April 21, 2013

I Know Them and They Follow Me

Passage: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.


By the year 175 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes inherited the Syrian Empire from his father it was already a satellite of Rome.  Palestine was part of this Syrian empire.  Antiochus Epiphanes, in pursuance of a one religion policy, proceeded to forbid the Jews to maintain their ancestral religion and laws and ordered them to conform to the pagan worship of Zeus. The climax of his attempt to eradicate Jewish worship was to set on the altar in the Jerusalem temple a pagan altar, probably with an image of Zeus in Antiochus’ likeness; on the 25th Kislev (December) in 167 BC a sacrifice of a pig (against Mosaic sacrificial law) was made on this altar.

The insults of Antiochus enraged the Jews of Palestine.  In 166 B.C. a group of Jewish rebels gathered around Mattathias and his five sons in the village of Modein, a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. One of these sons, Judas Maccabaeus (the hammer), guided these rebels in an heroic series of military encounters that led to a Jewish victory over the forces of Antiochus; the temple was cleansed and refurbished, and on the 25th Kislev 164 B.C. (three years to the day since its desecration), sacrifice was offered in accord with Mosaic Law on the newly built altar of burnt offering. The people celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days, and it was decreed that a like festival be held each year.  The festival became known as the festival of Dedication (Hanukkah).

Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the festival of Dedication; he comes to the temple to preach.  Given what this festival celebrates—the unlikely victory of the Jews over the forces of an occupying army—you can imagine the expectations and meaning loaded into the question of the Jewish’ leaders as they encircle Jesus at the Temple that day.  “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah,* tell us plainly.”

We can readily understand what is driving their “in-your-face” approach with Jesus.  All Israel had awaited the Messiah for 1400 years. What could be more urgent than knowing whether Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited one or not?  Throughout Israel ’s history different individuals at different times claimed to be the Messiah.  In each case some enthusiastic people gathered around the claimant, only to find themselves let down.  By now many were jaded.  Most were sceptical. And then the Nazarene had appeared. He seemed different from most people, different even from most Messianic pretenders. At the same time, he hadn’t rid Palestine of the Roman occupation—yet.  Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t rid Palestine of the Roman occupation until he had a bigger following.  So what were people to do?  Join or not join themselves to him.  “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. Prove yourself to us. Convince us first, and then we’ll side with you.”

Many today want God to prove himself to them.  If only God would show that he loves me by giving some relief from unrelieved suffering, or repairing a difficult relationship, or giving success in a course of study, or rescuing me from impending disaster then I will get serious about God in my life.

It was in response to their inquiry that Jesus answered: “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

1. In his book Building a Church of Small Groups, Bill Donahue relays a story from his time as a part-time youth pastor while attending seminary.  The story is about a visit he made to a farm where two of the students in his youth group lived.  The father of these young people taught Bill a valuable lesson about sheep.  Donahue writes:

He asked if I could help call in the sheep. I enthusiastically agreed. Sheep-calling was like preaching. We stood at the pasture fence, watching 25 sheep graze. "Go ahead," he dared me. "Call them in." "What do you say?" I asked.  "I just say, 'Hey, sheep! C'mon in!'"

No sweat, I thought. … I began in a normal speaking voice, but this father interrupted. "You are 75 yards away, downwind, and they have their backs to you. Yell! Use your diaphragm, like they teach you in preaching class."  So I took a deep breath and put every inch of stomach muscle into a yell that revival preachers around the world would envy: "Hey, sheep! C'mon in!"  The blessed creatures didn't move an inch. None even turned an ear.

The farmer smiled. "Do they teach you the Bible in that seminary? Have you ever read, 'My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me'?" Raising his voice only slightly, he said: "Hey, sheep! C'mon in!" All 25 sheep turned and ambled toward us.

Like many of Jesus’ answers to our questions Jesus redirects us; points out the flawed assumptions of our questions; corrects our questions; shows us what questions we ought to ask.  Jesus first rejects their assertion/assumption that he has not been forthcoming with respect to their question: “I have told you, and you do not believe.”  Like these leaders who question Jesus so too today many want something more.  The self-disclosure of God witnessed to in the scriptures isn’t sufficient.  I want it proved to me; God should accommodate himself to me so I can have it my way.

But, we may ask, why Jesus doesn’t simply state what they want to hear; clearly he isn’t unwilling to tell them since he said “I have told you”.  Why not?  Not because he likes to see people play guessing games; not because he enjoys tormenting people where the most crucial matters of life and death are concerned.  He doesn’t tell the people plainly for one reason: they are looking for proof of who he is and then they will abandon themselves to him--maybe.  The truth is, we can’t know who he is until we abandon ourselves to him. Proof pertains to mathematics and to science. Proof has nothing to do with persons. The truths of mathematics are proven deductively; the truths of science are proven inductively.  But where persons are concerned, no proof is possible.

There’s no way you can prove that the love of your life loves you.  Every action you point to as proof of love the cynic or half-cynic can explain away.  You could say my husband or wife listens sensitively and responds understandingly when we talk with each other.  The cynic responds “that’s because they have nothing better to offer to talk about.  You could say my spouse has remained faithful to me for these many years of marriage? The cynic says that because of an unconscious fear of venereal disease. You could speak of your spouse’s support of your work ventures.  The cynic responds that it’s because they like the money derived from such venture.  I can’t prove my wife loves me to the cynic.  Still, there is no doubt in our minds that one we know loves us loves us.

Some people who resisted our Lord asked him for a sign. They wanted him to do something dramatic, something persuasive, something compelling—that he was the one in whom they should believe.  Jesus refused to give any such sign.  He refused for one reason.  His detractors wanted proof that he was indeed God’s visitation—and all of this without committing themselves to him.  Once Jesus had given them the “proof” something would occur in their heads—they now had information they had heretofore lacked—but nothing would occur in their hearts. The “proof” they would have asked for and received would have altered nothing about their lives. The “proof” would have made no difference in their lives.

Instead of “proving” himself Jesus said, “Certainty concerning me arises only as you commit yourselves to me. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  “Certainty of who I am,” says Jesus, “seizes you only as you follow me, trust me, obey me, and even come to love me.” Those who do this find an assurance concerning me and their life in me that obliterates doubt.  Those who don’t commit themselves to me remain forever unpersuaded.”  As the saying points out:  For those who believe no proof is necessary, for those who will not believe no proof is ever sufficient.

In revealing himself, God was not merely concerned with sating our curiosity. His revelation sheds no special light on algebra or quantum mechanics. Instead, like a marriage proposal, it is an invitation—to intimacy with him, to love.

2. Last week (April 17 & 18) Emmanuel College Alumnae Association—United Church school at the University of Toronto—ran its annual event; the title of the event was “The Rise of the Post-Human: Where is the Gospel?”  If you are curious as to what is meant by “post-human” it refers to imagined and suspected evolutions of the human form.  Representations of the post-human can be seen in the rise of machines through recent advances in robotics and cybernetics, to the rise of zombies, vampires and comic book superheroes in cinema and fiction.  The conference overview stated: “The rise of the post-human represents a new age for us, our children and future generations. These images of the post-human shape the way we relate to each other, the things we value, what we believe and our understanding of what it means to be human.”

I was unable to attend the event even though I was intrigued by this idea of “post-human” particularly as it relates to our culture’s understanding of what it means to be human.  With this idea of “post-human” on my mind I came across a story about a recent advertisement run by the US telecommunications company Sprint pushing the merits of its data plan.  The ad begins with this claim: “The miraculous is everywhere; in our homes; in our minds.” At two seconds the word “unlimited” flashes across the images on the screen. Next we are told, “we can share every second in data dressed in pixels.”  This is followed by asking you to imagine “a billion roaming photo-journalists uploading the human experience,” and then asks, “Why would you cap that?”  The speaker goes on to say, “I need to upload all of me, I need, no, I has the right to be unlimited.”  And of course with the right device and data plan you can be unlimited.

Can the miraculous be delivered through technological innovation?  Consider for a moment what the idea that “I can upload all of me” has for what it means to be human.  Can human life be completely captured in pixels?  Think about the claim that “I have a right to be unlimited.”  In our cultural moment, the idea of limits is an offense.  In terms of the impact on the understanding of what it means to be human, this is left to be individually determined.  Canadian Parliament recently passed Bill C-279 that amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and gender expression.  Gender identity refers to an individual’s self-conception as a male or female and gender expression is how a person communicates their gender identity to others.  You are considered to be the final arbiter of your own identity.

The question, where is the gospel in all of this, is a good one.  Take note again what Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  Identity is not function of our self-knowledge.  The believer’s identity is in Jesus Christ—I belong to him (follower)—and rests secure in the truth that Jesus knows us completely.  The Bible surely affirms that we can know God in this faith relationship; but more importantly God knows us.  The real truth about ourselves is known by him and in following him who we are emerges.  We look to Jesus for our identity.

The creation account in Genesis declares that the distinguishing feature of being human is that God speaks to the human; the implication is that we were created for this relationship.  The human is created response-able to this address by God.  God address us because he created us for this address.  This is what the Bible means that we are created in the image of God.  Being in the image of God is not a religious overlay on our natural humanity.  On the contrary, being in the image of God is itself fundamental to our true humanity.  Without freedom to be for God and the other, we are living in contradiction to our basic humanity.

You know how small children will assail a parent or grandparent with countless questions at what seems inopportune moments.  You are preparing a meal and the barrage begins; and we tune out the questions.  Finally the child asks indignantly, “Can’t you hear me?”  Without thinking you respond, “I can hear you, I’m just not listening.” Now, if we were deaf then the child could not have been hurt.  But to say, “Yes, I can hear, but I’m not listening” is to treat the child inhumanly.  We were made for such relationship.

This is precisely the way sinful humanity treats God.  We act as if God is deaf.  We are unwilling to hear; we resist hearing the word and will of God in favour of our own sense of instinctive rights.  Biblically speaking, this is to live inhumanly, not just to live out-of-step with some religious claim. (For further reading; Ray Anderson, On Being Human)

3. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  You know this voice.  The voice of our Lord is the one that you hear above all the inner turmoil of contradictions, self-doubt, low self-esteem, failure, and guilt that whispers—I know you, and you are mine.  My sheep know my voice.  It is the voice that comes at the beginning of each new day that speaks a word of forgiveness about yesterday and tells you to reach for what is possible; that this day is a new beginning from which good can come.  It is the voice calling us to self-giving, self-forgetful love of neighbour, to fellowship, to purity.  In the Saviour’s love no one, no event large or small, nothing created or yet to come can destroy you.

Here the voice of our Lord: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”