Homily, 4th Sunday of Easter

John 10-22-30                                                         4/17/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Good Shepherd Sunday used to be the 1st Sunday after Easter, but in 1972, when the revised Lectionary was put into use. Good Shepherd Sunday was moved to the 4th Sunday of Easter, and the Sunday After Easter – now called the 2nd Sunday of Easter – became “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” If that all sounds confusing, just ignore it. The change was 44 years ago, and the only people who were really affected by it were clergy who had to write new sermons. There were a lot of retirements that year.

Well – our readings for today don’t seem like very good selections for Good Shepherd Sunday. Our 1st Reading is the story of Peter’s raising Tabatha from the dead. The Psalm is the 23rd Psalm, and refers to God as a shepherd. Our 2nd Reading – from Revelation – mentions that “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”, but I don’t think anyone quite know what this whole passage is talking about.

So, let’s look at the passage from our Gospel. It’s an interesting passage, but not because of the “shepherd theme.” It’s interesting because it has Jesus walking in the temple on the Festival of the Dedication. Now – this is interesting. The Feast of the Dedication, here called the Festival of the Dedication, has some very interesting history.

The Feast of the Dedication was a Jewish celebration commemorating the purification of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC. The temple had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, officially known as Antiochus 4th.

Now this is a fascinating and complex period of history about which a lot of us don’t know very much. Antiochus 4th was the king of Syria – the same old Syria that this there today, bickering with Israel and its other neighbors. Antiochus was the 4th Antiochus in a long dynasty of Syrian kings. AND HE WAS CRAZY. He was fascinated by Greek culture and religion. He considered himself to be the embodiment of Zeus, and even had Zeus’ image put on the Syrian coins – as his own image. He added the name “Epiphanes” to his name, which meant “Manifestation of God.” But even his own people called Antiochus Epimanes, which meant “Antiochus the Mad.”

Well, one of Antiochus’ goals was to eliminate Judaism and Jews from the face of the earth. He hated them, and wanted them “gone.” He sent a number of his Syrian armies to destroy Israel, but they never were quite able to do it, although in one of their attacks, they did raid the temple, stole all of its treasurers, and desecrated it. Finally, in 168 BC, Antiochus decided to wipe Jerusalem off the face of the earth. He had been down in Egypt waging war on the Egyptians, and was heading home to Syria with his great big army. He decided to make a little side trip to Jerusalem, and eradicate it. He attacked Jerusalem with an army of over 20,000 men, killed almost every male in the city, enslaved the women and children, and almost totally leveled Jerusalem. He then left an army in the area to make sure the Jews didn’t rebuild the city. The whole time the Syrian army was there, the Jews attacked them with rocks and stones, just like we see the Palestinians doing today.

Now, during this period, a Jewish priest names Mattathias, killed one of Antiochus’ envoys. That unleashed another slaughter of Jews by Antiochus. Finally, a year later, Antiochus pulled his troops out of Jerusalem, and the Jews retook control of their city, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the son of Mattathias, the priest who had killed the Syrian envoy. Judas Maccabeus then became the leader of the Jews. He traveled throughout the land, picking off Syrian armies, one after another, and finally driving the Syrians out of the land. Two years later, Judas Maccabeus purified and restored the Temple, and that is what the Feast of Dedication is all about.

But by Jesus’ time, about 150 years later, the Feast had grown into something even bigger, as often happens with festivals. By Jesus’ Day, it had become a “Jewish Day of Remembrance”, a real festival, with sort of a carnival atmosphere, remembering all of the forefathers who had won and kept victory for the people of the land, throughout history. It had become the Jewish equivalent of our Memorial Day. And everybody that could went to Jerusalem to celebrate it. And Jesus did, too. That’s why he’s in Jerusalem in today’s reading.

Now, but this time, Jesus had built up quite a large following. But he had also attracted a group of heckling Jews who did not like him. And they followed him everywhere they could, trying to embarrass him – kind of like hecklers who follow politicians, today. So, in today’s reading, we have Jesus walking in the portico of the temple at this Feast, and the hecklers confront him. It doesn’t say he yelled, “Get ‘um out of here!”, but you never know. They wanted to know if he really was saying that he was the Messiah, or not.

Now you can’t blame them, because Jesus had been really vague about this. He had been dropping hints that he was the Messiah for a long time, but he wouldn’t come right out and say it. He obviously was trying to keep from being arrested, but it caused a lot of confusion, and people were really getting annoyed with him. Likewise, Jesus knew that if he said he WAS the Messiah, the crowds would probably stone him. So he played “cat and mouse” with them, and used this imagery of the sheep and the shepherd to try to fend them off. By talking about the sheep recognizing the voice of their own shepherd, he is saying that those who believe in him as the Messiah, “know” him as the Messiah. And those who do not believe, cannot “know him” as the Messiah.

Well, what does this say to us, today? I can’t help but think of the old adage, “We believe what we want to believe.” There’s some truth to that adage. Sometimes, I think we are just called on to make a decision, one way or the other. “Yes, I believe.” “No, I don’t believe.” It’s always nice when there’s some sort of proof to help us, but sometimes there isn’t. Like the Jews in the temple, sometimes we don’t get clear cut answers. Sometimes we just have to say: “This is it! This is what I’m going to accept. This is what I’m going to believe.”

Our world today, is not that different from the world of Christ’s day. Our heads still seem to work about the same. Where we are going to put out faith, what we are going to believe, causes struggles for us today, just like in Jesus’ day. We’re not born with faith. It has to be nurtured, and developed, and explored. And it’s very hard to put trust and confidence in something that cannot be proven or demonstrated. But that’s what we, as Christians, are called to do. And sometimes we just have to say: “Yes, I believe” or “No, I do not believe.”

I tend to be a pretty “skeptical person.” I usually want to see some proof. And skeptical people have a hard time with faith. We want proof. But sometimes there isn’t proof. That’s when we have to be like sheep, and just trust the voice of the shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Sometimes that’s just the best we can do.



Posted April 20, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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