By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel Naboru Iwamura is a retired Christian missionary doctor who worked with the people of Nepal. Dr Iwamura tells his story, “August 6, 1945 changed my life. When I was fifteen years old, I left my hometown and went to Hiroshima to study engineering. The Japanese navy had taken over some of the buildings of our institute for experiments. I was asked to store some chemicals in a former gunpowder vault that had foot-thick walls and iron doors. I was putting some bottles on the shelves when I felt something whoosh through the building. I didn’t see anything. I only felt this sudden, queer, unseen force. Two days later, I regained consciousness as men were digging me out from under the rubble. They carried me off to a hospital. Within two weeks’ time all my hair had fallen out. In the hospital, I heard what had happened. I learned that all my friends were dead. I lay on my hospital bed for a year and a half and had plenty of time to think. I marveled at how God had saved me. If I had not been covered by the thick cement slabs, the heat would have disintegrated me. The building, as it fell, could have crushed me. Or the radiation could have killed me.”
“You weren’t bitter?” The interviewer asked. “You didn’t ask why this happened to you?”
“I asked why I had been spared,” he replied. “I felt God must have a plan for my life. And so I turned myself over to Jesus Christ.”
Dr Iwamura has leukemia caused by the radiation of the atomic bomb, but he continues to witness to the love of his Lord.
Most of us have not had such dramatic experience of God’s grace. Most of us do not have strong evidence that God has a plan for our lives. Yet we believe that there is a God who cares about us. We have the assurance of God’s love for us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are accepted by God. Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and that his sheep hear his voice. Jesus calls the sheep by name and they hear him and follow him. God does not look out into the crowd and shout, “Hey you!” Rather God comes to you personally and directly and calls you by name to come and follow.
It has been suggested that the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is not well understood. Most of us do not know much about sheep or shepherds. A few of you may, but as I do not. I am a city boy, the son of city parents—yes, I grew up as one of those kids who thought milk came from cartons in the grocery store. I am not sure that I understand many of the biblical allusions—Israel is often referred to as the sheep of God’s pasture and the prophets and kings were called shepherds of Israel. John’s text refers to these things and also the situation of the earliest Christianity—only some of the Jewish people responded to Jesus in faith and believed his was the promised messiah; many others did not. But there may also meaning for us today especially if we try to understand the metaphor. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus laid down his life dying on a cross for us. As a shepherd calls his sheep and they recognize his voice, they come and follow. We too hear the voice of Jesus calling us through his Word, through the witness of others, through the community of the faithful, and we believe and follow. Others may not hear his voice and go in the own direction, like sheep going astray. We can not easily explain why we love Jesus and others do not, why we seek to follow Jesus and many do not.
Speaking as we were about Japan, someone gave me a newspaper clipping recently. It was an obituary from the Salem, Oregon newspaper of a man named Jacob DeShazer who was a bombardier in World War II. He was part of the Army Air Force B-25 bombers commanded by Lt. Colonel James H Doolittle and this man flew on a daylight bombing raid that brought the war to Japan in April, 1942. His plane dropped incendiary bombs on Nagoya but ran out of fuel over occupied China and he bailed out. He was imprisoned by the Japanese; starved, beaten and tortured, but one of his captors was able to give him a Bible. He read it over and over and after the war, he became a Free Methodist missionary to Japan. DeShazer said that as he read the Bible as a prisoner of war, he discovered that God had given him new spiritual eyes and his bitter hatred for the imperial army officers and guards was changed to loving pity. “I realized that these men did not know anything about my Savior and that if Christ is not in a heart, it is natural to be cruel,” he said. In 1950, DeShazer gained a remarkable convert, Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese naval flier who had led the Pearl Harbor attack. The two met over many years, the last time in 1978. “I saw him just before he died,” DeShazer told the Salem Statesman-Journal. “We shared in that good wonderful thing that Christ had done.”
We visited Japan and saw the bombsite in Hiroshima. We visited Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, places that had been heavily bombed and were now rebuilt. Christian missionaries have worked in Japan for over a hundred and fifty years. We still send more Lutheran missionaries to Japan than any other country although most of them are recent college grades who teach English. Many Japanese have been educated at Christian schools; some of the most prestigious universities are Christian. But very few people are. Why have these people heard the voice of the shepherd? Why have so few of these men and women heard and followed?
It is not only in Japan. We wonder about people in our communities as well who seem to have departed from the faith and whose children have never heard the old, old story of Jesus and his love. A few years ago, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addressed our synod assembly. He talked about the state of the Christian Church here. Church attendance is falling rapidly; membership numbers are down. Many people look back wistfully to the 1950s and early 1960s. One pastor preached at my congregation and said that if the 1950s ever came back again they were well prepared! People remember when the churches were full often with multiple services, when church building were erected, parish halls and education wings added, Bible camps founded, other church institutions such as colleges and seminaries, hospitals and nursing homes were founded or grew rapidly. But the bishop told the assembly that the 1950s were not a golden age but a yellow age. Commentators at the time had said that the growth would not last and it did not. He said we like to speak words such as “if present trends continue…” but reminded us that present trends never continue. In the 1960s, church observers forecast a future for the church of balloons, banners and bongos. That has not happened either. No one took notice that women were going to work in record numbers and what that would mean for volunteer service groups. People ignored the impact of later marriage, smaller families, divorce, decline of rural areas and greater mobility. Even so-called contemporary worship has appeal mostly to aging Baby Boomers; look at the praise worship bands in so many congregations and they appear to be made up of the near elderly.
It is hard to be optimistic when almost every mainline congregation seems to be in decline; perhaps half the Lutheran congregations in this country are in danger of closing. But we remember that God has not abandoned the Church. Great numbers of people are coming to faith in Africa, Latin America and Asia. One community in inland China where the Norwegian Lutheran missionaries worked before the communist revolution and where Christianity had almost vanished, now has 100,000 believers, about ten percent of the population. A Lutheran Church in Ethiopia, the Evangelical Mekane Yesus Church was organized only after World War II. It now has more members that the ELCA and more active than the Church of Sweden, the two which had first sent missionaries to the Oromo people. The Good Shepherd still calls us by name; we hear and follow.
And our text carries a challenge. We have the comfort that we follow the shepherd to green pasture, beside still waters, even through the valley of the shadow. These are words of blessed assurance but the challenge with them is not to grow weary in our faith, complacent in our congregations. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus is the gate as well as the shepherd. We do not follow those who are bandits and thieves but the one through whom we enter the sheepfold, safe passage to the house of the Lord forever.
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I met a Congregational minister some year’s back who was working in Hawaii. She said that she no longer tried to explain theology, those propositions about God, but rather she just shared how God had worked in her life. In Hawaiian terms, she just “talked story.” This minister was a witness to God’s love and that is our call too. We hear and follow Jesus and then we share what God has done for us.
Our story may not be so dramatic as that of the bombing of Hiroshima or parachuting into China, but we have a story. We may not be able to explain our life’s plan, but it is there. God’s purpose and plan is to call us by name, lead us through life and bring us to the green pastures of salvation. We hear and follow the Good Shepherd. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.