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Sermon – April 25, 2010: Shepherd

Sermon for Sunday, April 25, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Shepherd

Psalm 23, Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30

All autobiography is a little suspect, as we know the author is prejudiced in favor of

the person whose life is being written. It’s a genre in which it is possible to get the dirt–

again, not always trustworthy–on other people, because it has become more common for

persons to tell stories about people with whom they were associated. You have to wait for

one of those other people, however, to write his or her own autobiography before you

learn about the interesting failings of the person who wrote the first book. Writing one’s

story always is taken as a chance to put oneself in the best possible light.

This is especially true of political memoirs. One’s influence in one’s own time and

one’s reputation afterward give leaders an incentive to make the best case for themselves

that they can.

People have a lot of different takes on the Twenty-Third Psalm, and that’s how it is

supposed to be with scripture. For my part, I see the key to the psalm as autobiography–

David’s casting himself in the role of a sheep with God as his shepherd through most of the

psalm brings us to God’s having made David shepherd over Israel–that’s what the

reference to his being anointed means, that he’s been elevated to king.

I’m not saying David wrote this reflective, self-describing psalm as propaganda, as a

way of presenting himself to his people and posterity emphasizing his humble origins as a

shepherd and God’s extravagant favor in making him king. I don’t think David was any

more hypocritical in his religion than the next person.

However, this image of the naive shepherd being guarded and guided and given

the kingdom doesn’t entirely jibe with the King David we know from the Bible’s own history.

David was charismatic, courageous, decisive, and shrewd; but he also became selfindulgent.

His adultery with Bathsheba is probably remembered because it led to the

treacherous murder of her husband, and his mishandling of the rivalries and crimes of his

own children makes him a more complex figure than we know from childhood lessons about

his sling and his songs.

The economy of the ancient Near East had long suggested to rulers that a proper

metaphor for their domination of their people was their being a shepherd. Babylonian kings

and Assyrian kings before them had styled themselves shepherds of their people, and

David’s youthful experience of shepherding made it inevitable that he would be recalled as

a shepherd of Israel. The Twenty-Third Psalm, which names the Lord his Shepherd, can

serve as one of those images of the faithful king who is a go-between, standing between

God and the people, God David’s shepherd, and David Israel’s shepherd. Israel’s religion

didn’t permit this exactly, but that image stuck. David encouraged a personality cult–he was

one of those people able to succeed in his own time by the sheer magnitude and energy

of his charisma but not able to lay a foundation for lasting success–and so David’s own

qualities are abundantly remembered and recorded in what become the scriptures. There’s

more about him than about any other monarch, even more than about his proverbially wise

and in some ways more successful son, Solomon. So it is that this image of David the

shepherd, whose Shepherd was God, who himself is Shepherd of Israel, remains, and

eventually informs every hope for restoration and greatness which Israel ever will have.

The other gospel tradition, represented by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, which have

many materials in common, makes a lot of Jesus being David’s son. Birth narratives give

him a Davidic descent on his father’s side, and he is hailed as “Son of David” as a Messianic

title. In Luke Jesus once seems to cast doubt on the appropriateness of the Messiah

being regarded as a Son of David, but otherwise that tradition argues for Jesus being the

Messiah by his being a successor to David.

In John’s gospel the question of descent from David is only mentioned by those

who doubt Jesus, as an objection to recognizing him as the One Sent by God. There are

no positive references to Jesus being of David’s house, and no positive comparisons with

David the king. There are, however, many references to Jesus being the Good Shepherd

and the people being his sheep. What John’s gospel has in common with the Old

Testament’s fascination with David is the motif of shepherd as king.

John’s gospel tends to go back before David for its symbolic comparisons. It

compares Jesus to Moses. It compares Jesus to the miracles associated with Moses in

the wilderness, life-giving water and bread from heaven. This association with the earlier

books of the Old Testament is reminiscent of the scriptural basis for another significant group

of deliverers of Israel who also had no connection with the house of David, the Maccabees.

There are books of Maccabees but they aren’t in our Bible. There is a holiday

associated with the Maccabees but it’s a minor Jewish holiday. It’s Hanukah, and only

made important in the United States because its custom of gift-giving in December has

made it serve the minority Jewish population as an alternative to the great cultural holiday of

Christmas. What I want to point out about the Maccabees is that they were a household of

very religious Jews who resisted the absorption of Israel into a pagan empire. That

empire, a couple of hundred years before Christ, was one of the culturally Greek successor

empires to Alexander the Great. The books of Maccabees are filled with references to their

trust in the examples of Joshua and Gideon and other heroes of the Old Testament whom

God equipped to overcome superior foreign armies.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus is met by his religious rivals with a demand for a

clear announcement of his being the Messiah at the Temple during the Feast of Dedication.

The Feast of Dedication is another name for Hanukah, and what is being memorialized is the

rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees had driven out foreign influences from

Jerusalem and purified the Temple of all foreign religious practices which the Greeks had

encouraged there.

We are often told that Jesus’ countrymen were waiting for a Messiah who would use

violence to free Israel from foreign domination. That’s easiest to see in things like the Dead

Sea scrolls and what we can learn there and from other contemporary writers about

Essenes and Zealots. They, and other groups like them, were first-century Palestine’s

equivalent to the kinds of militias which we now have in this country which grow up around

resentments and resistance to change and find a religious expression for their violent

instincts.

The feast instituted by the Maccabees, at the Temple during a period of foreign

domination, seems a natural time to wonder if Jesus of Nazareth is going to declare himself

another Judas Maccabeus, another ardent champion of traditional Jewish values who is

going to liberate his country. Jesus is going to offer freedom, but not that kind. This is one

more instance in John’s gospel of even the nonbelievers who seem to want to believe

being on a different wavelength than Jesus. Jesus says that his works testify to who he is:

but those works are healings and feedings, charity work, mostly–with only the odd cleansing

of the Temple fraught with religious and political overtones. His questioners can’t

understand who Jesus is from these signs, but Jesus’ own followers recognize their

meaning. That’s where the motif of Shepherd and sheep comes in. Others don’t trust and

don’t know Jesus, but his own, whom he cares for and leads and safeguards, know who he

is.

He is a very different kind of Shepherd King. Where David used cunning and

violence, Jesus employs wisdom and innocence. The violence opposing Jesus is sad but

futile; his cross is an exaltation, and his crucifixion is an achievement. John’s gospel has no

hint of the reluctance to die demonstrated by Jesus in the other tradition. Jesus is

magisterial at his arrest, and Jesus seems an overmatch for his opponents at his trials. He

tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and that if it had been, his followers would

have fought to prevent his arrest. This underlines everything Jesus has been saying so far

about his kingdom being from above and being about Truth and his going before his

followers to his Father’s House to prepare a place for them and all that. In the gospel of

John Jesus’ glorification as Lord of a new people of God begins with his crucifixion, and

means he will be with his followers forever.

The last image about sheep and shepherd we have in today’s scripture is from the

Book of Revelation. The Lamb who died at Passover to deliver an enslaved people from

domination by their enemies and to free them even from the enemy of Death is on the

throne. His apparent earthly destruction has been, in fact, his heavenly establishment.

Those for whom he is both fellow sheep and Shepherd bask in his serene care, and all the

pains of being a mortal are forever overcome. This is the divine and eternal order by which

all may live, wearing the world lightly while we live, and continuing with Christ past our death.

 

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