First United Methodist Church
April 30, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Hope and the Other Promise
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has always dominated Christian imagination and piety. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep. And it’s such a beautiful picture, so often we see Jesus carrying a sheep around his shoulders with all the other sheep in the picture nuzzling him, just as we envision our favorite pets doing. In this culture, we know almost nothing about the ways of sheep, and even less about what it means to be a shepherd. And yet, we still make personal connections to this metaphor, because we like the idea of having someone care about us in this way. This is where we have to tread carefully though, because in addition to the shepherd imagery, there are also two “I am” statements in this passage. The first is about Jesus being the gate for the sheep. His second reference is about him being the good shepherd. When the shepherd imagery is emphasized in isolation of the gate imagery, we miss the Christological, or divine focus, and Jesus merely becomes a model for other shepherds who would lead “sheep.”
Jesus begins this passage by discussing the relationship between a shepherd and the sheep. He reminds us that a shepherd gains access to the sheepfold, the place of protection, through the gatekeeper, and that once he enters the sheep will follow him out, into the place of danger, because they trust him and they know his voice. The intimacy of the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is demonstrated by the sheep’s ability to recognize the shepherd’s voice and the shepherd’s ability to call “his own” by name.
This illustration is not difficult for Jesus’ listeners to understand, because it presents a simple picture of the work of a shepherd and his flock, and this type of situation was not unusual in the Mediterranean world. They would understand that a sheepfold was often built adjacent to a home, and therefore, the only entrance would be through the gate. If the flock was large enough to require more than one shepherd, then one of the shepherds would be assigned to watch the gate at night. Jesus identifies himself as the gate. In the first two verses of this passage, Jesus claimed that the gate was the method of “authorized access” and this was introduced in order to contrast between the one who had authorized access and those who did not, primarily thieves and bandits. When Jesus identifies himself as the gate for the sheep, he makes the point that one’s identity as a member of the flock is
determined exclusively by one’s relationship to Jesus as the gate. One enters the fold through Jesus.
Because Jesus often spoke to crowds who were mostly Jewish, his listeners were also familiar with the Torah, and they would immediately link this illustration to Hebrew Scriptures that referenced the sheep/shepherd relationship, such as Psalm 23 or Ezekiel 34. In order for us to fully understand the depth of this metaphor, we must do the same.
Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known and revered psalms by Christians. When we are in trouble, the opening lines come to mind, reminding us that God is always with us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” All of my needs will be taken care of, God will keep me safe. “He restores my soul.” King David, the author, was a troubled person. He sinned, and he knew he sinned, but God didn’t condemn him. God sought him out, brought him back into right relationship with him, and restored him. “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
When a sheep strays away from the flock and gets lost, it can’t find its way back. It discovers that it is alone and then finds a rock or a log to crawl under and hide. And then, you know what it does? It goes, “baahh.” It bleats. The shepherd hears this and leaves the flock to go looking for the lost sheep. But you know who also hears this bleating? The predators – the wolves and the mountain lions and the forces of evil who will kill it and devour it. The sheep is so afraid that it can’t walk. When the shepherd finds the sheep, the only way he can return it to the flock is to throw it over his shoulders and carry it back to the flock. Once it is restored to the flock, it will once again follow the shepherd and feel safe.
The road back to safety is not an easy one. If you are at all familiar with the terrain of the Mediterranean, you know that it is rocky and dangerous when you stray off the path. As the shepherd, God will go to great lengths to restore our souls. He will seek us out. He will walk with us through the darkest valley, and he will comfort us with his presence. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” God wants to be in relationship with us and celebrates with us. David understood this, and by writing this psalm, he reminds us of God’s faithfulness, which calls us into a deeper and more trusting relationship with the Lord, our shepherd.
When Jesus uses this metaphor, he reminds us that there are times when we too are so paralyzed with fear that we are unable to continue, or even begin our walk with him. We may feel this way because of something that we have done, as in David’s situation, or because of something that happened to us, as in the case of the man born blind, the healing of whom occurs immediately before this passage. But once we are restored to the flock through him (because he is the gate), we can then recognize his voice and begin or continue our journey.
Jesus concludes the gospel passage by reminding us that the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. The blind man experiences abundant life when Jesus restores his sight and he is no longer dependent on the generosity of others. We experience abundant life when we avoid the temptations of the world and the false shepherds and place our lives in Jesus’ care.
As parents, we often find ourselves having to confront this doubt and fear in our children before the “false shepherds” are able to lure them away. When our children are young, they hope that we will search for them just as the shepherd will search for his lost sheep. As they grow older, we find ourselves having to confront these thieves and “false shepherds” that continuously show up in their lives. The example we set for our children lays the foundation for their future relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jim Chester, an evangelist and illusionist, wrote this parable to help explain how these thieves operate in our lives.
We understand that when we come to the Lord and are saved by His grace, we are sealed forever and nothing can ever separate us. Satan, on the other hand, has been condemned to hell and he wants that future for all of us. His strategy is to distract us from experiencing joy in the present so that we don’t even seek an eternal life with God. One of Chester’s friends once said, “Satan keeps reminding me of my past, so I told him his future don't look so good.”
Satan can never take our salvation from us. But we must continue to live in this world and face trials and temptations. This time on earth is just like the two-minute warning in a football game.
The score is 96 - 0. There are only two minutes left. The losing team
knows there is no way they can win the game and yet there is still time left. So their coach, being a devious individual, tells them to start taking cheap shots. They try to break knees and heads because, although they cannot win, in their anger they try to inflict as much pain as possible.
This is how Satan approaches those who are saved. We have won the game, Jesus is victorious and Satan has lost. However, there is still a little time left in the game. Until Jesus returns, Satan still has time to run a few plays. Knowing that there is no way he can win, all he can do is take cheap shots at Jesus’ team.
If Satan cannot possibly change the ultimate outcome, he will try to rob the believer of his joy. We still live in a world that is under the judgment of sin and bad things sometimes happen to good people. Satan will use any circumstance to get between us and Jesus. He will try to create doubt, fear, disillusionment and depression.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his friends.” That’s exactly what Jesus did for us. God loves the world so much that he gave his only son, so that we might have life. Jesus is the shepherd and the gate. When we are led into the fold through the gate by the shepherd, we know his voice and can trust where he leads us. Satan seeks to steal our joy. Christ seeks to restore it. And joy is the highest expression of love. Let’s pray:
Gracious and Loving Lord, we are blessed to be your gathered community. Open our awareness to this world of need, a world in need of your love and life. Open our hearts to share your love with others in the same way you have loved us. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship:
As you go out into the community this week, go in peace and reflect Christ’s love in all that you say and all that you do! Amen.