Fourth Sunday of Easter – 25 April 2021

Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. ~Psalm 23:4

L.P. Jones, a Presbyterian pastor and author, wrote of a professor who told a class of doctoral students that they already had an A in his class.  The challenge was to keep it.  1 John 3 begins by praising the love of God for calling us children of God, we who are not yet complete in God’s sight (1 John 3:1).  John then notes that no one is free of the sin which brings disorder and lawlessness (1 John 3:4).  But, Jesus came to take away sins, and “no one who abides in him sins” (1 John 3:5-6).  We all seek to abide in him, but we know while we are on this earth, we cannot escape from sin.  We cannot escape from the presence of sin.  But we can escape from the power of sin.  Jesus promises to have a voice in the chaos that we live in today, giving us the knowledge that the sins we commit today will not have the last word on our souls.  Can we keep the A?  Perhaps not, but we will have a fresh start if we only take the next step.  It is like the moment that my freshman high school class was told on our first day that we had a clean slate.  Middle school or Junior High got us to where we were, but whether we had an A or C did not matter anymore.  We were at a new place and started with a clean slate.  That is what it is like when we go to Heaven.  We may have had a C average or worse down here, but if we take the next step and are not too disheartened to continue on to the big-kid school, we start with that fresh A.  Yet if we want to reach there, we still need to keep doing the work down here.

Have you taken in some of the stain glass windows in our church recently?  There are plenty of beautiful scenes, but the one at the front of the sanctuary for all to see is that of Jesus as a Shepherd.  Jesus is holding a sheep in one arm and a staff in the other, leading those who may feel lost and troubled.  Well, can sheep feel troubled, you may ask?  I am not sure of that, and some may say that sheep do not feel much of anything.  I am reminded of the children’s story where the sheep that Jonathan Toomey was carving for a manger set was not right because it was supposed to look “proud because it was with the baby Jesus.”  I am sure that in a farming community I will learn more about sheep than I ever knew before.  But what I do know now is that, whether they knew it or not, someone cared for them.  Someone had their best interests in mind, even if they were going astray.

Last week, we heard the story of Peter and John going out to the temple and healing a lame beggar.  It happened to attract quite a lot of attention.  In fact, Peter and John, who had finally worked up the courage to emerge from behind their locked doors, suddenly found themselves under house arrest after the first miracle that they had performed in Jesus’ name!  Further, Peter is now faced with giving a defense against many of the very same council members of the high priest that had convicted Jesus just a short time before.  The people who were amazed at the miracle had started listening to what Peter had to tell them about the resurrection of the dead, and this is what led the Sadducees to make the arrest (Acts 4:2).  The Sadducees believed this to be a false teaching, which was not permitted in the temple.  It was especially concerning because about five thousand of those who heard Peter believed him (Acts 4:4).  Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the Sadducees are “among those whom the Romans hold responsible for keeping such crowds from forming,” and thus Peter and John are not just theologically wrong, but they are “dangerous to the peace of Jerusalem and, more than that, to the Pax Romana, the peace guaranteed by Rome” (Feasting on the Word, B.2.433).  The Sadducees are afraid because they want to do whatever it takes to keep the peace in the Holy City.  Yet it must have been discouraging to Peter and John, to finally have overcome their fear, and to end up being arrested.  Perhaps they had to remind themselves of the true source of power.

Psalm 23 is a psalm very near and dear to so many Christians.  It is a psalm of comfort in times of distress.  It is a reminder that God walks with us, even when we are walking through very dark times.  Even when we are arrested and tried, or even when it seems like we have the worst luck in the world, God is with us.  One reflection that I read on Psalm 23 called us to imagine Jesus praying the words found in Psalm 23.  Read it as Jesus’ own prayer in the face of his suffering, and we can then pray it as we are in Christ.  Jesus suffered worse than any of us can imagine, so that we might have less suffering of our own, or, so that our suffering need not be permanent.  God is with us, regardless of whether we are able to recognize that God is.  Even when it seems like God is letting us walk alone, God still comforts us. God still loves us.  God still cares for us deeply.  We do not have to fear any evil.  It may be easier said than done.  The psalm does not promise that we will not have enemies, though.  It says that we celebrate God’s table being with us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5).  Again, we are not saved from the presence of sin in this life.  But we are saved from the power of sin; that is, we can be confident that the evil and sin in this world do not have to control the way we think, or the way we act, and it does not have to instill fear in us to block out our confidence in God’s power.

A baby bird in a nest may not know much of anything either.  But they expect that their mother will come back to the nest to feed them and to comfort them.  We have a robin’s nest that was made in our Easter cross this spring, and we are hoping that the mother is able to take care of them and we will be able to watch the process unfold.  Are you able to expect that God will be walking with you and taking care of you, even in the face of the unknown?  Can we trust that God is on our side and that God is here for us?  I hope that we can.  For once we hear this lesson and gain confidence in it, we are called to go out into the community and help others in God’s name.

Throughout this Easter season, we have wondered what is next.  When the tomb was empty, the disciples wondered what they were to do next.  When Jesus told them to have the courage to go out and continue doing the same ministry that they had done before, they eventually worked up the courage to do just that.  Now they are arrested.  What is next?  What is next is to renew your trust in God.  Even in the most trying times, God is walking with you.  Even when it seems you have lost your strength, God gives you new strength.  As Jesus said, “And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).  We may not want to be compared to sheep, as we see them as lesser creatures than us.  Jesus told us, in fact, that we are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31).  We are worth more than the animals around us.  But Jesus compares us to sheep here so that we understand the nature of Jesus’ relationship to us.  We do not know what is in store for us, but we do know that there is always someone nearby who has our best interests at heart.  What is next is to trust that God will not lead you into something that you will never make it out of.  Jesus does not leave us to be scattered by the wolf.  We have a shepherd.  Sheep are never afraid when a shepherd is nearby.

William L. Self, Senior Pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, writes about 1 John 3: “Because we know we are God’s, because we love what is right, and because we love God’s people despite our failures in performance, we have all the earmarks of belonging to Christ. … We have the acceptance of God when we live by the principles of love and righteousness, there is evidence of rewarding prayer in our lives, we possess the will to obey, and we are possessed by the Spirit” (Feasting on the Word B.2.445-7).  Do we know that we are God’s?  We trust in the promises we find in Psalm 23.  Do we love what is right?  We love to see people who are good get rewarded.  Do we love God’s people?  We are a shepherd to them of sorts; we care for one another and we help to build each other up when we become discouraged.  Then, we are children of God.  We learn to trust God by nurturing our own relationship with God, by living by the word, by praying regularly, by obeying what you feel that God is calling you to do, and by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the same Spirit that led “ordinary men” and women to preach God’s message to those who needed to hear it (Acts 4:13).  We do not need to be capable on our own to share God with others.  We need to only lean on God.

We have shifted from the post-resurrection experiences of the disciples to the nature of God’s work in this world.  The disciples have been called to continue ministering.  Thomas Long, a Professor of Preaching, notes, “In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say “How Wonderful!” but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and to become a faithful part of God’s work in the world” (FoW, B.2.410).  How can we do this?  We participate in the ministry of God by participating in the wider works of the church, such as collecting donations for the disaster relief buckets, which are due today.  We care for one another as the church.  We are the work of the church.  We reach well outside the borders of our church with our special offerings.  Love is known not only by words and speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:18).  Jesus misunderstood by nearly everyone around him; as Christians, we expect the same (FoW, B.2.418).  But we do our work anyway.  We trust God.  God will guide us through.  After we have seen the word, and we have taught the word, we are called to live the word.  Jesus is our comforter and our strength.  We can take the risk to speak to the stranger in the pew, to build the bonds that make our community as a church, according to whatever our gifts are.  If you have received the Spirit, you do have a gift that will build up our community.  God works in us.  God works for us.  Together, we are making a better world.  As the disciples feared no evil, we also face no evil when we face those who are against us, and those forces that try to break us!  They may knock us down, but God helps us back up.  We are the church.  Only together can we be the church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 4:1-12
4:1-4: While Peter and Johnwere speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.

4:5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,
4:6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
4:7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders,
4:9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed,
4:10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
4:11 This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
4:12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Psalm 23
23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

1 John 3:16-24
3:16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
3:17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
3:18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
3:19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him
3:20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
3:21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God;
3:22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
3:23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
3:24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18

10:7ab: So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you
10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
10:12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
10:13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
10:14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
10:15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
10:16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
10:17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
10:18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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