5/3/2020 Fourth Sunday of Easter The text is John 10:1-10.
[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Fishermen, farmers, shepherds; why do so many of Jesus’ parables and discourse refer to these vocations, and why does he so frequently make his point using allegory concerning these professions? Quite simply, because these were the jobs that a great majority of people held in first century Israel, and just about everyone could relate to them. The challenge for 20th century folks is putting ourselves in the place of the Jewish people living 2,000 years ago.
Most of us don’t come into everyday contact with fishermen or farmers, although there are quite a few of these to be found in New England; but it’s a pretty sure bet that most of us have never encountered a shepherd. So, the deeper context of Jesus’ parables when sheepherding is involved, might require that we delve a bit into just what was involved in keeping sheep in around 30 AD. Shepherds grazed their sheep in pastures generally quite some distance outside the town. And in the evenings, they would usher them into a safe place to sleep; this would have been a cave if there were one nearby. They would close off the mouth of the cave with stones or brush, and then the shepherd would sleep just beyond this ‘gate’, as Jesus refers.
If there were not a cave readily available, the shepherds would construct a ‘sheepfold’; this would be a perimeter of stones and brush, with additional brush laid over the top to help keep out predator animals or sheep rustlers. This circle or square of stones would have a small break where the sheep could enter and leave. The shepherd would sleep lying on the ground in front of this ‘gate’, thereby completing the corral, with his flock safely gathered inside. He would have already herded the sheep inside, and by lying in front of the only opening, he would ensure that the only way the sheep could be attacked by predators or lured away by thieves would require that the walls be breached.
As the old saying goes, “there is strength in numbers”. This apparently applied to the keeping of sheep in biblical times. Sheepfolds were generally community affairs and several flocks would be kept together for safety overnight. In the morning when it was time to graze the flock, each shepherd would call his individual sheep by name; they would recognize his voice, exit the fold, and follow the shepherd into the rich pastures to nibble. I’ve given quite a bit of thought as to what the lonely life of a shepherd must have been like, with no one around for them to have conversations with. I reckon that they would spend a good deal of time conversing with their sheep; either that, or they would probably end up talking to themselves. And you know what people would say if they that found out. So, it’s not a stretch to accept that the flock would recognize and respond to the voice of their shepherd. Often, metaphors relegate sheep as being mindless and easily led. In truth, left to their own devices, they can easily go astray.
But they do know the voice of their shepherd and will always answer to his call; for they know the shepherd will protect and care for them. They will be kept safe in the sheepfold at night and will follow the shepherd’s voice to be led to lush pastures to feed and thrive.
Jesus uses parables to help his listeners more readily grasp the concept he wants them to understand. So, the use of metaphors he uses relate to the lifestyle, culture, and religious norms of the day. Now that we’ve examined sheepherding a bit, we can more easily appreciate the principle that he wants us to learn; the following of a trusted voice. But, as his parables nearly always do, Jesus’ intention for the “Good Shepherd” story is to draw attention to something not quite so obvious. He speaks of sheep following true and honest voices, shepherds, gates, thieves and bandits, and abundant pastures. As a stand-alone parable, this story reveals a great deal about Jesus and his mission; to bring all people into his flock, into God’s family, living life abundantly. However, the lectionary for the Easter season we’re currently in, often rearrange timelines, so that we’re not always reading Scripture lessons in order. This morning’s story of the shepherd and the gatekeeper actually follows immediately after Jesus restores sight to the man blind from birth; remember, with saliva and mud?
The religious leaders don’t believe that Jesus gave the man his sight and they drive him out from the community. But the newly-sighted man knows that Jesus is who, and what he claims to be. He hears the voice of Jesus and instinctively knows that he must follow this “Good Shepherd”. Jesus brings the man into his community of believers, thus making him one of the fold. He will now be cared for and protected, with the rest of Jesus’ followers; he is now part of Jesus’ flock. And Jesus levels a not-so-subtle accusation against the Pharisees who sought to discredit Jesus, while refusing to welcome the formerly blind man into the society that might accept and care for him. Thus, these religious scholars are the “thieves and bandits” who would seek to kill and destroy Jesus’ flock of followers; and not provide for abundant life. Jesus is the shepherd and the gatekeeper, the now- sighted man is one of the flock following the shepherd’s voice, and those who follow Jesus are the ones secure and protected within the sheepfold.
But, as we know, Jesus doesn’t tell parables only to point out the sin and transgression of the few; his mission is concerned more with revealing the truth of God to the many. His parable of the following the shepherd’s trusted voice was meant for the people he encountered at the time, yes. But, like all of Jesus’ teachings it is meant for all people in all times and in all places. We are being reminded that Jesus’ voice is the “voice of truth” and that God loved the world enough to give Jesus for our salvation. As followers of this Jesus we have heard his voice and it has called us to the abundant life he promised. This is a life that John tells us is eternal, as promised; but also, that it has already begun, and continues in the here and now. It is a life that is centered on the knowledge that the One True God has sent his only son for us and for our salvation. And we often forget that, especially in times of fear, isolation, and worry. And in times such as these, it is most important that we lean our ears to hear the voice of the “Good Shepherd”, calling us to be secure in our faith, hope, and love.
And this voice promising love and abundant life may be easier for some to hear than others. Those among us who find themselves suffering the most during this frightening time are the ones most in need of hearing a voice of comfort, reassurance, and hope. And while the voice of Jesus is what is truly needed, often it is the voices of others that are called upon to be the tangible expression of Christ’s love. Not everyone has the ability to tune in to Facebook worship, to access Zoom fellowship meetings, venture out for groceries, or to be visited by loved ones while isolated in care facilities. These are the members of the fold, the sheep that most desperately need to hear the voice of the shepherd; even if that voice is ours, speaking Christ’s Word to them. You are encouraged to reach out to your neighbors, to be the voice they may desperately need to hear. To reassure them that the Jesus, “Good Shepherd” is still speaking the promise of the abundant life that will continue after this pandemic is a distant memory. To let them know that Jesus gathers all his flock into his enfolding arms, and that he guards the gate keeping all safely protected within. Many of our sisters and brothers long to hear reassuring words; let these words be those of Jesus, spoken with our voices.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, you Son Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”, and we who hear his voice are comforted, knowing that we are loved and forgiven. Help us to tend to those who may not hear his voice in these times. Help us to give voice to his message of faith, love, and hope; let us be shepherds to Christ’s flock, especially to those most in danger of wandering off.
And in the name of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd together we say…
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.