John 10:14-16 (New International Version) 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me
—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
Spirit God, you have given us life, woke us up this morning, and brought us here. Everything we do, we do under your care and love. May we become aware of your presence now, that you are with us, within us, vibrating with the power and the creative energy of goodness and justice/righteousness. No matter how we may find ourselves here now, whether we’re joyful and eager to hear your voice, desperate and seeking for you to change something in our lives, or apathetic or indifferent, help us to believe that you meet us here just as we are, with abounding love, we pray, Amen.
What is your love language? There are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch. Lately my husband and I have been able to find some time, I’m sorry, I mean MAKE some time to go on walks together. My love language is words of affirmation. I think saying things with words is one of the most direct ways to communicate that is clear.
Tell me I love you.
Say, I’m proud of you.
Write, you mean the world to me.
I think every relationship can become better by saying I’m sorry and I love you often, and mean it. My husband’s love language is quality time. Sorry to gush but man this guy loves to spend time with me. He just wants to be around me and hang out, just being with each other is his thing. I’m always kind of like, we’re so busy, let’s divide and conquer! And he’s like, no let’s go drive together to pick up the take out, I’m like, WHY? I could be cleaning the house! But then we do, like these walks we’ve been taking, and I realize, oh yes, it is good for us to find our steps together, next to each other, and while we walk I get to say things to him and he gets to say things, in words, that I like.
I can’t believe it’s December already, and we’re getting ready for Christmas. For church, getting ready for Christmas season is called Advent. The word means, “to come” or “arrival.” It’s a season of longing and waiting, a looking toward. And this season of longing and waiting is one that we like to intentionally take a beat on. It’s not 2-day Prime delivery. There’s something that’s meant to be happening in the longing and waiting. That liminal space is meant to be something meaningful. There’s a gift there, if you’ll only let yourself, anticipate.
We invited you starting last week with these beautiful books, our Advent guide, to pay attention to that lingering of, not yet, of coming. This week’s theme is titled God in Flesh. It made me think about God’s love language. How did God want to show us, as a big omnipotent Creator of the universe, that God loves us and cares about us? Well, God wanted to be with us in the flesh.
And as I read through each day of week two, I thought, through Jesus, God wanted to give a gift, God’s own son, by washing our feet, God wanted to show acts of service, by being a shepherd, God wanted to spend quality time with us, by saying that’s God’s not a master but a friend, God wanted to touch us and talk to us, in the flesh. Jesus is God’s love language embodied. I invite you to meditate on all the ways God speaks God’s love languages to you this week, through this book. For this sermon, I wanted to focus on Day two’s metaphor of the Shepherd.
In the guide, Steve our senior pastor writes,
“Points of interest: After growing up in a rural agrarian first century region, one of the metaphors Jesus used to understand himself was that of a shepherd. Shepherds in first century Palestine/Israel were low status workers who fed, watered, and protected flocks of sheep. And in Jesus’ religious tradition, shepherding was a metaphor for both human and divine leadership.”
“I’m like a good shepherd.”
Now, personally, I don’t know any sheep or real shepherds. Not the metaphor, but the actual literal sheep shepherd relationship, I know nothing of. So how am I supposed to understand this metaphor? Well, in some sense I’m not. What are our modern day metaphors to get at this relational, present, loving God? Well I don’t know any sheep or shepherds but I do know some dogs and dog owners.
I’ll be upfront. I am not a dog person. I’m not really an animal person, so this metaphor is still far from me. I like the friend metaphor more. But actually this is a good exercise in receiving a metaphor you know nothing about. Now, when I see a good dog owner, I am really astounded at the extent and love and care, and cost and time they put in for their dogs. It’s truly a wonder to me. Please don’t judge me, oh Lydia doesn’t like dogs! Gasp! What kind of pastor is that! Look I will pray for your dog if you ask me to but I just will never dog sit is all.
A woman in my community group, Holly, one day decided to get a dog. She was applying to a bunch of places, looking for an old dog she could lounge on the couch with and one of the places suggested the dog she has now, named Badger, and that she could try it out by fostering to adopt. To which she didn’t particularly have a concept in her head what that meant. Because after he came home with her, she just couldn’t see how he could NOT be with him. She just couldn’t think of returning him and retraumatizing him. and of course now she loves him.
One day in front of her house, Badger was getting excited about a dog across the street and leaped to cross the street. He was on a leash but he’s a big dog. I met him, and just as a car was coming and they missed it by inches. Holly immediately went inside and started looking for houses in Connecticut. Three weeks later she was packed and moved, and now lives in Connecticut in a house with a fenced yard. In order for Badger to be in her life, she had to completely change her life around to make him fit in her life.
Why? God knows why! The ways I’ve seen and heard how Holly loves and cares for Badger week to week, I literally cannot fathom. It makes me think of the verse in Matthew,
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
I’m not saying Holly is evil, but let’s say she’s not perfect, but she’s a pretty good dog mom. Just imagine, how much more God is willing to sacrifice God’s own ways to fit us into God’s plan?
Among various views of creations, there’s a theology of creation called zimzum that has fascinated me and grabbed my attention since I first heard about it in seminary. Some say the world was created out of chaos into order. Some say it was created out of nothing. Jürgen Moltmann, a notable German theologian born in 1920’s, took the concept of zimzum from the Rabbi and Jewish mystic Isaac Luria from the 15th century. Zimzum, a Hebrew word, means contraction. That, at the moment of creation, God was all encompassing and decided to contract, creating a non-God space, for creation to exist, that is other than God-self. This theology of creation has implications for our understanding of free will and so forth. They call it, “a primordial withdraw.”
It’s the concept that God withheld God-self for us. A self withholding God. In his book Science and Wisdom, Moltmann says this,
“The idea of zimzum probably goes back to the contraction of the womb at the birth of a child, just as the Hebrew word racham means the birth pangs, and is only inadequately rendered as compassion or mercy. Where God withdraws into Godself, God can create something whose essence is not divine, can let it co-exist with Godself, give it space, and redeem it.”
Womb, yes. I moved around my organs for a baby. I permanently shifted the shape of my bones to carry a child in my womb.
I love this idea of zimzum. God contracted. God humbled Godself into a man. God’s love is one that is self-sacrificial and self-giving of oneself.
There’s a Korean word called Yangbo. Translation says, concession or yield. Korean culture has a lot of high valued manners. Someone having “good manners” is not just a nice thing to have, but a matter of great importance, especially for family members interviewing and sizing up their beloved child, sibling, or cousin’s romantic partner. Did they bow properly? Did they have “sense” to help clean the kitchen? Did they yangbo? Yangbo is insisting you take the best seat. Yangbo is letting you take the first bite. Yangbo is giving you room to look out the window with the view. Yangbo is holding the door and letting you walk in first. Yangbo is sacrificing your own needs for the needs of others.
Because sacrifice is also a very highly valued attribute in Korean culture. And well, maybe that’s why Koreans love Jesus. Cause in Jesus, God yangbo’d. God is a god who doesn’t need to overpower but in fact makes space for us. What a god! What kind of God is this? One who doesn’t exert power but freely gives it away?
Now, zimzum does not mean God is absent. It just is referring to a concept where God is not taking up all the space. God is not micromanag-ey. God is right there, with you, next to you, watching you and seeing and being a witness to whatever you’re doing.
And when I think about a Shepherd too, what would it mean to be a good shepherd? Cause there are bad shepherds. There are bad coaches, bad bosses, bad presidents. I think I’m a bad coach.
I didn’t grow up doing sports, so I don’t really have experience of a good or bad coach. I’m full of metaphors I know nothing about today.
Recently my four-year old girl took up ice skating. Well, she didn’t take it up, we signed her up for a class. We’ve been to about eight classes and we’ve noticed something. Everything her dad goes on the ice with her, she has a blast and she does really well. Every time I go on the ice with her, she slips and falls more. Afterwards when I ask her how it was she says, “it wasn’t fun. It was too hard.” whereas after with her dad, she says, “it was fun!”
So Eugene and I talked about why this might be so in one of our walks. I think I try too hard to have her follow instructions and try to make her do the drills or practice what the teacher is doing. Eugene, he just goes where she goes, which might be totally on the other side of ice from the instructor. He said he just wants her to have her get used to ice and build confidence. Whereas I wanted to make sure she learned the lesson for the day, which would often frustrate her and make her just lay down and make snow angels on ice.
Eugene grew up playing tennis and he said this,
“You know Nadal and Federer play really differently. So there’s no right way to swing.”
Yes we’re comparing our four-year old daughter with the greatest of all times tennis players. And I said, “But she’s gotta learn the basics.” And “I think maybe I’m just a more strict coach.” And Eugene said, “Well kids who had strict coaches at four years old I bet burn out of the sport, I’ll tell you that.”
But I think we think of God as a strict coach a lot of the time. A God who really wants us to get it right. And if we’re doing life wrong, God’s standing there trying to fix us. God is not concerned if we’re learning the lesson we’re supposed to be learning this week. I am, Sophia needs to know how to turn on ice! She doesn’t know how to do that yet and it concerns me.
Even as a Shepherd, Jesus doesn’t say,
“I will teach you and lead you where you need to go and what you need to do for each step in life.”
“They know me and I know them. My sheep know my voice.”
It’s much more general and relational. It’s the context of a connected relationship not the content of the teachings.
They say this about marriages too, that it’s not what you’re saying, or the task you’re working on together, whether you’re parenting together or working on a maintenance project. It’s not the content of the thing that might be the problem, she doesn’t know how to listen or he’s being stubborn, it’s a context problem.
Have they spent time together recently?
Have they connected about other things?
Do they recognize each other’s voice, moods, body language?
God isn’t trying to tell you what God wants you to do to be a better Christian or even a better person. God is simply trying to connect with you. Be with you. Do you realize that? That’s prayer. Prayer is less about what is said, what you said to God, what you may or may not have heard from God, but it’s about sitting with God long enough to know whether it’s your own voice of ego, or your deeper grounded beloved voice of the divine speaking through you. Only you know the difference.
Our theology is simple at the end of the day. God is love. And I think through Jesus, God was speaking God’s love language with us, saying,
“I just wanna be with you.”
Why are we trying to make it so complicated sometimes? God just wants you to have fun on ice. You’ll get it. You’ll glide. If you need me I’m here. That’s all. God loves you. God the shepherd. God the dog owner. God the mother who made space for you in her womb. God the coach. God is good. And God loves you. That’s it.
What’s a metaphor that you know well? Are you a manager? A director, a CEO? A teacher, doctor, consultant? What does it really mean to be a good manager, director, CEO, teacher, doctor, consultant? You know best. You know better than anyone what it really means to be a good _(fill in the blank)_.
That’s how God wants you to see God. That’s how God wants you to relate to God. Think of a time when you had a “win” moment in your job or role. When you were in your flow and you really were good. How did you feel? How did others around you feel?
Somebody sent me this week a one-star review of our church on yelp. I didn’t mind reading the “scathing” review to be honest. He was mostly correct in his assessment, yes we care about racial diversity, LGBTQIA, and women leadership. He also said we didn’t really care about spiritual salvation. But I think there’s a difference in what he thinks spiritual salvation is and what I think spiritual salvation is.
No I am not as concerned about our ticket to heaven after we die as traditionally have been focused about spiritual salvation in some Christian rhetoric. I think Jesus cared about the spiritual salvation of people who were living their lives as shepherds and cloth makers, builders, dancers, cooks, politicians, and so forth. I think that’s the whole story leading up to Christmas, wondering Why did God decide to enter this earth through this person of Jesus? Because God cared about your life now, here. Your body. Your flesh, so much that God took on flesh. This is how I believed Jesus saved. Jesus saved us by being with us. Salvation is here. Right here, with us. Jesus is here, with you. Do we believe that?
Let me pray for us.
Jesus Jesus, our loving friend. Our good Shepherd. Thank you for being with us. Thank you for walking with us. Thank you for your voice that tells us again and again, that you love us. Help us to hear that fully and drive that deep into our hearts. May we fully know and experience the ever present self-giving love of you in our lives today and this week, we pray. Amen.