Fourth Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 10:1-18
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:2-3)
In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus is answering a challenge from a group of Pharisees who have criticized him for healing on the Sabbath (by applying mud to a blind man’s eyes; the story begins back in chapter nine). He’s also speaking for the benefit of those who have been following him, and he’s trying to explain how much he loves them and what he’s willing to go through in order to rescue them.
He looks at this group of townspeople, religious leaders, and disciples, and he says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
That’s a familiar and much-loved image, isn’t it? Of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I’m sure we’ve all seen paintings like that, which portray a gentle Jesus kindly leading his sheep through the valley, with a lamb draped lovingly over his shoulders.
Trouble is—in our modern, urban culture—we don’t appreciate the imagery that Jesus is using. Because the meaning of the “Good Shepherd” goes much deeper than him cradling a tiny lamb and looking peaceful. Sometimes the shepherd has to stand and fight.
King David, you may recall, was once a shepherd himself. In the First Book of Samuel, chapter 17, we read this:
… David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears …” (1 Samuel 17:34-36)
Yeah. Sheep might be timid, but their predators are not. Tending the flock is no job for the faint of heart. As Jesus said:
“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:12-15).
What Jesus means is that he is willing to live life with us—to not only guide us, but to take personal care of us; to give us a life that is rich and full of blessing because he is part of it. He is also offering us security and protection, asking us to trust in him and allow him to watch over us and provide for us.
Jesus is saying that he is committed to us, that—as a shepherd owns the sheep and is therefore invested in their well-being—Jesus is invested in who we are and how we live. Jesus is not merely doing a job; he is prepared to give up everything for us, so that we can live more abundant lives.
He will rescue us. He will save us. He will risk himself for us. And he does it all because of his great love for us. He wants to save us, not condemn us. If we are the sheep of his fold, he will be our Good Shepherd, and he will lead us to green pastures. So, that’s the first point I want to make this morning: Jesus loves us.
Now, those of you who’ve been reading my blog posts for a while probably realize that my messages usually have only one point! But today I have a second point, and it’s just this: even sheep must eventually grow used to the paths on which their shepherd leads them, and the destinations to which he leads them. Even sheep must come to recognize the familiar scenery.
Sheep are prone to wander off, apparently, and—according to most accounts—sheep, unfortunately, are not all that bright. However, there is some good news. Even if they aren’t very smart, sheep are at least not deaf! Especially if they’ve been with the same shepherd for a length of time, they come to recognize his voice. Once they come to trust their shepherd, they won’t respond to the call of a stranger. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, and this helps keep them on the right track.
Now, here’s something else I suspect is true of sheep: just as they come to recognize the voice of their shepherd, I’m sure they must also come to recognize the usual paths upon which they follow him.
If they were being called by a stranger to follow him, they would notice it. If they were being led down a different path, wouldn’t they notice that, also? And if, from ahead of them, they caught scent of brimstone and sulphur … even the sheep might balk! If they’re sheep of the Good Shepherd, that is.
Here’s the thing: if Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we not only know his voice—we also know his path. But you might ask, “How do we know that Jesus is our Shepherd?” How can you be certain that you are a sheep of Jesus’ fold?
Well, one way is by faith—and by believing what the Scriptures say about this. But another way, I think, is to look at the scenery around you. If you’re following Jesus, you’ve been purchased by a new Shepherd. He’s leading you to a new pasture. And so, you’ll notice that the path you’re on looks very different from the paths you followed before. In other words, ask yourself: “Do I see a change taking place in my life?”
When you veer off the Shepherd’s path (notice I said “when you veer off”, not “if”; we are sheep and we’re prone to wander) … when you stray from Jesus’ path—even onto an old, familiar highway—does it seem, somehow, uncomfortable for you?
The thing about our Good Shepherd is: he not only calls us with a familiar voice, he also effects a change in us, if we are his sheep. One day, we notice that our sins … bother us! And then we realize that they didn’t used to. One day we realize that we actually notice it when we wander away. And then it dawns on us that walking the Good Shepherd’s path is getting easier.
Oh, it may not be easy, in the sense of being effortless. But we notice that it isn’t as difficult, or inconvenient—or boring—as once we thought. And we find that, whatever challenges may present themselves upon the Shepherd’s way, this road is still more agreeable to us, more natural to us—and happier—than any other way.
I think that’s one of the ways you can know you’re a sheep of Jesus’ fold. It’s not about perfection—it’s about feeling anxious when you stray from his path. It’s not about fearing the wrath of God if you mess up—it’s about loving God so much that you don’t want to grieve his Spirit.
Love is the great motivator. It is because of love that God views us as worth redeeming, and sent his Son to do just that. Because of love, Jesus enters fully into our human condition—providing for our needs, healing our hurts, and piercing our shells of isolation.
It is because of love that Jesus lived his life among the poor, the outcast, the needy, the hurting, the desperate, the lonely.
It is because of love that Jesus chose the cross, condemning himself to death to pay for our sins, to atone for our fallen state, to heal our fractured existence.
It is because of love that Jesus staged the “great rescue”—the process of bringing all of Creation into right standing with God.
Jesus came to rescue us from sin and separation, from the brokenness of our world, from the brokenness of our very own lives.
Many years ago now—way back when I was a ministry student in Montréal—I was given an essay to read and study. The essay is called We Would See Jesus, and it was written by Douglas John Hall, who was Professor of Christian Theology at McGill University. I’d like to quote just a paragraph for you, now. Here’s what he says:
Love doesn’t just accept everything. If it’s love, it cares about the real condition of the beloved … “Jesus loves me” does not mean that Jesus likes me, accepts me, and makes no great demands upon me. Jesus loves me—therefore I had better be prepared for some embarrassing moment of truth and some hard work! And Jesus, we say, is God’s eternal pledge of love for the world (John 3:16). The Jesus who is not ready to accept me just as I am is not ready either to accept the world, our world, just as it is. If we can trust any of the illustrations of God’s love for the world that we find in the continuity of the two testaments, we must conclude that this love, far from accepting the status quo, wills to alter it drastically …
Jesus does not want to just meet us where we are and then stay there with us as we live our lives the same way, going through the same motions and fulfilling the same routines. He wants to bring us into a new kind of life—a life lived in relationship with him, filled with his blessing and promise, a life that becomes more like his life with each day that goes by. He calls us to lives of freedom—lives free of guilt, free of condemnation, free to experience everything that God desires for us.
I can’t say this often enough. Jesus does not condemn us. Jesus loves us. He has come to save us. Jesus is committed to us. Today, once again, he invites us to accept him. He also challenges us to follow him.
Yes. Here and now, Jesus challenges us. He challenges us to live lives that represent … him. Lives that point to him as the One who loves all people—and wants to be in relationship with each one of them.
So here’s the question: Do our lives point people to Jesus? Does yours? Does mine?
Yeah … Does my life point to Jesus? Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I’m not so sure. But I hope I’m getting better.
Fortunately, Jesus is used to dealing with sheep. He knows each one of us is a work in progress. Even so, he never ceases working on us. And that’s a good thing. Because, as our Shepherd tends to us, we can’t help but become more like him. The process might not be as fast as we would like. But it is sure to be completed.
On the way to the pasture, or after we get there, our status quo will be altered—drastically. And that’s a good thing, too! Thanks be to God.