me”.
My experience in the hospital, not our Mapquest debate about best routes to Allendale is more at the heart of what Jesus was trying to communicate in John 14 when he said these famous words, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. He says this in response to the disciples and his inner circle of friends as they all move ever closer to Jesus’ death. Jesus says this between their last meal together in the Upper Room and his arrest in the Garden.
Contextually things were tense, they were worried about where all of this was headed and to a person they had to have wondered if they were even on the right track at all. Was Jesus really the way?
Again, it really wasn’t a debate about Jesus as a good way among many other options. Instead, it was a way of reassuring them that they were not on a fool’s errand or a wild good chase. Instead Jesus simply wanted them to know his was the way, the right way.
If you haven’t noticed by now, virtually all of these I am statements have a pastoral tone to them. What I mean in saying this is that by and large they are words of comfort and encouragement that despite the challenges, the frustrations, the questions and the unknowns, that with Jesus they are headed in the right way and things were going to be okay…
I am who I am…which we said is a way of saying “I will be there”.
I am the bread of life…which we said is a way of saying “I am enough”.
I am the light of the world…which we said is a way of saying “I will guide you”.
I am the good shepherd…which we said is a way of saying “I will get you through”.
And today, I am the way, the truth and the life…which is a way of saying “I am the right path”.
These statements are all similar and yet different, nuanced and unique in their own ways.
It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “I know that sometimes you wonder if being a Christian was the right decision… Or, “I know that sometimes you look at your friends and the good times they are having and you wonder if choosing a different lifestyle is worth it… Or, “I know at times when you choose to get up and come to church rather than going to the lake you ask yourself if this was a wise choice.” Or, “I know that when you choose what seems to be the ethical thing in light of your faith rather than doing the questionable thing despite what it costs you professionally that you wonder if all of these does and don’ts are really that important?”
“So let me remind you. I really am the way. You really are on the right path. So take a deep breath, regather yourself, renew you spirit and just remember that you get to where you want to go by simply following me. So stay on the path, keep at it, don’t grow weary. Again, don’t doubt it, you get to where you want to go by simply following me.”
Have you ever gone to someone’s home for the first time and wondered if you are in the right place? You drive onto the street, pull into the drive and get out of the car with a mixture of confidence and uncertainty coursing through your body all at the same time. Based on what you have been told it looks like the right house and it feels like the right place but you’re just not 100% sure. Even as you knock on the door and wait there remains a degree of uncertainty. And then, there comes that moment of relief when the door opens and the person on the other side offers a familiar face and you let out a sigh of relief. It is a simple thing and yet it is a glorious feeling.
This is the life of faith. And, one day, it is the Lord who will open the door, welcome us in and say to us “well done thou good and faithful servant” and at that time, we’ll feel that warmth in our hearts that we have arrived in just the right spot.
For now, we must trust Jesus, the one who says “don’t loose heart, I am the way.” And we must listen to Holy Spirit whisper to us what the good nurse said to me this week “you get to where you want to go by following me”. So, have faith. Amen.