Saturday, April 29, 2017

Warnings Posted

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is designated also as Good Shepherd Sunday.  This means that the well-loved Psalm 23 is assigned for the day, as well as texts from John 10 where Jesus makes the claim that he is the Good Shepherd.  In the Year of Matthew, the gospel text assigned is John 10:1-10.  Here Jesus makes the claim that he is more than a good shepherd; he is also the "gate for the sheep".  Interestingly, Jesus spends most of his time in this text telling his readers what a shepherd who is not good looks like.  With Ezekiel 34 clearly in view, where the prophet rails against the "false shepherds" of Israel, Jesus reminds his listeners that there are voices which will lead them to destruction.  We, as preachers, are asked to preach this warning as well.

(The following questions attempt to unearth answers to some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  In this text Jesus is warning his listeners about false shepherds, whom he calls "thieves and bandits."  In terms of law/gospel function this is Law.  This text functions to show us how much we need the Good Shepherd.  The context of this passage is crucial.  In John 8, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and others of his enemies.  His condemnation is strident:  "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires." (8:44)  In chapter 9, following his healing of the man born blind, Jesus again spars with the Pharisees:  "Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, 'Surely we are not blind, are we?'  Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say,"We see," your sin remains.'" (9:40-41)  Immediately following that exchange John places this parable.  For the Pharisees who were listening this parable would have been understood as a direct condemnation of their actions, akin to Ezekiel 34.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A gospel word is hard to find here.  Glimpses include Jesus' words that "whoever enters by me will be saved," and "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  Even those statements, however, are used mainly as a contrast to those who come "to steal and kill and destroy."  The preacher will need to make the most of these glimpses of gospel if the sermon is not to be a blanket condemnation of false shepherds.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Jesus is speaking to people who are at risk of being led astray.  He is also very likely speaking indirectly to the Pharisees, who he has condemned as false shepherds.  What would it be like to identify with the Pharisees?  Could there be ways we have led others astray?  As always it is most important to identify with those to whom the Word is addressed, either directly or indirectly.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Though there is little of this in the text, there is the reference to the sheep knowing the voice of the true shepherd.  Perhaps an encouragement to be very discerning in regards to the voices one follows would be a way of preaching this text.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplet one chooses will be closely related to the persons we identify with in the text.  If we choose to identify with sheep who could be led astray, our couplets might be ones such as these:  following false voices/following true voices; the path to death/the path to life.

6.  Exegetical work:  Gerard Sloyan, in his commentary (John, Interpretation Series), reminds us that this text, as well as others which refer to "shepherds", are best thought of as a critique of political, not necessarily spiritual leadership. Sloyan writes:  "Hence, when texts from Ezekiel and Jeremiah on sheep and shepherds are read out, preachers will be right to remind hearers of threats to civil and religious liberty posed by administrations, regimes, office-holders, and unjust laws.  In doing so, they should remember that the Christian flock was originally the Israelite people as a political/religious entity.  Spiritualizing the Bible in the sense of giving it an exclusively religious meaning is a sure way to misinterpret it." (p. 128)  Another commentary that is helpful is that of Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John.  Here Williamson helps us understand the mixed metaphor contained in these verses:  "Understanding the metaphor depends on a visual image (see picture above) of a Palestinian sheepfold or sheep pen, an enclosure made of stones or briars where several shepherds could bring their sheep at night to keep them safe from predators.  A section of the enclosure was left open to serve as an entryway in which the shepherd could lie to keep sheep from straying out and predators from getting in." (p. 118-119)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Ron Starenko, in his analysis of this text, centers his diagnosis on our futile attempts to secure our own life by constructing our own "gated communities."  In his prognosis he celebrates Christ's break-in and announcement that Christ is the gate that makes us truly secure.  See the complete analysis at study, archived under Year A Gospel for 2011.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry urged preachers to take listeners on a journey  from equilibrium to disequilibrium, and back to equilibrium.  There is much fodder for that journey in this text as we ponder good and false shepherds and the voices we follow.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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