A Winters Tale
Shakespeares play The Winters Tale is not about this text, but out text does take place in winter and it is positively Shakespearian.
First the setting is dramatic. Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter. Dont think John is giving a weather report. Its redundant to say something happened in winter at the Feast of Dedication. The Feast of Dedication is Hanukkah. Hanukkah falls in late November or December. Just as John means something when he tells you Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and that Judas left to betray Jesus at night, so he is conveying more than the season in telling you it was winter.
O its cold perhaps even blustery; the word can mean that. Jesus is walking in Solomons Colonnade which is a porch with a cover supported by pillars. This porch was all that remained of Solomons temple after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it over 500 years before. It was located on the east side of the temple. Maybe Jesus is here for the sun or for protection from the wind. Jesus walks back and forth on the porch to keep warm. Its Hanukah. This feast was instituted not by God but by Judas Maccabeus around 165 BC in memory of his cleansing the temple from the pollutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of Jesus, tells us the Jews called it the Feast of Lights from the fact that the right worship appeared when they had given up hoping for it (Ant. XII, VII, 7).
Before we set the play in motion, lets summarize. Feel the cold, blustery weather; see Jesus walking to and fro on the last vestiges of the golden years of Judaism at the festival celebrating the last time God had delivered His people. As Jesus walks once more Judaism is oppressed and looking for a deliverer. And dont think that an event which happened 130 years earlier couldnt be very close to their thoughts. Today those in the Tea Party movement refer to an event that happened 237 years ago. The Jews sorely pressed by the Romans are in the depths of winter looking for the Messiah, the Christ, to deliver them, and here is Jesus who claims to be the Messiah, yet He has divided not united the Jews.
In Shakespeare plays people come suddenly on stage, and so our play begins with Jesus walking alone and suddenly being encircled, surrounded, encompassed, even besieged by His enemies. These are the leaders of the Old Testament church; these are the men in power. They speak, How long will you take our life away, plague us, keep us on the prongs of a dilemma? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly?
First dont think Jesus hasnt told them plainly. Jesus answers says He has, I did tell you. Right here in Jerusalem after healing the man at the pool of Bethesda, the Jews sought to kill Him because he was making Himself equal to God. Only two months before our text, again right here in Jerusalem, He plainly told the man born blind who He was. In fact, it His plain speaking that is dividing them, keeping them up in the air. Two months ago, John 9:16 records that some of the Pharisees said Jesus couldnt be from God because He broke the Sabbath, but others said, How can a man who is a sinner do such signs? So there was a division among them Then in 10:19 after Jesus first I am the Good Shepherd speech, John tells us, There was again a division among the JewsMany of them said He has a demon and is insane...Other said, These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon.
Shakespeares The Winters Tale, like many of his plays, has multiple twists, our play has one big one. To their demand that Jesus tell them plainly if He is the Christ, Jesus replies, I did tell you, but you do not believe. As I said, its not that Jesus didnt tell them plainly enough. No, they just didnt believe Him, but look at the twist. Jesus doesnt blame them. Jesus in effect says, What else could be expected of you? Jesus actually says, You do not believe because you are not My sheep. You dont blame fish for not flying or birds for not living under water, do you? You dont blame pecans for not producing peaches or thistles for not producing grapes, do you? Jesus says, I am not surprised you dont believe because only sheep can and you arent My sheep.
But thats not where Jesus leaves it. He isnt in the temple by Himself for nothing. He is doing what He said His main ministry was: seeking the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Thats these men. When Jesus leaves Jerusalem after our text, He wont be back till Palm Sunday. At that time, all Jesus will do is weep for Jerusalem. Their doom is sealed; this text is Jesus reaching out one last time.
Shakespeares The Winters Tale has a happy ending. Like many of his plays the happy ending turns on someone recognizing another for who they really are. Our text has all the makings of a happy ending. Because while you cant believe unless youre a sheep, no one is born a sheep. Every single one of us are born coyotes. Well then how does one become a sheep? Jesus tells us, Sheep are those given to the Son by the Father. Okay who has the Father so given?
Jesus tells us plainly in John 3:16, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son in place of it. John himself tells us in his first epistle, Jesus is the wrath removing sacrifice not only for our sins but the sins of the entire world. God gave the whole world into the hands of His Son, and Jesus took it, but if you accept a sinful world, you accept everyone of its obligation and sins. To the 10 Commandments required of all people, Jesus said Ill do them, and He did perfectly. To every sin against those Commandments Jesus said, Im guilty. And so Jesus went to the cross carrying all those guilts, and there He bore His Fathers wrath and punishment against the whole world of sinners and their sins.
Yes Jesus died on Good Friday as a damned sinner ought to die forsaken by friends, abandoned by God, ashamed of by the world. But Jesus didnt stay dead. God the Father raised Him on Easter thereby declaring that Jesus had succeeded in paying for the sins of the world that God had given to Him. Easter is God the Fathers declaration to the whole world that all sins are paid for. Got sins? Got guilts? Got shames? Have you wronged loved ones, lied, cheated, stolen, murdered? Have you made an idol of your money, your worries, your family, your job? Have you neglected or not used Word and Sacrament? By raising Jesus from the dead on Easter God the Father declares, You are forgiven. Your sins have been paid for. Your sins, guilts, and shames have been removed.
The Father gave the world to His Son and by His perfect life and innocent death Jesus changed our matted, dirty, mangy coyote fur into the bright, white wool, of sheep. Everything else flows from being sheep. Jesus says My sheep listen to my voice and I know them. You would expect Jesus to say, My sheep listen and they know Me, but He doesnt. Why? Because the thing to be emphasized is not that sheep know the shepherd but that the shepherd knows the sheep. Think about it; a sheep standing up on its hind legs and un-sheep-like declaring, Youre not my shepherd doesnt mean its no longer a sheep. But if the shepherd should say, Youre not my sheep, youre not, are you?
By the cross Jesus purchased you to be His sheep, and by the resurrection the Father proclaimed the purchase valid. Being a sheep means that you listen to the voice of Jesus the Shepherd and He knows you. It also means you follow Him and He gives you eternal life. Do you get what Im saying? Jesus doesnt admonish you to learn to be sheep. He tells you what sheep do, listen and follow, and what He the Good Shepherd does: He knows you and gives you eternal life.
Bring the happy ending all the way home. Jesus promises that His sheep never perish and no one can snatch them out of His hand. Jesus doesnt even admit that sheep can cause themselves to perish. When Jesus says, No one can snatch them out of My hand, He doesnt leave open the possibility that you can snatch yourself out. I tell you right now if thats a possibility, I am as good as damned. You put a thousand dollar vase in my hands and tell me to be careful not to drop it, and I wont be able to hold it, so much will I shake. If my everlasting salvation is in my feeble hooves, its as good as dropped. Thats why Jesus assures me that my salvation is safe from me and from outsiders because its in His hands. When Jesus says His sheep will never perish this indicates they shall not destroy themselves internally (Bengels, II, 651). When He says no one can snatch sheep out of his hand, He indicates nothing external can get to them.
The happy ending of being sheep is available to all, but like a Shakespeare play there is a happy ending and then some. After the happy ending in The Winters Tale, the king finds out that the wife he thought had died of his cruelty is still alive. The then some to our happy ending is Jesus simple statement, I and the Father are One. The Father who had rescued Israel from Antiochus and brought back the light of salvation to the temple, still shepherds His people. He who has seen Me has seen the Father, is how Jesus will say it to His disciples on Maundy Thursday. I and the Father are one, is how He says it today. In Jesus, youre in the hands of the Almighty God. The God who created you with His own hands is the same God who has redeemed you by spreading out His hands to be nailed to a cross. The Creator, Redeemer God lives in the person of Jesus now to carry you in His hands. Through that font, these words, and by whats on that altar those hands are opened to you.
I told you that in Shakespeare plays it often comes down to people finding out who someone really is. The Jews come to Jesus demanding who He is, and Jesus answers that, but He also answers what they failed to ask, Who are we? Hes the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord Almighty come down as the Old Testament said He would to shepherd His sheep, are they His sheep? Go home; read verse 31 for their answer. And may this winters tale end for you more like Shakespeares than theirs. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (20100425); John 10: 22-30