Much of my work as a pastor comes in trying to connect the message of the Bible to our lives. That is especially the task of the preacher. Yet, there are many challenges. Among them are that the Bible has stories and ideas that have been gathered over a period of more than 1000 years, starting over 3000 years ago. They were recorded in languages that are long dead. They come from cultures and continents far removed from life in 21st century America.
In my ministry, I have yet to have a shepherd in my congregation. I believe that is still the case today. Any shepherds out there? Yes? No? If there are, I’m going to let you take over this sermon because sheep are the most frequently mentioned animal in the Bible. There are almost 400 references to sheep. The shepherd gets around 100 references. Shepherding and sheep were central to life in Bible times. The closest I come to herding sheep is having a border collie named Bandit. Now, he does have that herding instinct, but we’ve never let him loose around sheep, although that sounds fun. Just look what border collies do for modern-day shepherds.
In reading the Bible, it is helpful to understand a bit about sheep and shepherds, since their techniques were remarkably different from ours today. Sheep are ideal for the area because they can move from place to place to graze. They don’t need a lot of water to survive, but they would have to migrate to find food, so sheep were not fenced into a particular place. Flocks of many shepherds would mingle while grazing and even when coming into the sheepfold at night for protection. The sheep were absolutely dependent upon the shepherd for protection, for food, for water, for shelter, and for fixing injuries. This will sound harsh, particularly because the biblical metaphor of sheep is really referring to people like you and me, but The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery has this to say about sheep: “Sheep are not only dependent creatures; they are also singularly unintelligent, prone to wandering and unable to find their way to a sheepfold even when it is within sight.”
So, sheep need a lot of help, and that’s why they need a good shepherd. The shepherd would guide them to food and to protection. Shepherds would usually carry two implements — a rod and a staff. The rod was a club-like weapon and the staff was the shepherd’s crook used for guiding the sheep and for counting them as they went in and out of the sheepfold. And while I’ve harped on the helplessness of the sheep, they are really good at something. They can recognize their shepherd’s voice. As I said, the flocks would mix together while grazing and even in the sheepfold. But when a shepherd called, the sheep of his or her flock would come, while those of another’s flock would stay put. (And, yes, both men and women were shepherds in the Bible. We know that Abraham, Moses, and David were, but so also were Rebekah and Moses’ sisters-in-law.)
The familiar words of the 23rd psalm provide a beautiful picture of a day in the life of a shepherd, turning it into a metaphor of how God cares for the flock. David writes about how God is not just a shepherd, but is my shepherd. There is a deeply intimate relationship between the Lord as shepherd and the flock. The shepherd guides the sheep to green pastures for grazing, to still waters for a drink, down the right paths that lead to life and flourishing. Even when the sheep feel like the darkness is all around, they do not fear because the shepherd will take care of them. The middle of the poem says “for you are with me,” and “you” is the very middle of the poem itself. The shepherd — the Lord — is the heart of the sheep’s life and of David’s existence.
God is the ideal shepherd, ensuring an abundant life for the flock. A good shepherd takes care of the flock, and the sheep can trust the shepherd to lead them well. The Bible extends this shepherd metaphor from the way God cares for the flock into the way that leaders should care similarly for their people. Some of those leaders were quite literally shepherds at some point in their lives, with King David being the prime example. So, the language of shepherding also gets connected to the kind of leader the Messiah will be.
And here we see Jesus, taking on this language for himself in our passage in John 10. Jesus’ words here are connected to an event that concerns the previous chapter. Jesus sees a man who was born blind, and his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It’s such a tone deaf question in my mind, but people believed maladies like this were the consequence of someone’s action. But Jesus heals this man and he corrects their assumption about him. His blindness was not the consequence of sin, and it has now become an opportunity for God to work in and through him.
It was the sabbath when Jesus does this, so, of course, the religious folks are more concerned with the rule-breaking than they are moved to see wholeness come to this man. They are confronted with the power of God at work in Jesus, and now they have to face this question — Is Jesus from God or not?
That’s what leads directly to our text. Jesus says that anyone who enters the sheepfold without using the gate is a thief or a bandit. So, in this figure of speech, Jesus is using the sheepfold as a metaphor for the gathering of God’s people, who are under the care of a shepherd. The only right way to enter or leave that sheepfold is through the gate.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says, which is quite a stunning announcement. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” To really understand this metaphor, we have to have an image of what a Palestinian sheepfold would look like. They were enclosures made of stones or briars, a place where several flocks would take refuge at night. There was an opening, and the shepherd would lie down across the entryway to keep the sheep in and the predators out. So, what we have here is a picture of the same person serving as both the shepherd and the gate. Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
Jesus is answering the challenge of the Pharisees to his authority to do what he does and to say what he says. As the gate and the shepherd, God is present in Jesus in a way that tends to all who are in his care. A little later in chapter 10, Jesus utters these stunning words, “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.”
Jesus, the shepherd who protects and loves his ever-growing flock, sits in the crucial point of all history, extending God’s covenant love to all who would receive it because they hear Jesus’ voice and recognize they are finally home.“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
How do we tune our hearts to recognize the voice of Jesus so that we may have abundant life? Let me offer three relatively simple ideas. All of them begin with the need to be intentional about setting aside time. If we are not intentional, none of this is possible, and, to be honest, we will have a much harder time recognizing the voice of Jesus.
First, we learn to listen by engaging in the Word. We have to do this as individuals, opening ourselves up for God to speak to us. While this sounds really elementary, it has been my experience as a pastor that the majority of church goers do not actually make time to read the Bible. So, let me encourage you. Start with the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Read the stories of Jesus, if even for five minutes a day. I think the voice of Jesus will surprise you when you do so. If you don’t have a Bible or if you don’t know which translation is good, talk to a pastor. We’ll help! But, we shouldn’t just read as individuals, as important as that is. We should invite the voice of others to the table. That’s why classes and small groups are so important. That’s why it’s so helpful to have books by faithful interpreters to guide us. We hear the voice of Jesus on our own and together.
Second, speaking of being together, we learn to hear the voice of Jesus by faithfully engaging in worship together. The Spirit moves among us in this time and place as we worship. And let me encourage our online worshippers — yes, the Spirit speaks to you where you are, but I am convinced that something mysterious happens when we’re physically present together. So if you’re online out of convenience only, then I hope you’ll risk coming back in person. You are a part of us hearing the voice of Jesus. You need us, and we need you.
I mentioned earlier that I am totally disconnected from life as an actual shepherd, but the irony is that I have you call me Pastor Troy, which is quite literally a shepherding term! (I guess that’s another reason why I have a dog capable of herding!) My calling as pastor to you is to lead you to places where you can grow, to take you where the living water is, to guide you through the dark valleys, and to restore your souls. But pastors can only do that if you’re willing to be shepherded — that is, guided in ways that will change the way you currently do things or change your mind about the way you see the world. So…let me be your shepherd!
Third, we have to engage in prayer that allows space for listening to the voice of Jesus. Our reading of the Bible and our worship put us in a place to truly hear Jesus — to know when he calls, to know when he says “rest,” to know when he sends us into a challenge. Prayer takes that and shapes us into Christlikeness. Through prayer we tune our hearts and minds to the voice of Jesus, who is the one lovingly guiding us through this life and on into eternity.
Jesus closes by saying that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” Do we believe him when he says that? I hope so. Life with Jesus is abundant life. It is intimate. It is joyful. It is purposeful. It does not ever end. If we truly believe Jesus is who he says he is, we’ll want to be his sheep, trusting him with our very lives, now and into eternity.