I have often wondered if the Gospel of John were going to be written today, instead of the late first century, if it would have been made as a film instead of a text? John pays great attention to setting before he tells a story. It’s as if he were a director, looking at the scene, making sure that the people watching the film will understand the feeling, the mood, and what is motivating the actors. Everything John’s camera finds is significant.
As the scene opens, I picture a helicopter shot – we see people from a distance, doing some kind of group activity. As the camera zooms in closer, we see them in celebration. We continue to zoom closer, and now we can see the decorations specific to one holiday, and, being good Jews, we recognize it: “Ah, Hanukkah! The festival of Dedication! The celebration of the time we broke free from the powers that dominated us.
“We threw off that pagan yoke and became free people in our own land. They had desecrated our temple, turning it into an alter to Zeus, but now it has been re-dedicated it to the true and Living God. Now once again, we can celebrate the presence of God among us; the temple in our capital city, Jerusalem.”
John’s camera shows not only what the people are doing in celebration, it also shows how they are dressed: for cold weather. It’s winter in the capital. I have been to Washington DC in winter. The monuments and museum buildings are still impressive, but when it’s cold and gray and bare, it feels a bit depressing.
It’s supposed to feel depressing in this scene. John lets us see that it is truly winter in that ancient capital in every sense; it’s the season of dormancy. A dark cloud hangs over everything. Jerusalemites may be celebrating Hanukkah, but they are no longer independent; they are a tiny, ethnic client state, in the vast Roman Empire. In this context, celebrating a past era of independence brings on nostalgia for days of glory past.
John’s camera zooms closer still. We can see Jesus; he is walking in the temple, in the portico of the glorious ancient king Solomon. Talk about nostalgia for past glory days, long gone! “Solomon’s time was when the kingdom was at it’s height. See how the mighty have fallen.”
Why would John, the film-maker, have bothered to show us all these details? Because in that time and place, the memory of the past, and the hopes for the future all come together. There, in the capital, Jerusalem, in the dormant winter, in the re-dedicated temple, during the festival of past victories, in the nostalgic portico of Solomon, Jesus is being asked “Are you the answer to our greatest problem? Tell us plainly. Are you Messiah?”
How would we define our greatest problem? We are like onions, aren’t we, with layers and layers. We might complain about rainy Saturdays on the surface, and just beneath that layer is the problem of the recession and the politicians in Washington. But below that layer, deeper, we think of our families and their struggles, of our health concerns, of our own future. What is at the core? Beneath all the other layers, what is our most basic need?
We are here right now because we have discovered that at the center is our need for God. More than a healthy economy and a back that doesn’t ache, we long to know God and to know that he is with us. At the very center, we long to experience the truth of the twenty-third Psalm:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”
But in the story before us (and the story we live) it’s not so simple. In this story, it’s winter. The branches are bare. The portico of Solomon is not sufficient protection from the chilly wind. There is a plot-complication in this story. John’s camera has panned back from his close-up of Jesus in the temple, and we have seen that he is not alone. People have come up to ask that question: “Are you the answer to our biggest problem?” The complication is that they have already decided how God must act in order to be their answer.
Their question, “Are you the Messiah?” is really, “Are you going to be the new nationalist leader who will restore the glory days of Solomon (or at least of the Maccabees)? We have already decided that that is how God must answer our greatest need. So are you with us or not, Jesus?”
Works tell it
Jesus’ answer is telling:
25 “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
There is a Shepherd. The Shepherd wants to be with us as us walk through our valleys. The Shepherd wants to be the answer to our greatest need. The shepherd wants to bring us to a place of green grass and quiet waters in the presence of God. That is where he is going; that’s were he is leading; the only question is, will we follow? It is the role of the Shepherd to lead, and the sheep to follow.
So, John’s camera shows us Jesus telling the ones asking the question that they should have been able to see the path he has been on – they have seen his works. He has healed the sick, he has fed the hungry, he has embraced outcasts, he has opened the eyes of the blind – his path has been clear.
Jesus was not walking the path towards revolution, towards a political kingdom with a nationalist flag in an ethnically pure state. The sheep who were rushing head-long down that path were not following the Shepherd – they had no intention of being his sheep; they were not listening to his voice.
There are many paths that Jesus is not on today too, and many alternative would-be “shepherds.” They are on TV
a lot. They are angry. They want us all to take up their call to panic. They demand that we build walls around our wealth, around our privilege, around our access, and make sure that those who are different from us are kept out.
The Voice to the Path
What is the path that Jesus, the Shepherd is leading us on? It is not a mystery; it is a matter of simply listening to our Shepherd’s voice, and, like sheep, staying behind him as he leads.
Our 3 Objectives
We, in this congregation, have been listening to the voice of the Shepherd in order to follow him. We have summarized what we have heard him call us to do, and be, in three central, fundamental, basic objectives. It’s our mission statement.
We are here first and foremost, to Love God – to sing him praise, to bend the knee in worship, to lift our hearts in praise to him for being our God; our Shepherd, always with us.
Growing in faith
Loving God leads to our second objective, Growing in Faith. Growing means getting better than we were before; getting stronger and more able. How do we grow in faith? By focused, intentional listening to the Shepherd’s voice. That’s why we have Sunday school classes and bible study. That’s why we have small groups; so that we can hear the Shepherd’s voice and grow in faith. The voice may call us to expand our comfort zone, change old opinions, see life in a new way – that is exactly what growth means; it is the opposite if stagnation – it is spring, not winter. The test of whether or not we are growing is the question: when was the last time I needed to change my mind? Am I open to growing? Our answer is Yes, we are.
Sharing Christ’s Love
There is only one outcome possible for people who are growing in faith; our third objective: Sharing Christ’s Love. The Shepherd, whose works were so evident in his life, was always motivated by love. His healing, his feeding, his inclusion of the outcasts, are exactly what we who are following him on his path do.
We share Christ’s love for each other as we serve each other in this congregation through our ministry teams, shepherd groups, and all the kinds of service we give, from singing in the choir, to teaching Sunday School to cleaning the church.
We share Christ’s love for others as we give to support ministries of compassion like the One Great Hour offering that allows Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to immediately respond to crises like the earthquake in Haiti.
We share Christ’s love by our personal participation in works of service like the Christian Service Center, Habitat for Humanity, Family Promise, Blood Drives, and all kinds of ways.
We share Christ’s love by our own personal witness to what God has done in our own lives through Jesus Christ, and by supporting others in ministries of evangelism.
This is the huge difference between those who follow the Shepherd’s lead on his path and those who rush in another direction on their own path. The people in Jesus’ day who rejected him had decided that what they needed most was a way of self-protection. “Make a kingdom with a wall, keep out the bad guys and keep in the people like us.”
But the opposite is true. The one path to the kind of security they needed was the one on which Jesus was leading. Listen to the security that Jesus describes:
27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
The Shepherd’s path
What we need the most, under all the other layers, is to know that God is with us. To be secure in the knowledge that even in our darkest valleys, we are not alone; the Shepherd is there, he is leading us, and that he knows where he is going. Our deepest need is the security of being on the path with God – no matter where it leads.
The secure path that Jesus, our Shepherd is leading us on, is the path of listening to the voice of the Shepherd and following him as he leads us towards Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s love.