The Voice that Calls Us to Follow
Growing Up to Be Mediocre
Over the years Super Bowls tend to blend together for me. I do not even remember who played in the one held here in Detroit. The one part of the show that I do enjoy watching even if the game is not exciting is the commercials. One year Monster.com had a particularly effective one. It featured a series of children telling the audience their aspirations.
When I grow up, I want to file, all day!
I want to climb my way up to middle management.
Be replaced on a whim
I want to have a brown nose
I want to be a yes man
A yes woman
Yes, sir, coming sir
Anything for a raise sir
When I grow up I want to be under appreciated
Be paid less for doing the same work
I want to be forced into early retirement
I do not know any parents who would be pleased to learn that a school teacher, youth adviser, or pastor was trying instill in their son or daughter the above aspirations. We would hope that our children who rise above the crowd. We want them to use their gifts and abilities to the fullest and not settle for mediocrity. The worst criticism you can level on anyone in our society is to tag them as an underachiever. The label essentially brands the person as a failure. The failed to achieve their potential. They failed to accomplish their goals. They failed to fulfill their destiny. Mediocrity is just not part of the American dream.
Now if I had to nominate one animal to represent the word mediocre, a sheep would easily be in the top five. Sheep are not independent. They cannot defend themselves like cattle. They are not strong, creative, brave nor will they initiate. They cannot even work up a good stampede. Normally, they just sort of meander. Also, sheep will not be driven, like cattle. They will scatter in a thousand different directions. This type of behavior did not earn the animal any respect on the open range so the ranchers assumed that the animal was dumb. However, a sheep is actually smarter than a cow.
So why does Jesus choose to use a sheep to represent his disciples? Even in ancient society, sheep and shepherds did not garner the respect and admiration of the rich and famous. They did not have a contest to see which shepherd would be the next “Israeli Idol.” For us who do not live in an agrarian society, it is even harder to understand. I have never identified myself with a sheep. Popular artist write songs about soaring on the wings of eagles not grazing with the lambs. This might cause someone t question whether this imagery has anything to offer us in living the Christian life. However, I would like to suggest that it does. But before I explain why Jesus used such a docile and unattractive image, I first must help you understand, why the author of this gospel places the event at this juncture in his story.
At first some will want to say, “Because that is when Jesus said it, preacher.” To which I will respond, not necessarily. The author of the fourth gospel is not a historian. He does not care about the accuracy demanded by scholars of today. He is an evangelist and he is trying to convince people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. To accomplish that purpose he will connect unrelated stories for their theological imagery. The author of the gospel of John was a brilliant writer as were the other gospel authors, each in their own way. John's brilliance shines through by his association of certain stories with Jewish holidays. For those of us who are Gentiles, non-Jewish, we too often fail to grasp the marvelous meaning that lies behind his narrative. For example by mentioning that the Jews were about to celebrate the Festival of Dedication, footnoted in your Bibles as Hanukkah, the author of John has painted a stunning picture of Jewish nationalism and fanned the flames of religious revival. We must review a small portion of Jewish history to understand its significance in interpreting the passage.
In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes gained the throne of what was left of Alexander the Great's empire. Part of that empire included Palestine. Antiochus wanted to unite his empire under one rule by establishing Greek culture and religion in every country. At first he did this gradually by introduction Greek commerce and learning. While some of the Jews embraced these changes, most saw them as a threat to their heritage. They resisted Antiochus' voice of change. After five years of benign resistance, the conflict exploded. Antiochus attacked Jerusalem and killed over 80,000 citizens. He forbade the celebration of the Sabbath and other religious festivals. He made it a capital offense to own a copy of the Torah or to circumcise a child. Mothers who violated this edict were crucified with their son dangling around their neck. Almost $200,000 in today's currency was stolen from the Temple treasury. The Jewish Temple was dedicated to the Greek god Zeus. Pigs were sacrificed on the altar and the Temple courts were turned into brothels. This was an abomination to the Jewish people but they thought that they could not stop it. Some succumbed to the persecution and responded to Antiochus' call for social and religious reform. Others did not.
One day a garrison of soldiers came to a small village to force compliance with the imperial edict of offering a sacrifice on the heathen altar. An aged priest Mattathais refused. When another priest was willing to comply, Mattathais grabbed a lance and killed both his fellow countryman and the commanding officer. He rallied the town people by saying “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me”1 You might say this was the stab heard round the world. The people responded to the elder priest's voice. Mattathias Maccabees and his sons were able to organize and lead an effective guerrilla campaign that defeated Antiochus' army and recapture Jerusalem on December 14. Each year the Jewish people celebrate that great victory with the festival that is now known as Hanukkah.
Against this politically and revolutionary charged backdrop the story of the good shepherd takes on a new meaning for me. It is still a story of following Jesus but it is more pregnant with political than pastoral implications. It is more convicting than comforting. Faith in God as provider and protector is still present but we had better understand that this shepherd will be leading us through the dark valleys of death. Remember this is the shepherd who told us that we will be blessed not when God protects us from harm but when we are persecuted for his name sake. The “...bucolic scene takes on a darker cast and is no longer quite so pleasant to contemplate.”2
By connecting Jesus' conversation with the Feast of Dedication, John has Jesus essentially connecting himself to that religious patriot Mattathais who called the people of Israel to follow him and disobey their pagan conquerors; to risk their lives in obedience to the law; to forsake the influence of a foreign culture.
The greatest fault of the American version of Christianity is the way we have altered the call to discipleship. We have rewritten the call to follow Jesus into a comforting children's bedtime story. We have rerouted the path of discipleship away from the perilously narrow road of prophetic pronouncement onto the wide lane leading to a quiet idyllic rose garden. This has compromised the message preventing the church from begin the moral backbone of our society. It has allowed the Church to adapted the values, beliefs and morals of a pagan culture. America is not a Christian nation because the people of God are listening to the wrong voices.
The challenge before the church today is in two parts. First, can we hear the voice of Jesus the way the people of Israel heard the voice of the Maccabees. Secondly, are we willing to follow that voice wherever he leads us.
Sheep have one particularly admirable quality. They will follow their shepherd wherever he leads them. They have learned to know him and trust him. They are not easily distracted by another shepherd. Move three flocks into a field, place three shepherds at three strategic points and have each of them issue a call. The sheep will sort themselves. You will not need brands to recognize which sheep belongs to which shepherd. Every animal will only follow his/her shepherd.
The people of God have been placed in a very large field that is often called the world. Many voices are calling us to come and join them. The voice of materialism wants us to deny our faith in the supernatural and believe only in the physical world. The voice of consumerism calls us to fulfill our envy by overspending on vacations, cars, clothing and a home. The voice of entertainment wants to fill our lives with media driven flashes that grab our attention, isolate us from our family and friends and then leave us with nothing but an oversized bill. If we were to follow them what would be the harm we ask?
When Jesus used the example of sheep to represent his people, he was not calling his disciples to a life of mediocrity. He was calling them and us to follow him and walk away from the prevailing culture. He was calling his people to turn our backs on the values and beliefs that were contrary to the life of peacemaker. The people of God must remember that only one voice will lead them beside still waters. Only one voice will lead them to green pastures. Only one voice will walk with them through the valley of death. Which voice will you follow?
1Bromiley, G. W. 1988; 2002. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (3:198). Wm. B. Eerdmans
2Mary Schertz, he Christian Century, April 20, 2004, p.17 [online] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3057
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