5/13/2019 10:01:48 AM
I Just Wanna Be a Sheep that Listens
Jerel was visiting his friend Rodney last Sunday. Rodney lives in Oklahoma and has one of those video doorbells that starts recording whenever there’s movement outside the front door. The video of Jerel approaching Rodney’s front door went viral this last week because it shows Jerel opening the screen door and getting bit in the face by a 5-foot long snake. The snake had wrapped itself around one of the porch lights and apparently didn’t like it when Jerel approached him. The snake wasn’t poisonous. And after Jerel was rushed to the hospital and everyone discovered that he was going to be fine, Rodney’s wife posted the video of him getting bit by the snake online with the caption, “When you think things aren’t going right … Just be thankful a snake didn’t bite you in the face today.” I suppose there’s some truth to that. But even if Jerel never gets bit in the face by a snake ever again, just that one time will make a lasting impression. I bet that, for a while, every time he approaches Rodney’s front door, he will feel something new in addition to his excitement about seeing his friend. He will feel vulnerable, wondering if he’s safe; wondering if he’s going to get bit again. That’s not a good feeling. And you don’t need to be bit by a snake to experience it.
You might feel the same thing when lose your job, when you get sick, when you survive a car accident, when you cross a line you once promised you wouldn’t, or when you go through any number of things in life that remind you so clearly that you don’t have as much control over what happens as you were hoping. I was reading a book this week in which the author shared that, when she was 23-years-old, she and her mom were sitting in an auditorium watching a basketball tournament when her mom suddenly died from a brain aneurysm. Three years later, on the exact same weekend that her mom had died, she and her husband were sitting in the same auditorium watching a basketball game when her husband had a heart attack and died. He was 26 at the time. Those of you who’ve lost loved ones know, when just one person close to you dies, you suddenly feel vulnerable in ways you previously didn’t.
But no matter the reason a person feels vulnerable (and there are many), every person who does typically has one thing in common. They don’t often feel like the sheep we so often see Jesus holding in pictures of him as our Good Shepherd. That sheep doesn’t look like it was just bit by anything. It looks calm, protected, comfortable, safe, and at peace. And today, Jesus tells his sheep who can feel vulnerable for so many different reasons how we can find the same thing.
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter,23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
The Festival of Dedication is what is known today as Hanukkah. The brief history of Hanukkah is this: In 167 BC, the Seleucid army was the largest in the world. They came into Jerusalem, took over the city, and their leader, a man named Antiochus Epiphanes, set up statues of his Greek gods inside the temple that had been dedicated to the worship of the one true God. Three years later, a Jew named Judas Maccabeus led a tiny, scrappy army of his friends into Jerusalem and defeated Antiochus, taking the city and the temple back from the Seleucids. When he went into the temple to light the candle that symbolized God’s presence, there was only enough oil to keep the candle burning for one day. But the candle burned for eight days, which was exactly how long it took to prepare a new batch of oil to keep the candle burning. That’s why the menorah, which is the name for the candle holder you see Jews use during Hanukkah, has eight candles. Hanukkah is what they were celebrating in Jerusalem as Jesus was having this conversation. It was a yearly reminder of a day when a small, vulnerable group of men overcame incredible odds to win.
So it’s fitting that Jesus was having this conversation about sheep as this festival was happening because, if a sheep ever ends up winning at anything, incredible odds will have been overcome in order for that to happen. I came across a video recently of a sheep that got stuck in a tire swing. I don’t know how it got stuck in a tire swing, but I do know that its short stubby sheep legs weren’t going to be useful in helping it escape again. Sheep are vulnerable to getting stuck. They’re also vulnerable to getting hurt – for two reasons. Sheep have poor eyesight. They can’t tell if the blob coming at them is a friendly puppy or a fierce mountain lion until it’s too late. And they don’t have any way to defend themselves. They don’t have the teeth of a shark, the tail like a scorpion, or the strength of an ox. They’re incredibly vulnerable. And they’re not the only ones who feel that way. So did the person who invented Mother’s Day.
The first official Mother’s Day celebration in the United States took place in 1908. It was started by a woman named Anna Jarvis after her mom Ann had died, which means that the first Mother’s Day was really hard for the person celebrating it. She never got to celebrate Mother’s Day with her mom by her side. It was also instituted to remember a mom who lost something. Anna’s mom gave birth to 12 children, but only 4 of them lived to be adults. And it was instituted by a woman who never gained something good for which she was hoping. Anna Jarvis never had any children of her own. Today, Mother’s Day is really hard for many women for many of those same reasons; and so hard for so many that, since 2010, the first Sunday of May has been called International Bereaved Mother’s Day, to remember those for whom this time of year is especially challenging. And it isn’t challenging only for women. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a month dedicated to remembering that, though the sun begins to shine a bit more this time of year, that doesn’t mean that everyone feels like smiling.
These are just some of the reasons why the question Jesus was asked that day by the Jews was so important. They demanded to know if Jesus really was the Messiah; if he really was the person who could come and fix everything that was broken. The phrase, “How long will you keep us in suspense” is literally translated, “How long will you keep our souls dangling?” Now, you should know that these Jews hated Jesus and asked that question sarcastically. They didn’t really care how he answered the question. But we do. The peace we feel in our soul, the peace we feel in our hearts and minds, really does depend on how he answers the question.
But Jesus, as you may have noticed, pointed out to them that he actually already did answer. “I did tell you,” he said. He even did incredible miracles that showed everyone that he really could fix so many broken things no one could before him. “But you do not believe,” Jesus told them. They didn’t listen. And because Jesus said that one characteristic of his sheep is that they listen to his voice, Jesus was able to definitively tell them, “you are not [one of them];” which means that a very important question we always need to be asking as we look for peace of mind, no matter the path we’re walking, is: Are you listening?
Do you listen when Jesus tells you not to worry about anything? Do you listen when he says you don’t need to be afraid? Do you listen when he says that he knows the plans he has for you, and you can trust him? Do you listen when he says that loving money or pleasure more than you love God will only lead to your destruction? Do you listen when he says that the only words that should come out of your mouth are those that will build up and encourage your spouse, your friends, and your children? Whatever your answer, Jesus already knows. That’s one characteristic of a good shepherd. He knows his sheep. He knows when we’re listening. He knows when we aren’t. He knows when we’re following him. He knows when we’re wandering. He knows when we’re confident in his care. He knows that, for us, feeling vulnerable is really common. Even for moms.
Coysheena Mitchell is a mom. She and her husband live in Mississippi. One day, she was driving to the daycare to pick up their 4-year-old daughter Ashtyn. But when she got to the daycare, the daycare wasn’t there. The building had been completely destroyed by a tornado that ripped through town that day. Nobody called mom or dad because no one knew who to call. All the contact info was inside the ruins of the building. Mom got out of her car and started searching through the rubble, screaming for her daughter. But she didn’t find her there, even though Ashtyn was one of only two people who was inside the building when it collapsed. The other was Ruth Bennett, the owner of the daycare. And when the rescue team found her, she was dead. But as they pulled her body from the ruins of the building, they noticed she was holding something. In her arms was a little 4-year-old girl. And she was alive. And she still is. Ruth wrapped Ashtyn in arms before the building collapsed and used her body to protect her. Mom didn’t find her when she arrived because, by the time she got there, Ashtyn had already been taken to the hospital. Sometimes even moms can’t be there for their children. But in this case, she didn’t need to be. She just needed someone who was determined to be there and keep her safe, no matter what it cost them.
Ruth isn’t the only one to ever do such a thing. Jesus did too. And it cost him a lot. He came into the ruins of this world and nails were driven right through him. Blood poured down his skin as he endured all the hellish pain of a cross as if his life depended on it when, really, only ours did. And though he could have left, he didn’t. He stayed until his body was completely crushed by the weight of all the times you and I, like sheep, have been led astray selfishness and temptation, so that we could be safe in the forgiving arms of a Good Shepherd who obviously knows how it feels to have vulnerabilities, but whose empty grave on Easter morning reminds us that he also knows how to overcome them; which is exactly what he promises to do for every weak, vulnerable sheep whom he has made into one of God’s own children.
“I give them eternal life. They shall never perish. No one shall snatch them out of my hand.” And think about what that means. If the day when we will finally be free from weakness and pain has already been given; and if our loved ones who have died have never really perished but are right now, in fact, really living; and if the Shepherd who has already proven to be stronger than the wolves of death, sin, and Satan has promised to hold you safely in his hand until you get to hold them again, then there is really never a time in life when you are unsafe. Even as you walk through the darkest valleys, you do not need to be afraid.
And that’s why his sheep listen to his voice. It isn’t to prove that we’re such good sheep. It’s because, no matter how often you hear his voice, it always reminds you of the same wonderful thing. It reminds you that you’re going to be ok. That’s what Jesus meant when he said that his Father is greater. He meant that you will one day see God do to everything that makes your heart hurt exactly what Rodney’s neighbor did to the snake that bit Jerel this last Sunday.
When their neighbor heard what happened, he grabbed a mini sledgehammer from his garage, walked over to his neighbor’s porch, saw the snake, and crushed it. The sledgehammer was greater than the snake that inflicted so much pain; just as our Father’s love, his power, his forgiveness is greater than anything that could ever make you feel worried, or guilty, or afraid. And until we see those enemies finally crushed on our first day in heaven, you’re not the only person who needs to hear these reminders often.
Just look at the person sitting next to you today. They are so different from you in so many ways. But in one way, they are exactly the same. Like you, they are a sheep, which means that sometimes you will see definitive proof that they also are vulnerable and weak. And when, not if, but when you see that proof, what they will need to hear from you is the same thing you would want to hear from them whenever you are the one feeling weak and broken. They need to hear the loving and forgiving voice of our Good Shepherd speaking to them, so that they remember what it’s like to be a sheep whose soul is safe and whose heart is filled with peace.