Happy Hanukkah! John tells us that the events of this week’s gospel take place during the Feast of the Dedication, which is what we now call Hanukkah. It was not one of the festivals enumerated by Moses, but it was a very important time in the life of the jews. It commemorates the rededication and reconsecration of the temple after it had been won back by Judas Maccabeus from the occupying Greek empire. The festival occurs at the time of year when the days are at their shortest and people need a festival of light to bring their spirits up. It commemorates the miracle in which an amount of oil sufficient for only one day burned for 8 days as the temple was resecured. These events occurred less than 200 years before Jesus time, as fresh in the consciousness of the Jewish people in the temple as the events of the civil war are to us. Jesus’ preaching at the temple at this time was a little like someone speaking at the Lincoln Memorial on Memorial Day.
You can’t necessarily trust the timeline you infer by simply interpreting John’s gospel as a linear story. But if you do, this appears to be one of several trips that Jesus made to Jerusalem during his 3-year ministry. In all the trips the Temple plays an important role. It appears that the events of today’s gospel took place in December, the December before the spring in which Jesus was crucified. Things were getting serious. Jesus was busy making sure that everything that needed to be said was said.
Meanwhile the Pharisees were busy being Pharisees. The older I get, the more sympathetic I become to the Pharisees. They were faithful Jews, being true to the traditions and teachings that their parents and their parents’ parents had handed down. A young whippersnapper who thinks he knows everything and clearly wants to disrupt things keeps popping up in various places.
The country boy had to have a good reason to go to the city. Most of the time he travelled around Galilee and the surrounding area. His friends were there. His thousands of followers were there. But trips to the temple, his father’s house, were necessary. He needed to preach there. He needed to set things right there. And he needed to get under the skin of the Pharisees; things needed to change. At least twice he got the Pharisees so riled up that they nearly stoned him, with Jesus escaping by the skin of his teeth. You remember the day he cleared out the moneychangers from the temple. Also the day when he healed on the Sabbath while the Pharisees were there watching – that was one of the times that nearly got him stoned. The country boy did have good reasons to go to the city.
Anne and I have a lot of experience travelling between the big city and our relatively small hometown, Pittsfield. We’re both natives of Pittsfield. (An aside: With GE moving its corporate headquarters to Boston, residents of the Berkshires want us all to remind GE of its responsibility in cleaning up the Housatonic.) Anne and her family were among the first to use the newly opened Massachusetts Turnpike in 1955, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has travelled it end to end more often than any other Massachusetts resident in her trips between Perkins and home. When our son Andrew was born in 1986, the trips of course had to continue to visit family in the Berkshires frequently. If you have ever spent your time staring out the window as you travel from Boston to Becket, you know that feeling that you are getting further and further out into the country as you go along. Just as Nathaniel asked whether anything good comes from Nazareth, we can’t blame Andrew for asking whether anything good comes from the Berkshires. It got to the point where we felt we had a real responsibility to convince Andrew that Pittsfield was a real city with real urban institutions and culture. It came to a head one weekend when we had some banking business to do in Pittsfield. We pulled up in front of the bank building, an imposing building with Greek classic architecture and imposing columns on either side of the entrance. As we walked through the entrance, expecting to see bankers dressed in 3-piece suits sitting at mahogany desks, we were greeted by herds of screaming baby piglets and baaing baby lambs running around the bank out of control. As it turned out the nearby Hancock Shaker Village was advertising its petting zoo. I’m sure they get lots of visitors, but it ruined any chance we ever had of convincing Andrew that Pittsfield was a sophisticated city. It confirmed his idea that nothing good ever comes out of Pittsfield or Nazareth.
Besides the temple, another thing that seems to play a big role in Jesus teachings is sheep. On one of those trips to Jerusalem Jesus drove the moneychangers and the sheep and the doves out of the temple. But the biggest role of sheep in the gospel is in the role of us who depend on Jesus and his role as the Good Shepherd. Note the carefully placed audio-visual aid we have right here to emphasize my point.
Nevertheless the sheep in the bank or the sheep in the temple inspire feelings and lessons that don’t come from calculators or altars. The shearing of the sheep wouldn’t be done until spring, so the creatures were at their warm and cuddliest with thick coats of wool.
The people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary chose a fairly short section of John Chapter 10 as our gospel this week. I think you can get the fuller gist of Jesus’ intention and meaning with a longer quote, starting at John 10:11
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. … Again the jews were divided, because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
Then we have the section that the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary saw fit to include:
“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.’”
That’s where the Revised Common Lectionary stops, but we could predict the next few lines of John 10:
“The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me? The jews answered ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God. … Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.”
In these uncertain, unsettling times, the assurances in these passages are more important than ever. We’re in the middle of a political campaign with strongly contrasting value and views of humanity and the ideals of the United States. We live in a time of threat of terror that keeps us unsettled and edgy. The world is in upheaval with many fleeing as refugees, welcomed by some, feared and rejected by others. We are reminded that nuclear weapons still plague the world and continue to spread. At this time perhaps more than any other we need the assurances voiced in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. … He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways … Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; … Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Not only these words, but this place called Church of the Good Shepherd to which we return today forms part of this network of reassurance that makes it possible for us to make it through this troubling world. We come here for support and to recharge our moral batteries. We go out into the world with each other to make it a better place, to do the Father’s work. We depend on the guidance, comfort, and inspiration that we find in this place and among these people, our fellow parishioners. We will dwell in this house of the Lord forever. Amen.