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I’m very partial to the rural imagery we find in the Bible, despite the fact that I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in Toronto where there are very few sheep. When my father was a young boy during the height of the Blitz in WW II, he (like many) was sent away from Belfast to stay on a farm in Co. Fermanagh. He learned something about farming during that time and I would say developed a liking for it. He started out his vocational preaching life in Mohill, Co. Leitrim. Fast forward to Canada and we moved up to Bruce County from Toronto when I was 11. We lived on 50 acres between the towns of Paisley and Walkerton (where I went to high school) and I thought that was pretty great. The love of the country that my father had turned into hobby farming on his part. The rest of us helped- I remember one of my jobs in the summer was to bring water to the sheep who were feeding in the field). We never had a lot of animals, 4 sheep, 2 cows, a dozen chickens or geese or ducks depending on the year.
I was thinking about this as I read today’s passage, and one of the things that stands out really clearly to me after all these years is how the animals knew my father’s voice. He could go to the edge of the field where we kept the cows or sheep and call them and they would come running across the field to where he was.
It’s one of the classic images of God and God’s people. Shepherd and sheep. We talked throughout Lent of how things in John signify other things. Here we have symbols of sheep and shepherds and gates and gatekeepers and thieves and bandits and they all point to deep truths about God and us and our lives. It’s the week after Easter and you are with us. For this we are glad. I’m going to assume that this means you’re either fairly serious about what it means to follow Christ. What it is to be one of Christ’s sheep. Otherwise I’m going to assume that you’re wondering what it means to be following Christ seriously – being known as one of Christ’s sheep. What might all of this mean?
“Very truly I tell you.” This is one of those “verily, verily I say unto thee” or “amen amen” moments. When Jesus begins with these words we should pay particular attention. In chapter 9 Jesus has healed a man who was born blind. This has resulted in the man being kicked out of the Temple. The talk has been of spiritual sight or spiritual blindness. Of going Christ’s way or not going Christ’s way. So here we have Christ describing what his way is like. The question for us (and indeed for everyone) is “Whose voice are we listening to?” The thing is everyone is listening to a voice. Everyone is being led by a voice, even if it’s a voice that’s saying “You’re your own leader.” This passage has been described as a dispute between Jesus and religious authorities of his day and it is. The thing is everyone is religious about something. Everyone worships something. The question is “Whose voice are we listening to?” Who or what do we deem worthy of following?
Jesus is speaking in what our NRSV Bible translates as a figure of speech in v 6. A kind of parable. Here’s the situation he’s describing. In a Jewish village every household would have a few sheep they’d keep in a courtyard at their house. There would be one shepherd who would come around in the morning to lead the sheep out to pasture where they’d spend the day. Then the shepherd would bring them home at night. The shepherd knows the sheep by name. The shepherd calls the sheep by name. He knows them. The sheep aren’t herded the way we may be used to seeing sheep herded or driven – like when a sheepdog is behind them guiding them to go in a particular direction or through a gate or into another field. This kind of shepherding involved the shepherd going ahead of the sheep. They know the sound of his voice and they follow him.
Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in another way is a thief and a bandit. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers. There are many voices that beckon us to follow. There are many voices the promise “This is where life is found. This is where safety and security are found. This is where freedom is found.” In Jesus’ day, there were religious authorities whose main purpose was holding on to power and wealth. There were political leaders whose main goal was their own self-aggrandizement. It’s a good thing we’re not faced with this kind of thing today! Seriously though, we’re used to leaders who are far removed from us. We’re used to following people who are far from knowing our names, whether we’re talking about leaders in politics, commerce, entertainment (look at how excited we get when someone famous follows us on IG!), sports. Jesus speaks of himself of a different kind of leader. The idea of a leader as shepherd was one that went back to the Old Testament. The idea of a king not as self- aggrandizing self-serving distant autocrat but the king as shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. This beautiful passage from Isaiah 40. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” “The King of Love my Shepherd is” goes the old hymn. Can you say that this morning? This is the one who is speaking to us. It’s not so much in this passage about good and bad shepherds but true or false shepherds. The word that’s translated “good” here also has the sense of “noble” or “beautiful.” The question that is before us, and really it’s put before us every day is “Whose voice are we listening to?” There are a lot of ugly voices around.
To follow Jesus is to call him our shepherd. He’s also our gate. “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” Here the scene switches from the village to the pasture. When the sheep would overnight out in a field, they’d be in a kind of stone enclosure. The shepherd would sleep across the opening – acting as a gate. Protecting the sheep. Keeping them safe. Leading them to pasture.
Giving them life, in other words. Guarding their going out and their coming in as in Psalm 121:8. The shepherd who has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly. An abundance of wine. An abundance of loaves and fish. An abundance of love. Life abundant meaning life lived in loving communion with God both in this age and in the age to come. Life abundant in which nothing can separate us from the love of our Good Shepherd.
I am the good shepherd says, Jesus.
A shepherd who loves us even unto death. A shepherd who loves us sacrificially. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. I am the beautiful shepherd. The beautiful shepherd is the one in whom life is found. The hired hand doesn’t own the sheep and runs when danger comes. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is not in it for himself. This is a lesson not only for leaders but for all who call Christ Lord. Not only is the good shepherd not in it for himself but he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. NT Wright puts it like this – “The sheep are facing danger; the shepherd will go to meet it, and, if necessary, he will take upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall the sheep. In Jesus’ case, it was necessary, and he did.”
Our invitation this day and every day is to call Christ Jesus our shepherd. Sheep are not the most noble of animals, even in the farmyard. They tend to follow. I remember our sheep on the farm walking alongside the fence. They would come up to a rock that wasn’t far from the gate. The first sheep would clamber over it, rather than going around it. The other three would follow suit. I would always hope that one would be the maverick sheep. Didn’t happen.
Sheep are followers. The thing is, we all follow something. The invitation here is to follow Jesus’ voice and in it find forgiveness and peace and compassion and love. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is also the shepherd who leads us to good pasture and also the gate that protects and keeps us in God’s love.
In everyday things, we are shown spiritual truths. May we count ourselves among Christ’s sheep, listening for his voice, following where he would have us go, and making his ways known in our deeds and by our words. May these things be true for all of us. Amen