April 17 2016

The Good Shepherd Sunday
‘GOD IS WITH US’

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 23
Acts 9:36-43

Revelation 7:9-17

REFLECTION

Facebook was recently abuzz with the news of a senior Pastor of a ‘mega-church’ in Java, Indonesia, who died of a heart attack. “Well, there is nothing special about a Pastor who died of a heart attack, so why did it become news?” some of you may ask. His death became news because even though the medical staff had declared him dead, members of his family and church refused to believe that he was really dead. They believed that God was only testing their faith.

So they took his body into the church and held a prayer rally there, asking God to raise their Pastor from death. Thousands of people came to the rally where people tearfully sang hymns and prayed for their Pastor all day long.

But they didn’t get what they asked for. The prayer rally was stopped and his family finally released a statement stating that their loved one had indeed passed away and would soon be buried.[1]

Some of you may think that these people had lost their mind. I mean who in their right mind would try to raise people from the dead? But I don’t think these people were really insane. For me they were just ordinary Christians who bitterly grieved the loss of their much beloved Pastor. Their action may be quite bizarre, but to be fair to them, it was not without precedent. After all, in our reading today from the book of Acts, the widows seemed to ask Peter to raise their beloved leader, Tabitha, back to life. And Peter did just that: he brought her back to life from death.

But common sense must still prevail: dead people don’t always come back to life. After all, if all people who have died could come back from death, the world would be full by now. Even Tabitha herself must, in the end, experienced death, albeit for the second time.

So I believe that the message that we can take from our reading this morning is not that we can bring dead people back to life if we pray hard enough. No, the message that we can take from our reading today is that God never leaves us alone. Jesus never left the disciples alone because the power that was present in him to raise the dead was now present in Peter and the disciples. Indeed the power from God that raised Jesus himself from the dead was now present in Peter and the disciples.

Indeed there are a lot of parallels between our reading this morning with the passages about Jesus raising dead people. When Jesus raised the daughter of the leader of a synagogue, just like Peter, he also asked the people who were not related to the deceased to wait outside so that he could have a more private space to pray.[2] Jesus also used similar words to Peter to raise the dead girl: he called her and then asked her to get up! Indeed Jesus did the same thing when he raised Lazarus from the dead: he called Lazarus and commanded him to come out of the tomb.[3]

These similarities tell us that the power that was present in Jesus was now also present in Peter and the disciples and those who believed in Jesus. No, Jesus did not leave the disciples like sheep without a shepherd. Before he was put on trial and executed on the cross, Jesus told his disciples that they all would be deserters because of him. He then quoted a passage from Zechariah (13:7): “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”. But he didn’t leave them with that message of doom and gloom. He then told them that he himself would be raised up and would go ahead of them to Galilee.[4] Yes, before his death, Jesus promised that he would not leave them alone; he would always be their shepherd.

We can see the embodiment of this promise in Tabitha’s life. She herself had acted like a shepherd to the widows under her care. Indeed she was given a title that no one else in the New Testament had. She was called as mathetria, the female form of the Greek word for a disciple.[5] Yes, in the eye of the young church, she too was a disciple, just like the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose to continue his mission no earth. So just like Jesus had called Peter to look after his sheep,[6] God had also called Tabitha, as his disciple, to be the shepherd of his sheep. And by raising her from death, God showed those under her care that they too would not be left shepherd-less.

Friends, this fourth Sunday of Easter is also known as the Good Shepherd Sunday. And today we are reminded again that God is indeed our shepherd who never abandons us, His sheep. And what other reading than Psalm 23 that can beautifully summarizes the relationship between God, our Shepherd, and us, His sheep? It is one reading that is widely used especially during funeral and when someone is dying. Indeed, whenever someone asks me about a reading for a funeral, Psalm 23 is always on top of my list.

But Psalm 23 doesn’t necessarily talk about death. Many translations, including the famous King James Version, translate the most famous verse in Psalm 23, verse 4, as: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”. But more accurate translation from Hebrew should say “darkest valley” or “deepest darkness” instead of “the valley of the shadow of death”.[7]

Indeed we don’t know what kind of trouble that the psalmist of Psalm 23 was facing when he wrote this psalm. Perhaps he was on the brink of death. Perhaps he was facing something else. Whatever it was, it was clear that, for him, even when he was in the darkest place, God was with him. God protected him and guided him like a shepherd protected and guided his sheep with His rod and staff.

In 2013 when my family came to WA to visit me I took them down south to Albany. Most of you would know that it would take about 4-5 hours driving from Perth to Albany and vice versa. On our last day in Albany, we did too many things during the day that it was already getting dark when we decided to head back to Perth via Denmark. It was one of the worst decisions I had ever made.

At one stage on our journey back home, we were in the middle of a forest in thick darkness in the middle of the night. We were probably the only ones on the road, except for the many nocturnal animals that occupied the road when it was empty. It was quite dangerous as well. I mean we could have been robbed and no one would know that we were there.

And I was exhausted, but I couldn’t stop because there was nothing there; we were in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t see anything around me and I didn’t really know where we exactly were. The only things I could see clearly were the signs on the road. So I kept reminding myself to keep going because as long as I followed those signs, we were heading in the right direction and we would reach our destination.

I believe that God is like those signs on the road back to Perth from Albany. God guides and leads us in our darkest moment; in those moments when we feel that we are left alone and there is no one else who could understand or help us.

Indeed friends in our reading from the book of Revelation today, we are reminded that following God will not exempt us from hardships in this world. In our passage a multitude of people, from every tribes, nations, and languages, gathered around the throne of God. These are the very people who have gone through persecution because they have followed Jesus, the Lamb, who is also their shepherd.

No, following and worshiping the Lamb does not free them from tribulation in the world; they are persecuted exactly because they follow the Lamb. But by following the way of Jesus, the Lamb who was sacrificed for the world, they too will join in the glory of the Lamb.

John, the author of the book of Revelation, may have seen this vision of what will it be like in the end of time when God’s Kingdom is fulfilled in the world. But the vision that he saw is not only a distant reality in the future; it is also a present reality, albeit hidden from those who are persecuted because of their faith. And the reality is this: the Lamb, under whose name they re persecuted, is also their Shepherd and he will guide them to springs of life and wipe away their tears.

So friends, God is indeed our shepherd and he never leaves us alone. When darkness comes, we may fell abandoned. But rest assured that God is always near us. He will carry us in His arms and lead us to safety like a good shepherd does to his beloved sheep.

Amen

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Taufik Budi, Doa Kebangkitan Pendeta Petrus Agung Terus Menggema, on http://news.okezone.com/read/2016/03/14/512/1335426/doa-kebangkitan-pendeta-petrus-agung-terus-menggema (March 14 2016 - 14:28 Western Indonesian Time)

[2] Mark 5:35-43

[3] John 11:38-44

[4] Matthew 26:31-32

[5] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFusion - Lent.Easter 2016, p.154

[6] John 21:15-19

[7] Kelly J. Murphy, Commentary on Psalm 23, on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2827 (April 17 2016)