As we began the gospel of John at the beginning of the year, I mentioned - if you remember - that this gospel was written at a time when the Christian community had likely been expelled from the synagogue. Up until then, they had been likely seen as one sect within Judaism. Their expulsion is one of the reasons why we find, so often, in John, this phrase, “The Jews.” It seems to be a reference to all of the Jews, when, most likely, it is used simply to refer to the religious leaders. This language has often been used as a basis for anti-Semitism in our world. It’s why, as we work our way through John, I often offer correctives, so that the text isn’t misunderstood in this way.
John was written for this early Christian community as it was trying to differentiate itself from Judaism. It was a young community, still trying to fully comprehend who Jesus was and, also, trying to find its own identity apart from the Jewish faith. It’s why we often find Jesus portrayed in opposition to the religious leaders. The wounds were fresh for these early Christians. The only way to make sense of who they were was, once again, in opposition to the leaders of the synagogue who had expelled them.
Tonight’s lesson, on this Ash Wednesday, is actually part two of the story we heard this past Sunday - the story of Jesus healing the blind man and how this angered the Pharisees, ostensibly because he had done this good deed on the Sabbath. We read tonight, beginning with the last verse of Sunday’s lesson and continuing, then, on into chapter 10.
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,” your sin remains.
I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen 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 enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.” --John 10:1-18 (CEB)
My dad was a shepherd, of sorts. Many of you already know this. Raising sheep was a central vocation for him. And, even though we eventually added cattle to our stock, it was sheep that produced the primary income for our family ranch.
Honestly, my dad always thought sheep were a little stupid. He would get frustrated and yell at them. Quite often. They were easily led astray. Would frequently get out of the fence. And they, just generally, made him a little crazy.
In the winter time, even though they were out to pasture, my dad would supplement their feed with alfalfa that he’d grown and put up in the summer. I remember the first time I went out with him and my brother in our pickup to feed the sheep then. It was a bumpy ride across the pasture. My dad would drive in the direction he thought the herd might be, then he’d roll down his window and call them. He had a certain way of doing it. “Come boss!” he’d yell. “Come boss!” Over and over again. It wasn’t long before we would see them headed toward our pickup to be fed. As much as my brother and I would try to mimic our dad, they never came for us the way they did for him. Because they knew his voice.
They are like the sheep in the parable Jesus is telling the Pharisees, as he tries to explain to them who he is. These sheep that hear and follow the voice of the shepherd.
That Jesus uses a shepherd metaphor here is no accident. This image of a shepherd is borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures, where it is used to refer to God’s chosen leaders, called to tend the flock called Israel. The Pharisees - learned in the Torah as they were - would have caught the reference.
They might catch the reference, but they didn’t understand the metaphor. So, Jesus tries again, with another. This one about a gate. It’s all very confusing. Perhaps not only for them, but maybe also for us, too.
Finally, Jesus, as he so often does, has no other choice but to more fully explain. He is the Good Shepherd. He will lay down his life for the sheep. Willingly.
For the early Christian community for whom the gospel was written, this begins to make sense. Like the blind man, in last Sunday's story, whose pilgrimage of faith eventually resulted in his expulsion from the synagogue, so, too, their pilgrimage of faith ended up with an expulsion from their place of safety. A step for them into a religious unknown. Not a step that they took willingly, but one forced on them. Yet, even so, they respond to the call of Jesus - the Good Shepherd - to follow where he leads.
Isn’t this our pilgrimage, too? Isn’t this the path of true faith - faith that requires moving into an unknown future? We as believers in Christ can no more remain complacent in our places of safety than the sheep can remain in the fold and not respond to the call of the Good Shepherd to move to new pasture.
But, here’s the thing. It’s a dangerous world out there. Full of voices and pressures and other things that would seek to confuse us - to turn us away from the voice of our shepherd. Their aim is not for our benefit, but to destroy the flock for their own self-interest, rather than lead us along the true path.
This is why the season of Lent is so important for us. It’s a call for us to return. To come back into the fold. Because, only the Good Shepherd has our best interest at heart. Only the Good Shepherd will lead us through the darkest valley. Only the Good Shepherd will give up his life - willingly give up his life - for us.
Why would he do this? So that we might live, our text tells us. Not just after we die, but, especially, here and now. Isn’t that the image we hear in Psalm 23? “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’ve been in the wilderness over these past few years. It feels as though so much in our world is broken. It feels as though we are so broken. We are broken. We don’t need Ash Wednesday to remind us of our own mortality. We are living it daily.
But, sometimes, doesn’t it take being immersed in the wilderness to begin to see the beauty in it? To notice the wildflowers? The life that finds its way through?
Tonight, in the wilderness and amidst the dust of our mortality, the Good Shepherd invites us in as we are. Our brokenness, our joy, our gifts and our doubts - all belong to him. He promises to protect us. To guide us. And to love us. Extravagantly. Willingly.
May you hear his voice. May this shepherd's love fill you up and spill over. And may it expand you to overflow with God’s goodness and faithful love. All the days of your life. Amen.
Preached March 2, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville
Readings: John 10:1-18; Psalm 23