It was Hannukah. This is the festival of dedication that our Jewish friends celebrate every year shortly before Christmas, which involves lighting candles every night for eight nights – one more candle each night. Various blessings are said, and hymns are sung, and, of course, there is the usual feasting and celebration, although you still go to work or school, as appropriate. In Israel it's a school holiday, but elsewhere it isn't, and you aren't excused school as you are for some of the Jewish holidays. The festival commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over pagan kings who wanted to ban Judaism and defile the Temple.
The festival was about 200 years old in Jesus' day, and he, as we see, is in Jerusalem for it, and he's walking up and down what's called Solomon's Porch, or Solomon's Colonnade, which was on the eastern side of the outer court of the Temple. And various people – ones, I suspect, who had no reason to wish him well – came up to him and said “We do wish you'd tell us clearly, are you the Messiah, or not?”
To which he replied: “But I have told you! You just didn't believe me!” And he goes on to explain that those who are never going to be his disciples, no matter what, will not listen to him. But “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never die. No one can snatch them away from me.”
“My sheep listen to my voice”. And, conversely, “You will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”
So, Jesus is basically saying that he can tell them he's the Messiah until he's blue in the face, but they are never going to listen. They are not his sheep.
Now, I think we need to look at this a bit this morning, because it can be quite scary to think that there are people who are not Jesus' sheep. I wonder what he meant.
Well, first of all, our doctrines tell us that everybody can be saved. We don't believe, as some churches teach, that there is only a limited atonement and it's not for everybody. We believe that everybody can be saved. Everybody. Even a terrorist. Even a paedophile. Even a politician. Everybody can be saved. Jesus doesn't exclude anybody from His flock.
But yet, we also believe that everybody needs to be saved. Everybody needs to be saved. I strongly suspect that the default position, for very small children and so on, is that they are part of Jesus' flock – but people can exclude themselves. There are prominent atheists like Stephen Fry or Jimmy Carr who would be horrified to find themselves part of the flock! And others who exclude themselves by their actions – they couldn't care less whether they are part of the flock or not, but go their own sweet way regardless. And then there are those who don't follow Jesus, but do follow God to the best of their ability and knowledge, people like Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. I don't know how God deals with such people, but I'm quite sure whatever happens to them after this life is fair and right. Jesus condemned the Jewish church leaders of his day, certainly, but that was basically because they didn't want to know, when he was right there in front of them.
But in many ways that is not our problem. Sure, we share our faith with Jews and Muslims and so on when it's appropriate to do so – and I very much hope that we listen when they tell us about theirs! But whatever God has provided for their salvation – and I'm perfectly convinced He has, because whatever else God is He's not unfair, and it would be terribly unfair to exclude people because they had been taught to worship God differently and to say different creeds; whatever God has provided for their salvation, the point is we do know what He has provided for ours!
We know that everybody can know that they are saved. Everybody can know that they are saved, that they are part of Jesus' flock. We know that we can hear His voice, through Scripture, through our friends, through our teachers.... I think all of us here have made a commitment, one way and another, to being Jesus' person; whether we said a specific prayer of commitment on a specific day, or whether it came so gradually that we couldn't possibly say when it was, only that you couldn't be doing without Jesus now. We have all, I expect, made such a commitment – and if by any chance you haven't, you might think whether it is time that you did so – and we can know that we are saved.
I don't really know exactly what “our doctrines” mean by “saved” in this context. It's far more than just “pie in the sky when you die”, of course; it's about being Jesus' person all the time, the “abundant life” Jesus talks about is for here and now, not just in some remote afterlife. It's about being filled with the Holy Spirit; it's about receiving the gifts of the Spirit to enable us to become more and more the person God created us to be. But it's one of those things where we all probably have part of the truth, and none of us has the whole truth, because it's about God. I know what I mean when I say “saved”, and I expect you know what you mean when you say it, but we may not mean quite the same things. And we may not mean now what we meant when we said it twenty years ago, or even yesterday – we all grow and change and this sort of thing is apt to change a bit as we go on our Christian journey.
So: Everybody needs to be saved; everybody can be saved; everybody can know they are saved, and the fourth line of “our doctrines” is “Everybody can be saved to the uttermost”.
“My sheep listen to my voice”, says Jesus. And it isn't just listening like we might listen to the radio or a CD, just background noise. It is active listening, that focusses on what is being said and reacts to it. It is the sort of listening that enables God to make us into the person we were created to be, the sort of listening that enables God to give us the gifts we need.
Most of us, of course, aren't good at listening to God all the time. Like sheep, we wander away and have to be brought back. Have you ever seen a field of sheep with their lambs? Actually, more to the point, have you ever listened? There is constant bleating going on, as that's how the sheep stay in touch with their lambs. Each sheep knows her lamb's particular bleat, and each lamb knows it's mother's. So they listen out for their own lamb, and ignore other people's. It would be a serious mess if they didn't know how to identify their own lamb in all that flock. And most sheep learn to recognise their shepherd, or at least the car or quad-bike. Their reaction to a familiar vehicle or person is quite different to an unfamiliar one. “My sheep listen to my voice!”
And, like sheep, we are apt to wander away, but the joy is that the Good Shepherd is always there to bring us back, always on the alert for someone straying, and grabbing them before they go too far. Those of us who are committed to being Jesus' person, and committed to being part of the flock, know that. It is a great comfort, as we know we're going to mess up sooner or later, but Jesus will be there to help us get things right again.
But John Wesley was convinced that there were some people who had grasped the knack of living so closely with God that they didn't mess up. They were, in all the ways that matter, perfect. He says obviously nobody is perfect in understanding God – you can't be. And making mistakes doesn't necessarily make you less than perfect, nor does any kind of infirmity – physical or mental. Although he does qualify that, when he says: 'Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man tells us, "Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness;” Another has the infirmity of uncleanness; another of taking God's holy name in vain; and yet another has the infirmity of calling his brother, "Thou fool," or returning "railing for railing." It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell!' And, of course, one can be tempted. Wesley says, 'Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some . . . seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.'
Holiness. Wesley goes on to define holiness as he sees it, being freedom from sin. He spends a great deal of time saying, “Oh but people say the Bible says”.... yadda yadda yadda and refuting it, rather like people do about homosexuality in our day. But he also tries to explain that we are forgiven in this life, forgiven and cleansed, and that we can live in the reality of that. He reminds us of Paul's letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And he reminds us, too, that we produce fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit. He doesn't quote the list of fruit of the Spirit given in Galatians, but you can tell he's thinking of it.
We can be saved to the uttermost. We can so spend our time listening to the Good Shepherd, aware of His presence, that we become fully whole, fully holy, more fully his person than we could possibly imagine. And yes, one can – well, I can't always, but people do – be aware of God and of His presence with us even while busy with the rest of life, with school and work and watching television and being with friends....
I'm not quite sure how I ended up talking about our doctrines this morning, but it's always good to remind ourselves of them.
Everybody needs to be saved.
Everybody can be saved.
Everybody can know they are saved.
Everybody can be saved to the uttermost.
It seems to me the secret is to be open to listening to Jesus, to be part of His flock, not to close off His voice because we are so convinced that we are right and everybody else is wrong. The Jews, that Hannukah festival so long ago, simply couldn't hear Jesus – they were so convinced that this young man couldn't possibly be the Messiah that they were unable to listen to what he was actually saying, not what they thought he was saying!
And, sadly, we all know people like that. People who are so convinced they are right that they can't possibly listen to anybody else's point of view. They may claim to follow Jesus, or they may despise what they tend to call “organised religion” (though quite what they mean by that is totally unclear!), but either way, it's utterly impossible to get through to them about whatever particular bee they have in their bonnet.
The awful thing is, if you are like that – although I don't think anybody here is – you won't have heard a word I've said this morning! Some people do come to church just to have their prejudices confirmed, but I'm sure nobody here does. Or perhaps we all do, who knows? But I do pray that I, and you, will be open to hearing the Shepherd's voice, open to being part of the flock, even when that challenges our ideas, even when it touches places within us we don't want to explore. Because by listening, by hearing, by being willing to be changed, only then can we really be “saved to the uttermost”. Amen.