Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 26 November 2017.
It is interesting to see what creatures nations chose to represent themselves. In both Scotland and England we have the lion – not exactly a native species. The Americans and the Germans take to the eagle while the French use the cockerel and in Manitoba they are symbolized by the buffalo.
Then there are kangaroos, springboks, etc etc. The various apocalyptic writings have a whole zoo’s worth of symbolic creatures, but the Old Testament has a liking for the lion of the tribe of Judah and the New Testament goes for the sheep.
Sheep are not exactly creatures to inspire firmness of resolve or martial spirit, but they do say something about our relationship with God. He is the shepherd and we are the sheep: cared for and led out and in but not hunted.
And so the sheep are the symbols of God’s love for His people – He would lead them, gather them, protect them, rescue them and seek them out. He would provide fresh pasture and living waters. And the picture is of one who cares for the sheep who know His voice and will not follow another. They may be awkward and wayward but they are His and nobody takes them out of His hand.
This is the clear picture in Ezekiel and it is developed by Paul whose prayer for the church in Ephesus is that they may grow and prosper in their knowledge of God and in their dedication to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so Paul wants them to be wholly engaged in and committed to the things of their salvation: a spirit of wisdom and revelation, … to know the hope to which they are called, the riches of the glorious inheritance among the saints.’
For Paul the sheep of the flock are not to be passive worshipers or attenders at meetings but active in all aspects of their faith. He looks for a faith that grows mighty in prayer and which does not shrink back when questioned or ridiculed. Its love is that which always seeks the best for the other person.
For Paul the life of faith is life always lived with a sense of initiative and wonder, and is not reactive or fearful or on the back foot. Faith is an adventure and for each member of the church it is a growing into a maturity of the Kingdom of God.
Yet for Jesus in this parable of the kingdom, there is something definitely possessive about His attitude to the sheep of His flock and He judges the nations of the world by their attitude to them especially when His personal return seems to be delayed, and is denied by many.
Like marauding armies of conquerors who pillage and terrorize the lands and peoples they have overrun, the goats in the parable have felt free to tyrannize those of His family with starvation, thirst, nakedness, sickness and imprisonment.
And these are the ones who belong to Him, they have His blood in their hearts and His character in their lives. They are not the easy meat that their oppressors suppose for they are indeed surrounded and protected by one far greater than themselves.
And yet the goats protest. ‘Lord, we never saw You – and certainly not in these pathetic ones who You claim for Your own. If we had known, then we would have acted differently. How were we to know that these who stand for purity and honesty, simplicity of life and love of their neighbours, rather than the rough dealings and broken promises of politicians, were to be especially Yours?’
‘How were we ever to compare their crude attachment to the scriptures was ever going to have more significance than the power of the broadcast sound-bite, the twisted propaganda and false news of popular culture?’
‘In any case we already have sophisticated systems of health and education, social security, led by the best people of the land and supported by the most sophisticated IT systems that money can buy.’
But Jesus’ heart was with those who might not have known much about the gospel and certainly nothing about the various higher forms of literary criticism with which the simplicity of the bible message could be deconstructed.
Rather, they could respond to the active and dynamic faith of the believers who were already living in the Kingdom of God. Even when being hunted down and pursued from one refuge to another, these people would still abide in a faith and a hope and a love which was quite unlike the worldly cynicism of their times.
This parable is given by Jesus to contrast the worldly wisdom and savoir faire of the sophisticated with the simplicity and goodness of those who may not have had the culture or the IT or the taste for denial and betrayal of their more right-on neighbours. But they could still see a true likeness of God when it was presented to them by those they sheltered and cared for.
I can never quite forget how it was the Kurds, themselves cornered between Iraq, Iran and Turkey who gave shelter to the fleeing Christians of Iraq – and not the oh-so-correct western nations who despite their Christian heritage, sat on their hands and did as little as possible – and even that came grudgingly.
And I believe that it is the simplicity of the Kurds that Jesus would bless in this parable.