There’s a common belief held by many in our culture these days. You hear it all the time, whether in barber shops, on TV talk shows, or at church meetings. It’s the belief that all religious convictions are equal in their ability to lead people to God. You don’t need to give your sins or your life to Jesus exclusively, some people assert. They say, “All religions are headed to the same place.” Is that true?
Not according to Jesus! And in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses two illustrations to point us to Who He is and to the relationship with God that you and I…and every person on the planet…can have only through Him.
But before considering what Jesus has to tell us today, we should set the scene. How is it that Jesus came to speak the words we find in John 10:1-10?
It all started when Jesus gave sight to a blind man in John 9. That caused a controversy because Jesus dared to do this loving deed on a Sabbath day. Jesus’ action made some of Jesus' fellow Jews--the Pharisees--so angry that when the blind man He healed said that Jesus must be from God, they threw the man out of the temple, no longer considering him a faithful Jew.
Of course, at one level, the Pharisees were nothing like people today who claim that all religious beliefs lead to God. The Pharisees believed that only by abiding by their extensive lists of religious rules could one be right with God. But, based on what God has revealed of Himself in both the Old and New Testaments, both the advocates of anything-goes spirituality in the twenty-first century and the Pharisees of the first century have one big thing in common: They are equally wrong. Accepting the assertions of either group will lead us away from God and the life God offers only in Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, starting with a people to whom God gave a land and a promise, God has revealed Himself and His plan for the human race. From the beginning, the plan for a right relationship with God and for a life with Him that lasts forever has been the same. We are to give our lives back to the Giver of our lives and give our lives only to Him.
Genesis says that Abraham, the patriarch of Biblical faith, believed in God and God’s promises and that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham was right with God because he entrusted his life to God. He believed in God.
The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that through the centuries, God revealed Himself through the prophets of Israel, but in these last days, God has revealed Himself definitively in Jesus. If we want to live with God, we need to listen Jesus.
All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, God the Son, have the same blessings enjoyed by Abraham: rightness with God and life with God.
It isn’t because God is an egomaniac or because God wants to establish an exclusive club that the first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods” or that God commands exclusive fidelity to Jesus Christ.
It’s that God wants to give us life and only He can give it. Indeed, He will only give us life and, as Jesus puts it in today's Gospel lesson, life "abundantly," through Jesus Christ and our faith in Him.
All other roads are dead ends, literally dead ends.
So, in today's lesson, Jesus says that He is the shepherd of God’s sheep. Only Jesus can lead us into God’s sheepfold. People who try to get into the kingdom of God by other means are—whether through good works, other religious beliefs, or all manner of cosmic niceness—are, Jesus says, thieves and bandits. Look at verses 2 to 5 of the Gospel lesson printed on the Celebrate insert:
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.In this illustration, Jesus is the shepherd. God the Father is the gatekeeper.
For just a second, think of God’s kingdom as a show everybody (including you and me) wants to see. The problem is that the gatekeeper—God the Father—will issue tickets to only one kind of customer: People who are absolutely clean and clear of sin.
That would leave us all on the outside, pining for a relationship with God because, as the Bible says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Standing there in our sins, we would be without hope except for one thing: Jesus, the shepherd of the sheep, tells the gatekeeper, “It’s OK. She’s with me. He’s mine. You can let them in. I paid for their sins on the cross, the sacrifice of a sinless human being who didn’t deserve death on behalf of all other sinful human beings who deserved death.”
All who repent and believe in Christ are ushered into God’s eternal kingdom—long before their lives on this earth have ended, if they dare. Even now--even today--if you dare to trust in Him, you are living in Christ's eternal kingdom. As our second lesson from Peter reminds us, until we rise again, we live in a fallen world where suffering and challenges happen. But if suffering is a reality that can and does come to any of us, it's better to go through this life with Jesus leading us than to try to go it alone.
Those who heed Jesus’ voice live each day knowing that whatever our sins, deficiencies, and shortcomings, we belong to God forever! He is our ticket into eternity!
Like sheep attuned to the shepherd’s voice, when you dial into God through a relationship with Christ, you begin to know His voice. It brings incredible comfort, hope, and energy, straight from God, into your life!
Sometimes that voice will come with direction we'd rather not hear or will call us to do things we'd rather not do. I was the first person in my seminary class to interview for a call. It was for an associate pastor's position. There was another candidate who would be interviewing. Her candidacy made mine a long-shot because she had done her internship at that congregation. But my interview went well and, before Ann and I headed back to Columbus, the senior pastor told me he would be in touch in a few days. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into a month, and still no word from the senior pastor or the congregation.
More than a month after the interview, I was scheduled to be at the district convention, where, along with all the recently graduated seminarians, I would be trotted onstage to be introduced. In the evening, a service of Holy Communion was held in a college auditorium. We had just finished confessing our sins when I looked to see that senior pastor. "Mark," he said, "God wouldn't let me take Holy Communion until I came to apologize to you. I'm so sorry I never contacted you to let you know that the other candidate received the call. I didn't want to tell you that, so I kept putting off contacting you. Would you please forgive me?"
You see, that senior pastor was known by the Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus. And he knew Jesus. So, when Jesus called on him to make things right, that's exactly what he did.
The Shepherd speaks to His children in other ways too.
A member of this congregation recently told me that after her husband died, she was sobbing in her bed one night, seeking comfort, when she sensed a hand on her shoulder. So real was the touch she felt, that she reached around to feel for the unseen hand. No hand was felt, but the touch was no less real. In that quiet exchange, one of Christ’s sheep heard His voice of comfort and healing. She was comforted because she is one of Jesus’ sheep. Jesus knows His own and His own know Him!
A friend of mine has pastored a Lutheran congregation for decades. In spite of his faithfulness and innovative leadership, the congregation hasn’t grown. It’s actually declined in membership, attendance, giving, and activity. Day after day, year after year, he has prayed and worked faithfully, sharing Christ, leading people to deeper levels of faithfulness. But things have only gotten worse.
Then one day last year, after a long time in prayer, he sensed God asking him, “You pray for this renewal to happen, for new people to come to faith in Christ. But have you prayed that all the evil in the world that conspires against that happening be kept from this church, kept from its people, kept from the places where worship and education and planning happen?” No, my friend told God, he hadn’t done that in prayer. “Do it now!” God seemed to tell him forcefully.
And so, my friend went all through the church facility, praying in every room, asking God to take control of all that happened there, to displace Satan and all evil from every inch, and to fill the building and the people of the church with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the power and truth of the Word of God!
Things haven’t yet changed in that congregation. But my friend now knows they will change. That’s because after he had prayerfully surrendered himself and his congregation and prayed that God would prevail over all evil that assailed them, the good shepherd assured him that all he had prayed for would come to pass.
God gave him a vision of a sanctuary filled with joyful people excited to be in God’s presence, excited to give themselves in worship to God on Sunday morning in anticipation of using their whole lives to worship God through the week. The voice of the shepherd spoke to my friend and he was filled with comfort, renewed hope, and holy energy!
But Jesus uses another image in our lesson to describe Who He is; He says that He is also the gate to eternity.
Years ago, Ann and I went to a party and realized after we got back home that we’d locked ourselves out of the house. Long story short, with Ann’s help I was able to push myself through a first-floor window that we had left partially opened. I was halfway into the house by this route, my arms and torso inside, my legs still hanging outside, when a thought crossed my mind: How would I explain this to a policeman? After all, if you belong somewhere, you don’t have to break in. You go through the front door.
Jesus is the front door, the only door—the only gate—to life with God, to the abundant, everlasting life that God wants to give to all people. You can't get into God's kingdom in any other way! “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” Jesus says elsewhere. “If you know Me, you will know the Father also. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”
The real quest of the Christian life is to get to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This “quest” isn’t an onerous task. It’s a joy like falling in love.
That’s why I hope that every member of Saint Matthew will not only regularly worship and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, but also join us, even belatedly, in reading the Bible in a year.
I hope that every member will be in Sunday School. (Yes, every member.)
I hope that we’ll all make prayer a daily habit.
I hope that you’ll help us share Christ in a very practical way when we collect those filled grocery sacks next Saturday during our PPSST! Food Drive.
These are all ways to follow the voice of Jesus, ways to enter more deeply into a relationship with God that only comes through Jesus.
This past week, at the graveside of our friend Betty, we heard her confirmation verses. Betty chose them sixty years ago when she was confirmed at the age of 23. They're words of Jesus from Matthew 10:32-33:
"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”Freedom from sin comes only to those who turn away from the dead-end ways of the world and trust the only One Who can give us forgiveness and new life, Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate—the front door—to eternity.
Let yourself get to know Him better.
Trust in Him and in His Word alone.
As you do, you’ll hear His voice over the din of an often-confusing world and He will lead you to a life prepared for you, a life that here will sometimes bring inexplicable challenges, but also a life that never ends, a life filled with the presence of God, today and always.
The Shepherd is calling you today. Follow Him…and live!