Abundant Life and Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice, John 10:1-10

Sermon:          Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice
Scripture:        John 10:1-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                May 7, 2017, The Fourth Sunday of Easter; Communion

 Turn in your Bible to John 10.  Let me set up the scene while you’re getting there.  In order for chapter 10 to make any sense, we need to know what’s going on in the chapter before it.  You see, when placed together, chapters 9 and 10 create a drama in three distinct acts.[1]

Act One is from verses 9.1-12.  It’s a Story whereby a man who was born blind was healed with a little of Jesus’ spit that was rubbed on his eyes.  Miraculously, the man was able to see for the very first time in his life and the crowd was going crazy over it.

Act Two is from verses 9.13-41.  This part of the Story reminds us that no good deed ever goes unpunished.  You see, Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath which was considered a violation of the Law Code for doing any work on God’s day.  The healed blind man was brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders and was demanded to explain what happened. Sadly, the Pharisees and others did not like the man’s explanation and called for the healed blind man’s parents to come and testify. The parents, who did not want any problems with the religious officials appeared before the court and said, “Hey, he’s of legal age and isn’t our responsibility so take it up with him!  We had nothing to do with his healing!”  So, the religious officials call the healed blind man back to appear before the court, who by this time was pretty much over having the best day of his life ruined by the religious buzzkills.  He finally told the Pharisees, “If this man, i.e. Jesus, was not from God, he could do nothing.”  Well, the Pharisees got upset for being schooled by the illiterate healed blind man and kicked him out of the community.

Act Three is where we pick up today.  Jesus hears the healed blind man has been excommunicated for giving God the glory for the healing and seeks him out. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and the man declares, “I believe it’s you, Jesus!”  Some Pharisees heard this and confronted Jesus about it and he tells them, “This blind man sees and yet you who are the keepers of the Law are blind as bats about the Ways of God and your sin remains!”  This is where we pick up in the Story today.  Remember, Jesus is speaking to the religious officials in our Story. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.[2]

Some of you may not know but I married a twin. I first asked Kelly’s twin sister Kathy out on a date and she shot me down as she was already dating somebody; graciously, however, she suggested I meet her twin sister when she arrived for the next quarter in a few weeks. It was the proverbial love at first sight, at least for her! Ha! Me, too! It was only after we started dating that I learned there are certain challenges when dating a twin.  For example, it was hard for me to tell the two of them apart on the telephone whenever I called. I thought I recognized Kelly’s voice from her sister, Kathy’s, but there were a few times in the early stages of our relationship Kathy led me on a time or two.  It was only after getting to know Kelly and spending time with her that I was able to discern the subtle nuances of each of their voices.

Beloved, this is what Jesus is telling us today. This is what he was telling the Pharisees centuries ago. The religious officials who were to be shepherding the people with the Words and Ways of God corrupted the message ever so subtly. Over the centuries, they transformed God’s covenant of loving relationship with the chosen people into a relationship conditioned on proper spiritual and physical behaviors. The Pharisees made God’s Word to mean that if you do certain things and behave in a certain way, then you can have a relationship with God. Jesus turned what they said upside down. Jesus proclaimed that if you have a meaningful relationship God, then a person’s behaviors will naturally fall into place.

Hence, the fact the blind man was healed on the Sabbath was a violation of behavior that there should not be any work on the Sabbath because it pollutes the day’s holiness; Jesus, on the other hand, declared that the healing of a broken man and restoring him to health and relationship with God’s community will prompt the healed man to live a God-honoring life. It’s here that Jesus goes and really stirs the proverbial pudding raising the ire of the Pharisees.  Aristotle’s first rule of rhetoric is to know your audience before speaking to them and Jesus had his audience nailed.  He was speaking to the supposed shepherds of the flock of David. He was speaking to those who were entrusted by God with the care of the Jewish people.

We miss the shock value of Jesus’ words today that were clearly heard by the Pharisees because they knew their Hebrew scriptures. As Jesus spoke, I must believe the Pharisees had churning around in the back of their mind the words of God spoken by Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel some 600 years earlier wrote in Ezekiel 34 the following condemnation from God to the religious leaders of his day.  God declares,

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

It’s at this point Jesus begins speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, the gate to a place of safety and the caretaker of the Sheep.  Jesus was announcing that from now on, the voice the sheep will hear is a voice of love and grace, a voice of concern and care, and a voice of protection and solace. It would be a voice of comfort and not a voice of burden.  It would be a voice correction and not a voice of retribution.  It would be a voice of grace and not a voice seeking personal gain.  Jesus’ words were the equivalent of a rhetorical slap across the face of those religious leaders in charge because they knew the rest of Ezekiel 34 where God declares,

15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

If we are honest, we will admit it is often hard for us to discern the stranger’s, the thief’s voice, from the voice of the Shepherd who wants to care for us.  On one hand, we hear the stranger’s subtle voice because our lives have been inundated by the din of our world; on the other hand, we hear the subtle voice of the thief within the church itself. Like the times of both Ezekiel and of Jesus, some things just don’t change.

The voices of the culture wooing us away from abundant life are many.

There’s the voice of, “If it feels good, do it.”

There’s the voice of, “Bigger is better.”

There’s the voice of, “The more you have, the happier you are.”

There’s the voice of, “My way is the best way” which is similar to the voice that says, “If it does not harm anyone else then what’s the problem?”

There’s the voice of, “The product and result are more important than the people who are involved in the process.”

But the church also declares strange, thieving voices that compete with the words of the Good Shepherd.  There are elements in the church that have reimagined the voices of the Pharisees like the voice of the Prosperity Gospel that declares God will abundantly bless you with physical and tangible blessings if you have enough faith.  These are the ones who forget that Jesus was born surrounded by manure, was homeless, and who did not own a thing other than his clothes.

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that says if you don’t believe like I believe or do what I do then you’re not a real Christian at best or you’re going to hell at worst. These are the ones who obviously have not read our Story about the Good Shepherd today.[3]

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that dares to lift the so-called charismatic gifts above the supreme charismatic gift all Christ-followers are to demonstrate and that is self-sacrificing, intentional, inconvenient agape love.[4]

There’s the thieving, strange voice in some churches that tell you that it’s okay to believe whatever you want to believe about Jesus but who ignore the Lord’s words in today’s scripture whereby Jesus says he is the gatekeeper and caretaker of the sheep. Jesus is not a way but the Way. How God works that out, I don’t know as that is God’s work. I believe the demise of the American church began decades ago when we ceased to unequivocally declare loud and clear that Jesus is the gate and that whoever enters through that gate will be made healthy and whole.

The Good News of our Story is that Jesus comes to give us abundant life.  We tend to think of abundant life as that when God pours blessings upon blessings in our life like the Kia Soul commercial that has it compared to a Nissan and both are filled with Skittles and the Kia has so much more room to hold more!  Friends, our understanding of abundant life is too westernized, too Americanized.  We think abundant life is about more and more when it really is about less and less.

Abundant life is the embracing of the simple gifts of life that God provides.  UCC pastor, Dr. Shannon Michael Pater says that throughout John’s gospel, Jesus outlines the abundant life in clear but simple ways. He is the water of life (4.14); he is the bread of life (6.35); he is the light of the world (9.5); and today he is the gate, gatekeeper, and shepherd.  Living abundant life is about the simple basics of drinking water from the Spring of Living Water.  Living an abundant life means breaking and eating the body of the Lord Jesus Christ in a community of fellow believers manifesting the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Living abundantly means sunbathing (pun intended) in the Light of the World so that in turn we as Christ-Followers will shine it upon others.

This morning, we come to the Table provided for and prepared by Christ to remind us what abundant living truly is. Abundant life is simple. Abundant life is sacrificial. Abundant life is life-giving to others.  As we come this morning, let’s ask ourselves which voices we are listening to in the world. Today, let’s make the commitment to earnestly listen for the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2) (Kindle Location 16078). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.  Article by Shannon Michael Pater.
[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[3] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 16105-16107). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. Ibid.
[4] See 1 Corinthians 13 en toto. Speaking in tongues is fine but Paul insists that love trumps it in the gifts department.

The Message: Be the Light! Unpacking the Beatitudes

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

Sermon:         Be the Light 
Text:                Matthew 5:13-20
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date:               January 5, 2017, Epiphany 5, Communion Sunday

Years ago when I was avidly backpacking, I carried with me a light that was the envy of everyone I met on the trail.  Instead of using batteries, my little lantern burned off another energy source which at first blush sounds crazy.  You see, I used to pack with a calcium carbide lantern.  It’s the same little lantern miners use.

Unlike batteries which get used up or a gas fuel source that would run out, a calcium carbide lantern worked on just two ingredients: Little rocks of calcium carbide and water.  You place a few pieces of calcium carbide in the bottom of the lantern and then just add water.  The mixture produces a gas which emits at the top of the lantern and once lit, burns for hours. I didn’t have to worry about batteries or kerosene; all I needed were my rocks and some water. Whoever would have thought the phrase, “Just add water” would generate fire and light?

Today’s text from Matthew’s Beatitudes describes what it means for you and me, this church, to be light.  Being light is synonymous with the theologically loaded word “righteous.”  Just as unlikely that a mineral mixed with water produces light, so the concept of what it means for us to be righteous is not immediately recognizable at first glance; as rocks and water create fire, righteousness is not made up of what we think it is either.

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5:13. Jesus is up on a hillside above the seaport village of Capernaum located at the 12 o’clock position on the Sea of Galilee. We read last week the series of “Blessed ares…” and today we are picking up right where that left off.  Let’s refresh our memory with the “Blessed ares…”.

Jesus begins his sermon in chapter five by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger after righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for showing righteousness…blessed are those when you are reviled because of me.”  Now, let’s listen to what Jesus says next.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Light is a big deal for the Jews. They would have heard Jesus’ words and reflect back on the text in Isaiah 49.6 that says, “I will make you (O Israel) as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  Isaiah the prophet was reminding those Jews held in exile’s captivity that they would be restored to Jerusalem; furthermore, it is through them the world would come to see and learn about the Lord God.  They were to be lighting up the Lord of Hosts so that all could believe and live in the unity, grace, gaze and care of God’s provision.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

What happened was when the Exiles got back to Jerusalem, they took the notion of being a light to the nations and codified it into a list of do’s and don’ts. They said that to be a real believer, one had to do right things; what Jesus is saying today is that they got it wrong; what Jesus is stressing is that in order to be the light of the world, his followers would have to live out from the right way of viewing and understanding life.

The Jewish religious leaders felt that doing the right things – a very will-full and intellectual matter – made one righteous, i.e. made one right with God.  Jesus, on the other hand, was stressing that being made right with God is not about mental assent to do the right things; on the contrary, Jesus was stressing that in order for his followers to be the light to the world and to the nations, they are to live the right way as guided by their heart.

For the religious leaders, living righteously was a matter of personally following the Law for their personal piety’s sake and because the Law demanded it.

For Jesus and his followers, living righteously was a matter of humbly living out the “Blessed ares…” in relation to God and to one another; this is what it means to be righteous. Righteousness, or right living before God, requires the intellect for action but righteousness’ birthing ground is in a person’s heart.  Lest we forget, the people in Jesus’ day believed that God resided within a person in their heart as opposed to their head. Righteousness describes how a person sees and lives out their life in a God-oriented direction as opposed to doing “the right things.” Righteousness is way and attitude towards living life; it’s not about moral checklists.  Righteousness describes who a person is and to Whom a person belongs more than it describes what a person does or does not do. Our actions of what we do or do not do stem from who we are in our heart and core. The soil our actions are grown in is either self-righteous or is light-generating righteousness.  Jesus prefers the latter.

Being the light of the world means we humbly live poor in spirit; that we are in touch with the suffering in the world; that we are not driven to gain power or to have power over others; it means we desire to cultivate a relationship with God in our heart; being righteous means that we are merciful and kind to others; being the light, being righteous demands that we keep our hearts swept clean for God’s presence and trust God to hold us close even though the world reacts against us because the light reflects a different quality of life to the world that people would rather ignore. Jesus’ very life and progression to the Cross and his crucifixion are an example of what righteousness means; His very life and death are a reflection of the Beatitude’s “Blessed ares…”

He is telling us that our very life, our very difficulties, our triumphs are to be a reflection of the “Blessed ares…”  This, my beloved, is what Jesus means when he says our righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Entering the Kingdom of Heaven is not about doing right things; entering the Kingdom of Heaven is about living rightly with our hearts calibrated to Jesus and to the “Blessed ares…” just as Jesus’ heart was.  Righteousness is more than doing good; righteousness means living well and humbly from the depth of one’s heart out of gratitude for God and for the desire of sharing that Light of God with others.

The scribes and Pharisees were living self-righteously for their benefit; Jesus tells you and me to live out the “Blessed ares…” in order to be the light source for others to learn about God’s righteousness. It’s either self-righteousness for my salvation or other-directed-righteousness for the declaration of salvation for others.  The Law was not meant to be some high-level Trigonometry test we have to pass in order to get from here to heaven.  The Law was originally designed to show people how to cultivate a humble heart so as to live right with God and with our neighbor. Oh my, haven’t we messed that up over the last several hundred years!

The Pharisees and Scribes believed righteousness meant living separated from “those type of people” like the leper, the prostitute, the unclean and the ordinary.  Jesus understood righteousness to mean living one’s life emanating the love, grace and glory of God in the very midst of the ordinary people, the unclean, the prostitute and the leper. Christ-following lives are lived in the midst of the world’s daily grind and as such, appear as bright lights of hope in the face of other people’s despair or are a fragrant sweet smelling breeze that comes from out of nowhere to revive the tired and fainthearted.

Preparing ourselves to receive this powerful meal means we pause and ask ourselves: Does my spiritual life show that I am simply punching a check-list of what I am supposed to do, or, does my Christ-following life reflect a righteousness that is attempting to live into the “Blessed ares…”? Remember: Righteousness is not for the self; righteousness is the light of God’s face shared with others.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
724 North Woodland Boulevard
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church in DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

All scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.