By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16–24 (ESV)
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
John 10:11–18 (ESV)
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
When we hear a story, any story, our minds are trained to develop some mental image. For some of us the mental image is one that is breath takingly vivid. Some people can imagine in ways that movie directors could only dream of, not only in color but one could almost get the sense that you were sitting within the story. You can feel the morning dew in the grass and smell the aroma of wildflowers in the air. The people that imagine like that are usually artists of some kind. They are the ones that write books that people read for centuries, they are the ones that write poetry, the ones that paint or sculpt. The people with those vivid imaginations are the ones that have such a deep understanding of something that they are compelled to make some attempt at communicating it in a manner that the rest of us might understand. Because the rest of us when we imagine we do not see the details. The rest of us hear the words and we might be lucky if we even develop an image at all in our mind’s eye.
I want us to imagine, I want us to develop this ability to some degree because it is important. When Jesus says that we must be like children to enter the kingdom, in some ways he is speaking about our ability to imagine. The skill of imagination allows us to see beyond. It allows us to explore and develop empathy as we mentally look at things from a different perspective.
Children imagine, they do this when they play. They imagine that they are professional baseball or soccer players. They imagine they are mothers or fathers. They imagine that they are astronauts on a mission to Mars or sailor on a pirate ship. Do you remember when you used to imagine? My parents have videos of my siblings and I playing, much to my embarrassment. In those videos you can see that the imagination can create things and situations that a child must figure out some way to overcome. It is the imagination that allows us to look beyond the known into the unknown, and we can solve the problems that we face.
We must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must become like children because children can imagine. They can see what is unseen. They believe in the possibility of something amazing. They believe that they can figure out some way to overcome the great obstacles set before them. Adults we struggle with this.
I want us to imagine today’s passage. But first we need to close our eyes and listen. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What image do you see? Let that image develop in your mind and add some scenery. Jesus said these words to the religious leaders of his day. They were angry and irritated with him because he had the audacity to heal a man that was blind from birth, on the sabbath. Jesus goes on, “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and care nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
Imagine the scene. Who are you seeing? Do you still see a shepherd or are you now seeing a crowd of angry men? Why are those men angry?
It is interesting how the imagination works. With just a few more words the entire scene changes. What we are seeing right now speaks volumes about where our mind is. When we see the angry men, we are identifying ourselves in a different place in the story. Why have we become that person?
I have been a hired hand on a farm. And often we get a distorted picture as to the personality of the hire hands from this parable. When someone hires people to assist in work, they are hiring those people to assist in the care of the entire scope of the business venture. In this parable the business is caring for sheep. Because of the wording we think of the hired hands as being cowards that see danger and run away. That is not a full picture. The hired hands were hired to help protect the herd. Their job is to help keep the flock from danger. When they see a wolf coming it is their job to get as many sheep away from the wolf as possible. They were hired for the herd not individual sheep. Their mindset is by default focused on preserving the as much of the herd as possible and the best way to do that is to avoid danger. But when a wolf enters the herd, seeking to devour the sheep, the hired hands must make a quick decision preserve some or lose them all. The hired hand must go with the greater number, preserve more and as a result they will lose some.
Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders; he is speaking to those that have been set in a place to care and preserve the congregation of Israel. Israel throughout their history has often be referred to as God’s sheep herd, so these religious leaders are the hired hands of God. They are set there to move and direct the herd to still waters and green pastures, but they are not the owners of the sheep. Do they care about the herd? Yes, they absolutely care about the herd. They are there to help keep the herd together.
These men that were listening to Jesus had just seen Jesus do something. They saw that he had worked a miraculous sign on a day that they were charged to preserve for God. As hired men, they were duty bound to move the sheep away from this dangerous act. If they did not distance themselves and the flock from this threat soon all the sheep would conclude that it would be ok to work on the sabbath. They enter a defensive mode. And they begin to sacrifice and distance themselves from those that have embraced this divisive teaching.
They, in their devotion, leave the healed man, who had never seen a spring flower bloom, behind. They removed him from the synagogue or exiled him from the community. This man who was shunned from his birth. He never once heard a kind word because people always regarded him as being sinful and cursed by God. He was excluded from the community and the moment his life changed, just when he was made complete by God, the community continues to reject him. Why?
The hired hands sensed change in the air. The hired hands noticed that the sheep were getting restless and their attention was being drawn to areas they were not leading them. The hired hands interpreted that change as being something treacherous that would cause harm to the herd, so they flee from the perception of danger. What they missed though was that the sheep were not sensing danger but the voice of their shepherd, who was approaching. Little by little, sheep by sheep begins to hear and turn. The hired hands try their hardest to keep the flock together. They are so focused on the flock, that they do not take the time to listen. They do not take the time to seek out what might be attracting the sheep’s attention. And because they fear the unknown, they instead of leading the sheep home, they lead them deeper into danger. They are unconcerned for the singular sheep, but instead more concerned with the organization.
“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Last week Pastor Bilengana spoke about living by the Spirit and being children of God. This is what that means. We focus on the Spirit of God. We seek the Spirit of God, and we listen to that voice. This takes discipline and effort both on our part and on God’s. Jesus spoke about leaving the ninety-nine to get the one sheep that strayed, that is God’s effort in bringing us in. Our effort is to listen and abide.
In the first reading today, John told us in his letter of encouragement, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s good and see his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
To love as John encourages us to love can cause some fear. We do not know what will happen, we are laid vulnerable before people that we do not trust and do not know. When someone asks us about our faith we are faced with a dilemma; are they honestly seeking or are they mocking? When we begin to see someone, we once regarded as sinful making attempts to change, how do we respond? Do we rush in to encourage or do we step back and continue to reject them from our community? How do we respond when the world and the church seem to be at odds?
Listen to the Spirit and abide with him. John goes on to encourage us, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him; for whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we as we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, jus as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
What does that mean? If our heart condemns us? This means if we sense danger, if we sense that maybe evil is lurking before us, trust that God is there. Look for where God is in that place and encourage that little spark of light to grow. If we focus on that of God within those around us and contribute to that identity it will grow. And as it grows, we do not need to worry about sin because the Spirit will direct those in sin out of sin if we feed the light.
The religious leaders looked upon a man born blind with disdain and they rejected him. When Jesus come to that man and healed him the religious leaders again rejected him because the healing did not happen according to their accepted traditions. They saw danger where God was walking, and they fled from the presence of God. Jesus speaks to them in that place of rejection and tells them that he is the good shepherd that will lay down his life for the sheep. They understand fully what Jesus is implying. God is the shepherd of Israel; God is the one that will protect and lead those he has chosen from the beginning of time. He is telling these devout religious leaders, that they are missing the point. They are running away from God because they are not listening to his voice. They have forgotten to look for God in the stillness, and instead demand signs. And when they see the signs, they still run because the signs did not come in a manner they expected.
We can become distracted from God, in so many ways. Even the most spiritual among us can be distracted even while they remain disciplined in their faith. We should listen to our hearts. Listen with the very center of who we are. Listen in our weakness and listen from that place we know we failed. Listen with the strength that God has given us to overcome and listen with the strength we still seek. Listen, and then respond. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But while we were still sinner, enemies of God, Christ died for us, so that we could have life. Not just life but a fulfilling life. That life comes to us when we believe in the name of Jesus and love one another as he not only commanded but showed us to do. Let us live lives loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.