“Good Shepherd 2013” Revelation 7:9-17
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Good Shepherd Sunday, April 21, 2013
Wow. What a scary week, beginning with the breaking news on Monday from the Boston Marathon, followed by the mushroom cloud of the explosion at the fertilizer factory in West, TX, concluding Friday with the capture of the last bomber in a boat in a man’s backyard. The news media, who lives for “breaking news”, even seemed to be reeling from the non-stop nature of the week’s unfolding events. It looks like all of the bombers have been caught, the people in the marathon and in the city of West are beginning to go through a healing process, and the news reporters are getting some rest. But, where does that leave us, you and me and everyone else who can’t get those images out of our minds? How is it that any of us can move on in a life of nail-filled pressure cookers, maniacal neighbors, and random tragedies? How can we live in a scary world without living in fear?
The texts we have heard this morning were not chosen with this past week’s events in mind. They were selected long ago for Good Shepherd Sunday, for the fourth Sunday of Easter. Yet, how appropriate they are for us. What perfect timing is their arrival for us as we sit in front of our screens and their projection of blood-stained marathon runners, dutiful first-responders, and home-grown terrorists. As we hear them all read together in one service, beginning with the ever familiar and popular Psalm 23 and ending with the beautiful imagery of Revelation 7, what we find is the answer to our questions from this week.
Psalm 23 starts us out with the scenery of green pastures, peaceful streams, and a Shepherd who cares so much for his sheep that he is completely dedicated to leading them every step of their way, even through the worst of times as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of their enemies. David, the author of this psalm, saw himself as one of those sheep, giving personal account of what it was like to have God as his shepherd. His experience of God in this way was so great that he could make conclusions that, I shall not want, and, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all of the days of my life. These were conclusions he made while still knowing the pain and suffering of having to walk through the scorching heat of the valleys of his life as well as the constant threat of the enemies who came against him. He learned to live fearlessly in a fearful world by following his Shepherd through it all.
This psalm is timeless in it’s application to our lives, even for weeks like this past one. I read a quote yesterday about it that really puts it in perspective for us. It comes from Mary Schertz,
These sheep are not the blindly obedient animals that we find unsuitable models for children, especially for girls. Rather, the images of sheep are juxtaposed with darker and danker realities. These passages give every evidence of being crafted by thoughtful and deeply experienced writers who are trying to communicate what it means to live by a radical trust in God in the midst of terror, enmity and death — some of the greatest challenges to faith.
A radical trust in God in the midst of terror is a great mantra for us in times like these, isn’t it? But how do we have a radical trust like this? It sounds great and all right now, but how does one get and then maintain such faith when hearing those scary words, “You have cancer,” or when receiving the final shutoff notice from SWEPCO, or when you discover that the things you have feared most in life have moved from paranoid thinking to reality? How can you actually declare that you shall not want when no green pastures and quiet streams can be found anywhere around you?
This is where a vision of John’s helps us, for this is where he found himself. His worst nightmares were coming true as he, the “one whom Jesus loved,” was now living in exile from all that was dear to him. It was on the isle of Patmos, surrounded by a sea of separation rather than still waters, that he began to discover in great detail what it was like for a sheep to have a shepherd, a Good Shepherd.
When I was running Cross Country, I had a coach who taught our team about vision. It was my favorite part of practicing each week, since it involved not running. Our coach would have us lie down on our backs in a quiet room, asking us to envision a happy place without pain. We were to lock into the feelings and peace of this place so that we could return to it when we were experiencing pain while running. For me, it was a stream I’ve visited and fished in the Smoky Mountains. This was my happy place. I would return there in my mind so much while running that I ultimately quit running and took up fishing. Then I could just stay in my happy place.
Now that you have considered what was going on in John’s life and where he was when he wrote this, hear again what he saw. Close your eyes and imagine the scene of heaven he described.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
John’s vision helps us today to live in a scary world without living in fear. Where it all begins for you and me is with this vision of a shepherd, a good shepherd. Maybe it is difficult for you to see God as any kind of shepherd, much less follow him. I wonder if John had those thoughts after being torn from his familiar surroundings and the love of his family and church. He must have reverted to the lesson he learned as a sheep in the fold of Jesus back in the days when Jesus was closer to him than a vision; when he could actually see Jesus in the flesh and follow him. It was then he learned that Jesus was the right shepherd to follow. His years since the execution and resurrection of Jesus and even his years in exile had confirmed that to him, but also led him to the deep reflection that Jesus was not only the Shepherd for God in this world, but that he was the Shepherd who became a sheep. How can it help you to know today that God is the kind of God who is like a shepherd who is intent on leading you step by step through your life, to the nourishing times of the green pastures and refreshing waters but also through the “scorching heat” of our death valleys?
Perhaps the best ways we are helped by a vision like John’s is in the experience of the benefits of following Jesus as our Shepherd. These are the ones that come to you when are living fully in your present circumstances–be they green pastures or deserted valleys-with your hope fully anchored in your future. Like John, you are able to live fearlessly in your present by keeping your focus on what lies ahead of you. What lies ahead of you is the everlasting reality of life with God, one where your blood stained robes are turned to white, where cries of your suffering and pain are lost in songs of joy, where your tears are wiped away and replaced with jubilation, where your pangs of hunger are satisfied with the feast of God, where your thirst is slated with the waters of everlasting life. What a vision of the future! The great thing about it, though, is that it is not just for the future, just as Revelation is not just about something that will happen in some esoteric age in the future. It is about a present, concrete reality existing in the future, coming to be in your present, right where you are in your fears of today.
Jesus said, 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.
Jesus, your Good Shepherd, is leading a flock into this next week. Will you follow him?