Last month in midtown Manhattan, time stood still – literally. After the US debt surpassed $10 trillion, the marquee-sized debt clock in Times Square, which has kept a running tally of the U.S. national debt for nearly 20 years, ran out of digits. Time magazine said, “For a nation already struggling with a bleak economic reality, it was a less-than-reassuring display” With the global slide in share prices this week, it has perhaps become a sign of how the entire world is struggling with the new economic reality. Something more than a change of President in two weeks time is going to be needed. We have got to learn to live and work together more collaboratively and today’s gospel story may give us some clues. Last week I was in Jordan with Church leaders addressing a different kind of crisis. The slow but progressive haemorrhaging of the indigenous Church. They are leaving the Middle East due to attacks by Islamists from Sudan to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Egypt. To flee or to emigrate has always been a natural response to economic necessity as much as religious oppression. And in the light of the last couple of weeks, if you work in the City, maybe you have felt like fleeing also. You may not have thought of emigrating to Australia but perhaps the thought of a simpler, slower lifestyle in the countryside, working on the land or with animals instead of people, is rather appealing.
One of the places I am tempted to retreat to is Palestine and the scenery between Jerusalem and Jericho. In times past it has been a favourite place for prayer and contemplation with many monasteries. This road cuts a giant gash through the Judean Wilderness. The hillsides are covered with open fields, bare, dry and parched, dotted with herds of sheep and goats, and lonely shepherds leading their flocks. As the road descends with dozens of hairpin bends from 1000 feet above sea level to nearly 1000 feet below you catch a glimpse of many Bedouin encampments just off the main road on the hill sides. Their life style has changed little in a thousand years. They look very poor, little different to the residents of the Palestinian refugee camps nearby, large rickety marquee tents, made of old sacks, animal skins and cardboard. so poor. Actually many of them are very wealthy.
You can tell by the size of their herds. We might think it odd measuring wealth in terms of animals. But they would probably think we are strange, measuring wealth in quantities of little pieces of coloured paper. You can’t eat bank notes… Sheep and goats provide them with nourishing drink, with food, with clothing, and even with friendship…. But if you are thinking of giving up commuting for the farming life, let me read you some advice from an official Australian Guide to Sheep Rearing. First the advantages.
1. The Advantages
1. Herding Instinct. Sheep tend to stay together.
2. Reproduction. Sheep are quick growing and multiply easily.
3. Obedience. Sheep can be trained to obey.
2. The Disadvantages
1. Sheep are not adapted to heat and dryness.
2. Sheep can’t survive without adequate food.
3. Sheep are fragile. Their rough appearance is deceptive.
4. Sheep are naturally defenseless.
5. Sheep are susceptible to parasites
6. Sheep must be watched continually.
7. Sheep need protection at night.
8. Sheep are short sighted. They can only see 6 feet ahead.
Perhaps we can begin to understand why Jesus says we are like sheep and he is our shepherd. However, we need to realize there is very little similarity between Palestinian and British shepherds.
In Britain sheep are reared largely for their meat. In Palestine they are kept mostly for their milk and wool. That means they tend to live a whole lot longer. It also means a personal relationship develops between shepherd and sheep. The sheep are given names and respond to his call. If you’ve watched sheep trials you will know how difficult it can be to get sheep to go in the right direction. That’s because British shepherds tend to drive their sheep from behind. That is a bit like pushing a bicycle down the road backwards. It is hard to keep it in a straight line.
In Palestine it is a lot easier because the shepherd leads his sheep from the front. H. V. Morton in his book The Steps of the Master has a moving description of the way in which the Palestinian shepherd leads his flock.
“On the hills behind Jericho no sooner had the shepherd spoken than an answering bleat shivered over the herd and one or two of the animals turned their heads in his direction. But they did not obey him. The herd gave a laughing kind of whinny. Immediately a goat with a bell round his neck stopped eating, and, leaving the herd, trotted down the hill, across the valley, and up the opposite slopes. The man accompanied by this animal walked on and disappeared round a ledge of rock. Very soon a panic spread among the herd. They forgot to eat. They looked up for their shepherd. He was not to be seen. They became conscious that the leader with the bell at his neck was no longer with them. From the distance came the strange laughing call of the shepherd, and at the sound of it the entire herd stampeded into the hollow and leapt up the hill after him.”
It may be that as Jesus conversed with the crowds he turned His eyes to the hillside of the Mount of Olives and saw the familiar sight of shepherds busy, as the afternoon waned to evening, folding their flocks preparing for the evening. This may have been the setting, the visual aid, Jesus used to teach another lesson about himself and his mission. This week and next we shall stay in John 10 and consider two more of the great “I am” statements of Jesus. Today we shall consider his claim “I am the Gate” (John 10:1-10). Next week we will consider his claim “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-39). In the passage before us today, let us observe:
1. Who Jesus is “I am the Gate” (John 10:9)
2. Why Jesus came “that they may have life” (John 10:10)
3. How we Follow Him “listen to his voice” (John 10:3)
1. Who is Jesus? “I am the Gate”
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
At first reading this may sound a rather unusual analogy for Jesus to use. So lets take a step back and consider the context.
As we pick up the story from John 9, Jesus has just encountered the man born blind. He heals the man by the power of his spoken word. When the religious leaders demand an explanation and the man testifies to Jesus, they throw him out of the Temple.
Rejected by the religious leaders he becomes a follower of Jesus.
So Jesus introduces the illustration of the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus is building his flock, finding and saving “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). But he is also calling sheep from all nations into his flock. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
The sheep pen, then as now, is an enclosure open to the elements and the scrutiny of the owner. It is not covered in or roofed over like a barn or shed, it has no door either, just an opening. Its walls are open to the sun, the sky, rain and wind. They are often made of rough stones with a layer of thorn brush along the top. They can be quite dirty, smelly places but their main purpose is to provide protection. At night, after the sheep are in, the shepherd just lays down in the doorway. He becomes the gate.
There is no legitimate access to the sheepfold except through him. So anyone who tried to climb over the wall to get in was obviously up to no good. If a predator tries to enter, the shepherd would be disturbed. The shepherd therefore puts his life at risk to protect his sheep in becoming the gate. A hired hand won’t but the owner will. The people would have been familiar with the many occasions in the Hebrew scriptures where the Lord God describes himself as a shepherd.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1)
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
“He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (Jeremiah 31:10)
“As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:12-16)
So if this imagery would have been familiar to those listening to Jesus, where was he headed? “Jesus used this figure of speech but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.” (John 10:6). Because they hadn’t got the picture yet, Jesus goes for the jugular – he becomes direct and explicit, “I am the Door” and “I am the Good Shepherd”. In quick succession he takes the name of God to himself. He takes the role of God upon himself.
Suddenly the whole illustration makes sense with devastating clarity. Amidst the storms of life, Jesus is saying He is the only one through whom we can be safe and secure. Any other religious leader who does not follow Jesus is really a predator and should be avoided. Jesus is “the” Gate – the gateway to heaven. Jesus is the only way to God. Who is Jesus? “I am the Gate.”
2. Why did Jesus come? “that they may have life”
“All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:6-10)
Within the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherds, Jesus’ main purpose is to show that he alone brings salvation. It is Jesus who saves. No one else. He is not referring to Abraham or Moses or the prophets when he speaks of those who came before him – rather the false shepherds of his day. The religious leaders of his day who were self-seeking, self serving. Like the blind man, they expelled those who challenged their authority. Jesus welcomes the lost sheep into his flock. He is literally the door to heaven, the way into God’s flock. Jesus defines ‘life’ in terms of free access to good pasture, protection from harm at night and fullness of life – life everlasting. Provision by day, protection by night. Under his care and by his gift we can experience the very best, life can offer. Jesus gives a whole new meaning to living because he provides full satisfaction, perfect guidance, and eternal security. “whoever enters through me will be saved.” Says Jesus. Have you entered? Do you have the assurance of being saved? Who is Jesus? “I am the Gate” Why did Jesus come? “that they may have life”
3. How do we follow Him? “listen to his voice”
“the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on 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 recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:3-5)
Three simple applications on how to follow Jesus.
3.1 Listen to Jesus
“the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) Have you heard his call in your life? He calls you by name. He knows everything there is about you. Knowing everything he still cares for you. Your friends might not but Jesus does. Do you recognize his voice speaking to you as you read the Scriptures? Do you hear him call you daily? Get to know him well, obey his voice and you will never be afraid of the unknown. Listen to Jesus.
3.2 Run from Strangers
Jesus says, “But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:5)
We have so much to learn from sheep on this point. God has built into their instinct the ability to discern between voices. That is why they run from strangers and will not follow them. Children are the same. As we grow up we suppress this instinct. As Christians we have inherited the idea that being broadminded and tolerant of those who reject Jesus and the authority of the Bible is somehow mature, or loving and charitable. You wouldn’t let someone who was known to abuse children look after yours would you? So why let someone who is not following Jesus teach your children about faith and morals? Do you monitor the books they read or the programmes they watch? Which is more loving to say yes or no? Why do we tolerate religious leaders who have rejected Jesus? Why read their books? Why let them mess with your minds and confuse your souls? We take great care in the selection of the books we promote in our church bookstore.
The primary test is simple. Are they following Jesus? Last Tuesday our Church Council passed three important resolutions in solidarity with the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and the Jerusalem Declaration. If you want to read more see here. The Jerusalem Declaration is simply a restatement of biblical orthodoxy. It contains one controversial statement:
“We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.”
The reason the Church of England is in the mess it is because some of our leaders have failed to discipline those who have gone astray. That is all Jesus is saying here. We must not listen to or follow the teachings of religious leaders who are not following Jesus. The Apostle John who wrote this Gospel, also wrote several letters. In his second, he applies this teaching of Jesus by insisting,
“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.” (2 John 1:9-11)
The apostle Paul says the same thing. “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11) To the Romans he insists: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Romans 16:17-18)
Yes – we have much to learn from sheep. What must we do? Listen to Jesus. Run from Strangers.
3.3 Stay Together
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:4)
We are to stay together. This is implicit. Jesus is speaking about his flock. We are his sheep – plural. Lone sheep don’t survive in the wild. Goats yes, sheep no. Lost sheep are dead sheep.
They can’t survive alone. That is why Jesus chose this analogy to describe his Church. We need each other. As we follow Jesus together, he will provide all we need to care for one another – whatever happens this year. Some of you may be made redundant. We will do our best to support you and your families. Some of you may be expected to take a pay cut or work less hours to stay in your job. Some will find your pension won’t go as far as you hoped. That’s OK too. God knows.
One of the speakers at the Middle East Consultation I attended in Jordan last year was a psychologist called Naji Abu Hashem. He has observed some of the reasons why Christians in the Middle East have survived under pressure.
1. Family and friends provide a strong bond in adversity.
2. Eat meals together.
3. Share together – do plenty of talking, expressing, discussing.
4. Visit one another – spend time together.
5. Show solidarity with one another.
6. Have fun together in recreation and games.
7. Care for one another in practical ways – baking, gifts.
8. Participate in worship together.
I believe this year we will all come to value our membership of Christ’s Church more than ever before. We must learn to use our God given gifts and talents to look after one another because we are members of Christ’s flock in this place. Three simple principles we can apply as we face an uncertain future together. Listen to Jesus. Run from Strangers. Stay Together. Lets pray.