There is always a mystical element in Christianity, “My sheep hear my voice.” Not that there isn’t a lost history of proof behind that voice, a history capture in the Scriptures. Abraham in that sense ends up being THE man of faith because he heard the voice without any real history. But we are all a bit like Father Abraham. The shepherd calls, and we hear the voice and follow to a good land.
Jesus parable here in John is help for Christians. There are always three types of voices. And Jesus tells us how to tell the difference. That is what this sermon is about. How do we sore out the thieves, the gatekeepers and the shepherd? It is surprisingly simple, and the highest art in the faith, listening for law and gospel.
Occasionally you give a sermon that you know is going to be challenging, or is just not going to connect with some. That is the fact of being an every Sunday preacher. If you don’t that means you are never stretching any of your listeners. And worse you might not be stretching yourself. This is one of those sermons. I like this one. I also know this is one of the types that many preachers would stay away from. The only thing I would add is that we live in a technological society, and locally we have a national-class STEM school. That should be engaged.
Honestly what I wish I had was another 5 – 10 minutes. The set up, which is overly long as it stands, tees up two things that are both present in the text and are important for our Christian lives. A modern reality around AI asks questions both on our divisions and how they are created and about personhood. As I was writing I intended to bring both of those. But the personhood argument is left as something of a stub. It is there. Hopefully it will give you something to ponder.
What is the good shepherd? Can we understand it alone, or only is comparison to other things? The Good Shepherd is Jesus himself, but does it have more than romantic meaning for us today?
This sermon obviously answers yes. But it does so through the contrasts that Jesus develops. The Good Shepherd is contrasted both with The Hired Hand and with the Wolves. The contrast with the hired hand is something that Jesus alone fulfills. Christ’s alone are the sheep. The contrast with the wolves is where we have more skin in the game if you would. The wolves do two things: seize and separate. The Good shepherd: lays down his life and gathers. We can give in to the wolves plan, or we can follow the shepherd.
And when we follow the shepherd, we are incorporated into the shepherd. We put down our lives, to take them up for eternity.
Some days you have a text that has a powerful image. Like this one with the image of “my sheep”. That image isn’t unimportant, but especially when it is a beloved image, it can erase the rest of the text. It can obscure everything that might contain treasures that aren’t quite as bright. This text has launched many a sermonic broadside on the doctrine of election as well as many sugary sweet meditations on the love of the shepherd. Decent theology and preaching. But the conflict or question in the text isn’t over the things caught up in the image of sheep. The conflict is over the reaction to their statement. Even when it is stated plainly, some believe and some don’t. The question is not if Jesus is the Christ. He is. What we must come to understand is what Christ means. It does include power, but it is a power displayed in this world through weakness. It a power that is great enough to show itself on a cross. Jesus proclaims himself plainly in words, but more clearly in his deeds. And those deeds inspire believe in the sheep, and rejection in others. Revelation is always about faith. Is God – Father, Son and Spirit – as Jesus has revealed him? Does the cross inspire trust, or revolt.
On a practical level, when you pass over such an image for a different thread, you’ve created a problem in the worship service. You won’t get it on the recording, but the hymns of the day were largely given to that image. The hymns are always a second sermon. Most of the time you hope they reinforce what you are going to be saying. Occasionally you let them preach the well worn sermons while you try something different.
There are certain biblical images that are ingrained in our heads just from cultural osmosis. Even at this late date, the Good Shepherd is one of those images in the larger culture. I feel okay saying that because even Hollywood called a CIA movie staring Matt Damon The Good Shepherd recently. The movie didn’t do so hot and I can’t recommend it, but they expected the Biblical allusion to have enough currency to use the name. But what I am always amazed at when the lectionary throws up one of these common images (one portion of John 10 with shepherd images is always on Easter 4) is that the common gloss on the text is at best half the story. In the case of the Good Shepherd we jump straight to Calvary. In theologically squishy places the Good Shepherd is the perfect image to pitch Jesus the great teacher or a Unitarian all loving spirit. But the text itself is intensely Trinitarian as it is about the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son is the Good Shepherd and not the hired man because he shares the love of the father for these sinful oblivious sheep.
But the metaphor goes beyond that gospel image. Love is defined as aligning yourself with the Father’s commands. Love is defined as putting yourself between the sheep and the wolves. It is defined contrary to the hired man who does what it natural. When you see the good shepherd, when you comprehend in a meaningful way the gospel, at that point you are no longer a sheep. You have a choice – hired man or good shepherd. It is the first real choice in your life, and it is also one that the sheep are oblivious to. Don’t expect applause. Except from Father and Son. This sermon attempts to proclaim that love of the Good Shepherd and give it some form of what it really looks like in the Christian life.
It was mother’s day, it was also the day often called Good Shepherd Sunday, so called because the reading comes from John 10 where Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. Except that the lectionary this year gives us not the shepherd but the ten verses often missed where Jesus proclaims himself the door.
The sermon is a mapping of what that could mean. We look at the literal elements of a door brought up by the text: open, closed, proper entry, improper entry, protection. So, when Jesus says that “I am the door” those are the appropriate elements to ponder. What does an open door mean? What does a closed door mean? Since Jesus claims that he himself is the door, most of these things have Christocentric, that is Christ at the center, answers. In particular we examine election, justification and the door to prayer. The sermon proclaims how the door works in these ways and teaches us how we should think of Jesus. We make two moral examples of how we should live today. And the sermon concludes with the eschatological or final things meaning of the door. Jesus has used a figure of speech – the door – to describe spiritual reality, so we spend some time pondering the core meanings. I’d invite you to give it a listen.
The world is full of voices. In the past week we’ve heard from some of the more gruesome. What Jesus says in the text today is “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” He also says bluntly that those who don’t believe (because they haven’t accepted/heard the testimony) are not his sheep.
What the Gospel according to John sets up is the duality of voices. The voice of Christ is the call to life, and the call to life is the call to repentance and a life transformed by the Spirit. All the other voices, whatever their form, are voices of the world leading to death, voices breathing threats and murder. And there is no blending of these voices, just a division. Either we follow the voice of the shepherd, or we follow other voices. Either we believe, and nothing will snatch us out of the Father’s hand, or we join the voices contra Christ. There is no middle ground. And if this week has done anything it has shown the foolishness of dialog with those voices of the world. Voices not based in the life of Christ yield bad fruit.