Sermon for May 3rd

First Reading Acts 2:42-47

Second Reading 1 Peter 2:19-25

Gospel Reading John 10:1-10

Sermon “Both Gate and Shepherd, Good News!”

A few years ago, I was privileged to travel to Israel and the West Bank area. Our guide was fond of saying that there are actually five gospels that testify of Jesus. After the puzzled looks, he replied that there were of course Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but there was also the land itself. I found it to be true to a certain extent. Here and there in a few special places one can still see the remnants of that age 2000 years ago when Jesus himself walked that land. The land itself has not changed much. The hills and rivers and lakes and seas are much as they were. But they are layered over with centuries of buildings built and rebuilt time and again from the conflicts that have ravaged that small bit of real estate and now it is covered by modern cities, successive layers of shrines and markets in many places. Still, even in the middle of all of that, bits of reminders remain. Like the picture on the top of the bulletin today. If you ignore the hooded sweatshirt the Bedouin shepherd is wearing, a similar scene could have been witnessed thousands of years ago.

And so it is with todays scriptures which tell us of the relationship of God with his people in terms of a Shepherd and the sheep. As we were traveling northward from the Dead Sea and the caves of Qumran, we traveled the ancient route up the Jordan valley. To the right were miles and miles of fields growing all kinds of things – date palms, Citrus, almonds, even bananas down by Jericho. Its all hundreds of feet below sea level and very carefully done to modern agricultural standards. But on the left side is a different world. On the steep Hills leading down to the Jordan valley, sheep and goats still graze. A few Bedouins still manage to survive in that modern land grazing their flock as they have done for millennia. We saw several flocks being led near by the highway that we could see what was going on and sure enough – the shepherd was out in front of the flock. They were being led, not herded. In a concession to modern life I did notice that their was a mini-camper van nearby where the family would stay, or sometimes a little shanty town where several families would subsist together. It was likely similar to that same way when a young king named David thought back to his days leading his father’s sheep and was reminded of God’s love and care for him.

We had a further experience a few days later when we came back from the Sea of Galilee to the area around Bethlehem. We traveled to Beit Sahour a village next to Bethlehem.  It’s name can mean two things: Beit = house  Sahour = those tending their sheep.  The Shepherds’ Field is located here where according to tradition, the angels appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. It is also associated with the story of Ruth and Boaz. In this little space enclosed by civilization all around is a little hill top which contains several caves where the ancient shepherds would pen the sheep at night. As I learned repeatedly on the trip – the land is full of small caves and many of the ancient sites are in fact built over caves. These caves had been enlarged by digging out the softer material under the limestone roof and narrowing the opening with stones. To keep the sheep safe at night (and from wondering off) the shepherd would lay across the opening at night.

This is part what Jesus likely meant when he said “I am the Gate for the sheep”. This is one of 7 “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John. Each of them lays out a powerful title which reveal aspects of who Jesus really is. Each one is prefaced by the “I AM” phrase, which was the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush when asked “who shall I say has sent me?” Two of these titles are here in today’s reading “I am the Gate for the sheep” and I am the Good Shepherd.” Elsewhere in the Gospel of John Jesus names himself “the Bread of Life”, “ the Light of the World”, “The Resurrection and the Life” – which we will look at next week, “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, and finally “the True Vine”. Each one of these says something critically important, but none of the others are as intimate and relational as the shepherding titles.

You see, the shepherds and their sheep that both Jesus and David found so similar to God’s relationship with his people exhibit the twin elements of PROTECTION and PROVISION. These are themes that fill the Psalms – like the 23rd Psalm we heard as our Call to Worship today: Provision as in Psalm 23:1-3 NLT

[1] The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [2] He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. [3] He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. And Protection as in Psalm 23:4 NLT “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.”

Or take a look at Psalm 121 which proclaims Psalm 121:3-8 NLT

[3] He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. [4] Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps. [5] The LORD himself watches over you! The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade. [6] The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. [7] The LORD keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. [8] The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.” Watching over us as we come and go – As we come into the presence of the Heavenly Father – safe and protected in the fold. And watched over as we go out into the world as well. As we are guided to green pastures, the still waters of Peace with God, never left alone even in the darkest places. That dear brothers and sisters is why this metaphor is so very dear to so many. It speaks of eternal love – here and now and forevermore.

Another aspect of our Good Shepherd is the trusting bond that develops. As we already noted, in Palestine, even today, the sheep are led, not driven. The shepherd calls the sheep and they recognize the voice of the one they know protects them. Jesus says (John 10:3-6 NIV) [3] 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. [4] When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. [5] But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Its a beautiful metaphor, made all the more vivid by standing in the place and watching the shepherds move with their sheep.

Now dear friends, Lets consider what this rich metaphor has to teach us this morning. The Psalmist proclaims (Psalm 100:3 NRSV) “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” This might be hard to hear in a society that worships success by any means and self reliance. Perhaps in these days, we might re-learn humility and the need to stay close to the shepherd. It is a dangerous world out there and we need to be shown the right paths. We find that we do need protection after all. We have been shown that are not the masters of nature that we thought we were. It is a foolish sheep that is determined to forge out on its own. Our shepherd is faithful and willingly gave himself for our sake.

As Jesus said in our test today: (John 10:11,14-15,17-18 NRSV)

[11] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [14] I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. [17] For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” In this Easter season, when we celebrate the victory over sin and death of our risen Savior.

Since we have such a shepherd, it is good to listen for his voice and follow. That reassuring voice of the good Shepherd – how do we hear it when he is not physically present? I would suggest that are at least three ways, we hear that voice today: First and is scripture – the written Word of God, which testifies to the Living Word of God – which is of coarse Jesus himself. Through the study of scripture in private devotion, in worship and in song, we can and do hear the voice of the our shepherd. Lots of other things try to sound like that, but they are all the more obvious for the attempt. If it does not speak of grace and eternal presence, of love and obedience, of forgiveness and unity that we hear in scripture, then that voice belongs to another and likely dangerous pretend shepherd.

Another way, second to scripture, but vitally important is the voice of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself promised his disciples that he would send the Spirit to teach us and remind us of what we need to know: That inner voice, that God-given sense of direction, warning and calling is that same Holy Spirit. Jesus assures us that prayers for the presence of the Spirit are always answered, because God loves to give good things to his children, just as the Shepherd desired good things for his Sheep.

The voice of the True Shepherd is also often heard in the community of faith. It’s heard in the encouragement and love of others in the body of faith. It’s an important part of our life together to lift each other up, to help ease one another’s burden, to be present in their lives in times of joy and sorrow alike. But that’s not really Jesus you say? Well yes, it can be. We who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior are all members of the body of Christ. We are united into that new identity and therefore we represent Christ to each other to to the world. The voice of the Shepherd echoes still in the family of God.

Jesus knew and David knew that the life of a sheep was sometimes hard and even frightening. Its not all green grass and cool calm waters out there is it. We need a shepherd where there are wolves who pretend to be sheep. We need a shepherd to lead us where sustenance can be found, else we perish. We need a shepherd who has conquered the things that we cannot. One who feeds and protects us even in perilous times and places. One who will never forsake us. One who gave his very life for us and is risen in power and grace to lead us home.

Thanks be to God for our Good Shepherd.