Monday, May 12, 2014

The Only Shepherd, the Only Gate

[This was prepared to be shared during worship on Sunday, May 11, with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]

John 10:1-10
I once saw video clips of a TV talk show host holding forth on spiritual issues. She assured people, for example, that sin doesn’t exist. She also claimed, several times in several ways, that all religions and spiritual quests may lead people to God. These are widespread beliefs today. But are they true? Well, 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 through Him. But only through Him. Jesus calls Himself a shepherd and a gate. More on that in a moment.

First though, we must establish the context for these illustrations. 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. It aroused controversy because Jesus had the temerity to do the loving will of God on a Sabbath day. The Pharisees accused Jesus of doing work when He shouldn’t have. It made them so angry when the blind man declared that Jesus, in spite of this Sabbath violation, must be from God, that they excommunicated the guy.

Now, at one level, the Pharisees were nothing like the contemporary talk show host. Unlike that host, who seems to say that any religious belief will get you to God, the Pharisees believed that only by abiding by their extensive lists of religious rules could one be right with God. They differed in other ways as well. But, based on both the Old and New Testaments, both the host and the Pharisees have one big thing in common. They are equally wrong.

Over the centuries, starting with a desert people to whom God gave a land and a promise that they would become a light to all the nations, through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of a Man Who showed Himself to be God in the flesh, 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 simply to believe in Him and only in 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 through belief in God.

Now, the New Testament shows us that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us, for example: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, God in the flesh, have the same blessings enjoyed by Abraham, rightness with God and life in His Name.

As we said when we were talking about the first building block of our discipleship, 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.” It’s that God wants to give us life and only He can give it. All other roads are dead ends, literally. And we can only know God through Jesus Christ.

In today’s lesson, Jesus is trying to convey this truth to the Pharisees and others who may be listening to Him, the truth that salvation comes to those with faith in the God revealed to Israel and ultimately, in Him.

So, first He tells them that He is the shepherd. Only Jesus can lead us into God’s sheepfold. People who try to get into the kingdom of God by other means are, Jesus says, thieves and bandits. He says: “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.”

Sheep are pretty dumb creatures. But if a stranger comes among them, they will en masse, move away, alarmed. Once a person familiar to them shows up, they relax, knowing that this person won’t lead them astray. They respond to the voice of the shepherd who takes care of them. We may be brighter than sheep. But that’s not very different from us. Have you ever noticed how you can hear the voice of someone with whom you’re close even in a crowded, noisy place? Both of our kids were in a 100-plus-voice choir in high school. I can remember when we accompanied the kids on a concert tour in England. I particularly remember listening to them during a performance in the Milennium Dome in London. If I perked my ear just right, I could hear both of the kids’ voices in the midst of the others. You can dial into the voices of those you love and those you know love you.

When you allow the God we know in Jesus Christ to communicate with you through His Word, the Bible, through prayer, through the fellowship of other believers, and through Holy Communion, you begin to know His voice. You go to Him when He calls you. And when other voices call you to walk away from God’s will, you ignore them.

Jesus, our Gospel lesson tells us, called Himself the shepherd of God’s sheep. But his listeners “did not understand what he was telling them.” So, like many a frustrated communicator, Jesus tried another illustration to make His point. Now, He wasn’t a shepherd. “Very truly,” He says, “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 [which can include perfectly nice people who follow some other path in life, like the misguided and misguiding talk show host] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.“

Jesus is the gate to eternity. Years ago, we got locked out of our house. I went to every single first floor window and door and couldn’t find a way to break into our own place. Finally, I came to the last possible window. I stretched up and could tell that this one, leading into the dining room, which set more than six feet off the ground, was slightly ajar. If I could hoist myself up, I might be able to slide the window open, throw myself into the house, and then let Ann in. The previous occupants had left behind half of an old pickle barrel they'd used as a planter. It wasn’t very big. But by standing on it and letting Ann push me from behind, I was able to throw myself through the window. I was halfway into the house, my legs still hanging outside, Ann no longer able to help me, when a thought crossed my mind: How would I explain this to a passing cop? You see, if you belong somewhere, you don’t have to break in. You go through the front door.

Some people think that getting to God happens as the result of a long spiritual quest. The Christian life does have its challenges. And growing in faith and just holding onto Christ in this life, requires us to adopt spiritual disciplines like prayer, study of Scripture, involvement in Christian service, mutual accountability to other Christian. On top of that, even if we’re growing spiritually, we know that belonging to Jesus doesn’t insulate us from the difficulties of this life. And sometimes, as our second lesson for today points out, we face rejection precisely because we follow Jesus.

But we know too, that 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. The real quest of the Christian life is to get to know God, which isn’t an onerous task, but a joy as wonderful as falling in love.

Jesus once told Philip and the other disciples, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will know the Father also…”

After mouthing the famous words of John 3:16, He told Nicodemus, “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Those who believe in Him [that is, in Jesus] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the Name of the only Son of God.”

And after Jesus became the only Savior in the history of the world to die and rise so that all who believe in Him will not suffer the consequences of our sin, eternal separation from God, His first followers proclaimed the same message about Jesus. When the religious authorities in Jerusalem arrested the apostles Peter and John for bringing healing to a man in Jesus’ Name, the two disciples told them, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Jesus is the good shepherd and He is the gate—the front door—to eternity. Let yourself get to know Him better. 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 never ends, a life filled with the presence of God.