The sermon for Sunday, April 22 was not recorded. The transcript of the sermon is below.
Sermon: "Divine Guidance"
Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: John 10:11-18[otw_shortcode_content_toggle title="Click to view transcript" opened="closed"]
Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Text: Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18
Decisions and the Shepherd
Each week we have decisions to make. When I look at this congregation I know that we are making important decisions about our health this week. Some of us are facing financial decisions. Many of us are anticipating decisions related to our work lives. The youth and students among us have decisions about how to prioritize their time and relationships at the end of an academic year. This week couples will choose again to be faithful to each other. Family and friends choose how to invest in these relationships. One of the reasons we’re together this morning is that we want to choose wisely. We want our decisions and actions to be guided by the Spirit of Christ. When faced with decisions, sometimes we know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it. At other times, we don’t know which path to take. Sometimes life has become so tangled that we don’t see a path at all. Our scripture reading this morning is for times like these, for people like us, who are facing decisions of all kinds. We have a good shepherd.
How does the divine One shepherd us? The pastoral image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is precious for some Christians. Protestant congregations who would be reluctant to portray Jesus on the cross, often hang images of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders, or leading a flock of sheep, though there is no Biblical evidence that Jesus ever did that. The image comes from something Jesus said about himself. And from his parable about the lost sheep. I suppose some of you don’t really need to hear this sermon at all because the reading of the scripture, the reminder that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, was all you needed to get you through the week. I hope you are also blessed by some of the many settings of Psalm 23 that we’re singing together this morning. For others, this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd doesn’t work so well for you. Maybe this sermon will help. Honestly, when Jesus said: I am the Good Shepherd he may have been both revealing and concealing his identity.
In ancient Palestine, shepherd was not just a vocational option differentiated from fisherman or stone mason, or carpenter or leatherworker. Yes, shepherds were more common in their society than in ours, but the people of Israel used ‘shepherd’ metaphorically. They referred to their kings as shepherds. They even referred to God as their shepherd. So there are political and royal and divine overtones to this metaphor. When Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, he distinguishes himself from bad shepherds, that is bad kings and even bad or mistaken images of God. Jesus describes himself as a shepherd willing to take risks–to lay down his own life–for others, for us. And Jesus can give of himself in this way because his identity is bonded with God.
Jesus is not the least bit confused about who he is: I am the shepherd of Israel, I am good not just when it is easy to be good, but even when being good means humiliation, suffering and dying. I will lay down my life. I am the legitimate ruler of Israel, the one who judges and guides and leads and saves through self-giving love for the sake of a vulnerable flock. Keep in mind this word from Jesus addresses people who are being governed by selfish, exploitative, violent leaders within their Jewish community and by the Romans. In this environment of fear, Jesus says: I am the Good Shepherd. I am God. And I care not only about you, but some other sheep too.
Divine Guidance–Persistent thoughts
Our society needs divine guidance in every sphere of life. CMCers are shepherds in many ways. We are so grateful that CMCers exercise godly influence when guiding families, facilitating decisions, giving care to vulnerable people, setting limits and boundaries, giving counsel and directing financial and relational resources. Yet there are lots of challenging decisions we face. The good news is that our Good Shepherd, the living Christ is both our model for how to guide others and, by the Holy Spirit, Jesus actively guides us. This morning I’m going to introduce three ways that we receive divine guidance in our lives. There are more ways, but these are ways that Christ has given me guidance for life and three is a nice number for a sermon. The first is persistent thoughts.
For those of us whose minds are in good working order persistent thoughts can be one of the ways that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is our Good Shepherd and guides our lives. I say minds in ‘good working order’ because some of us have not just persistent thoughts, but obsessive thoughts that come from disordered thinking. It might be a result of illness or injury. And if you have a condition like that it doesn’t mean that our Good Shepherd can’t give you guidance, but persistent thoughts are perhaps not a reliable indicator of how the Spirit of Christ is directing you. Obsessive thoughts are not from Jesus. They usually bring confusion and they threaten our peace of mind. You see Jesus does not overwhelm our thinking. Sure, people who are full of the Spirit may sometimes be “lost in wonder love and praise” as a famous hymn says, but these experience contribute to good thinking, not disordered thinking. So, those of us who have obsessive thoughts such as: ‘I don’t matter; I am a failure; I am worthless.’ That is not the Spirit of Christ.
Likewise, those of us who obsessively think: ‘I cannot be wrong; I am in control; I always know what’s best’ are not hearing from the Spirit of Christ. About a dozen times in the gospel of John Jesus says: I AM. Jesus knows who he is and persistent thoughts, if they are from the living Christ, clarify who we are in relationship to the divine. We do matter. We may fail, but we are not failures. We aren’t worthless. We are created in the image of God. Our lives have purpose. And we can be wrong. All of us fall short of the glory of God. We do not control all things. We do not always know what is best. We need help.
So, persistent thoughts can be the Good Shepherd’s guidance. Often times persistent thoughts confirm something we have heard, but weren’t ready to believe. Perhaps you had a teacher who said: you are a designer, a creator, but you weren’t ready to hear that and dismissed it. Years later at a time of transition this persistent thought emerges: I want to make something. I need to be creative. When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, he makes a big point about the flock knowing his voice. So pay attention to what you are hearing. One CMCers this week described it as listening to the whispers of her soul. Is Jesus Christ speaking to you and giving you a clearer sense of identity or a focused direction that you need? What are your persistent thoughts?
Besides persistent thoughts, there are other ways that we receive divine guidance. How many of us have heard someone say: I have peace about this decision. Peace. We Anabaptist Christians are big on peace. But I’ve got to confess, that I’m sometimes skeptical when I hear people say that. Because if peace just means feeling comfortable, then a sense of peace is not always a good indicator of having received and followed the guidance of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said: I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Laying down one’s life isn’t comfortable. Dismantling racism isn’t comfortable. Building community across differences isn’t comfortable. Confessing our sin isn’t comfortable. But real peace–a deep sense of identity in Christ, perhaps especially in uncomfortable circumstances–peace in this sense is a very good indicator of Christ’s direct guidance in our lives.
So, sometimes we have a sense of peace that accompanies us at times when one would think we would be overwhelmed by circumstances. Some people report peace when they are facing their own death, when they are choosing a new vocational path more aligned with their values, when they are doing justice work. This kind of peace is a reduced level of anxiety and a freedom from fear. Sometimes we experience this peace after putting our faith into practice, as a result of a faithful decision. If you have a sense of peace about an area of your life, then very likely that peace is guidance from the living Christ. Where are you experiencing peace in your life?
A third way that we receive divine guidance is through revelation. One thing about Christian faith that is sometimes embarrassing is that we believe stuff that we can’t prove and then we stake our public reputation and our lives on it. Revelation is what God shows us or gives us that we cannot prove. We believe in the resurrection life of Christ. OK, I like that literally add up. And I like logic. But just because I believe in mathematics and logic doesn’t mean I don’t also believe in revelation. Sometimes we receive signs or visions or dreams or gut feelings that are revelatory. Sometimes we get desperately sick and we’re sort of a different person on the other side of the illness and we know something in our bodies. It is visceral, revelatory and nobody can argue with it–not because we can’t be wrong, but because the evidence is not the stuff of argument. In scripture revelation is usually visceral. In the Bible divine guidance is often accompanied by physical sensations and experiences. A woman’s flow of blood stops. Jesus’ body is raised. Paul is blinded. These things don’t exactly make sense when you read the stories. We don’t have explanations for them. The Gospel of John is at once simple and philosophical. I love that part where Jesus heals this blind man and the guy says of Jesus: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” That’s revelation.
I haven’t said much about these artistic depictions of the Good Shepherd from these global artists. In John August Swanson’s work called Psalm 23 we don’t see the shepherd. We see two pilgrims carrying a bit of light in their lanterns, through a forest under a star-filled sky. Swanson, son of a Mexican mother and Swedish father says of this work: “Moving forward barefoot and without fear, two figures travel through a valley transformed by their own beliefs; a world where lions and lambs can lie together in peaceful harmony. The language of Psalm 23 has a message of strength…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…This story connects with our own lives, as we listen to those who encourage and empower others to speak out and stand against death, violence, and hate.” Now revelation, persistent thoughts, a sense of peace, this stuff could be very individualistic. If you are just a spiritual person at large and have no rich faith tradition, if you have no community, if you have no scripture, if you have no Good Shepherd, then there is no context in which to reliably assess these experiences. Resonance between these types of individual divine guidance and the Good Shepherd’s guidance for the whole people of God throughout the world is essential. The good new is that we’re not just spiritual persons at large. We are part of a historical and global people transformed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and there is guidance for our daily decisions.
It is not easy for me to relinquish control in order to pay attention to divine guidance, but I try to do that everyday, because like all of you I have decisions to make. God’s primary guidance for us all is in scripture and in Christ, the very Word of God. On Sundays when we gather for worship the Spirit of Christ is among us, confirming the divine guidance that has shown up in our lives during the week. And we celebrate that resurrection life. Something beautiful happens when we accept the divine guidance we’ve been given. We grow in faith. We grow in love. We grow in our capacity to be good even when it is not easy to be good. Shepherd me, O God, beyond my thoughts, beyond my fears, from death into life. Let’s sing that. It’s number 519 in our blue book. [/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]