Sunday, May 8

Easter 4 Worship

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. This year it is also Mother's Day. And so our worship highlights both occasions. The sermon is based Isaiah 40:9-11. Our hymns are old classics that highlight a mother's care. The children distributed flowers to the women of the church. And the choir sang The Gift of Love.

Here is a video of the worship service (click on "read more"), and beneath the video is a manuscript of the sermon.

The Good Shepherd

Let’s compare a couple of terms this morning. Let’s compare holiday and holy day. It’s pretty obvious that the word holiday comes from holy day, but the words don’t really mean the same thing. Holy days are days that we associate with God. These are days that we might observe in church, but go unnoticed in the world around us. Many holidays are also observed in both the public and in church, of course—Christmas and Easter, for example—but are just as likely to be celebrated in classrooms or bars. A new one (in the United States, at least) that we’ve recently begun to make deal out of is Cinco de Mayo. It’s never observed in church, but apparently the tequila industry is meeting with a lot of success getting it celebrated elsewhere.

The difference between a holy day and a holiday seldom concerns us too much. But every few years, when Easter comes really early, Mother’s Day can get completely eclipsed by Pentecost. When that happens, we might make a presentation to mothers during the service. But the real emphasis has to be on the descent of the Holy Spirit on the church. The same thing can happen when Easter is really late. Then it can (and sometimes does!) fall on Father’s Day.

Of course that’s not the case today. Mother’s Day this year falls on the Fourth Sunday of Easter—a day that to most people is nothing special. But to me it presents a problem. Because the Fourth Sunday of Easter is its own special day in the eyes of a lot of pastors. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday—a day when we read the 23rd Psalm and hear the Parable of the Good Shepherd that’s found in John.

And so I find myself compromising today. I want to acknowledge the secular holiday—Mother’s Day—because I think it’s important for many of us. But I also love the theme of the Good Shepherd. So I’d like to talk this morning about a passage of scripture that I think honors both the theme of the faithful women in our lives as well as the theme of the Good Shepherd. And that passage comes from the 40th chapter of Isaiah.

We often associate this part of Isaiah with the season of Advent, when we prepare for Christmas. It begins with a message of comfort and preparation. And it talks about justification in a very literal sense—the filling in of valleys, the leveling of mountains, and the straightening of roads. Isaiah then compares human mortality to the eternity of God before returning to the good news of today’s reading. A message of love and hope is shared with God’s people near and far: One is coming who will be our Shepherd.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms, hold them close against his chest, and gently lead the mother sheep.
—Isaiah 40:11

These are beautiful words for all of us to hear. It’s impossible not to notice the image of love and care Isaiah is creating here. But in our day and age, we don’t necessarily appreciate the image of the shepherd. After all, the raising of sheep has just never been part of our culture. We don’t see shepherds in the fields of Geauga County, and the only place most of us ever hear about the things they do is the pages of the Bible.

But it’s in the Bible where we find that the shepherd is a metaphor for a ruler—usually a king. Israel’s greatest and most beloved king, David, was literally called in from keeping his sheep to be anointed king when he was still a young boy. Ezekiel made a huge deal out of mercenary shepherds—those who only took on the job to neglect the sheep and steal what they could; and he said that God would punish them and would send the people a real shepherd—one who would feed them and care for their welfare.

Jesus repeated this same theme in John, when he talked about the same thing, and then stated that he was the Good Shepherd—the One who loved his flock so much that he would lay down his own life that they might be saved.

And this is the promise that we as Christians read into Isaiah 40. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who feeds the flock and guides us in times of danger. He doesn’t do it for personal gain, and there’s no threat that can pry him away from those whom he’s charged with protecting.

These are words of hope that we all need to hear in times of trouble. When we’re confused, how reassuring it is to read that there’s a Shepherd who would lead us to peace. When we feel lost, it’s good to know that there’s One who knows where we are and can get us to where we need to be. When we’re sad—when we’re grieving—we need to know that we are not alone, that there’s someone in control who is, even in our darkest night, holding us close and whispering to us words of eternal life.

We all want to imagine that God is there especially for us. Of course this is true. We are human, and we can’t help but want what’s best for ourselves and our immediate circle of family and friends. But in times like this, our selfish desires yield to the greater good. When we watch what’s happening to people far away—to people we don’t know and will probably never meet in person—we realize how blest we are to live in peace. We are thankful that we need not worry about soldiers in our streets or bombs falling from overhead. And even now our prayers are directed to God’s children who live in war zones, because all we’re seeing in the news right now.

As I see stories of refugees escaping to places that are not being bombed, or people who are emerging from bomb shelters or from a steel mill in Mariupol, it is not too difficult at all to see a Good Shepherd holding the lambs to his bosom or gently leading sheep and their offspring to safety. When we see suffering either here or abroad, we are often tempted to ask why God lets such things happen. It’s a fair question, I suppose, but the answer is usually found not in God’s indifference, but human evil. We all want freedom to act as we please, and none of us wants to be God’s mindless puppet. And so we need to accept that the reason for war and want lie within the human mind.

We may never be able to control a foreign army’s desire to invade, or an evil person’s selfishness or violence. But we can always be God’s agents in the midst of suffering. It was Teresa of Avila who said that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. As long as there is suffering in the world, there will be the body of Christ, responding not with vengeance, but with service. As long as there is hate in the world, disciples of Christ will be there to answer with love. As long evil inflicts as much pain as it possibly can, children of God will reach out in a healing embrace.

As I was meditating on today’s scripture, I found myself unable to deny a horrible reality. And that is that not all people are led to safety. While some escape the clutches of war, there are others who never make it out. If this is true, then must I admit that the promise is unfulfilled for many victims of war?

There are many who would use this as a reason not to believe. And I won’t condemn them for their doubt, but my faith is an Easter faith. The Good Shepherd is the One who conquered death, and who leads us beyond death’s shadow. It is not for this life only that God promises us a guide. The One who died on the cross will see us through no matter in what—in this life or in the life to come, in the world as it is, or in the kingdom that is to come, Christ is our shepherd and we are his children, his little flock that need not fear, though all the events of the world might tell us otherwise.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

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