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. The Father and I are one.”
Once again I come to this passage from John’s gospel remembering that John never says anything that is not significant. Parchment was too rare and expensive to waste on non-essentials. Every word and phrase has power in John’s hands. It was John who gave us that chilling four word phrase just after Judas has departed the upper room, “… and it was night“. In that endline all the horror of what is happening is captured.
So I come expectantly, to this passage from John and he hits me with another of those phrases.
First he tells me that it was the time of the Festival that had been set up by the Maccabeans in 126BCE to commemorate the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, the festival of the Dedication. He then hits me with, “It was winter”. A barren season when there is little sign of life. He is in the re-consecrated temple yet I wonder if John is suggesting that consecrating a building without consecrating one’s heart is a cold and fruitless ritual?
It is in this bleak architectural and calendar space that Jesus is questioned as to whether he is the Xristos, the Messiah.
I can almost hear the sigh in his voice as he replies,” “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus has been performing many restorative acts of resurrrection, healing, forgiving. Restoring people’s food security, in raising men for vulnerable widowed homes. Countering bad shame blame theology by healing Canaanite children, Roman children, and even Synagogue leader’s children like Jairus’ daughter, to show that bad things do not only happen to bad people. If all of my works of restoration do not show you that God’s Xristos is here, then what will?
Remember, word economic John has located Jesus very precisely. All that is missing are the GPS co-ordinates and we could reference the spot on Google Earth! Jesus is standing in Solomon’s portico.
Solomon’s portico that abutted the court of the Gentiles, where all the sheep trading and money changing was going on.
- Can you hear the haggling of the priests and the pilgrims?
- Can you hear the clinking of the coins as they drop onto the tables that Jesus will overturn next time he comes to town?
- I am sure Jesus heard all these sounds too.
- But it was another sound that gave him the metaphor he needed for this Good News moment.
- If we listen carefully you and I can hear it too.
Do you hear the bleating of the sheep and the silence of the lambs?
These are not calm and pastoral flocks, these are the fuel for the bloodthirsty religious machine that the temple has become, and it is the fear and dislocated cries of the scapegoated sheep that Jesus uses to teach us this Shepherd Sunday.
“You don’t trust that I am the Messiah, because you don’t recognise my voice above the noisy screams of your own conflicted lives. If you were my sheep, this call to life, love, compassion and community would not be strange to you, and you would follow me. But as it is now, all you have is this beautiful building and a winter-blighted religion in which your frozen hearts cannot care less about the desperation of the pilgrims who need to know God’s life.
That is why I have come. I have not come for fancy porticoes and friezes, nor for festivals and feasts. Of all your laws I will keep only one rule, that you love God and each other. And of your rituals I will retain only a piece of broken bread and Elijah’s cup of wine from the Passover meal. The rest is as dead as these poor bleating sheep soon will be. There is no salvation in all this sacrifice. That is why I have never once spoken of myself as a sacrifice. No I am a Shepherd.
A shepherd whom your laws declare to be permanently unclean, because I work with blood and dung.
Yet, despite who you judge me to be, those who need life and love, compassion and community, come to me. Their belief is not some doctrinal and ethical veracity, it is simple trust. Trust that opens their eyes to glimpse God, in me and in themselves. In that union of my Father and me they come to share in a life that will last forever.
These sheep of mine will become, by grace, one flock with one shepherd. This flock will be struck and scattered across the face of the earth, for it is winter now, a cold and barren time.
But one morning the sun will rise, the hearts of ice will melt, and the Shepherd will repeat his eternal call once more. “Follow me.”
You may slaughter sheep but you cannot kill a shepherds love.
Not in winter, in fact not ever!”