At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
John 10: 22-30
Those shepherds who saw a host in the heavens and went to Bethlehem to visit a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes could not have understood who the child was, not really. But even if they had, they could never have anticipated the important role they would play in the life and ministry of the one the angel called “Christ, the Lord.”
Many times in the Gospel narratives, Jesus portrays himself as a shepherd who loves his sheep – one who would die for them. Heroic self-sacrifice is part of a shepherd’s life, but there is much more.
The shepherd is always with the sheep. When they are born, when they learn to walk, when they grow into adulthood, breed, and give birth, the shepherd is there. When they fall ill, the shepherd heals them. When they are injured, he gives them comfort. When they are lost, the shepherd seeks them out and brings them home. When they sleep, the shepherd keeps watch over them and protects them. And when their life’s journey is over the shepherd is there, too. Even in death, they are not alone.
Whenever I have heard Jesus refer to the “works” that he does, I have always thought of the miracles: water and wine and walking on the sea and waking the dead – big things. But Jesus’ public ministry lasted three years. The miracles might sell a lot of Bibles, but they are a relatively rare part of his ministry. Most of the time, Jesus is doing much less dramatic works. He teaches. He listens. He comforts people in trouble. He tells riddles. He irritates what we used to call “the establishment.” A lot of what Jesus does, modern managers might refer to as “team building.” He develops a group of leaders who can continue his work when he is gone. Most of the time, Jesus did a lot of boring stuff that had nothing to do with quieting storms and healing the blind.
While the miracles are important, the low profile, day-to-day items on Jesus’ task list are just as powerful a testimony to who he is. Jesus did not spend most of his time doing miracles and garnering publicity. He spent his days quietly shaping the characters of the women and men who would carry his ministry out into the world. The ones who heard his voice and followed revealed themselves to be his sheep. After his death, they would become his “body” in the world. They would become the church.
And what would become of them?
In the seventh chapter of his Apocalypse, John describes a vision…
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Revelation 7: 9,10
The language is important here, I think. This is not a gathering of tribes or a convention. These are not delegations from every state, all expressing their identities with foam rubber cowboy hats or buttons or signs on poles. John did not see a mosaic of independent groups – he had a much more radical vision. John saw “a multitude.” He saw a great sea of humans who had come from all nations and languages in order to join this body that “no one could count.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Rev 7: 13, 14
John’s Revelation was written as a message of hope to a persecuted church. In parts of our world today, Christians are tortured and murdered for recreation or entertainment. In John’s time, this activity was not isolated in pockets of political conflagration – it was the official policy of the government that ruled what John understood to be the entire world. The church needed a message of hope. They needed to hear that Death, who seemed to rule this world as surely as Rome did, would not have the last word. They needed to know that their battered bodies and broken hearts would not be stained with grief forever. In John’s vision, they could find that hope. His portrait of the throne of heaven, is full of echoes from the Gospels. The multitude in clean white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb recall Jesus own baptism. The palms they are holding conjure images of Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a white colt. The illegal, despised, and persecuted early Christian church needed reassurance that what the Roman world seemed intent on destroying would not be destroyed. John’s letter from Patmos offered that reassurance.
The church in my country knows nothing about persecution. Politically polarized Americans who pretend to be threatened by their ideological antagonists speak blasphemy against the blood of the martyrs when we compare ourselves to them. Outside of extraordinary and rare circumstances, no American Christian is ever going to have to choose between faith and a tortured, humiliating death at the hands of people who hate everything that the church represents.
And yet, this multitude is not irrelevant to us. The message is not a dated artifact from another, ancient civilization. We may be safe from persecution, but “the great ordeal” remains. If nature abhors a vacuum, the devil hates one even more. If governments will not do his work for him, he can always find other agents to try to dismember the body of Christ. Our contemporary church’s ordeal moves from the inside out like cancer cells. Like her people, the church suffers from narcissism, addiction to substance, obesity, anxiety, depression, and the arrogance born of fear. Since feeding us to the lions no longer amuses our world, Satan has a thousand intricate ways of encouraging us to devour one another.
Each of us lives in what Islam calls jihad - not the perverted “holy war” of politicians and gangsters, but the spiritual struggle with the demons who torment us, wherever we live. We suffer casualties in that struggle, both as individuals and as the church. Hearts are broken. Faith is lost. Families are destroyed and life becomes an option to be chosen, not a gift to be treasured. Our ordeal cannot compare to the suffering of Christians in China or Sudan, but Satan can use it to destroy our faith just as surely as if we were being threatened by Pilate himself.
There are many ways to come through an ordeal, of course. You can run away. You can pretend it isn’t there, and just go about your business. Or you can look it straight in the eye and stay faithful. That sounds like the course of the multitude in white who have known hunger and thirst during lives without shelter from the weather or the elements. These are they who have chosen to answer the call of the Lamb who is also their shepherd. The people who gather at the throne of God will be those who were not frightened away from Jesus –not by the world, not by the devil, and not by their own fears and doubts. For the ones who come out of that ordeal, John’s promise remains intact…
[for] the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We have a savior who will not send us, but will guide us to the healing waters of life. We serve a creator whose own hands will caress our cheeks and wipe away all our tears. Guidance and healing; compassion and comfort: these are the “works” Jesus did in his life. This is the family business of God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.
This is the family business inherited by the church.
And now, it’s time to get back to business.
Greek Shepherds is from the collection of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association
St John the Evangelist at Patmos, Hans Memling, 1479 from the Christian Art Gallery of Art History Archive.com
Want to learn more about today's persecuted church? try The Voice of the Martyrs.
The photo of The Falls of the Youghiogheny (thats "YOCK-a-gainey" for you non-pennsyltuckian speakers. Just "YOCK" if you've ever been dumped into it from a rubber raft) - in any case, the photo was pulled from visitUSA.com.