These are the folks that always know what new natural disaster has just struck, what local businesses are about to go bankrupt, whose marriages are on the rocks.
How could we survive life without these wrong-side-of-the-bedders?
How could we get around without the black clouds and gloomy forecasts.
Without wrong-side-of-the-bedders, we would never fully appreciate how miserable life really is.
The book of Revelation is often perceived as sharing that same sort of bleak perspective -- a wrong-side-of-the-bed vision foretelling pestilence, punishment, famine, death, destruction.
But the Revelation of Jesus to John is not a narrowed down version of despair, a nerve-racking vision of wrath.
Here in today's text we are given celestial glimpses of glory.
What might it be like to enlist in God's reign and exist in God's peace?
The divisiveness of nationality, the prejudices of particularity, are forgotten as all peoples forge forward to praise God.
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There is one congregation, one church, and it joins all its separate voices together in a sonorous harmony of glorifying God.
John saw this as the church of the future.
John also saw this as our template for bringing the church to life in our own time.
Instead of being just another organization lobbying for what it deems important, the church is challenged by this vision in Revelation to itself become an "earnest" of paradise.
Now there's a word for you: "earnest."
It's not a word used much in church nowadays, although it is a familiar one in Scripture (Psalm 86:17; Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:14, etc).
But it may be a word that the church needs to proclaim.
For our text calls the church to be what in biblical language is an earnest of the eschaton.
In the Hebrew the concept is conveyed by the word Shamayim, which literally means a foretaste of heaven.
If you have ever had an encounter with the Spirit, if you are alive and aglow with life, you know the meaning of Shamayim, or "earnest."
In Greek the word for earnest is arrabon, a legal term denoting a deposit made that renders the contract binding.
An earnest is a promise, a pledge, a foretaste, an embodied symbol of something which is to come in its fullness later.
When a young couple plants a spindly little oak sapling smack in the middle of their new backyard, it is an earnest of the future they envision in that space.
Someday the tree will grow to shade their yard with an enormous umbrella of green.
Its sturdy branches will hold the tire swings and treehouse platforms of the children yet to be born.
It will carpet the ground with its brilliant fall foliage and feed a legion of squirrels with its annual crop of acorns.
It might not look like much when planted, but the few spindly limbs of that sapling oak bear the weight of a tremendous earnest.
Although the ultimate "earnest" is the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthinans1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14), as Spirit-empowered people we are each called to act as "earnests" of the ultimate triumph we know Christ's salvation has in store for all creation.
On the day of salvation, today's Revelation text proclaims, all believers will loudly praise God's "blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might" (7:12).
Are you an earnest, a leaven of heaven?
Does your life attest to the presence of these divine gifts to the world?
When others listen to you speak, watch you work, see your home, do they experience that encounter as an earnest of Christ's victory, of God's redeeming love for the world.
We are all "earnests," we who are part of the body of Christ.
Is our church an earnest of the future -- human conduits of the divine light offering others little glimpses of the brilliance, the glory, that awaits redeemed creation?
Is our role in this community a leaven of heaven?
Missionary/physician/musician/historical theologian Dr. Albert Schweitzer gave his life to serve the needs of those who lived in the African jungle.
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He was to the first half of the 20th century what Mother Teresa was to the second half.
He gave one of the best definitions of "ethics" I've ever seen, and lived what he defined:
"Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain life and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life ... Ethics is the maintaining of life at the highest point of development -- my own life and other life -- by devoting myself to it in help and love, and both these things are connected." (Reverence for Life [New York: Philosophical Library, 1965], 34-35.)
Schweitzer allegedly hung a lamp in front of his hospital that shone brilliantly throughout the jungle darkness for a wide area.
The light became a beacon of hope and healing for the area's sick and dying.
He is said to have hung under the lamp this sign:
"At whatever hour you come, you will find light, and hope and human kindness." *
Both the sign and the lamp were "earnests" of Schweitzer's ministry.
Is there a lamp for your church that says to the world, "Come by Here. For Here is a Leaven of Heaven"?
Schweitzer practiced his "earnestness" with full knowledge of the world's cruel ways, and a clear vision of human frailty and sin.
Nonetheless, Schweitzer maintained his focus on eternity, and leavened heaven with every fiber of his being.
"To the question of whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic. I am pessimistic in that I experience in its full weight what we conceive to be the absence of purpose in the course of world happenings. Only at quite rare moments have I felt really glad to be alive. I could not but feel with a sympathy full of regret all the pain that I saw around me, not only that of men but that of the whole creation. From this community of suffering I have never tried to withdraw myself. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world" (Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1933], 279).
Albert Schweitzer's remarkable life and witness touched me as a child growing up until he became in my life an "earnest" of the person I wanted to become.
Schweitzer was able to offer me and others a leaven of heaven in each of the three types of needs outlined in today's text.
Though portraying an eternal future, this morning's text focuses on the three most basic human needs of our frail and mortal present.
Physical Needs -- The vision from Revelation promises that when believers are gathered around God enthroned they will "hunger no more, and thirst no more" (v.16).
In other words, we will be delivered from physical needs.
As a physician, caring for the bodies of those who caught sight of the jungle clinic's light came naturally.
But each of us is capable of providing some measure of sheer physical comfort to those whose physical needs are consuming all their energy and hope.
Welfare reforms have made the church's role as a social service agency even more vital.
It's hard to work on an empty stomach; it's hard to learn when you're cold and tired; it's hard to play when you're weak and malnourished.
Spiritual Needs -- Jesus' vision to John revealed that divine deliverance involves more than just filling up stomachs and banishing body aches.
There are other aches that have no neurological cause.
There are pains suffered by a parched soul.
Without addressing the spiritual needs of the human condition, one finds there is no true earnest of salvation present.
Saving the body is not enough, for it will fail to thrive unless the spirit is nourished and nurtured by a community of faith.
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In our Revelation text the enthroned Lamb offers believers "springs of the water of life" as . . . sustenance for an eternal soul.
Earnest upwellings of this same spring are already available from our own faith community.
Emotional Needs -- As frail and failing human beings, however, we find our emotional needs are perhaps the most difficult to satisfy, and are even more demanding when denied.
Without emotional strength and suppleness, even the strongest body will fail, even the surest spirit will falter.
When our body labors, it needs a quiet center, a sense of emotional ease, in order to bear the physical hardship.
Our spirit can soar only if it knows there is a safe and secure emotional scaffolding resting under its flight path.
One of the most tragic figures in biblical history is Israel's first chosen king, Saul.
Although he was a great and strong warrior and commanded the 12 tribes of the new nation, although he experienced the exalted presence of God's Spirit, Saul's body and soul had a fatal weakness.
Although he enjoyed physical and spiritual triumphs, Saul's own emotional melancholia destroyed his faith, his vision, his purpose, his will.
In today's Revelation text God meets our emotional needs in two ways.
The text promises God will "wipe away every tear" -- suggesting that the emotionally honest and cleansing tears will first be allowed to flow, but that these tears will then be dried by God's own tender hand.
As an earnest of this quality of emotional care, we, too, must not be afraid to show the same depth of feeling and to let others do the same.
In response to a genuine outpouring of emotion, an earnest of the coming age does not judge, but offers what is needed -- to dry a cheek, to hold a hand, to show empathy.
In a creative writing class, a young teenage girl wrote this short poem:
Don't even try to sympathize.
Don't say you understand because you don't.
Just hold me in your arms for once.
And love me as I am.
Like my mommy used to do
before the world grew up on me.
(John Fischer, "In Praise of the Unrenowned," CCM Magazine, October
Will this church hold the world in its arms and love it, as an earnest of God's holding the whole world in the arms of the Almighty -- and loving it?
Will you be a leaven of heaven in your family, your community, your world?
Tracking the Sheep
John 10:22-30 | 4/29/2007
We live in a changing new world of computer-raised sheep, but there's still just one Shepherd to follow.
In Psalm 23, the shepherd leads the sheep beside cool waters. In century 21, the shepherd weighs the sheep beside cool waters â€¦ while he sits behind a laptop miles away.
We are used to the rogue image of the Bedouin shepherd - crook in hand, flowing robes, Middle Eastern head-covering. We remember a young David, tending his father's flocks alone in the cold, battling lions and bears, engaging the God of creation in songs and poems that he would later pen into psalms.
Now consider today's e-shepherd - Bluetooth headset in ear, Blackberry PDA attached to belt, Venti Mocha perched desktop alongside GPS receiver. He sits remote from his flock in a warm ranch house, a crook exchanged for a mouse, perhaps playing a game of Internet Spades while still on the clock.
That may be the appropriate picture in New South Wales, Australia, where cutting-edge technologies are being applied to an age-old industry. Ranchers attach tiny GPS transponders to the ears of baby lambs, and as these sheep grow up, they can be "watched" from a computer monitor. Throughout the day, sheep move freely from grazing areas to drinking areas to sleeping areas. Each channel between areas is wide enough for only one sheep to pass at a time, and as they pass between fenced-in zones, their transponders alert the shepherd where they are going and when.
"We can keep tabs on a single sheep from the time it is a little lamb to the time that it becomes lamb chops," says Bill Murray, spokesperson for the Australian Sheep Industry. "However, the main advantage is in sheep
handling, because the transponders allow the sheep to make their own decisions, without being hassled by people or dogs."
In such a hyper-individualized world, why not extend the power of choice to flocks as well? With these e-sheep, it's all up to ewe.
But allowing free-range grazing isn't about having self-actualized herds. It's about having unhassled, unhurried, tenderized ones. Apparently, sheep autonomy equals appetite appeal.
Beyond tastier flocks, e-shepherds also have well-organized flocks. Remotely controlled gates determine which grazing and drinking areas sheep are channeled into and for how long they remain there. Electronic scales are placed within each passageway so that every time a flock is "shepherded" from one area to another, each sheep can be weighed as it passes by. As a fully grown sheep passes through, a side gate opens sending it into a yard for those animals headed to market. As a pregnant ewe near birth weight passes through, a gate opens to send her to a prenatal area. In the future, animals due for vaccination will be given remote shots as they pass by and diseased animals can be detected and quarantined for medical treatment.
All from a distance. All without human contact. All electronically.
If David had controlled his flocks in e-shepherd fashion, he might have blogged the Psalms, text messaged Jonathon, and sent a fatal hard-drive virus to Goliath.
So the lesson from e-sheep is this: 21st-century techno-culture metaphors are light years away from biblical, agrarian culture metaphors.
Noting this, consider John 10:22-30. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is so not like the impersonal techno-shepherd. Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus uses a metaphor his audience will understand: He's the shepherd, and his followers are the sheep. So to understand what Jesus wants our contemporary audiences to understand, we must culturally unpack and translate what this sheep imagery means.
Begin with our non-agrarian understandings of sheep. They aren't bright animals. There's no parlor game question that ever asks: "Which is the smartest animal? The horse, the pig, the sheep, the dog, the cat?" Won't happen. Sheep sleep and eat in the same fields in which they defecate and urinate. They blindly follow each other around with an unimaginative herd mentality. They need to be constantly provided for and protected so they don't starve to death or become wolf-lunch.
So is this the way that Jesus wants us to see ourselves? Maybe yes, maybe no. What is clear is that sheep are needy. They not only need a shepherd, they need a good shepherd. Good ones take their job seriously. Good ones take care of the sheep. They protect and defend the sheep. They lead the sheep to still waters and green pastures. They lay down their lives for the sheep. They look for lost sheep.
In Jesus' day, shepherds didn't have the fiscal means to own sheep, thus many were mercenary care givers hired to live and sleep with the herds. Many were 8-12-year-old boys in the family business, out in a field because few opportunities existed for them. In our Western career caste system, shepherds wouldn't be white-collar or blue-collar - they'd be no-collar.
Is Jesus this kind of shepherd? Obviously not.
Scholar Mary Schertz notes that in this text it's not like every ovine analogy carries meaning for us or that sheep are commended as models for imitation. "Sheep in the fullness of their animal existence are neither a good model for Christian life nor any other kind of human life."
Instead, what does this short passage ask our e-shepherd culture to understand about the Good Shepherd and his relationship with the sheep who follow him?
The Shepherd. John emphasizes two elements of setting. The time is the festival of Dedication, or Hanukkah (v. 22) - the Jewish celebration of the rededication of the Temple after Antiochus desecrated it while trying to force Greek religion and philosophy upon them. The place is the portico of Solomon (v. 23) - the only remaining relic of Solomon's sacred temple which still stood, and the place where the Jewish king would make judgments and exercise justice.
So a controversial rabbi is teaching radical ideas and taking controversial theological positions at a time when Jewish culture in the presence of the Roman occupation, and the traditions and history of Jewish religious milieu are being honored and glorified. And Jesus is doing this in the very place where God's kings had always spoken to God's people.
The Jews' question and request (v. 24) are therefore painfully rhetorical. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
There's no suspense. They know exactly what he is saying because of when and where he is saying it.
Who does this Shepherd claim to be?
â€¢ Someone who works in the "Father's name."
â€¢ Someone whose "sheep" hear his voice.
â€¢ Someone who knows the sheep.
â€¢ Someone whose "sheep" follow him.
â€¢ Someone who gives to his followers eternal life.
â€¢ Someone who defends his "sheep," because "no one will snatch them out of my hand."
â€¢ Someone who is one with the "Father."
In Simply Christian, scholar N.T. Wright notes that human yearning for things like justice, relationships and beauty are "echoes of a voice." On the deeper spiritual level, these universal desires are pointing both to their Author and to their Fulfiller. While these hopes can be met incompletely through what the world offers, they are only met perfectly and completely through Jesus as Savior, the Good Shepherd of the sheep.
Jesus is no e-shepherd who engages his sheep remotely. The Shepherd maintains intimacy and proximity in order to meet the needs of his sheep. He is at least within voice-distance (v. 27). Jesus is a hands-on, high-touch Shepherd.
The Sheep. Jesus speaks of his sheep in front of an audience who does not fit that category: "You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep" (v. 26).
Not everyone is a sheep of this Shepherd - a difficult and sobering reality. The Shepherd does not crook-beat people into following him. He allows for some goats instead of all sheep.
But those who are Christ followers are described this way: "My sheep hear my voice" (v. 27).
For intrigued sheep then or now, a natural question emerges from this text. How do we hear our Shepherd's voice? Is it like Moses who heard from God audibly at Sinai? Is it like Elijah who heard the sound of sheer silence as God spoke? Or is it like pastor and author Rob Bell describing his call to preaching: "I heard a voice - not an audible, loud, human kind of voice - but inner words spoken somewhere in my soul that were very clear and very concise. What I heard was 'Teach this book, and I will take care of everything else.'"
Don't we all long for a voice like those three experienced?
Notice, though, that Jesus describes voice-hearing in two different ways: "I know them, and they follow me" (v. 27).
When Jesus knows his sheep he does so eternally (v. 28), and they are offered the Shepherd's protection and security. But this security is not earthly. Sheep may lose their life, their financial comfort and their social acceptance because of their faith. Yet those who have heard the saving call of God and responded can never lose their souls and relationship with the Shepherd. Some of you pastor-theologians might want to amend that sentence so it reads like this: Yet those who have heard - and are hearing - the saving call of God and who have responded - and are responding - can never lose their souls and relationship with the Shepherd. In any event, hearing his voice includes being known by the Shepherd.
[NOTE: The question that needs to be addressed is, "How does one know, or hear, the voice of the Shepherd, so that we can be obedient and follow?" See another Homiletics installment (based on this text), available online at www.HomileticsOnline.com, "Jesus IS Ovine-Lingual." There the following observation is made: "Yet, sometimes the problem is not that we, the sheep of his pasture, do not recognize the voice of the Shepherd. Rather, we recognize it and refuse to listen. Or we listen selectively."]
In biblical times, shepherds had shrill yells that would resound through the wadis and across the hills where their sheep grazed. The Shepherd's voice was firm, clear, loud - and there was no mistaking it. It told the sheep, "I am your shepherd. I know the best path. Follow me."
When is the last time we have sensed God leading us to still waters and green pastures? When have we been asked to follow Jesus even when it is costly? Sheep regularly hear from their shepherd, they trust his voice and they follow.
Jesus doesn't fit the shepherd stereotype and it's probably fair to say that we aren't the brainless herd animals that we assume sheep to be. But the biblical metaphor is still timeless and rich, ultimately giving us a picture of relationship, protection and provision, allowing us to hear a clear voice that bids us follow toward soul-satisfaction.