It was a cold rain that had forced Jesus to the sidelines at the Temple. As He stepped into the sheltering colonnade He couldn’t help but think about the last trip He had made to Jerusalem nearly two months before. The day had been bright and full of sunshine but the man before Him couldn’t tell. He was blind … had been from birth. But He had changed all that. As a smile formed on Jesus’ lips a series of images floated up from His memory. The mud, the confusion, the joy and celebration. The hatred and contempt of those who refused to see. So many saying that He was “demon possessed” for having done this thing – others seeing the truth and saying “No, don’t be so foolish!” But the Pharisees wouldn’t leave it alone. The smile now faded from His face. The harsh words and the parable of the Shepherd. Calling them thieves and hired hands. Why couldn’t they see? Why must they constantly fight Him? Just as they were about to do now …
Coming back from His memories, Jesus opened his eyes to the sight that had already formed in his mind. Men were slipping out from concealment all around him. Others were running up to fill in the ranks like wolves in the wilderness ready to take down their prey. Within moments Jesus was entirely surrounded, His back pressed against a column, His face being crowded in upon by the self-same Pharisees of a couple of months ago. They and others trying to make a name with them. Those who would gather round the strongest. Those who loved the use of force over reason. Yet Jesus never flinches. He knew this was coming … this and so much more yet to be. Let them gather round, there is much to be said.
(22-24) It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered round him
Lurking in the shadows, they have bided their time, nursed their grievances into cold calculating hatred. Like the pack hunting prey they circle in tight and offer no path of escape. They have the plan, they have the numbers, they have the surprise, they have the advantage, and finally this day they will have their way … or so they think.
(24-26) So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly. “Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
“It is not fair of you to have left us those months ago. For the sake of our restless souls you must give us an answer here and now. If you really are the Messiah then you must tell us.” It is said with almost a sneer. Jesus can’t help but notice that they never once promise to believe him if He does. It is not an oversight. Neither does He fail to notice the relative seclusion they find themselves in, nor the abundance of rocks close to hand in this part of the temple grounds.
They have gathered round Him not for the comfort of a truly restless and longing soul. They have gathered round Him to take His Life. “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” It is an answer that they can’t argue with. Nor do they try. It was never the point of this gathering. They don’t want to talk, they don’t want to be convinced, because they already believe He is NOT God.
(31-33, 39) The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
Who sitting here today has not faced a similar situation? Maybe not in the temple courts, or on the steps of this church building, but just like wolves on the hunt, our enemies continue to gather round us too. It is not because we are God (or have ever claimed to be), but because we belong to Him who is. Sin, death, and the devil lurk in the shadows of each of our lives biding their time, nursing their grievances with God into a cold calculating hatred of those who belong to Him.
One moment we may be strolling along in peace and serenity, enjoying life and remembering God’s blessings over the years. The next moment sickness, or grief, or doubt, uncertainty, and fears, or an accident, or the loss of a job or a loved one all come springing up on us unaware. Before we can blink, we are surrounded by things that threaten our life and happiness, our security, and well being. It can seem like our backs are against the wall, and there is no escape. Where there is one, we know another is bound to be right on its heels.
Worse yet, there are people and powers in and of this world and in our own sinful hearts that have decided as those Pharisees did so long ago, that Jesus is not God and He cannot save those who look to Him. As the pressures and stresses and suffering of life mount they are quick to gather round and ask “If Jesus really is God and really does love you then why must you suffer? If Jesus really is your Good Shepherd then why doesn’t He take better care of you? If Jesus is looking out for you then wouldn’t you be protected from all of this?
These lies, these doubts, these fears will keep coming until you can no longer run or fight. The devil, the world, and our own sinful selves, are quick to gather round us to take our life. Take our life away from God’s eternal promises and drag it bloodied down to the sufferings of the here and now. To take our life away from trust in Jesus to thrust it into a trust in science, or medicine, or money, or family, or our own efforts to be secure and to make it through. This gang of thugs knows that if they can only seclude you from Jesus, you will be an easy target.
And they are right. Apart from God we are all easy targets. But the one thing they don’t ever seem to figure out is that this Lamb of God they don’t believe in, is also the Good Shepherd of all His sheep. Jesus has already Gathered His Arms Round us and He’s not about to let go. He knows his sheep. He knows everything about us. He knows who belongs to him, where we are, what we are facing, how we feel about it. He knows how much more we can take, what our limits are, what we need more than anything else. He Knows. And He provides. He has sprung the enemy’s traps before they’re ever set.
(27) My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. Jesus has Gathered His Arms Round us To give us eternal life. This life, this body, restored, made new, healed, perfected and glorified. Sin and suffering may seem to hold sway for a time, but they have already lost. He came in the flesh to bring light and life to all mankind. By living as one of us He fulfilled our obligation to the Father. By dying for us He payed the debt our sin owes. By rising to life again He has guaranteed new life – His life – eternal life to all who know His voice and follow Him. He opens our eyes by faith, and we can see beyond the here and now to all that waits for us with Him in glory.
(28) and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. Jesus has gathered His Arms Round us because He and the Father are one in caring for us. These words of our Good Shepherd are spoken to each and every one of us as a guarantee against ourselves — our weakness and our doubts in the face of the hardships of life. For the promises of God are not only for a day that is not yet come, they are good right now we don’t have to wait until after death to know of His gathering love and care and protection.
We have heard his voice spoken over us in Holy Baptism, where we were gathered up into His life and death and resurrection (making them ours). Where we were given the very name of God the Father Son and Holy Spirit as a mark of our new family. Where our sins were forgiven, washed clean, and new life granted. It is a promise from God that cannot be broken.
We have heard the voice of our Good Shepherd ever before us, with us, around us, in His Holy Word. Not just some dry and dusty old book but the very life-giving promises of our God and Saviour. Everything God has done, is doing, and will one day complete for our life and salvation, for our care and protection. It is the promise of God that does not change regardless of our circumstances.
We have heard the voice of our Good Shepherd in the Words of the Holy Supper, his very body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. The life long reminder and guarantee of all that is offered in the Word and in our Baptism. Comfort and strength for our souls in the midst of their doubts and fears. It is the promise of our Saviour made new every time we receive it.
(29-30) My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Let the enemies of God gather round us. Let grief and suffering come as they may. They may seem intimidating for a time … but only until we hear again the sweet voice of our Good Shepherd. Only until we remember the promises He has fulfilled, and the promises waiting for a time. Only until we feel His loving arms around us once again, in the Water and in the Word, for our life and our calling. In the Bread and in the Wine for our forgiveness and comforting. Only until we follow where our Shepherd leads — through death to life – and one final gathering round Jesus in the heavenly Temple.