Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Bible talks about abundance a lot. We get two examples in today’s readings. Psalm 23 talks about God leading us through green pastures and making our cups overflow. In our Gospel reading, Jesus is more direct. He tells his listeners, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible, because it is one of the few places where Jesus sums up his entire mission in one sentence. He has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Forgiveness of sins? Yeah, that’s part of an abundant life. How can you live if you are crushed beneath the weight of the harm you have caused yourself and others. Healing? That’s part of an abundant life, too. Just getting through the day is hard when you are in need of healing. Good and healthy relationships with God and our neighbors? That’s also part of an abundant life. Healthy relationships—the mutual love and support of friends and family—is one of the things that makes life worth living. God desires good things for us and for all people. God constantly works to give us good things. God constantly works to enrich our lives and give us every good thing.
But when we modern Americans think of abundance, we think of it in a different way than people did back in Jesus’ day. We tend to equate abundance with material prosperity. There are a lot of Christians who believe in the prosperity Gospel. If you are good, and follow Jesus, God will bless you with wealth and health. There are many books written about this, many churches that preach on this all the time. How to do the right things and pray the right prayers so that God will give you money and power and all the things your heart desires and your life will be perfect and shiny and happy and nothing will ever go wrong.
That’s not how these passages were heard in Jesus day, or before that in the days of the Old Testament. In those days, when there was a famine, people starved to death. In those days, there were bandits lurking on every road to attack travelers, kill them, and steal from them. In those days, almost half of all children died before age 5. In those days, waves of epidemic diseases would periodically sweep through, killing adults and children both—measles, mumps, cholera, various poxes, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough. In those days, war was constant, and Israel spent more time ruled by foreign invaders than an independent nation. In those days, kings raised high taxes and used forced labor to build themselves palaces and monuments, spending more time aggrandizing themselves than ruling and protecting their people. In those days, a handful of the richest people in society owned most of the resources, forcing people to slave away for a meagre existence. In those days, life was very precarious, and only rich people could expect the kind of material prosperity we tend to take for granted.
They still believed in the abundance of God. They didn’t believe that meant that everything would be shiny and happy and perfect. They didn’t believe that meant the world would be nothing but puppies and kittens and rainbows. But they did believe that God was present and at work no matter what happened, in good times and bad. God’s gracious gifts were not just limited to material possessions. God’s gifts included hope for the future, shelter in the storm, and the protection and guidance even in the midst of a very dangerous and grim world.
Notice that in both the Psalm and John, there is abundance, but there are also enemies. God prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies. God’s rod and staff and guidance don’t prevent us from having to go through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus came that we might have life, but there are thieves and bandits around who want to kill and destroy. These passages do not deny the harsh realities of life. These passages do not try to offer a simple message of God-given riches to those who are faithful enough. These passages tell us that God will be with us, protecting and guiding and helping us, even in the midst of all the problems of life. These passages tell us that God’s abundance is about more than just material possessions and outward appearances. Abundant life is not a life with a sports car and a vacation home. Abundant life is a life that keeps growing even in the middle of death and destruction. Abundant life if a life that not even hell itself can destroy.
And notice that this abundant life isn’t about staying safe in the paddock. No. God sends us out into the world, and leads us to better places. God has work for us to do, work that can’t be done without going into the world and working with and among those we find out there—whether they are fellow sheep or thieves and bandits. And as we go on our way, as we walk through good places and bad, we are not alone. God is with us even in the darkest parts of our lives, wherever the valley of the shadow might be for us. God is with us when bandits attack us, when enemies attack us, and whether things are going well or badly, whether we are making good choices or bad ones, no matter what is happening, God is working in us and around us to give us life and hope and good things.
Things are a lot better now than they were in Jesus’ day. Fewer people die of hunger; fewer people die of violence; fewer people die from preventable diseases. There are far fewer people in the world living in extreme poverty. There are far fewer tyrants. But there is still sin in the world; there is still pain and death and evil. There are still enemies. For some of us, who struggle with mental illness or disability or addiction or hatefulness, our enemies are in our own bodies and brains. For some of us, who suffer from abuse or neglect, our enemies may be gathered around our family table. For others, who are vulnerable or outcasts, our enemies may be the forces in society that oppress them and keep them in pain and fear. For all of us, the enemy is death and destruction and despair. But no matter who our enemy is, no matter what they do or try to do, we are not alone, for God is with us; God’s rod and staff comfort us and protect us; God knows us by name and leads us as a shepherd.
This is not about material blessings. This is about relationship. We know our master’s voice. We know that God will guide us and protect us. He loves us, and we love him. He creates communities, flocks, which go through life together and support one another. The good shepherd doesn’t just have one sheep. The good shepherd has many sheep, who live and work and travel together. Knowing the shepherd’s voice means we also know our fellow sheep. The love that God gives us is not only for ourselves, but for all. God gives us blessings so that we may bless each other.
When our cup overflows, with love or hope or joy or faith or wealth or any other good thing, we do not hoard the excess but share it so that all the world may know the abundance of God’s blessings. Have you ever seen that thing they do sometimes at parties where they make a pyramid out of wine-glasses and pour wine into the top until it overflows into the glasses beneath it? That’s what we’re supposed to do when our cup overflows with blessings—pass them along so that others may also be blessed. Maybe that blessing is in riches or prosperity. But maybe that blessing is love, the love of friends and family. Maybe that blessing is in the form of wisdom, or hope, or skills to be shared. Maybe that blessing is in the form of health and healing. Maybe that blessing is in the form of forgiveness. But whatever form God’s blessing takes, that abundance is meant to be shared so that all the world may know the abundant life that God brings. May we hear God’s voice and follow him, and may his abundant life overflow in our lives, now and forever.