Last week I went home for my brother's college graduation. Coincidentally, my home synod had their annual assembly that weekend as well, which meant that the pastor would need to be gone, so I was asked to lead the church service. This is the sermon from that weekend.
Good morning. I have to start with a word of thanks to all of you. I am truly grateful to be sharing in worship with you this morning, and I am honored to be asked to help out. This week is often called Good Shepherd Sunday—Jesus being the Good Shepherd—and the two verses following this passage inform us, in Jesus own words, that Jesus is the shepherd who cares for the sheep, and the sheep know him and hear his voice. That is a comforting thought. Time to check out—sermon’s over. Haha.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy? But, as usual, in addition to the comfort and joy it brings, the good news of the gospel challenges us and pulls us out of our comfort zone.
Ok, so we start at the beginning with the basics. Jesus is the gate, and those who enter are the shepherd. They guide the sheep in and out and to pasture so they may be safe.
Then the tough reality kicks in—there are forces in the world that are not from God. Thieves. This has the potential to be really scary if used to instill fear—the last section says that thieves intend to steal and destroy. It’s easy to think that we need to guard against them, point fingers outward trying to identify them, and be sure to follow the true shepherd. We live in a culture that can be ruled by fear—fear of failure, fear of financial or emotional insecurity, fear of anyone who is not like us, fear of people who we might claim don’t know Jesus. That’s not the case at all. Thieves would know exactly where the gate is. They avoid it at all costs. Thieves also do not break in with firearms and noise, but try to sneak quietly without being noticed.
These are the forces in the world that avoid and sneak around the good news they know to be true. These forces go around it to justify actions that they know don’t adhere to the Word of God, which, according to John, is Jesus. There are systems, diseases, natural disasters that cause damage to the people of God. These forces destroy, steal lives.
The sheep are safe, though. They don’t follow the wrong person, but only the one who enters by the gate—the shepherd. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and follow only that. They are saved because they will follow the one that comes to them and leads them to the pastures they must find in order to survive. The sheep need not be suspicious or concerned about which person is or is not the shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and they follow it to their salvation. This is again not something the sheep control. The shepherd comes to the sheep and calls to them.
There are many voices that may try to call out and promote certain paths—paths of jealousy, greed, etc. These voices may try to weedle their way into a mind and talk it into willfully ignoring the suffering of others for the sake of their own self-interest. Rarely will these real thieves seem like a frontal attack, but more often they come in the form of self-persuasion—a little here, a little there.
The good news, though, is that Jesus is always there—always. Jesus is the gate. The only way to enter into the sheepfold. He is also the Good Shepherd, as we find out in verse 11 of this chapter. He is both guiding and guarding the sheep. Jesus is always there—when the sheep gather together, and when they go out into the world.
Now, the tricky (and maybe uncomfortable) question—who are we in this parable? It’s nice to think that we’re always the sheep—the characters in the parable who are completely innocent. They are the ones who are cared for totally by the shepherd, and are saved without actually doing anything. Sheep have to enter by the gate. The sheep unfailingly follow their shepherd’s voice and ignore all others.
But what of the thieves? It’s easy to point at those things in the world that we fear, that we’d like to blame for what’s wrong with our lives. The ‘others’ that we haven’t even met—systems, religions, politics—that we claim are trying to take us away from God. But here’s the thing…thieves know where the gate is—and what it looks like. They sneak in to steal and destroy. The very definition of sin is the self-interest and self-centeredness that causes those broken relationships with God and one another. Thieves think of themselves, they sneak in to steal—for themselves—and they destroy what was there. Is it so hard to imagine that this might be our own selves?
Now, sin is a human condition—there is nothing we can do to change that. We confess almost every week that we sin in ways we know and ways we are unaware of in our actions as well as our failure to act. We are forgiven through no act of our own, but through the grace of God alone. That doesn’t mean we can go out and do whatever we want, though. We can—we need to—guard against the little voices of the world that try to persuade us that it’s okay to do this or that just once…or once more. The voices that say it’s okay to play by the rules of the system or the world we live in to get what we want—even if it hurts or oppresses others. Those voices are destructive—to others as well as ourselves.
We're not just thieves, though. I’d suggest that we—all of us—are both sheep and thief. We are both saint and sinner, after all. We talk ourselves into things we know we shouldn’t do, or ignore things we maybe should. We serve our own interests—think of ourselves—before others’ from time to time. We silently buy into the system without even making ourselves aware of what that means.
That seems pretty horrible, doesn’t it? Well, sin is pretty horrible. Then again, we are also the sheep. We cannot save ourselves. We are completely dependent on the shepherd, but we are unable to go to the shepherd—to Jesus—he comes to us. And, we cannot stay inside the sheepfold forever—we must go out into the world in order to live at all. We survive because Jesus—our shepherd—is leading us.
Jesus is always there—that is the good news, the comfort among all these challenging truths. He guards us as we gather, and goes with us as we go out into the world. We cannot survive forever if we stay guarded. We must go out and live life to survive. Living life—that is Jesus’ purpose for all the sheep. That the sheep may have life and have it abundantly—Jesus died for that reality. And he rose. And he continues to guide us through the continued presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter what happens, no matter what we do, Jesus is always there, coming to us and leading us. Amen.