Sunday, August 28, 2016

Still, Small Voice

Chaplain Mel O’Malley        
March 20, 2016
John 12:12-19

“Still, Small Voice”

It is pretty safe to say that if Jesus had been running for President on Palm Sunday, the electoral math would have easily been in his favor. A great crowd gathered to see him coming into Jerusalem. If there had been any media outlets, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, I am sure they would have been covering this event.  As Jesus got closer to town, the people started chanting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” On this particular day, the people loved Jesus. They called him King, and they put out palm branches, making antiquity’s version of the red carpet. That was then, though. A few days later, in the blink of an eye, everything had changed for Jesus. The crowds who were once waving palms became crowds spitting and screaming, “Crucify him.” Jesus’ popularity had been crushed.

Popular opinion can make a huge impact. Earlier this week on the radio before Tuesday’s primaries, one political commentator said that all Bernie Sanders had to do was steal enough of Clinton’s delegates, not necessarily even win a whole state, but just take enough delegates to convince the public that he was surging. Doing this might change everything for him, might turn the tide. Public opinion matters a lot. We think it matters more now than ever before in this age of 24 hour news coverage and internet because nothing goes unseen. Everything is available for public consumption. But public opinion mattered for Jesus, too. How else can you explain the journey between Palm Sunday and Good Friday? Something happened in those few days that changed the course of Jesus’ life and ultimately brought him to his death.  

Woven in the narrative of all of the gospels is this fearful voice emanating from the political and religious leadership, from leaders like Herod and the Pharisees. They use this common refrain saying, “If the people love Jesus, believe in him too much, if they realize who he really is, then they will follow him instead of us.” Those in power do not like to have their power threatened. In our passage today the Pharisees are bemoaning the growing problem of Jesus. Those who had witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead were still talking about that miracle. Others, maybe those who had benefitted from that time when Jesus fed five thousand or when Jesus gave sight back to a blind man or healed countless people, they were also talking about him.

The situation was getting out of control. The people liked Jesus too much. The Pharisees said one another, “You see, there is nothing we can do. Look, the world has gone after him!” They were so worried about Jesus gaining the power away from them because of his popularity that they were willing to do anything they could to stop Jesus in his tracks. So they capitalized on the people’s fears. They said and did whatever they could to lead the people away from him. This is how we went from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.  

There is a reason that many of the parables use sheep as an example. Besides the obvious that Jesus’ audience was agrarian and understood the mechanics of sheep, generally, sheep are a really great example of mob mentality. If one or two start to go in one direction, for no particular reason, then the others will quickly follow, even if it is a bad idea. They don’t seem to have any sense of direction or much sense at all. A few months ago when my parents were visiting, we watched a movie together. There was a scene where a few of a group of about 200 sheep got spooked. So they broke through their protective barrier, a terrible idea for them in the long run. The whole group of sheep panicked, started running. The next thing you know every one of them had run off a cliff and died.

This reminds me of a saying that I have heard parents say to their kids, in fact I am sure my parents said it to me too, “If so-in-so jumps off a bridge, does that mean you should go and jump off a bridge, too?” We like to think it’s just teenagers who would indignantly say, “Yes!” to this question. But if we are honest, we may also admit where we are susceptible to the pull of the masses. When people start to shout and panic and run in a direction, it’s easy to be pulled along, to get swept up. This is why having the right kind of shepherd is so important. Those sheep wouldn’t have run off the cliff if their shepherd had been there, calming them down and guiding them away from danger.

But, looking at our story today, the Great Shepherd was there. He was actually there in the flesh. He had been healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, raising people from the dead. He was right there with them living the Good News. And still, the crowd got confused about who their shepherd really was. They listened to the louder voices, the ones that were inciting fear. The ones that were attempting to discredit Jesus. The crowd got spooked and ran toward death rather than life.

When we read the Bible, it’s easy to view these stories as if they are about a different time and place, a different people. We think this story is about Jesus and a crowd that flip flops on a dime and ends up killing the one who had come to save them. But this story is also about us. It’s our story, too. We know the siren song of the false shepherd. We are lured by it every time we delude ourselves into thinking we have control over our lives, when we believe that one of these politicians actually has the power to wipe away all our worries and problems and make it all better. We follow false shepherds when we let the loud and angry voices direct our steps, tell us what to think and feel, who to love and to whom to give our mercy.

Maybe part of what we taught about the danger of being swept up in the crowd is that sometimes following Jesus is about just standing still. Not jumping when the wind changes or raising our voice when others start to shout loudly. But just standing amidst it all, listening for another kind of voice, a still, small voice, and having the faith to wait for that voice to lead us toward green pastures and still waters, toward a future of true hope and fullness of heart.

Long before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the prophet Elijah learned this lesson first hand. Elijah was told to “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” First, a great wind came, so strong that it could split mountains and break rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; next, after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire came a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah experiences this silence, he wraps his face in his mantle and goes out and stands at the entrance of the cave. It was only then that he heard God’s voice.

The chaos of the wind, the earthquake and the fire, the loud shouts of confused and scared people, afraid of what they may lose, the pull of the mob who does not even know who its shepherd is and will go toward whatever voice that calls out most convincingly, all of this madness can distract us, even prevent us from hearing God’s voice calling out to us. If Elijah’s story teaches us anything, it is that sometimes we do have to be patient. Sometimes we have to wait for a break in all the noise, or even make a space away from the constant sound by turning off the tv or radio or IPod or even silencing the voices in our own heads, so that we will be able to hear that still, small voice, calling out to us, leading us, shepherding us toward the only life that means anything.

In a noisy world, where many false shepherds sing siren promises, may we have courage to stand our ground, always listening for that still, small voice, having faith that this voice will be all that we need to find our way. Amen

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