The Gatekeeper

Scripture:  John 10:1-14

Have you ever had a time when you had an impish thought enter your head, when you seriously considered doing something completely out of character for you?   Did you do it?   The last time I really had one of these experiences was at Gen Con last year.  On one of the days I was outside of the convention center, and across the street was bullhorn guy.   If you have ever been in a place with a mass of people assembled, you have probably heard bullhorn guy.  This is the guy who stands on a corner and preaches to the masses about salvation, and usually with a fair amount of condemnation.   Bullhorn guy was doing his thing, and as I heard him preach, my first thought was “He’s not very good at this.”   He was referencing obscure scriptures, he was actively insulting the people he was trying to reach, and he was rambling.  My second though, the impish thought, was “I can do it better.  I wonder if he would give me a go?”   I wanted to go over there, and ask him if I could have a turn.   The only reason why I did not was because I had a ten minute walk to and then back from my car to drop off and pick up some games, I had someplace to be in an hour, and I wanted to make it back before the rain started.  I was determined to give this a shot though, but the rest of the con I did not see bullhorn guy.   As I walked to my car away from bullhorn guy, I thought about what I would actually say if he gave me a turn on his bullhorn.  I think the difference I would take is that he was preaching at the Gen Con attendees, and I would attempt to preach to the Gen Con attendees.   I would try to relate the gospel that those at Gen Con could relate to.   I would have said things like “The kingdom of God is like a Tardis.  It is bigger on the inside”   or “The love of God is like the force, it surrounds us and binds us together” or “When life seems out of control, remember that even though you roll the dice, it is God who makes it crit.” 

            Now I realize for some of you those analogies do not mean anything, because you are not into Dr. Who, Star Wars, or roleplaying games.  Yet, at Gen Con I believe that would have been a more effective presentation of the gospel than bullhorn guy’s standard turn or burn stump speech.   Jesus was a very effective teacher, not just because he was a storyteller, but because he was relatable.  The parables and analogies that Jesus made were ones that his audience instantly connected with.  Even if they did not fully understand the depth and nuance of what Jesus was saying, they had a good starting point because the examples Jesus used were pulled from their everyday experiences and their cultural context.   Since we are 2,000 years removed in time and culture, we often have to spend a lot of time unpacking what Jesus said.   This morning’s scripture is a great example of this.   We miss some of the deep nuances Jesus is making in this masterful analogy of being the gate and the good shepherd.   However, when we properly consider what Jesus is saying here we gain a better understanding of who Jesus is to us and who we are in relationship to him.  

            What is so brilliant about the words of Jesus here is that Jesus was communicating on two different levels.   The gospel of John, plays a little lose with time and events so it is can be difficult to construct just when and where things happen.  However, if we go back a couple of chapters and try to piece together the details then an image of this event begins to emerge.  This morning’s scripture comes at the end of a contentious bout between Jesus and the Pharisees during the festival of Tabernacles.  Depending on how one interprets it this scripture takes place following that festival before Jesus left, or it takes place during the Festival of dedication which would have been a few months later.   In either event, there are a few things that can be established about what is going on.   First, Jesus is in Jerusalem and as he talks about being the good shepherd and the gate he is in the temple courts.  Jesus, like several Rabbis, would preach in the temple courts during festivals.  Much like how we go to conferences or seminars today, the people would spend time in the courts during these festivals listening to and interacting with the teaching rabbis.   Second, this means that the audience of Jesus would have been a mix of people.  The Pharisees, would have been there, because good Pharisees had to be seen doing the most religious stuff they could do.  However, there would have been Jews from all over.  Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the large festivals, and the Festival of Tabernacles was right after Passover in terms of importance.  Judea and Galilee were mostly rural areas.   This means when Jesus talks about sheep, they knew exactly what Jesus was talking about.  The people understood sheep.   Finally, Jesus was in conflict with the Pharisees.   The gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus firmly established that Jesus did what he did and said what he did by the authority of God the Father, and the Pharisees firmly rejected Jesus in this regard.   This brought them to constantly challenge Jesus and attempt to dismiss his authority to speak of God while asserting their own.  

            Jesus was speaking on two levels here.  The first level he was speaking to the assembled crowd, the ones who would understand the pastoral analogy.   Shepherding in first century Judea was done a bit differently that it was in Europe or even with cattle on the American west.   When we think of shepherds, we think of border collies, and wrangling animals to where we want them to go.  Sheep have a herding instinct, and the way most familiar to us in how that is utilized is to push the sheep to where we want them to go.  However, in the middle east in the first century, the shepherds did not push or corral the sheep, they led them.   Shepherds were responsible for their animals from birth and helped raise the creature so that the sheep knew the voice of the shepherd.   The shepherd effectively established itself as the leader of it’s herd, so it could call to the sheep, the sheep would come to the shepherd and then the herding instinct kicked in.   The herd followed the shepherd.  The people would have seen this practices on the hillsides of their villages.  They knew exactly what Jesus meant when he said “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of the, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   In the same way the people would have known what Jesus was talking about when he described the gate.   They would have known exactly the kind of enclosures that Jesus was talking about, because they would have seen them-perhaps even had one outside their town.  

            The second level Jesus was speaking on was directly aimed at the Pharisees.   The imagery of the shepherd leading the people is all over the Old Testament.  For instance, Zechariah 10:2 states, “Therefore, the people wander like sheep, oppressed for lack of a shepherd.”   These type of statements are all throughout the prophets.   The Pharisees did not realize that these scriptures are all pointing to the good shepherd, so they cast themselves in that role.  They saw themselves as the shepherds of Israel, leading the people into righteousness.   However, they never took the time to know the people, to be with the people, the people did not feel led they felt corralled and pushed.  

            There are other prophetic scriptures that talk about sheep and shepherds.  Scriptures like Isaiah 56:11 which describes the leaders of Isaiah’s time as such, “They are shepherds who lack understanding, they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.”   The Pharisees, may have been dense in matters of faith, but they knew their stuff.  They knew the proclamations of the prophets.   When Jesus declared himself the good shepherd, they knew exactly what scriptures he was referencing, and they knew the implications of what he was claiming.   They also knew who the thieves and robbers Jesus was talking about were supposed to be.  They knew that Jesus was essentially claiming what he would later state plainly that he, and he alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  That no one comes to the father except through him.  

            In this one teaching the words of Jesus masterfully speak on two levels.  To one group of people, Jesus speaks words of hope.  He speaks of leading and caring for those who seek the voice of the good shepherd.   To another group, Jesus speaks words of conviction.   He challenges the Pharisees to humbly confess that they too are sheep who have gone or astray or to dig their heels into and be stubborn shepherds who do not truly have a flock.  I believe these same messages speak to us today.   The question is which message do we need to hear?  

            Jesus is the good shepherd.  As this morning’s scripture state, he has earned that right because as the good shepherd he lays down his life for his sheep.    The good shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  The sheep follow the voice of the good shepherd.   Remember, the first century shepherds, the type of shepherd Jesus compared himself to, do not push their sheep, they do not corral them, they lead them by calling out to them.   This scripture invites us to insert ourselves into the figure of speech and ask the question what kind of sheep are we?  Are we like the sheep descried in Zechariah, the kind that wander, or are we following the good shepherd?   The sheep either follow the shepherd or they wander off on their own.   The sheep that follow the shepherd may not know exactly where they are going but they have a confidence and security because they know to whom they belong.  They know in whom they trust.  They recognize the voice of the good shepherd.  The sheep that wander, know where they are but they go at it alone.   They know where they are in the short term, but eventually they find themselves lost, cut off, and separated from the good shepherd they are following.  Which one are you?   

            If you are following the good shepherd, may you follow wherever he leads.   May you be willing to go, even if you do not know how it is going to work out may your trust be in the Shepherd.  If you are know in the depths of your beings that you have wandered alone, then may you listen for the voice of the good shepherd.  Another story Jesus told was about a shepherd who left 99 sheep behind to find the one who is lost.   If you feel like the one that is lost, then The Good Shepherd does not give up on you and you can return to the flock.   Those who belong to the good shepherd, know his voice so may you listen and run to that voice.  

            This leads to the second message of this morning’s scripture.   Jesus directed this message to the good religious folk of his day.  Specifically, Jesus reminded them in verse 7 and 9, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. . .I am the gate whoever enters me will be saved.”   Even today, the good religious people need a reminder that Jesus is the gatekeeper, not us.    This scripture never says that sheep of the good shepherd will all look the same or even act the same.   It is not up to us to pick and choose who should come.   It is not like heaven will have priority seating for the right kind of people.    People come through the gate of salvation into the pastures of the heavenly father because they hear the voice of the good shepherd.  It is not our job to choose who gets to be part of God’s flock, it is our job to welcome them into the fold regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they have done.  

            While it is somewhat paradoxical, Jesus is the Good shepherd and Jesus is the gate for the sheep.   This is what makes Jesus the gatekeeper.   It is only through him that we may have life and have life in full, but he is also the one that leads us into this life, calls us into this life, and shepherds us.   Wherever you are in life, may you hear the voice of the good shepherd.   May you lay down at his feet your desire to be the gatekeeper.   May we as God’s flock, faithfully follow the voice of the good shepherd to wherever he is leading.