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3. I AM the gate
Leader: The Rev. Dr. William Norman
Scripture: John 10:110
Date: Jul 26th, 2015
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Let us pray. Eternal God, through the Gospel you speak to us in the words and actions and attitudes of Jesus, our Saviour. If there are those here today who need to draw closer to you, may they find that Jesus is indeed the gate to abundant life. In his name we pray; Amen.

It is always a good thing to know what’s going on around Jesus so that we can understand what he is saying to us. If you have your Bible with you or one of the pew Bibles, have a look at John 10. While you’re finding that chapter I will remind you that last Sunday when we were talking about Jesus being the light of the world, we took note that it was the fall of the year and God’s people were celebrating the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.

It appears to me, then, that between the end of chapter nine and the beginning of chapter ten approximately two months has passed. That conclusion is based on 10:22. At that time the festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem. I wonder if anyone knows the name of this festival that is more familiar to us…that’s right Hanukkah. Tabernacles likely ended the third week of what we would call October and Hanukkah began during the third week of December. Jesus then picks this particular time to give us two more aspects of this portrait at which we are looking this summer, I am the gate and I am the good shepherd.

As I said, let’s take a look at what’s going on around Jesus in order to have a better chance of understanding what he was saying then and what he is saying now. The Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah has its beginnings in the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. It is likely impossible for us to understand the influence that one of the great cultures of all history had over the places they ruled. But think about this—within 150 years the people of Israel had adopted numerous Greek cultural and religious habits. The influence of the Greek language was so pervasive that the Bible was translated into Greek (the name of this translation is The Septuagint) because there were so many Jews who could no longer read Hebrew.

There was, of course, resistance among some Jews to the spread of this Greek cultural influence. There was also resistance to the resistance, not only among the Greek rulers but also among Jews who had compromised their commitment to Jewish faith and culture. According to records we have in the books of the Maccabees, in the middle of the second century B.C. the attempts of Greek soldiers to put an end to Temple worship included the sacrifice of pigs, outlawing circumcision, burning Scripture scrolls and placing a pagan idol in the Temple.

The result of this was, in the 160s B.C., the Maccabean wars. Judas Maccabeus captured the Temple and in 165 B.C. rededicated it. Hanukkah is the festival that celebrates this event. Not only that, but during the eight days of Hanukkah, there were readings that focussed on the issue of failed leadership. For example, one of the readings is from Ezekiel 34.

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:2–6).

Now, put your imagination into gear: do you think that anyone listening to Jesus could have missed the point of what he was saying? During a festival that contrasts faithful leadership with corrupt leadership using the image of the shepherd, Jesus says that those who oppose what he is doing are like the thieves and robbers that steal and kill and destroy. Do you think that might have offended the Pharisees?

There are two images used by Jesus in chapter 10 that contribute to the whole portrait of the “I am” statements. These two are certainly connected; the gate to the fold and the shepherd himself, so what I have to say in the remainder of this sermon will overlap with the next sermon in this series on August 9. I want to tell you a story that I think puts the whole of what Jesus has to say in a compelling and beautiful context.

In the late 1980s there was a Palestinian uprising against Israel. The Israeli army decided to punish a village near Bethlehem for not paying its taxes. The officer in command rounded up all the village animals and placed them in a large barbed-wire pen. After a few days, this officer was approached by a woman who begged him to release her flock, arguing that since her husband was dead, the animals were her only source of livelihood.

He pointed to the pen and said it was impossible because he could not be expected to find the few animals that belonged to her in the midst of the hundred in the pen. But when asked if she would be allowed to take her animals if she could separate them from all the rest, he agreed. He opened the gate to the enclosure and the woman’s son produced a small reed flute. He played a simple tune again and again—and soon sheep heads began popping up all over the pen. The boy continued to play and he and his mother walked home, followed by their flock of 25 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. All through the crowd listening to Jesus heads would be nodding in agreement. People knew this to be true. Good shepherds knew their sheep.

Sheep had to be protected particularly at night. There were the animals such as wolves that were their natural enemies and there were the human enemies, the thieves and robbers. Pens were built. Palestine is an area that has plenty of stones. I can imagine that what happened is that a group of shepherds would co-operate in the building of several of these pens, scattered over the area where the flocks roamed in search of pasture.

When night came, the shepherd was in need of some sleep and the flock in need of protection. The shepherd would seek out one of these stone enclosures. These low stone walls would often be topped with prickly bushes which would discourage both sheep from trying to escape and also any animals or thieves from trying to break in. All of this would be well known by anyone listening to Jesus when he spoke these words. However, according to verse six of our text they did not understand what he was saying to them.

If you have John chapter 10 open in front of you I think you can see with a quick scan of verses one to five that Jesus is speaking there mostly about the shepherd. The shepherd knows the sheep by name; the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. The sheep stay away from strangers. That seems fairly clear. But somehow the connections that Jesus wanted the crowd to make were not being made. Beginning with verse seven, then, Jesus briefly detours from the good shepherd image to the gate image. For the few minutes we have left, we are going to stick with that image.

  Let’s look at the spiritual issues identified by Jesus. There is a gate through which God’s creatures are invited to enter in order that their spiritual needs be met. Let me be clear about this: I do not pretend to know about the eternal destiny of that stereotypical tribesman from deep in some rain forest who has never heard about Jesus in language that he understands.  Nor do I truly know the spiritual state of any of you who are part of this congregation. I have clues and guesses but that’s about it. What I do know all about is me and the fact that from an early age my mother made it possible for me to know that God had provided a spiritual path and an invitation to take that path. It was up to me to say yes or no. There’s never been any doubt in my mind—there is a place to go.

The second thing is this: there is something within us that recognizes the voice that directs us where we need to go. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I wonder if Jesus might not be poking a little more at leaders like the Pharisees, not only in this comment but also with the use of these gate and shepherd images.

I realize that this makes little sense, but despite the positive way in which the image of the shepherd was used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to God—The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want—at the time of Jesus shepherds were despised by the religious rulers because their nomadic life-style and the need to devote their lives to the flock made it impossible to keep all the demands of ritual to which the religious leaders attached such importance.

To them Jesus says, God’s flock is right in not listening to you. You are like the thieves that avoid the proper entrance to the sheepfold. There is an important reminder for us here. I don’t always get it right in my work as a pastor; together we don’t always get it right as a church. But…there is a voice that God’s sheep recognize and it is the voice of Jesus. And by the grace of God, there are times when our voice has the accent of compassion or forgiveness or comfort or peace or hope or love. That voice is recognized and at some point, maybe not today, maybe many tomorrows from now, those who have heard us speak in the tones of the Saviour will find where it is they need to go.

 Here is the last thing. Look at verse nine. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  Jesus is telling us that our spiritual needs will be met through him. He is the gate. Entering through the gate the sheep found protection. Going out again through the gate the sheep found needed food.

Perhaps some of you worry that this sounds too exclusive, that only through Jesus can salvation be found. How can I put this? Our world is chuck full of spiritual messages. There is no shortage of options when it comes to ritual. Our local No Frills Store flyer wishes a happy whatever in regard to celebrations I did not even know existed. As I said just a minute ago I don’t always get it right and the church doesn’t always get it right. But I have not found another message, I have not heard a more compelling voice, I don’t know of any other figure from the entire history of our race who compels me as Jesus does and invites me, through him, to be saved. If you think there’s another gate, take it. If you think there’s a more gracious voice, listen to it. But I have heard the voice of Jesus and it is the life he offers that I want for now and forever.