April 16, 2018
The Easter 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 10:11-18 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 4:5-12 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 23 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 3:16-24 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 106 (Lord’s Day 40)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Today we don’t have shepherds much in the wider society. Today we have managers. But shepherds and managers are not the same.
Whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself, the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs, it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations that do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards or further costly research & development.
So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world that looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it.
But not so with Jesus as the good shepherd. A cost-benefit analysis would never cause the shepherd to leave the 99 sheep on their own for a few minutes in favor of finding the one lost lamb. If the shepherd had a risk-management committee, they would never advise him to let the wolf kill the shepherd but would say you could better survive to fight another day even if for the time being the wolf nabbed a sheep or two.
In other words, ours is a world and a society made up of hired hands with very few true shepherds around anymore. We manage risks and outcomes but don’t put our lives on the line to avoid all bad outcomes.
But then, perhaps it’s for that very reason that we could all use a truly Good Shepherd in our lives. Now, maybe, more than ever.
As someone once put it, “God counts by ones.”
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address
Those of you who are familiar with art may recall a funny habit that many Medieval painters practiced for quite a long time in Europe, and particularly in Germany. Artists such as Lukas Cranach and others painted many depictions of biblical scenes but they did so with the curious twist of dressing the biblical characters in the contemporary garb of the Middle Ages. So in one Cranach painting of which I have a copy, you see Mary and Joseph tending to their newborn son in a Bethlehem stable. You also see shepherds and others in the picture but every last one of them looks like a then-contemporary European. The men are wearing tights, silk shirts with puffy sleeves, and those big hats common to that era. All in all it was an interesting way to contemporize ancient stories.
But that mixing up of the old with the new and the past with the current must also have caused some eyebrows to be raised. Can you imagine what most conservative Christians today would say if some artist painted a portrait depicting Joseph in a pair of Gap jeans, Mary wearing Ralph Lauren blouse, and the magi in snappy suits from Armani?! There would almost surely be an outcry. You should not import the holy, sacred images of Scripture into a contemporary setting like that. It creates confusion, doesn’t seem terribly respectful. And anyway we perhaps risk “losing” something of the original presentation by mixing it up with the trappings of our modern world.
But in a real way, can we even avoid looking at the old through the lens of what is current? In this Eastertide lection from the Year B Common Lectionary we arrive at the most famous metaphor for Jesus in the Bible: the good shepherd. We have all likely seen one form or another of this particular image depicted countless times in most of the churches we have ever visited, on greeting cards, in artwork, and in many more places besides.
The odd thing, though, is that although the world still has shepherds in it, the experience of being with a shepherd is as foreign to most of us as being with a real cowboy in Idaho or with some Inuit fishermen in Alaska. We know that such people exist, but we don’t have much to do with them and so their jobs and lifestyles don’t loom terribly large on our mental horizon most days. We know far more about teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people, and accountants than we do about shepherds.
But although the imagery seems outdated, has humanity in the modern world really outgrown its need for someone to love us fiercely and forever the way only a truly good shepherd can? In our quiet and secret moments, we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to take care of us. As Neal Plantinga once wrote, those of us who were raised in solid and good homes carry around with us the memory of how delicious it was to be tucked into our cozy beds at night without worries that would threaten our rest. Kids go to bed without fretting about whether ice will back up under the shingles, or whether the forecasted heavy weather will turn violent, or whether the bills can be paid, or whether someone at the IRS might just find that one tax deduction a bit too creative. No, as children we wriggled drowsily in our beds awash in the knowledge that someone else was in charge and so we happily allowed ourselves to slip over the edge of slumber the way only a child can, with literally no cares to make our minds too busy to sleep.
We adults carry that memory in our sub-conscious and we yearn for something like it again. Indeed, we pine for it even more acutely because now we know what it is like to live without that security. Now we know what it’s like to wait for results from the pathology lab. Now we know what it’s like to watch a deadly storm roar ever closer on the TV’s radar scope. Now maybe we’ve gone through the pain of having to bid first grandparents and then parents and finally even friends a final goodbye.
Has our need for a good shepherd really faded just because our familiarity with sheep and shepherds is not as acute as was perhaps true for the people who first heard these words spoken by Jesus? Hardly. We still live in a dangerous world. Wolves abound. We will never come to a day when we will not need someone who will care for us no matter what. We need someone who can see every wolf that runs our way and who will get killed himself rather than abandon any one of us sheep as statistically insignificant. We need someone with the vision and the wisdom to lead us safely through the landmine-pocked landscapes of life in a world which is as bewildering as this one often proves to be.
Unless you really think that it is easy to see your way clearly through the multiple ethical quagmires that technology and genetic engineering are creating, then you need to be led around by someone vastly smarter than you. Unless you really think that you on your own can resolve the toughest questions of justice which confront us today, then you need a shepherd you can trust to lead you along toward that better day when justice will roll down live a mighty river and flood every street and back alley of this creation.
So go ahead and put modern clothing on Jesus the Good Shepherd. But however we choose to update the imagery, we cannot deny that today as much as ever, everybody needs a shepherd.
The Gospel of John is oddly devoid of the much-loved parables of Jesus that make up such a significant portion of the Synoptic Gospels. Maybe by the time John set his gospel down in writing he figured the world did not need a third or fourth re-tread of some of those great stories Jesus used to tell. Instead John took note of another tendency Jesus had when speaking: his use of the “I Am” phrase. Ever the theologian, John knew full well the resonances that phrase carries for those familiar with the divine Name as it first emerged in Exodus 3: “Tell that ‘I Am’ sent you” is what Yahweh told to Moses when he inquired after the divine moniker. And so every time Jesus opened his mouth to start a sentence with the Greek phrase Ego eimi, theologically astute people know the weight and import of those words on Jesus’ lips.
Maybe one way to liven up a sermon on a passage / an image as overly familiar to many people as the Good Shepherd would be to take a broader perspective on John’s Gospel and all those many places where Jesus utters an “I Am” saying. After all, in the course of John Jesus will claim to be a door, a shepherd, a loaf of bread, a road, a light, a grapevine, and a resurrection.
That’s not a typical way people speak.
Years ago on the news program 60 Minutes the singer Paul Simon said that not long after Simon & Garfunkel released the iconic song Mrs. Robinson with its refrain “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” DiMaggio himself contacted Simon to express bafflement as to what that line could possibly mean. After all, DiMaggio had not gone anywhere—why, he was a spokesman for Mr. Coffee now! “He had not yet,” Simon told Ed Bradley, “begun to think of himself as a metaphor.”
Great observation. But then, who does think of him- or herself metaphorically? Wouldn’t we wonder about a co-worker who was known regularly to spout lines like “I am the antibody that protects my family from the virus of secularism” or “I am the oil that keeps our company’s pistons well-lubed”? Who talks that way?
Jesus did. And as C.S. Lewis once observed, a man who spouts such lines as “I am the Light” and “I am a Gate” is either the single most important person you might ever meet or a man as nuts as someone who walks around claiming to be a poached egg. Christians find John 10 to be so meaningful because we’ve opted to believe what also Peter said in Acts 4 (another lection assigned for this Year B Sunday in Eastertide): Jesus is now so vital, that only by his name can a person be saved.
Because that is true, all those otherwise odd “I Am” sayings in John turn out to be not so odd after all.
Author: Doug Bratt
What in the world got into Acts 4’s Peter? Or to put it more theologically, who in the world got into the apostle? I sometimes wonder if even his companion John didn’t blink his eyes or try to clear his ears to make sure it was Peter who was speaking.
Of course, Peter’s talking was never the problem per se. You could always count on him to speak up, even when Jesus’ other disciples didn’t know what to say. It’s just that maybe even the former fisherman was never quite sure what would come out of his mouth when he opened it to speak.
Yet it’s hard to believe Acts 4’s Peter is the same as, for example, Luke 22’s Peter. There, after all, it was a “servant girl” (56) and her friends who confronted Peter. In Acts 4 the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” confront him. In Luke 22 Peter risks only ridicule for acknowledging Jesus. In Acts 4 he risks his freedom if not life for talking about Jesus.
Given his track record (at least before Pentecost), we’d have expected Peter to wilt in the face of Acts 4’s religious leaders. They’d, after all, flexed their religious muscles by first jailing and then basically trying John and him in religious court. Peter, however, turns the defense table into a pulpit from which he boldly proclaims the gospel message of salvation that’s received only with faith in the crucified but risen Jesus.
Perhaps, though, Peter’s boldness shouldn’t surprise us. Luke 12:11-12’s Jesus virtually predicts his fellow disciples and he will be courageous. There, after all, he promised his disciples, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
Elements of Peter’s bold reply to Israel’s religious leaders put Acts 4’s confrontation in context. In verse 7, after all, the religious leaders ask him, “By what power or name did you do this?” (Italics added). What’s more, in verse 9, Peter refers to “an act of kindness shown to a cripple and … how he was healed” (italics added). Both seem to refer back to Peter’s healing of a man who’d never been able to walk before (Acts 3:6-8).
Yet an even earlier passage may also help explain some of the religious leaders’ anxiety (2). When Peter, after all, addressed those whom the first Pentecost had dazzled, he’d begged them to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Acts 2:41 reports that some 3,000 people faithfully accept that invitation.
The religious leaders may worry that Peter’s call to repentance in Acts 3:19 will produce a similar wildfire of conversion. Their experience, in fact, bears that fear out. After all, even as the religious leaders jail Peter and John, verse 4 reports, “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.”
This “crisis” draws together some of the most prominent religious leaders in first century Judaism. “Members of the high priest’s family” (6) line up on one side of the room. “Unschooled, ordinary” Peter and John stand on the other. Ananias, Caiaphas and their cohorts seem to wield all the power. Yet Jesus’ former disciples’ ability to heal people shows that they too wield power, albeit a different and perhaps even greater kind.
The mighty religious leaders react very differently to Peter’s healing of the man with a physical disability than its first witnesses did. Those who first heard about the healing responded “with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (Acts 3:10). The powerful religious leaders demand to know “by what power or name” (7) Peter had healed the man who’d never been able to walk. The mighty religious leaders wield the power to jail or even perhaps call for the execution of (i.e. Jesus) people. Yet they also want to know from where the ordinary apostles got their power to heal people.
However, while the religious leaders at least seem mostly interested in power, that only seems to be a kind of “side issue” for Peter and John. They’re far more interested in the “name” by which they’ve healed the man was physically impaired. “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth … that this man stands before you healed” (10).
It’s a name, of course, with which the mighty religious leaders are probably all too familiar. They’d, after all, wielded their considerable power to help convince the Roman authorities to crucify the apparently powerless Jesus. Yet while those leaders assumed they’d helped blot out Jesus’ name, Peter insists the Name still lives.
He claims that while the religious leaders had helped engineer Jesus’ crucifixion, God “raised [him] from the dead” (10). The religious leaders regarded Jesus as just a worthless but troublesome “stone” (11). God, however, affirmed Jesus as the “capstone” of a whole new world.
This risen “capstone,” Peter, insists, is still at work in a variety of ways. Scholars, in fact, note that the word the apostle uses for “healed” in verse 6 is the same one he uses in verse 12 for “saved.” He’s insisting, in other words, that Jesus isn’t just startling people by using his apostles to work healing in people. Jesus’ name is also the only one by which God is graciously saving people.
The Holy Spirit may pave any number of “entrance ramps” onto Acts 4 for those who teach and preach it. One might involve the impossibility of restricting the gospel. The religious authorities imprison the apostles. Yet many who’d heard them preach believe and become part of the young, growing Church.
Later (4:18) the religious leaders tell Peter and John not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name anymore. Yet the freed apostles go out to not only report what had happened to them, but also to continue to preach and teach in Jesus’ name. After all, locked doors couldn’t keep the risen Jesus away from people. In a similar ways, not even jail cells or threats can keep the Holy Spirit from doing the Spirit’s work.
Various colleagues have suggested a number of other themes that Acts 4’s preachers and teachers might choose to emphasize. Will Willimon calls the name of Jesus “the last taboo.” It’s one even some Christians seem reluctant to use anymore, expect perhaps in profanity.
Yet Jesus’ first followers are quite generous and bold in their use of his name. What’s more, they profess that God gives Jesus’ name the power to not only heal but also save people. So those who preach and teach Acts might explore with their hearers how Jesus’ 21st century followers might reclaim the use of Jesus’ name to honor God and bless people, creatures and God’s whole creation.
My colleague Scott Hoezee notes how God’s gracious use of Jesus the stone the religious leaders rejected but which God made the capstone points to God’s penchance for using rejected “stones.” It reminds us that God has an amazing way of using unliked and unlikely people and things to glorify God and bless people. That includes, of course, not only Jesus, but also his “ordinary, unschooled” apostles like Peter and John. In fact, as Hoezee notes, God even uses obscure Scripture passages like Psalm 118:22 to teach beautiful truths about the risen Christ.
Mark Edmundson mentions boldness in his August 17, 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Why We Need to Resurrect our Souls.” He writes, “Where is compassion in our self-obsessed culture? Part of what is most startling in the world we have made is that we have abjured the virtues of the saint. We have collectively turned our backs on most versions of lovingkindness. Nor do we feel a pressing need to forge a counterfeit culture of compassion.
“Surely there are the church drives, benefits, charities, and various forms of organized pity — but many, if not most, of those are merely forms of self-congratulation. ‘Pity would be no more,’ says Blake, ‘if we did not make somebody Poor.’ We are rank with voyeuristic kindness …
“We seem to have come to an agreement that life is every man for himself, and every woman, too. The compassionate ideal is so dangerous to the self that it is not safe to put it into even displaced or sublimated form. Pressed to the wall, we affirm faith in individualism, and that is that. Jesus the preacher of universal brotherhood is all but gone, and it is best for our comfort and our entertainment that this be so.
“In Africa and Latin America, one finds bold priests and nuns and brothers who stand up for the poor. All honor to them. They have a few brothers and sisters in America and Europe, but by and large the rich Western churches have gone over to relative quietism.”
Author: Stan Mast
Even though the RCL uses Psalm 23 on the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season in all three years, and even adds it to the Lenten readings in one year, the enterprising preacher should not despair when assigned this lovely piece of poetry yet again. It is so rich that there is no end of angles one can take on it. For examples of different approaches to Psalm 23, see my previous posts in the Sermon Starter Archives on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website for April 17, 2016; March 20, 2017; and May 7, 2017.
For this Sunday, I have two new suggestions. First, focus on the word “is” in the first verse. (I know, I know. You are thinking of President Clinton’s famous words about “is.”) Any reader of Hebrew knows that the word is not there in the Hebrew; it is implied. But that doesn’t remove the force of it. What we have here is a powerful metaphor. Yahweh is like a shepherd, with the force of the Lord equals a shepherd. In other words, this is a not a passing role, but a permanent identity. This is what Yahweh is, all the time, in every circumstance. That gives the rest of the Psalm a solidity and certainty. We can count on Yahweh doing all the things mentioned in Psalm 23 because this is simply who he is.
This seemingly ordinary observation takes on homiletical power when we recall the other regular reading for this Fourth Sunday of Easter, namely, John 10:11-18. In that text, Jesus boldly says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Those words echo not only Psalm 23, but also God’s famous self-identification as “I am who/what I am.” Jesus was claiming to be the “I am,” who is always the shepherd who does what Psalm 23 attributes to Yahweh.
Some scholars may question that interpretation of Jesus’ words, but the crowds and, particularly, the Jewish leaders didn’t. The hoi polloi was confused by Jesus words, but the Pharisees and their cronies knew blasphemy when they heard it. Jesus’ claim in John 10 became a part of the mounting opposition that would lead to his death.
In the eyes of his enemies, Jesus’ death proved that he was not the “I am” who is the “good shepherd.” The words of Psalm 23 did not actually apply to him. Yahweh is the good shepherd, but Jesus certainly was not, because he is no more. He’s over there, in that grave. But then, of course, he rose from the dead, proving that he is indeed who he said he was.
Thus, Jesus’ words in John 10 give fresh meaning to Psalm 23. Psalm 23 says that Yahweh the shepherd does many things for his flock, but John 10 (and the other Johannine reading for this Sunday, I John 3:16-24) adds one more thing, namely, laying down his life for his flock. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that, as a result of laying down his life for his own, Jesus does all the other things mentioned in Psalm 23. Because he rose from the dead, he always lives to make intercession for us, which includes all the beautiful phrases in Psalm 23. In other words, an initial focus on the word “is,” combined with Jesus’ application of Psalm 23 to himself, gives us a uniquely Christ-centered, resurrection-oriented way to preach on this familiar Psalm.
Not only can Jesus do all the things mentioned in verses 1-5, but he can also, even, do the things that conclude the Psalm in verse 6. He can walk with us all the days of our lives and even conduct us into the house of the Lord forever. His pastoral work has eternal consequences.
That brings me to my second new suggestion. Focus on the last words of this Psalm, as a special way to emphasize both the daily and the eternal consequences of the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. Let me give you some hints about how you might do that with a sermon that was part of my six-sermon series on Psalm 23.
Several years ago, I read a peculiar little novel with the intriguing title, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God. It is a story of 3 women whose lives have been shipwrecked in one way or another. The oldest one is a feisty blue-haired old widow named Grace. Her husband died just as he and Grace embarked on their lifelong dream of spending their retirement on a beautiful old motor yacht. So, she tied up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the other two women now rent a room on the yacht.
Midway through the story, Grace suffers a stroke, and loses her memory. Gradually it comes back, as the three sail the yacht to Nova Scotia to escape Grace’s daughter who wants to put her in a nursing home. It’s a fascinating story, but it ends sadly. Grace has another stroke, with just a bit of memory loss. But it terrifies her. So, one day as the other women are away shopping, Grace sails her yacht out in the Atlantic and jumps overboard. She leaves behind a suicide note that says, “I won’t go to heaven without my memory.”
That made me wonder about my own future. How will my life end? How do you think your life will end? At a ripe old age, full of years and happiness, and ready to go? Or prematurely, as a result of some accident or a sudden illness, and bitterly disappointed? Alone or surrounded by loving family? Poor or wealthy? And what lies between now and the end? What does the road to the future look like to you?
How on earth can we know these things? Well, I suppose we can look to our past as Grace did. She knew what it’s like to have a stroke and lose your memory, and she knew she didn’t want to go through that again. So, on the basis of a difficult past, she made a decision about her future and took her life to avoid suffering.
David does something like that in our text, but he sees his life very differently. Looking back, he saw God’s blessings everywhere. That lead him to believe that his future would be filled with more blessings. So, he looks ahead to the end with supreme confidence. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Interesting. You can look back and despair like Grace, or you can look back and be confident like David. What’s the difference? The quality of your past? Did Grace have a hard life, while David had an easy one? No! As the earlier parts of Psalm 23 show us, David knew all too well what it was like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. His own life was threatened a number of times. He suffered the loss of loved ones in many ways. And he knew what it was like to be stalked by enemies of all sorts.
No, it isn’t the quality of your past that determines how you face the future. It is the character of your God. Grace’s God was shipwrecked. She believed in God, but he was as insubstantial as the wreckage on a beach, a mystery at best. David’s God was the unchanging Yahweh, his faithful covenant Lord and Shepherd. And this side of the cross and empty tomb, we would add that he is our crucified, risen and reigning Savior.
That is why David could say these last words as he faced his future. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life….” Goodness and love are covenant words in the Old Testament, words that sum up all that God promises his covenant partners, his dear friends. Having taken Abraham by the hand and swearing to be a God to him and all his descendants, God promises that we will always be the object of his love, so that our lives will always be characterized by goodness.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to us. The well-known words of Romans 8:35-36 give us a list of all the terrible things that can and do come into the lives of God’s people, who are often like sheep being slaughtered. But, as Romans 8:28 put it, God will make all the bad things work together for the good of God’s covenant partners, of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.
I love the way David puts it here—“goodness and love shall follow me.” Whenever I read those words, I think of a sermon preached by an old black preacher in which he pictured puppies, tripping happily after their master, so close to his heels that they occasionally yip with pain as those heels clip their little noses. Maybe David was thinking of sheepdogs here, one named “Goodness’ and one named “Love,” both always on the heels of God’s children.
I like that picture; it’s cute. But if we’re going to be accurate to David’s actual intent here, we have to picture not harmless little beagles or floppy haired sheepdogs, but immense, powerful mastiffs whose tread shakes the earth as they inexorably pursue the steps of believers. Think of the famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” which depicts God dogged pursuit of wandering sheep.
No matter what happens in my life from here to the end, no matter how dark the valley of the shadow may get, no matter how fierce my enemies may be, God’s goodness and love will always be right there for me. I don’t have to call them to come and attend my journey. Nothing can separate them from me, or me from them. In the end love will win over whatever evil may come my way and turn it into goodness.
Which David summarizes with that lovely expression, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David was fascinated with the house of the Lord. Remember how he wanted to build the Lord a house? Remember how he wrote in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…” He didn’t mean that he wanted to live in the tabernacle. He meant that he wanted to be close to God, to live in his presence. The rest of Psalm 27:4 explains: “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him….”
David knew that the highest good, called the summum bonum by the ancient Christians, was the beatific vision, the blessed sight of God himself, finally meeting face to face the Good Shepherd who saw him through all the scenes of his earthly life. That is David’s confident vision of the end of his life—“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” However I close my eyes physically, I shall open them to the beauty of the Lord.
What a remarkably sturdy and sunny outlook on life! It stands in sharp contrast to the way many of us live. Worried about the future and our place in it, we are fearful of bad news and possible disasters. We have heard and seen so much of that in our lives. Who knows what economic upheaval, what social distress, what theological controversies, what personal trauma we will face in the rest of the 21st Century. Our fears make us unsteady, and we react by hesitating to make commitments and plans or by compulsively trying to secure the future with balanced portfolios and strong family ties. All of which is understandable, but it doesn’t provide the kind of confidence David radiates here. He knows that no matter what happens in the future, “all the days of my life… and forever” are secure.
“Surely!” How can you be that sure? As I said, David looked back at God’s provision. All his life God had led and guided him, restored his soul, walked with him through the valley, prepared a table before him, anointed his head with oil, blessed him with goodness and love, so that his cup overflowed. His reflection on the past gave him confidence for the future. But sometimes reflection on the past leads precisely to fear and despair. Even if the past has been good, how do you know that the future won’t suddenly change? I’ll never forget the words of 2 elderly members of my last church. “Our lives were absolutely wonderful for 60 some years. But now we’ve had 17 years of one disaster after another.” How can we be sure about the future?
Well, as I said before, it all depends on your vision of God. Is your God shipwrecked or shepherd, a distant mystery or a constant companion on your journey, a memory of a dead hero or the presence of a Risen Savior, an idea you believe or a person you can trust. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” begins the Psalm, and that’s the secret to the whole thing, to a life of faith and confidence.
David had a very strong faith. Perhaps you don’t. Maybe you’d like to be able to say the words of Psalm 23 with his confidence, but you just can’t. Your past has been tough enough to plant doubts in your mind about your future. How can you strengthen your faith in your Good Shepherd? Consider this line from that novel, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God. “It seems to me that faith and memory are one and the same thing, or at least that they can’t exist without one another.” That latter part is suggestive—faith cannot exist without memory.
Which is why we need to do a “memory tour” every once in a while. I learned that term from my wife, who was a special education teacher. One of her students had a closed head injury suffered in a car crash. The injury erased many of his memories. The doctors told his parents to take him on a memory tour to help jog his memories. So, one summer they took him back to all the places he had been as a child where he has especially enjoyed himself—the playground at elementary school, the beach on Lake Michigan, Disney World, his grandparents’ home, and many others—to restore his memory.
If you want to strengthen your faith in the Good Shepherd, take a memory tour. Recall all the places and times you experienced the goodness and love of God. If that doesn’t work, because there is too much bad back there and you simply cannot remember enough good times, then take your tour further back, back to that day when the Good Shepherd laid down his life for you. Stop at the cross and repeat these words, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Because of that cross, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
1 John 3:16-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Love” is a word everyone knows and everyone understands. Or so we think. But if that is so, why is it that when we are called to preach on “love,” it can feel so daunting? Maybe it’s because we use the same word for so many things. It would not be unusual, for instance, to hear someone say one moment “I love my children” and then ten minutes later declare, “Oh my goodness, I just love pizza!” Really? Same word for your kids as for a slice with pepperoni and sausage?
Or is it more that “love” is so huge a topic in the Christian faith that there is a sense in which every time we preach it is somehow about love? If so, then when we get to a passage that forces us to concentrate on love, we feel like we’ve got nothing to say that we have not already communicated in 100 different sermons already!
There is a sense in which that is true: every sermon is about love. In addition—as we just noted—to being one of those diaphanous, wispy words that everyone uses but no one can fully define, love is also the keynote of the gospel. God is love. Jesus is love. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. This is my commandment that you love one another. If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am nothing. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Peter, do you love me? Love your neighbor as yourself. Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love. The fruit of the Spirit is love.
Love is huge. Love’s scope and influence are so vast that it plays a role in the entire sweep of the Christian life. This is something the apostle John seemed to sense better than anyone among the New Testament writers. The letter of I John is by no means the longest letter in the New Testament and yet it far and away contains more references to love than any other New Testament book, including the gospels. The word “love” crops up thirty-five times in this brief letter. By comparison the entire book of Romans has “love” only fourteen times. Even with its elegant ode to love in I Corinthians 13, I Corinthians contains the word “love” just sixteen times. But then, John’s gospel also has the word love almost twice as many times as it comes up in any of the other three gospels.
All in all it is clear that John saw love as the #1 defining trait of God and of those who are children of the heavenly Father (as last week’s lection said). Loving one another in imitation of God is, John writes in verse 11 (just prior to where this lection begins), the message we have heard “from the beginning.” Those of you familiar with John’s theology and style know that he liked to use that word “beginning” as a Genesis-like harkening back to the original creation. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God,” is how John famously opened his gospel. This letter likewise opens, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard and which we have seen with our eyes and touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
And now in this third chapter John says that love is also “from the beginning.” Love was from the beginning because God was in the beginning. Love, in other words, has something to do with the very creation in which we live and of which we are a part. Creation itself sprang from the bubbling overflow of God’s love. Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love within the Trinity was so effervescent, so richly pressured and full that sooner or later the cork had to explode out and when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed everywhere.
Creation is that overflow of love. God wanted to share the life and the love he already had so exquisitely among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek theologians of the Trinity in the early church liked to talk about what they termed “perichoresis,” which is a Greek word meaning in essence the interpenetrating dance of love shared by the three persons in the Godhead (our word “choreography” spins out of this word). Whereas in the Western tradition of the church we have tended to depict the Trinity as a triangle, the Eastern church has always preferred a circle. The Trinity is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and self-forgetful joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that although three persons they form just one God. They’ve been serving each other from all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.
So it is no surprise that at some point those three persons decided that so great was this love, so focused was this love on the other, that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no compulsion to create anything. Yet it is just so like God to want to create, to want to share the love. God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to the wedding of one of our children or to an anniversary celebration: we want to widen the circle of our own love and joy; we want to share the grand event with those who are close to us. Something very like that was what brought about creation in the first place: the love of God within the Trinity bubbled over in a desire to spread the joy around. “Let us create some more creatures so that we can then invite them to our holy party!”
That’s what love does: it naturally makes us take care of one another so that, in the perfect world and in the perfect congregation, you would not have to worry about yourself because everyone else would already be not only worrying about you but taking very good care of you. The thing we all desire is to feel important, valued, worthwhile. In our sin, and so in our lack of love, we try to achieve those positive feelings by isolating ourselves, by putting others down, by competitions through which we can win (and others therefore lose). We puff ourselves up by deflating others through backbiting gossip, the spread of innuendo and the fostering of suspicion as to the motives of our brothers and sisters.
In all of these ways we try to attain what even God wants us to feel, which is a sense of worthwhileness and importance. But God knows that the way of evil and hate will never accomplish that. Only love for one another can grant to each the dignity we deserve as God’s image-bearers. These are things which, in love, we communicate to each other within community but which, without community, we can never feel. When in pride and arrogance we become self-aggrandized, snooty, proud, we saw off the limb we’re sitting on, cutting ourselves off from the very community which, if only it could be filled with love, would become a place of grand mutual affirmation and care.
But the only way that can happen in a still-sinful world requires something else. In the history of the English language, particularly in the King James Version of the Bible, “love” was regularly rendered as “charity.” Today “charity” carries with it a very different meaning, of course, and yet I want to recover one traditional aspect of this word for love by saying that the only way we can love one another with any kind of caring consistency is if we extend toward each other a very charitable attitude.
Today “charity” is a negative word for many. “I don’t want your charity! Just keep your charity! Charity begins at home!” No one wants to feel condescended to, and so it’s not charity anymore but “assistance.” No one wants to be serviced and so it is no longer the “Department of Social Services” but the “Family Independency Agency.” We prefer to look self-sufficient, in need of, if anything, just a little assistance but not of the kind of wholesale charity that suggests inability and dependency.
But if we transfer such attitudes toward the ultimate charitable Giver, God himself, then we can none of us be saved. We need the love of the Father to condescend to us in our weakness, we need God’s charitable attitude toward us or we’re lost. Taking our cues from God, we see that we need each other’s charity, too. No community on earth can exist for long without love. No congregation can stay together, no marriage can survive, no family can be even remotely happy without love: forgiving love, understanding love, compassionate love, patient love, faithful love, gentle love.
In a profound verse in I John 3:24 John asks what is as vital a question as you could think of: how do we know if God really lives in us? John’s answer: we know it by the Spirit God gave us. And that Spirit, it is clear, is the essence of divine love at work in us.
In one of his many canny passages in The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis imagines the demon Screwtape writing the following to his nephew Wormwood, “God really does want to fill the universe with little replicas of himself. We want cattle who can finally become food; he wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, he wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; he is full and flows over. Our Father below [the Devil] has drawn all other beings into himself, [God] wants a world full of beings united to him but still distinct.”
Here Lewis captures not just the essence of God and creation but of love versus hate: love always overflows and expands outward to include others. Love reaches out to others not to snuff their distinctiveness but to embrace them for who they are. But hatred seeks to conquer, to eliminate differences until only a single master race of like individuals is all that remains. Hate seeks to eliminate the other so that the self can be all in all. Hate, John writes, makes you like Cain the murderer. Hate seeks to isolate itself for the sake of nursing of your own ego and, if necessary, hate will kill off others if that is what will create a private world in which you not only keep looking out for good old Number One but in which looking out for Number One is the main event