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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sheep Sleep (John 10:10-18)


“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  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 up 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.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.  I have received this command from my Father.”

Why have you come to church this morning?  Why are you here?  You could literally be anywhere else today doing anything you wanted, so why have you come to church this morning?  My hope is that you have come looking for the very thing that Jesus promises in the first verse of today’s text.  Were you paying attention?  Jesus said he came to give us something - do you remember what it is?  Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).  Abundant life.  That phrase captures what most people--including myself--long for.  May we pray.

In the Church’s calendar, does anyone know what season we are currently in?  We are in the Easter season, which began on Easter Sunday and lasts for 7 weeks, all the way through Pentecost Sunday.    We celebrate Easter not as a single day, but a season that lasts 7 weeks.  I find this significant because the experts indicate that it takes 6 weeks to form a habit, and so we are given 7 weeks  of Easter to make Easter a habit, to cultivate the joy and celebration of Easter as a lifestyle.  We are Easter people, and we spend this season allowing God to bring about Easter within us.

On the Sundays of Easter, we have heard stories of Jesus making post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, showing up wherever he pleases and whenever he wants, making himself known outside the tomb, along the road, in the breaking of bread, in locked rooms, and along the shore.  But today, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, the lectionary takes a hard left-turn away from the post-resurrection stories.  In today’s text, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), and so today we explore the risen Christ as our shepherd, and what sort of flock we are supposed to be.

I AM
In this text, Jesus is making a clear statement about his identity.  “I AM the good shepherd,” he says.  Those first two words, “I AM,” have incredible significance and we would do well not to miss it.  In English, two little words, with huge significance.

You have to go way back in the Old Testament, to the story of Moses.  Moses was working as a hired shepherd at the time, tending the flock of his father-in-law, and he saw a bush that appeared to be burning, yet was not consumed.  A voice called out to Moses from the bush, and Moses approached it, and the voice said, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).  The voice then identified itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, and commissioned Moses to lead his Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land.

Moses wants to know who is speaking to him.  He asks for God’s name, and in the Hebrew, God replies, ehyeh asher ehyeh: “I AM WHO I AM.  Thus you shall say, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).  Those two words, “I AM,” are a play-on-words that represents the one, true, only God.

And so, back in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” thus linking his identity to God.  No one in Jesus’ day would have missed this connection.  In fact, 7 times in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes an “I AM” statement about himself, clearly identifying himself as God, which, if you remember, that’s precisely the point John was trying to make from the start: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

Meet the Good Shepherd
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” but what do we really know about sheep and shepherds?  I certainly don’t know much about sheep!  This may surprise you, but growing up on Linwood Avenue between 24th and 27th Streets, not one single family had sheep.  The Presbyterian Church put on a live nativity every year and I have a few wool sweaters, and that sums up my personal experience with sheep.

When it comes to shepherds, my guess is that we all have about the same level of personal experience as we do with sheep.  When you think of a shepherd, is the image gentle, warm, and pastoral? A shepherd with soft hands lovingly cradling the sheep against his chest?  Let’s get that image out of our heads right now.  Nancy Blakely says, “The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque.  It was dangerous, risky, and menial.  Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.”  Kathryn Huey goes further and says, “Jesus was offering a most unexpected image to the ‘nice’ religious folks who must have been quite surprised and taken aback by it.”

Shepherds were rough-and-tumble people.  They didn’t really fit in.  They were outsiders, especially to good, polite, religious people.  Yet throughout the Gospel story, Jesus has a way of bypassing religious people and showing preferential treatment to outsiders, and as they encounter his love and grace, outsiders become insiders.  That’s good news for outsiders, and a word of caution for insiders.

Another part of the image of shepherds that’s important for us consider in thinking about Jesus as the good shepherd is the shepherd’s staff.  You know, that big, long, heavy Gandolph stick the shepherd carries around.  We read the line in the 23rd Psalm, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” and we think, “Well isn’t that nice.”  Really?  Think for a minute about what that staff would have been used for.  It was sometimes used as a way of guiding and directing the sheep.  It was also used as a weapon to fight off wolves and other predators.  And sometimes the blunt end was used to give the sheep a gentle but firm nudge in the backside to get them moving in the right direction.  “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” - there are times God needs to “comfort us” right in our backside to move us toward the green pastures where we find abundant life.

Ask yourself - has God “comforted you” in the backside lately?  Has God nudged you in a certain direction, and if so, how have you responded?  Here’s what I know - if God hasn’t nudged you lately, you probably haven’t been paying close enough attention because God nudges his sheep all the time.  And, if God has been nudging you, how have you responded?  Have you followed God’s leading and gone out to the place where you find green pasture and abundant life?  Or, despite God’s nudging, have you just sat on your backside and said, “Hey God, knock it off!”?

The shepherd is nudging us all the time, inviting us to follow where he leads.  He leads us out of ourselves and opens us to loving God and neighbor in all that we do.  In our young adult group which meets on Wednesday nights at 7, Carrie Davis was talking about this point.  She was talking about how getting involved in church in the last year and thinking about others has really helped her.  She said, “When you get involved, when you invest your time, when you stop being selfish and start giving more to the church instead of keeping it all for yourself - I dunno, it just makes you feel better.”

It makes you feel better because it gets your heart - your affections and desires and passions - in line with what God desires from his flock.  Doing those things are part of following the Shepherd.  They are ways we grow in our love of God and neighbor.  When we get our heart aligned with God’s heart, it just feels good, and it is how we experience the abundant life Jesus promised.

Contrast: The Good Shepherd and the “Others”
Jesus as the good shepherd stands in stark contrast to some other folks in the story.  Verse 10 identifies the thief, “who comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  Verse 12 identifies the hired hand, who abandons the sheep when danger gets too close.  There is the wolf in verses 12 and 13, who snatches and scatters the sheep.  It is eye-opening to realize just how many folks, other than the sheep and the shepherd, find their way into the sheepfold.

Jesus himself said, just a few verses before today’s reading in John 10:1, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”  Then in verse 7, he says, “I am the gate for the sheep.”  You following all that?  Jesus is the gate, and anyone who enters the sheepfold, the church, if you will, without coming through Jesus is a thief.

This thought is very disturbing to me.  There are those who get into the sheepfold without ever coming through Jesus, the gate, who know nothing of his joy, and in their wake you will find destruction, as they steal abundant life from the sheep and kill their joy.  Don’t be surprised by this.  Disturbed, perhaps, but not surprised.  Church has always been one of the destroyer’s favorite places to hang out, because if the thief can get in and promote disunity, and discord, and disruption, and distraction, and all those things that work against the abundant life that Jesus promised, then he’ll take that deal every time.

But friends, we are called to something different.  We are called to abundant life.  Those who want to do the things that promote destruction, stealing joy, and spiritual death, well, I’m not sure who they’re following, but it ain’t Jesus.  Try this: before you say or do anything, ask yourself, “Does what I’m about to do lead to joy and abundant life for me and others, or does it kill joy and rob abundant life?”  If we would each do that in all the things we say or do, it’s amazing how much of the ugliness so often committed by Christians could be eliminated.

Listening for the Shepherd
We are God’s flock, the sheep of his pasture.  Jesus says in verse 16 that his sheep will listen to his voice and recognize him and follow him.  If you’re going to recognize and respond to the shepherd’s voice, however, you’ve got to be listening. 

I read this week that one of the most loving things we can do for another is to listen to them.  Question for you this morning - do you love Jesus?  If so, are you actively listening for the voice of the shepherd?  One of the most loving we can do for another is to listen  to them.  You know, when we come to worship, that’s one of the things we are here to do - to listen for the voice of Jesus.  Now, as a preacher, I am aware that people do all sorts of things during worship that ain’t listening; in fact, people do things that are the very opposite of listening.

Just because you come to church, does that mean that you’re listening to and following the Shepherd?  Truth is, we all know Christians whose lives are completely devoid of joy and who exhibit nothing of a personal walk with Jesus.  Un-Christlike Christians are in serious spiritual danger, and it is because they are not spending enough time with the Shepherd to even recognize his voice.

I come back to the question I first posed back at the beginning of the sermon.  Were you listening?  Do you remember what it was?  Why have you come to church this morning?  Why are you here?  You could literally be anywhere else today doing anything you wanted, so why have you come to church this morning?

My hope is that you have come to listen for the voice of the Shepherd.  That you have come to follow him wherever he leads.  That you have come to center your life upon him, and that the joy of his resurrection makes its home in your heart and spills out everywhere you go.  You are a beloved part of the fold of God, and that comes with a calling: to listen for the voice of the Shepherd, and following wherever he leads.

And as you look at your life and examine your heart, who are you following - really?  The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy.  The hired hand looks after himself and runs away when it gets too real.  The wolf comes to snatch and scatter the sheep.

Friends, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He doesn’t come to steal, kill, destroy, or run away.  He is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.  The voice of the Shepherd is calling, and those who know and love the Shepherd will listen to his voice, and follow him to green pastures of abundant life where we love God and neighbor in all that we do.

The Shepherd is speaking all the time.  Is the flock listening?

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