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Sunday May 2, 2004
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

From Hanukkah to Easter

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Traditionally this fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday, a designation reflected in the Collect for the Day as well as the lessons from the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of Saint John.

Jesus’ teaching about himself as God’s Good Shepherd and about us as his sheep takes place on the Feast of Dedication, now known as Hanukkah. This was a memorial to the purification and re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in December, 165 BC, after its desecration three years earlier by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, whose kingdom was an offshoot of the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great. In one of the most traumatic episodes in Jewish history, Antiochus captured Jerusalem, plundered the temple treasury, and sacrificed a sow to Zeus on the Temple Altar, which was then re-named for the Greek god. The act entered the annals of infamy and defined what the Scriptures call the “abomination of desolation.” Judas of the great Maccabee family (the name means “hammer”), succeeded in an extraordinary defeat of Antiochus’ much larger army and in liberating the Jewish people. He is a worthy subject for George Frideric Handel’s Oratorio named after him and for the great march, See, the Conquering Hero Comes!

With this history in the background, Jesus was walking and teaching in the outer section of the Temple, called Solomon’s Porch or Colonnade. From it you could see the deep Kidron Valley to the east and such sights as the Garden of Gethsemane on the hill opposite and the road Jesus would take from Bethany into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In this setting Jesus taught about a very different sort of conquering hero and a different sort of army, the Good Shepherd and his sheep.

In response to hostile questions about his identity – Are you the Messiah or not? – Jesus evokes the image of himself as God’s Shepherd and of his followers as his sheep. This Shepherd is every bit as much a conquering hero as Judas Maccabeus, yet with a difference. He lays down his life for his sheep, but not as a military leader. Instead he is the Lamb who is also the Shepherd, or to put it another way, the Victim who is also the Priest.

Throughout his ministry Jesus avoided politics and eschewed political ambitions, though he respected the role of the State and of Caesar as a necessary power given by his Father. Jesus did not use force to defend himself, though he had good words for soldiers and military people. Finally, Jesus said physical temples were not necessary for the worship of God, though he called the Jerusalem Temple his Father’s house and a place of prayer for all people. Destroy this temple, said Jesus referring to the temple of his body, and in three days I will raise it up. In other words, Jesus Christ is the true temple of worship of the Father in spirit and in truth, the Head of the Body, the living Body of Christ, of which his sheep are the members. Church buildings, no matter how beautiful (such as this one), are homes for the Body of Christ for the time being.

Let us, with Jesus, give all due respect to the State, the armed forces and police, and the temple and religion. But the governance of Jesus the Good Shepherd far exceeds that of any earthly ruler. His protection and security are far more profound than anything that armed force can provide. And his worship of God is far deeper and beyond any religious expression of rhetoric, ceremony, or building.

The Good Shepherd who is also the Lamb of God, takes away sin, by his death overcomes death, and by his resurrection reveals to his flock the nature of eternal life. The sheep that belong to him are characterized by the fact that they can hear his voice, recognize who he is, give their allegiance to him, and follow where he leads. To be one of his sheep is a gift of God; no one, Jesus said, can come to him “unless my Father draws him.” And that gift, which seems so utterly gracious, is also the basis of all security. Since it is a gift of God, no one and no power in the world can snatch the sheep from the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all…I and the Father are one.” Furthermore, the Lamb of God, who is God’s Good Shepherd, has even pioneered the way through the valley of the shadow of death; he will guide his sheep from this world into the next, guide them to living water, and wipe away every tear.

The image of the sheep conjures up major descriptions of the authentic believer. Jesus insists that belief in him on his terms will bring life, life that is eternal and cannot be snatched away by any person, power or principality. The life we receive cannot be taken away because it is from Jesus’ Father, and no power is greater than God. Our union with God is assured. The deliverance that Israel had through the agency of such a hero as Judas Maccabeus was marvelous, as, even more, was the Exodus by the hand of Moses, but these are types and shadows of the greatest deliverance of all – from sin and death, a Passover from a spiritual prison house into a land of grace and freedom. Glorious as a visible temple can be, a church building testifies to a far greater reality; namely that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, Emmanuel, God-with-us, who calls us to himself to be the Shepherd and Pastor of our souls.

This unbreakable union with God through Christ is Jesus’ Easter gift to us. When we celebrate the Eucharist shortly, listen carefully to the preface, which says that Jesus Christ is “the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life.” Then taste and see the fruit of his victory in the sign of Holy Communion, for his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink indeed; those who truly eat and drink it, dwell in him and he in them. This is the eternal life that cannot be snatched away, here and now, and in the world to come.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.