This last week I had training in Woking on preaching, and William led the first two sessions. So what I’m saying is – if this sermon is great, well what did you expect from me?; if it’s terrible, blame William…😊
Today we will explore the reading from John, and the identity of Jesus. Why is it important that Jesus is one with the Father? And how do we remain in his flock?
Later this year, we have HM the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee! It will be a big event, one that does not happen very often! And in our gospel today, Jesus was at a big event – though I admit it happened much more frequently, occurring each year. Our Jewish friends call it Hannukah.
Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. Why did it need to be rededicated? A nasty man called Antiochus Epiphanes had come to power and he decided that all religions, especially Judaism, should be merged into one; that one sacrifice to Zeus would cover everything. He banned Jewish circumcision and he had pigs – an unclean animal – slaughtered on the altar in the Jerusalem temple.
Talk about red rag to a bull! It would be like driving a car covered in protestant/unionist symbols through a catholic/nationalist neighbourhood in Northern Ireland. Eruption and riots would erupt. And sure enough, the Jewish world exploded, led by the Maccabees brothers.
You can read all about the Maccabean revolt elsewhere, suffice to say they won and the temple was retaken. But it was now seen as dirty, defiled and unclean, and so it was rededicated and restored. It was made ready and fit for the sacrifices to God to resume, making things right between God and his people.
They got the temple back in order, but they still waited for a godly and holy king, a great leader to save them. Imagine Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a righteous and virtuous king riding in to lead the overthrow of Greek and Roman rule.
So when Jesus turns up, and with him comes the big fuss and massive reputation about what he’s been doing, the priests ask him: are you the messiah?! Are you the one? Tell us plainly! Well, it’s true Jesus had not explicitly stated his identity to them, but equally, he had said it in other words, and he heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons and turns water into wine. The elemental chemistry of planet earth changes at his whim. The prophesied kingdom of God is erupting as lives are changed, deformed bodies restored, sinners corrected into living rightly. The evidence of his identity is pretty clear…
If it is yellow, peels, grows in bunches and is curved, then it is probably a banana. If someone ticks all the boxes of your hoped-for Messiah, then he might just be that Messiah!
Jesus responds to their doubt in an exasperated manner. I told you and you don’t believe! The things I do show you who I am! Why can’t you see this?!
Before WW2, many people admired the strongman leader of Germany. They saw a man delivering results. A few lone outliers, like that “troublesome” Churchill, warned that this Hitler was evil and that authoritarianism leads to horror and war. Some people, like Churchill, had eyes to see the truth, even when everyone else was blind.
Jesus effectively said the same about the priests: their shepherd was in front of them, but they refused to recognise him.
Jesus uses sheep as a metaphor. Sheep are often used to describe God’s people of Israel, but here Jesus gives the shocking truth to the priests: they are not God’s sheep! Imagine you spend your life serving and volunteering for a charity, doing good things, and then suddenly a faction hi-jacks your charity and leads it to an extreme position, accusing people like you of not even being a member! You’d feel very insulted, upset and grieved. You gave your life to that organisation!
That’s how these leaders felt! The leaders of Israel – not God’s sheep! It’s such an insult! But Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice, and these leaders clearly do not see or hear Jesus.
Jesus then gives the incendiary statement: he and his Father are one. If the priests wanted a direct statement, this is it! But why is it important that Jesus and God are also One?
First, if Jesus and God are One, then it means the teachings of Jesus are the teachings of God. And if you can’t listen to Jesus, you can’t listen to God.
Second, if you ever feel dirty, devalued, used, flawed and just ‘wrong’; if you ever wish you were an angel, or a unicorn, or a ghost; then I have news for you: Jesus Christ, One with God, became flesh just like you and me. God became us: that’s how valuable and precious we are!
Third, if Jesus is God and man, then Jesus is where God meets us. He is the new temple. He replaces the stone monolith in Jerusalem and himself becomes the gateway and door to God.
And if you are his sheep, you are safe. God himself protects you. No one can steal you.
But… please note, no one can steal you, but you can probably wander off. You must keep an eye on your shepherd. By all means explore and ask questions: Christianity is about learning and growing to embrace the fullness of your responsibility as a child of God, serving him and making the best choices. It is psychologically healthy to question your faith, to find answers and go deeper; to wrestle with God and to mature. But remember – No one can steal you, but you can lose yourself.
So how do we remain in the flock? Ask yourself: can I see my shepherd? If you are not coming to church, meeting with Christians, you are isolated and losing touch with the shepherd. Indeed, if you can love fellow Christians, it often seems you can love anyone! Persist in praying. Ask questions, but continue to serve. And read the bible, let it form you to be like Jesus. Because his words are the words of God, and his temple is now made of people like you and me.
So persist in your faith, don’t wander off. Stay loyal, and remember your value – God took on flesh just like you and me; that’s how much he cares!