“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and 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.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They 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.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
In a world of over-heated music stars, egotistical footballers and know-all pundits, Jesus makes just about the most ‘everybody look at me’ claim ever. In fact he does it seven times in John’s Gospel:
- I am the bread of life
- I am the light of the world
- I am the gate of the sheep
- I am the good shepherd
- I am the resurrection and the life
- I am the way, the truth and the life
- I am the true vine
In these ‘I ams’ he is not self-promoting but self-offering. He is simply saying, ‘I am what you need’.
‘I am the Good Shepherd’ – ‘Not in our modern world of factory farming you aren’t’. Today’s shepherd gets as many sheep as he or she can, gets them as fat as they can and gets them to market as soon as they can. In our world sheep are not so much individual creatures with a God given right to live and wander, so much as factory units producing meat and wool that will be turned into cash.
When Jesus talks about sheep and a shepherd two pictures come into my mind. The first one comes from my wanderings in the Yorkshire Dales. Here I am approaching a lovely green ridge and suddenly about a hundred or so ridiculously healthy looking sheep, all fat and woolly come wandering over the ridge towards me. Then a moment later appears the shepherd on his quadbike with a couple of dogs, he is driving the sheep. My second picture originates from my first visit to the Holy Land. Here, in a dry and rocky valley, a tall gaunt man is striding out and a straggly bunch of different shapes and sizes of sheep come following him. The shepherd knows where there is a flowing stream and a bit of decent grass, he is leading the sheep.
So think of yourself as a sheep, and of you and your family and friends and your church as a flock of sheep. All sheep need a shepherd. Do you want a good shepherd or a less caring, greedy and hard one? This passage from John’s Gospel picks out five features of Jesus the Good Shepherd:
- He enters our lives properly through the front door. He does not climb or force his way in.
- He knows his sheep by name. Each one of us is a special individual to him.
- He understands our individual lives and the world we live in, and so he leads us.
- We follow him, because we have learned the sound of his voice and we have come to trust him.
- Not only does Jesus enter our life through the gate, but he then becomes a greater gateway so that we can enter the life of God and salvation.
Then Jesus takes the whole thing to a different level. Ultimately all sheep die to produce the food, blood, wool etc. to keep the shepherd alive. But in this shepherd’s tale the shepherd dies so that the sheep can live.
Two thoughts on sheep and shepherds. Firstly, there are lots of clever, persuasive and gifted people telling us all the time what to think, in whom to believe in, how to live our lives and on what to spend our money. They are politicians, TV experts, pundits, people who write for papers and magazines, parents, friends and teachers. They are all shepherds, but which ones are ‘Good Shepherds’?
Secondly, Jesus the Good Shepherd wants us to have life ‘in abundance’. I am a bit of a depressive with masses of insecurities. I work too hard at too many projects, trying to please too many people. So what does ‘abundant life’ mean for me?
My daughter, Zoe, has major learning difficulties and will never be able to live a ‘normal’ independent life. What is ‘abundance’ for her and who is the shepherd that can lead her there?
My wife, Maureen, spends much of her energies looking after me and Zoe and a host of others. In between times she has her own hopes and joys to find. Where is her ‘abundance’?
I sometimes think of my son, Phillip, as the one truly normal person in our family. He has lots of gifts, freedom, popularity and some affluence. But he has needs too and things he is still searching for. What does a Phillip-type ‘abundant life’ look like?
The answer to all our abundant life issues, and to yours too, is ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.
You are the Good Shepherd.
I am one of your many sheep,
Yet you know my name,
And I am beginning to know your voice.
Help me as I follow you,
Into an abundant life.