As the Feast of the Dedication was upon them, the Jews seemed anxious to be certain about the identity of Jesus. Was he really the Messiah? Jesus considered that he had given enough evidence of who he was through his actions. Rather than give further signs, he gave himself the title that God also has, that of Shepherd. He assured his listeners that, just as sheep recognise the voice of their shepherd, if we will recognise and follow, we will be safe forever.
The readings for Sunday were Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-end, John 10:22-30. My reflection from the noon SLT service is given below:
In my counselling training I’ve studied post-traumatic stress disorder among other things. Those who suffer PTSD have had traumatic experiences which they have not been able to fully process. The way these memories have been stored means that a similar incident can trigger the memory of the previous trauma. The PTSD victim is catapulted back to the trauma and feels it as though it’s happening now and not in the past. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this is that of soldiers from the First World War who were constantly bombarded by shells as they sheltered in the trenches. Many suffered afterwards from shell-shock, finding themselves cowering terrified if they heard loud noises many years afterwards, as though back in the trenches.
It’s not just extreme situations like this that can give rise to the triggering of memories, hopes and fears. Anniversaries can suggest to people that something special may happen, either good or bad. On the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings of the London tube, travellers were particularly anxious, even though logic might say that lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. Emotions don’t always respond to logic. If we remember a special occasion, perhaps a birthday, we might be hopeful that something similarly good may happen the next time. Once again, it’s unlikely to be the same, though something equally good may happen.
We’re told in the passage from John’s Gospel that Jesus was in Jerusalem in the winter at the time of the Feast of the Dedication. It could be that the memories this festival stirred in the people led the leaders to ask Jesus to clarify just who he was.
So first a little history: From 175-164 BC Palestine was ruled by a Greek, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At first he was fairly tolerant of the Jews and their traditions but after he was defeated by the Romans in Egypt in 168BC he seemed to need to prove himself. He decided to make the Jews conform to the Greek way of life, as other nations conquered by the Greeks had done. He banned the distinctive Jewish practices of circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and reading the scriptures. Worst of all, he decreed that the Temple should be dedicated to Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods. He allowed everyone into the Temple and had pigs sacrificed on the altar.
Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons led a revolt against Antiochus. In three years the Maccabees, as they came to be called, had defeated Antiochus. In 164BC, exactly three years after the desecration of the Temple, the Temple and a new altar were rededicated in an 8 day festival. During this festival, according to legend, a miracle occurred. Only one cruse of ritual oil was found to use for the eternal flame in the Temple menorah which had to burn all night. This was only enough for one day. In fact this amount of oil kept the flame burning for the whole eight days until new oil could be prepared in the prescribed way. From that time on a festival was declared to commemorate the miracle. This festival is now called Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights and is celebrated on 25th Chislev, which is around Christmas time.
It’s easy to understand why the leaders might have been wondering if Jesus was a liberating Messiah, much as Judas Maccabeus had been two centuries before. Memories of national pride, the defeat of the Greek ruler, must have been uppermost in their minds. Would God send the Messiah at this time to defeat the Romans? Perhaps hope and disbelief were vying for supremacy in their minds. They were in suspense and needed to know the truth.
Jesus insisted that the leaders had more than enough evidence to know who he was. He said that his acts spoke for him but they didn’t choose to believe because of those. What Jesus said to the leaders showed them that he was much better than a simple replacement for Judas Maccabeus. He called himself the Good Shepherd. The title of Shepherd belongs to God, as in Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. If that wasn’t plain enough, Jesus spelled it out: ‘I and the Father are one’. What is true of the Son is true of the Father.
In those days, and still today in some parts of the world, a shepherd led his sheep rather than driving them. Today a shepherd might use a sheepdog, which responds to whistles from him, and thus direct the sheep to where he wants them. The shepherds Jesus was thinking of used their special language to communicate directly with the sheep. The sheep became familiar with their shepherd’s voice from birth and so knew who to follow. Often several flocks would be gathered together overnight in one stone walled fold and the shepherds would take it in turns to lie across the doorway to protect the sheep. In the morning the flocks would be separated by the simple device of the shepherds’ voices which each flock would follow.
When we listen to a language that is not our own, but perhaps one we understand a little of, it can take time to ‘tune in’, to readjust our hearing so that we can begin to pick out words and so begin to make sense of what is said. The leaders who were questioning Jesus wanted him to speak in their language, to give them the answers they had decided they wanted. Instead, they needed to attune their ears to the language he spoke, the language of miracles, of a new way of living, of hope. We don’t learn a language, whether our mother tongue or a foreign language, without being exposed to it for a long time. Those who were open to learning from Jesus could hear what he was saying to them and they chose to follow him as a result. It’s the same for us today; if we are attuned to the language of Jesus by exposure to it from the Bible, from preaching, from studying, from prayer, we will hear him calling to us over the competing voices of other shepherds. We will be sure which voice to follow regardless of distractions going on around us and so go in the right direction.
We know that sheep wandered at times, despite knowing the shepherd’s voice. Sometimes they got lost or injured. We know that a shepherd would go and find the lost sheep, that he would carry the injured or sick sheep, that often he carried the young lambs if they were not strong enough to keep up. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the same. His special flock, the disciples, didn’t get things right all the time. They did more than wander off when Jesus was crucified – they fled as fast as they could go. Jesus gathered them again, spoke words of comfort to them, and led them onwards once more. He will do the same for us also.
Jesus gives us a guarantee that if we recognise his voice and follow him, no one can destroy our relationship with him, no one can snatch us out of his hand. We will not perish because the Good Shepherd is there to watch over us. Even if we get into difficulties, he will be there for us. We have the promise of eternal life. When Jesus promises, his promise is also the promise of God, for as he says, ‘I and the Father are one.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor