4 Easter YEAR A

I have talked many times about Hebrews 11:1. It is one of key passages in Scripture. it says, Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

In other words, Faith is the reality of things fully expected, the certainty of things not seen. Faith requires us to know and trust with absolute certainty that God’s love for us is unwavering and never ending, and that God’s purpose for us, regardless of what is happening to us, is ultimately to bring us to the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23.

But in order for our faith to be truly a Hebrews 11:1 faith, we need to be able to recognize the presence and voice of God.

This is really a vital thing for us as Christians. Because we if do not know or recognize the presence and voice of God we will find ourselves being led off the path God has for us and even walking into problems and disasters in our Christian walk.

There is a battle going on for you right now in the heavenly realms. When we give our lives to Jesus and trust in him our destiny is secured. But the battle continues because the enemy would love nothing more than to push us away from God’s promises and purposes for our life and even to make us miserable and ineffective for the kingdom of God. And if he can sow discord in the midst of the body of Christ while doing that then he is very happy.

In the words of our Gospel reading this morning there are thieves and robbers who seek to STEAL us. This is why it is so important for us to cultivate and grow in relationship with God so that we may be able to recognize and respond to God’s voice and presence.

Chapter 10 of John’s gospel begins the great teaching of Jesus on the good shepherd. But the context to this passage is in fact chp 9. In Chp 10v1, Jesus is still talking about what had happened to the blind man he had healed.

The blind man, if you remember, had been excommunicated – thrown out of fellowship in the synagogue because Jesus had healed Him. The pharisees were ANGRY at the healing because it caused people to begin asking the right questions about who Jesus might be – and the pharisees hatred of Jesus ironically blinded them to who Jesus was – and they were angry with the man because he had given the credit for his healing to Jesus and called him a great prophet.

The context of John 10:1 is found when the blind man had responded to Jesus voice. Jesus had put mud on his eyes and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. And he did it. We tend not to think about the implication of the blind man obeying Jesus’ command to go and wash. It was not a simple task. The pool of Siloam was over 1000 yards away – that is half  a mile. He would have had to have found someone willing to take him, to guide him there. Despite the difficulty in going, he obeyed Jesus’ voice and was healed!

It is the blind man that is in Jesus’ mind as he starts to plant the imagery of a shepherd into the hearts of his listeners. You must remember that while chapters and verse are helpful for us in finding passages easily in our Bible’s, they were not in the original manuscripts. Chapters and verses are man made and are sometimes even arbitrarily put in. And this can cause a problem. In our mindset, we tend to subconsciously think that the end of a chapter finishes one thing and the beginning of a chapter starts a new thing. That is not necessarily true in the Bible!

Whenever an Israelite heard the word Shepherd he would think of a leader – spiritual or political.

A Shepherd had responsibilities towards the sheep – responsibilities to love, protect, guide and lead the sheep. Even being willing to give up his life for the sheep.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were known as the shepherds of Israel. The religious guides of the people. Their role was to nurture, love, protect and feed the flock. But what had they done to this blind man? Here was a man who has received an incredible miracle, an amazing blessing, a messianic healing, and yet these shepherds vilify, question and verbally abuse him and then tell him that he was no longer able to worship the Lord in fellowship with other Jews. What had this man done? Nothing.

The shepherds eject this sheep callously.

Their actions showed the type of shepherds they were. The had no love for this man. They had no desire to protect him, nurture him, guide him, feed him and bless him. Instead they had an agenda – and they attacked, abused and rejected any who did not tow their line and their agenda. They were bad shepherds – they were evil shepherds – they were false shepherds BECAUSE of their attitude to the sheep. And Jesus is telling the sheep that they should not listen to them because they are merely thieves and robbers.

Awful isn’t it. And yet this is so prevalent in the church today. That is Shepherds whose actions are not that of a good shepherd but instead they protect their own agenda, even at the cost of the people.

This is why Jesus starts to outline what a true shepherd of Israel looks like. He is making a direct contrast between the pharisees and himself.

The relationship between sheep and shepherd in first century Israel was quite remarkable. Sheep learnt to trust and recognize their shepherds.

A common occurrence for shepherds in Jesus day would be that as night fell, there might be two or three flocks in close proximity. Shepherds would come together and build a waist high pen – often against a rock or cliff face. Then they would put all three flocks into the pen for safety over night and one of the shepherds would lie at the entrance or opening to keep watch while the other shepherds slept nearby.

In the morning the shepherds would come and call their sheep and the sheep would come out and go to the shepherd. The sheep KNEW and recognized the voice of the shepherd and they would ONLY respond to that shepherd. In fact if another shepherd tried to call them they would run away. Which is why Jesus says that the only way for a false shepherd to take sheep would be to climb the wall and TAKE the sheep physically.

The blind man recognized the voice of the shepherd and he ran from the attempts of the false shepherds to make him follow them.

Another thing which was amazing about the shepherds and different from today is that Shepherds led the flock – the sheep followed behind the shepherd, unlike today where shepherds tend to drive the sheep.

To trust the shepherd is to follow him and to trust him where he will lead you. Sheep followed the shepherd BECAUSE they knew that the shepherds would protect, love and guide them, even if the path was hard and dangerous.

Sheep have to know who to follow. And that means knowing the voice of the true shepherd when he calls.

Do you know that God’s heart and purpose for you is to guide you, love you and tend for your needs, even when the path is hard and difficult. But for that to happen WE MUST  know his voice and then we must follow him. We MUST ignore the voices of the false shepherds who seek to steal us away from doing the things of God – from obeying the words of Christ. We don’t have time this morning to examine all the ways false shepherds can attempt to steal us away from the Lord, but the other readings this morning show us one particular way.

A false shepherd will always try and convince us to walk the easy path and to avoid difficulties or hardships. A false shepherd will tell us not to stand up for what is right when it will cost us something. A false shepherd will convince us that we should keep hold of our money rather than give it to the Lord to use as he pleases. A false shepherd will persuade us that it is not prudent to lay everything on the line for God, but that we should hold something back for ourselves just in case.

We see this clearly in Acts and 1 Peter. Let me re-read our Epistle reading this morning: For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it , you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Peter expects believers to do things which will get them into trouble or to lead to suffering. Why? Because to follow in Christ’s footsteps in this world, to do what he asks of us, will lead to suffering. Notice what he says for when you DO RIGHT and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval.

Just look at our Acts reading. How easy it would have been for Stephen to have simply apologize and walk away. We would have! Stephen had been defending the claims of Christ when his opponents had him arrested by falsely accusing him of speaking blasphemy against God. When asked to speak he spoke the truth – not angrily, not disrespectfully – but simply the truth and and the truth angered the Jews so much they stone him to death. Stephen laid everything on the line for Jesus. Would we? Stephen does not follow the false shepherd even when his life depended on it. Instead he followed the true Shepherd – because he knew the shepherds voice.

Finally Psalm 23 emphasizes this very clearly. He revives my soul and guides me along the right pathways for his names sake, THOUGH I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil. To be guided by the true shepherd means at times we go through the valley – but we do so with no fear. Stephen saw the shepherd as he was about to die and he followed his into eternity.

We MUST be a people, a church, a community who not only know the voice of the true Shepherd but follow it even when it pushes us outside our comfort zone; even when we are asked to put all our resources into God’s hands; even when God asks us to risk everything for his purposes. Anything less is to listen to the false shepherd and so be stolen away from the purposes of God for us.

 

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