Jesus the Shepherd - John 10:1-21

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 26th March 2000.

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What are you looking for in a good leader? That was a question Douglas Webster posed to a large number of American church congregations and this was the conclusion he came to they had to be: ‘winsome, charismatic, executive like pastors who exude warmth and success. Known more for their humour than for their spirituality, today’s market sensitive pastors are relationally savvy.. Instead of eliciting deep feelings of guilt as the old revivalists did, these pastors lift the spirit, promote optimism and make people feel good about themselves. ’Now when you think about it what some Christians are obviously looking for in their church leaders - insisting on charisma over character, cosmetics over content - is but an echo of what most people look for in their political leaders. So it should hardly surprise us that an American president who cultivated a public image of warm, devoted family life would also, with his secret service agents, plod the tunnels under the streets of New York with flash lights in hand, on their way to yet another sexual liaison in a hotel room, nor should it surprise us to learn this was the pattern from the first day President Kennedy took office. We live in the age of sound bites, spin doctors - in other words we live in the age of the image.

Now concern for image is not necessarily all bad, especially amongst leaders, provided of course that the image matches the reality, so that what you see is what you get. And it could well be that the present widespread cynicism that so many people seem to display towards political leaders and indeed some church leaders may in part be due to repeated disappointments - the promises made which have not materialised, the credibility gap between what is claimed and what has been delivered is far too wide and the result is that we become hardened. And it was no different in Jesus day. There was a dearth of leaders, folk people could actually trust. They too drew on a popular image which had its roots in the OT - the image of the shepherd. A shepherd, you see, was meant to care for the sheep on behalf of their real owner. He was meant to nourish them, protect them, even be willing to put his life on the line for them. In this case the sheep were the people of Israel, and the owner was God. That was what these leaders were meant to do, but history proved time and time again the exact opposite - self - seeking corruption destroyed the sheep. So is there anyone whose style is one with his substance, who says what he means and means what he says? Well, yes there is. His name is Jesus and he designates himself ‘The Good Shepherd’ and we read all about him in John 10.

Now there are three things about this shepherd leader - the Good shepherd - which marks him out from all the other leaders the world has ever known or will know. He is the shepherd who knows his people, who nourishes his people and who dies for his people.

First, he is the shepherd who knows his people and we see this in vv 1 - 6. (read 1 - 4)

Now the details of this imagery would have been clear to Jesus’ audience. What was common at this time was for several smaller farming families to hire out a large enclosure which would contain a number of different flocks belonging to several different owners. Then they would hire a junior shepherd - a watchman to look after the mixed flocks and guard the gate. Then what would happen would be that a shepherd of one of the flocks would come along, known to the watchman, and he would stand outside the gate and make his own distinctive call - a whistle of some kind, and his flock would come out to him, and he would walk ahead of them to lead them to some luscious pasture for grazing. then another shepherd would come along and do the same thing. That is the picture Jesus is drawing on. So there is a tie between the shepherd and the sheep, they hear his voice and know it and follow it. But someone who is not a shepherd, who is simply intent on hurting the sheep in some way, getting control over the sheep, stealing the sheep, will not gain entrance, the watchman wont let him in. So what does he do? Well, he climbs over the sheep pen wall while the watchman is looking the other way.

But there is even more to this imagery Jesus is drawing on which would have caused his hearers to sit up and take notice. Just listen to this. Here is God speaking through the prophet Ezekiel : ’Behold, I, I myself will search out my sheep, and will seek them out.. And I will bring them into their own land, and I will feed them.. with good pasture.. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep... I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David and he will tend them and be their shepherd. ’(Ez 34: 11 - 16; 23). Now what does that mean? God is saying that he will personally be the caring leader of his people, intending them good and not harm. But that while it is he who will do this he will do it through a King like David, the shepherd boy King. Now can you see what Jesus is getting at? He is taking this magnificent prophecy and applying it to himself. He is the one who is both God and at the same time a descendent of David. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the God who reveals and heals. That is the claim.

Surely, one of the great diseases of the late 20th century and which looks set to reach epidemic proportions in the 21st is the loss of self identity and self - worth. Of course I don’t mean that people forget their names, but at a deeper level they feel insignificant, nobodies who are here today and gone tomorrow. At one time people sought value and identity in their jobs - skilled craftsmen for instance - but that is all too easily replaced by a machine. Then some sort of value was obtained from the family - being a father, a daughter, a brother, but with family break-up figures now soaring through the ceiling, that is no longer the place where people feel valued, indeed, as resent research shows everyone seems to be a looser - children, husbands and wives feel cheapened with their self - confidence being trashed in the process. Do you see how value is derived from our relationship to something - our job, our friends, our family? But is there any relationship which we can point to and say: ‘There, this is secure. I am valued? ’Well, yes there is. Did you notice how in v 3 Jesus says he calls out his sheep by name? No shepherd ever did that in the ancient world. they had a call sign, but these sheep weren’t pets with names like Fifi or Rex. But that is not how the loving God of the universe who took to himself flesh and blood as Jesus views his people. We are a name to him - personally known to him and cherished by him - we are a John, an Alison, a Chris, an Yvonne. ’I know them all by name’, he says. I know your rising up, your sitting down, I even know when a word is about to be formed on your lips (Ps 139). And this is not knowledge of omniscience, in one sense God being God knows all things, but this is the knowledge of love. If you are one of his flock, he was there way back when you took your first step, when you went to your first school, met your first friend. And he has been there ever since, often unbeknown to you, guarding, guiding bringing you to that point where you would acknowledge him as your shepherd King. And he will remain with you, until eventually you reach the secure fold of heaven. That is the picture.

But not only does Jesus know his people, his people know him - they follow him because they hear his voice. This point developed a little later on in v 27 ‘My sheep listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me and I give them eternal life. ’Now it may be that you are here this morning feeling a little battered and bruised wondering whether you are a Christian at all? Well, here is a very simple test: do you listen to the voice of Christ and do you follow the way of Christ? Where do we hear his voice? Here in Scripture, his teaching about himself, heaven, hell, life, relationships, what really matters - challenging us, consoling us - but always clearly speaking to us. Do you listen to and love that voice? But then do you follow him? Not simply in coming to church, though it involves that, but in seeking to act in a distinctively Christian manner wherever he has put you - as a mother, in the office, at the school, in the factory - so there is always that thought at the back of the mind ‘What sort of things would Christ do, how can I please him? ’My sheep, you see, hear my voice and follow me.

In the second place Jesus is the shepherd who nourishes his people: vv7 - 10. We read in v6 that Jesus used this figure of speech but they didn't understand what he was telling them and so he unpacks the imagery further. (read 7 - 10). Now the picture changes slightly, still connected with sheep farming, but Jesus is no longer the shepherd who goes through the gate, he is the gate. Now this may be referring to the practice which some shepherd engaged in whereby they slept across the entrance to the sheep fold and so they acted as a human gate as it were. But the emphasis is on what Jesus does, he leads the sheep in and out, the is the entrance point and the exit point for the sheep, his people so that they find pasture. In other word he is the one who looks after them -, he loves them, he nourishes them and nurtures them.

And this emphasis on him being the gate stresses the exclusivity of Jesus. He is the only one we can come to in order that we might have life to the full - v10. The picture here is of sheep who are well fed and secure - they are contented. Now we are not to misunderstand what Jesus means when he says that he has come so that those who follow him might have life to the full. the tendency is to import into that phrase what we understand by life in the full, a 21st century western understanding - plenty of leisure, good health, fantastic salary, a nice home. That is what a lot of folk want God to provide - the abundant life. And it has to be admitted that is what some so called Christian leaders offer. A few years ago USA Today conducted a survey. Of the 56% of Americans who attend church, 45% do so ‘because it is good for you’; 26% cited ‘peace of mind and spiritual well being. ’The idea that one should be a Christian because it is true didn't seem to figure much. This survey, one sociologist observed was but a reflection of ‘the culture of narcissism. ’That is the ‘I love me’ culture, what is in it for me. Now of course to be a Christian is good for you, spiritually and in a whole host of other ways. But that is not what Jesus primarily has in mind when he speaks of life in its fullness. You see, in the Bible what is essentially wrong with the human race is that it is out of sorts with God, it is self rather than God which is on the throne of the human heart. As Archbishop William Temple once explained, this is the essence of all sin: ‘I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is, depends on where I stand.. Education may make my self-centredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interests; so far it is like climbing a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision, while leaving me still the centre and standard reference. ’The result - the appalling mess we see around us. Do we honestly believe the self - centred "me-ism" generated in 1980’s and is still spilling over into today with its unquenchable desire for more and more at whatever the cost - ecological vandalism, marital break-up, letting instincts have free reign, is the best life on offer? But it is all you are left with when you cut God out of the picture. The permissive experiment has been going on now for over 30 years and what have we to show for it? A happier more harmonious society? Hardly. No, the full life is a life rightly related to God. Which is why Jesus came - to enable us to come under his loving rule. So let me give you an example of someone who found life in all its fulness in a place we would not even dream of looking. Her name is Theopiste and she lives in Rwanda. In 1994 during the appalling genocide that was being perpetrated in that country, 60, 000 people took refuge in a half built school in Marumbi. One night the local militia came in and killed them all. More than 800, 000 Rwandan people died in 100 days - 800, 000. Theopiste was only 13 years old at the time. She survived repeated attempts to kill her. She tells of how a group of women beat her and buried her alive in a shallow grave., thinking her dead. ‘Perhaps God has a plan for me’ she said. ’God said to a man "I want you to leave your house, go where I show you. there is someone who has not died yet. "I saw the man coming and I was afraid. But he told me, "Don't be afraid. I'm coming to save you. " Theopiste lost her family. She saw people killed, raped - even crucified. How has she coped with the trauma - how would we cope? This is what she said: ‘Really God. I myself don't understand how I could cope with that. I know that Jesus took my burden, and I feel free. ’My friends - that is life to the full - rightly related to God through Jesus. Now you live a fairly comfortable life in Hull. You may not think it to be great, but its not bad. But let me ask you: Do you know life to the full? The security, the provision - the vital living relationship with God which Christ brings? If not, then there is only one person you have to come to, one gate you have to go through - and that is the Lord Jesus - other competing religious leaders are thieves and robbers, out to fleece the sheep not care for them.

But how does Jesus achieve all of this for his people - how do they know him, receiving nurturing from him, this abundant life he promises to all who would follow him? The answer: he is the shepherd who dies for his sheep : vv 11 - 18.

Now the death of Jesus is what makes him the Good Shepherd, unlike hirelings who don’t really care about the sheep but only about themselves so at the first sign of trouble they clear off. But not Jesus, he really does love us, and he demonstrates that in a way which leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about the absolute inviolability of that love. You see, this death was to be a willing death - v18 (read). There is the story of a young man in the First World War who was wounded in the trenches during an attack. The medic who came to treat him had to say to him: I am sorry soldier, you have lost your arm. The young soldier replied, ‘Doc, I didn't lose it, I gave it.’ Now, Jesus saying something similar here. he is not saying he came into the world willing to die if necessary, as a shepherd might die fighting some wild animal to protect the sheep. His death is intentional. As he says in v 15 it is for the sheep, they will benefit from his death in some way. But how? Some say Jesus death was an example of unselfishness which we are to copy. But how would that benefit the sheep. Imagine you were a sheep in the wilderness somewhere and the shepherd said to you, ‘I love you little sheep’ and to prove it I am going to throw myself off the cliff’ and he does. What good is that? That is why Jesus has to mention the wolf v 12 ‘ When he sees the wolf coming (the hired hand) abandons the sheep and runs away. ’The reason why so many people have difficulty in understanding why Jesus had to die is that they do not realise the danger they are in. There is a wolf coming. And Jesus knew it and if we look deep into our hearts we know it too. Sinful men and women like us are going to die one day and then have to face the fearsome wolf, if you like, of God’s judgement. And no one will escape it. That is why we need a Good Shepherd, not a professional do-gooder telling us to be nice. We need the kind of shepherd who is willing to take the guilt from our shoulders and bear it himself on a cross. It is a saving death. That is what Jesus means when he says he lays down his life for his sheep and takes it up again. He did not give his life just to prove how much he loved us. He gave his life to save us from the wolf.

So let me ask: what kind of leader are you looking for? Someone reliable? Someone who will put your true best interests first? Someone who is able to span space and time and who knows you better than you know yourself? Someone who can save you? If so, then look no further, because he has come. He is Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

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