Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jesus the Shepherd. A sermon preached in Ballyward & Rathfriland on 13th April 2008. John 10:1-10

I’m pretty sure that you have heard these words of Jesus before – ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ and (in verse 11) ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Some of you will even know sheep a lot better than me – and it’s at this point that I should probably confess that I’m a townie. So what can we really learn from our passage today? Jesus says that he is the gate and the shepherd. These words may immediately trigger pleasant thoughts and comfort, from knowing the shepherd, but I hope that you won’t stop listening because you think you know what the passage is all about already.

Or perhaps at the outset, you’re a bit confused as to what Jesus is saying. Don’t be discouraged – verse 6 tells us that his first hearers didn’t understand either.

Before we look at the passage itself, it’s vital to look at the context – to see where it fits in the Gospel of John. If you’ll look at verse 1, you’ll see that Jesus is continuing on what he’s saying from the previous chapter, so we need to remember what has happened there.

In John chapter 9, Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. There was a huge uproar among the Pharisees at this, because they didn’t know how Jesus had done it. But there was also fear and a closing of wagons – 9:22 says that the Jews had decided that those who acknowledged Jesus as the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.

After all this has happened, the man Jesus had healed finds him again, and worships him as his Lord. Jesus then says that he has come into the world for judgement – to turn things upside down so that the blind see, and those who see will become blind. Some Pharisees who hear him challenge him, and it is in Jesus’ response that today’s reading comes.

Jesus has already called the Pharisees blind, and here, it is clear that he also regards them as the thief and the robber of verse 1. Remember that these words of Jesus were not spoken to believers, but were rather spoken in judgement against the false ‘shepherds’ and leaders of God’s people. As we listen in to Jesus confronting the Pharisees, we will hear what a wonderful comfort they are to those of us who know him.

As we consider the passage, therefore, let us remember three words throughout. Shepherd, gate, and life.

In verses 2 – 5, Jesus shows that he is the shepherd of the sheep, in contrast to the thief and the robber, who climb in by some other way. Here, Jesus is using a extended metaphor, to help us to see some spiritual truth, and as he does so, uses a scriptural point of reference.

You see, in Ezekiel 34, God speaks out against the shepherds of Israel. These were the leaders of the people, but rather than pastoring the flock and caring for the weak sheep, the shepherds had only taken care of themselves, making sure they were well fed and clothed. But as the chapter develops, God goes on to say that he will raise up a new shepherd to guide them. ‘I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.’ (Ez 34:23).

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is saying, in effect, that’s me. In contrast to the thief and the robber, the Jewish leaders who were blind guides, Jesus is the true shepherd of God’s flock, God’s people.

If Jesus is the true shepherd, then, what does this actually look like? Well, look at the passage with me. Verse 3: ‘The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls out his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’

The image is that of a sheep pen, where there would be several flocks of sheep. But when the shepherd comes and calls, his own sheep know his voice and follow him out. More than that, though, the shepherd knows his sheep, and calls them by name. Jesus is speaking about the personal relationship, that special bond between the shepherd and his sheep, so that they will listen and obey his call. Have you heard the voice of Jesus call on your life? Have you obeyed the call?

Having left the sheep pen, the shepherd and sheep are going on a journey – to the next pen, perhaps, or for better pasture. So how does the shepherd take them where they are going? Does he climb onboard a 4by4 and get the dogs out to chase the sheep along? No, in contrast to how farmers do it today, the Middle Eastern shepherd walked in front of his sheep, and they followed him. And why is it they follow him, according to Jesus? It’s because they know his voice.

Having heard the voice of the shepherd to come out of the sheep pen, the sheep must then continue to hear and follow his voice as they travel together. It’s not that you just need to listen at the start of the journey, and then sit back and relax – the voice of the shepherd continues to call the sheep, and guide them along the way.

This is on contrast to the strangers. No matter how long or hard they call out to the sheep, the sheep won’t follow, because they don’t recognise the voice. The sheep only have ears for the Master. How about you?

Do you only have ears for the Lord? You see, sometimes it’s so easy to miss the Lord because we’re deafened by the world around us. It’s so easy to hear the voices of the strangers, which seem so friendly, calling on us to turn aside from following Jesus, to think about ourselves, or to enjoy a little forbidden pleasure along the way.

That’s why we need to always take time to hear the shepherd’s voice. It will help us stay on course, and keep us close to him. As the hymn, ‘O Jesus I have promised’ says:

O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self will.
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, Thou Guardian of my soul.

Jesus then goes on to ‘mix his metaphors’ to an extent, by then describing himself as the gate for the sheep. You might think this an odd thing, for Jesus to describe himself as a gate, but we’ll see what he means as he says this.

Imagine, if you can, a sheep pen, which is a circle, but the walls don’t join up. There’s a gap in the wall, obviously where the sheep can come in and out. But there’s no gate on the wall. Rather, when the sheep are inside at night, the shepherd himself lies in the gap of the wall, and becomes the gate of the sheep. He keeps the sheep in, and the predators and thieves out.

But more than that, in order for the sheep to be safe within the sheep pen, they have to enter by the gate. The shepherd therefore makes sure that his sheep are saved and protected from harm.

So I want to ask you today – have you entered by the gate? There is no other way to be saved than by coming through Jesus. As he says himself in John 14: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6). And as Peter declared, ‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12).

You might be thinking, though, why you would bother being saved. What benefit is there? What’s it all about? Jesus says that ‘He will come in and go out, and find pasture.’ Pasture for the sheep is everything that the sheep needs – grass, water, rest. This is all available to the sheep who enter by the shepherd. Jesus makes it even more clear in verse 10, again stating a contrast. ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’

As we thought earlier about the false shepherds of Israel, we saw how they only wanted to look after themselves. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were still doing that, throwing people out of the synagogue for following Jesus. Their results were negative and oppressive.

Jesus, in contrast, offers life, and life to the full. Or, as another version puts it, ‘abundant life.’ Jesus knows what you need, and is the shepherd for your journey, if you will just follow him. That’s what Jesus is declaring here, and it’s also why John records it here. This is clear from the ‘mission statement’ of John’s Gospel – the very reason he wrote his Gospel: ‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31).

That’s the offer of the gospel in a nutshell. Jesus offers life and peace to all who will hear his voice, believe in him, and follow him. Will you hear and follow today?

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