Here is my sermon from last Sunday on what it really means to be a sheep. There are two texts for this sermon: Psalm 23 and John 10:22-29. I don’t think we’ve given much thought to the sheep/shepherd metaphor, because it definitely does not mean that we, as Christians, follow our religious leaders blindly! Here follows the texts and sermon:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
So, as some of you may have noticed, we are in the midst of an election year. And during an election year – at least more so than usual it seems – we are most privileged to listen to politicians. And politicians, if you’ve noticed, like to answer questions that are asked of them in the most infuriating way possible – by not actually answering them. The word, which I learned in 8th grade, is called circumlocution, and it literally means to “talk around”, as though the answer is a piece of bait, and the politician’s speech is a shark that continuously circles the bait without ever actually going for it. And, I don’t know about you, but more often than not after watching one of these debates I just want to scream at the television – “You didn’t even answer the question!” I suspect that many of us probably share the same frustration – that our political leaders oftentimes refuse to speak plainly.
So maybe we can understand, at least a little bit, the Jews’ similar frustration with Jesus in our passage this morning. When it comes to the question of whether or not he is the Messiah, Jesus has refused to give a direct answer. Nowhere does he ever say “I am the Messiah”, plain as day. And the Jews – which, whenever we are in John, we should take to mean “the Jewish religious leaders”, and not all Jews as a whole – want him to stop beating around the bush and just come right out and say it! Perhaps they are simply looking for him to incriminate himself, or perhaps they really want to know, but in either case they are irritated with his half-answers and unclear figures of speech – and the translation “how long will you keep us in suspense?” is really actually an incorrect translation of a Greek idiom; the actual Greek says “how long will you continue to take our life away?”, and a better translation of that idiom would actually be “how long are you going to keep annoying us?” So at this point, why doesn’t Jesus just go ahead and answer them directly? What is the point of refusing to give a straight answer here?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m on Jesus’ side here. And it may be because the story is written so that we take Jesus’ side; or it may be simply because he’s Jesus, so taking his side seems like a no-brainer. But then that means that I get frustrated with our politicians for doing the same thing that Jesus does quite frequently throughout his ministry. How do we reconcile wanting a straight answer from our leaders while also applauding the fact that Jesus often refuses to give a straight answer? Sure, there are definitely differences between talking around an answer and telling a story that clearly highlights the answer, but I think actually the main reason that we feel differently about politicians and Jesus is that there are two different types of questions – those that require a straight answer, and those that don’t – and that Jesus often answers the right questions appropriately, while our politicians do not.
What do I mean by this? Well, if somebody asks you what 2+2 is, or what the capitol of Greece is, they probably expect a straight answer. But if someone were to ask you what God looks like, or what it is like to be married, or to have a child, or even the simple question – do you believe in Jesus? – how might you answer that? Sure, you could give a straight answer – like, God is an old man with a beard; it’s tough being married; yes, I believe in Jesus – but these questions require more than that. They require an experience that is oftentimes too complex to put into words. That’s why Jesus doesn’t answer the question “are you the Messiah?” with a simple “yes” or “no”. Instead, he points to his works – the experience of traveling with Jesus and witnessing all that he says and all that he does – that is the answer to the question. You have to experience Jesus’ Messiahship in order to understand it – you can’t just be told one way or the other.
This, by the way, is the crux of John’s Gospel. If you read it very closely, you’ll notice that it is always the experience of Jesus that brings people to faith, and not just being told to believe in him. In fact, the event that takes place just before Jesus’ speech here is Jesus healing a man who was born blind. Jesus doesn’t say who he is – the man doesn’t even get to see him – but because of his experience of healing at the hands of Jesus, he believes. He goes from being completely blind – blind from birth! – to seeing clearer than the most well-regarded religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees who question him about Jesus’ identity. And because of this, the Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ remarks that they are truly the blind ones. Jesus responds with this speech on the good shepherd, the hireling, the thief, the wolf, and the sheep.
What does it mean to be a sheep? Indeed, how does one become a good sheep? The word has taken on a less-than-admirable connotation; at least a couple of my atheist friends sneer in disdain at folks they like to call “sheeple”. According to their understanding, many Christians applaud the idea that we should do as we’re told and blindly follow the instructions of our religious leaders. They believe the metaphor of sheep and shepherd is a recipe for cult-like behavior and the abandonment of all good judgment. And to be honest, I agree with them – to an extent. I mean, there is a sense in American Christianity that it is wrong to question authority – particularly religious authority. There is a deference given to those in power. There is a resolution that we must be 100% sure of what we believe, else we not be faithful enough, even if what we believe clashes with our experience and understanding of the world. Indeed, there is something quite comforting about being able to follow blindly on the walk of faith, trusting that we are being looked after by those who have our best spiritual interest at heart. But folks, that’s not being a sheep. That’s being a lemming (by the way, I looked this up, and it is a popular misconception that lemmings follow each other off cliffs; but the metaphor is so popular and so widely recognized that I feel it is the best fit for my rhetorical needs here).
As we already know from the story about the blind man, sheep do not follow blindly. No, in truth, they can see more clearly than anyone else! Sheep are never content with following the first voice they happen to hear, but are instead always listening for and discerning the voice of the shepherd. Many sheep are leaders themselves, bringing others to faith by sharing their experiences of the shepherd. Sheep do not follow other sheep, but rather always rely on the voice of the shepherd to lead them home. Sheep do not let somebody else tell them what the shepherd has to say, because they are perfectly capable of hearing the shepherd themselves. And finally, sheep are extremely suspicious of straight answers when it comes to faith, because they know that the true shepherd never gives them.
And that is why the Jewish leaders in this text do not believe. Because they are not sheep. Because they want the answers to be black and white. They want everything to be straight and simple and plain and easy. They can’t handle a messy faith, a nuanced faith, a faith where God can be both 100% human and 100% God all at once! They can’t deal with the answers that only beget more questions, because they want everything to be all figured out. Well, Jesus has news for them – and for all of us:
Faith is not easy! It’s not simple! It’s not a yes or no question. It doesn’t provide plain answers – and this book – the Bible – by the way, does not contain all the answers you will ever need in the life of faith! And I am appalled at the number of churches that tell you it does. I mean, you don’t just take a serious, complicated, nuanced life situation and go pick out a Bible verse to solve it; yea, it can be helpful, but it won’t give you a straight answer. That’s not what faith is. Have you ever seen Indiana Jones – the third one, Last Crusade, with Sean Connery? At the end, Indy is going through this booby-trapped temple (as he usually does) to get to the Holy Grail, and he comes to the final test, which is the “leap of faith”. He has to cross a gaping chasm by walking across what looks like thin air. He holds his breath and takes a step. And if you’ve seen it, you know that he has no idea how he’s getting across that chasm; he’s not 100% sure he won’t fall to his death. But he takes the step anyway. That’s faith! That’s what it means to be a sheep. Unlike a lemming, which simply runs off the cliff without thinking twice about it, a sheep makes a conscious choice to trust the shepherd, even when it’s not 100% sure everything is going to be ok.
We – and when I say we, I mean Christians, as a whole – we need to stop being lemmings. And we need to stop encouraging others – especially our children – to be lemmings, blindly following authority, being satisfied with plain answers where there are none, and being led on by strangers who only seek to satisfy their own egos. We must learn how to be sheep. Careful, inquisitive, clever, faithful sheep. And we must continue to listen for and discern the voice of our good shepherd, whom we personally know and trust through divine experience.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me on right paths, for His name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.