I AM the Gate for the Sheep
Ezekiel 34:1-11 and John 10:1-10
February 5, 2017
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Ezekiel 34:1-11 (NIV)
The Lord Will Be Israel’s Shepherd
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
“‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.
John 10:1-10 (NIV)
The Good Shepherd and His Sheep
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 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.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, 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 comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
This is the third sermon in a series on the I AM declarations of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Each of these declarations reflects Jesus’ own sense of his identity and purpose — and so far he’s been making these important announcements during Jewish festivals. Two weeks ago, during the festival of Passover, Jesus declared, “I AM the bread of life.” It was springtime — and everyone was thinking about the Exodus from Egypt. And the unleavened bread their ancestors made for that journey. And about how God fed them with manna when their own unleavened bread ran out. Jesus chose the festival of Passover to declare that he himself was the true nourishment of God. Last week, during the festival of Tabernacles, Jesus declared, “I AM the light of the world.” Now it was autumn. The days were growing shorter, and everyone was thinking about light. About the way God created light and gave light to his people. Jesus made quite an impression as he stood beneath the 4 huge lamp stands at the Temple — with their 16 brightly lit bowls of oil, lighting up the city of Jerusalem — and declared that he himself was the true light of God.
In John 10, Jesus makes two more declarations: “I AM the gate for the sheep” and “I AM the good shepherd.” Both of these declarations have to do with leadership, and Jesus may have made them during another Jewish festival: the festival of Hanukkah. We’ll look at one today — and the other next week. But both hinge on this parable Jesus tells at the beginning of John 10.
This parable immediately follows the healing of the blind man in chapter 9. Last week we read about that healing — something Jesus did to act out his declaration that he’s the light of the world. But we didn’t go on to read all the reactions to that healing, and these reactions take up the rest of chapter 9. That blind man had been labeled a sinner and excluded from the community life of Israel his entire life — because of his blindness. He’s lived on the fringes — very much a second-class citizen. Now that he can see, he still can’t catch a break. Especially with the Pharisees — who are powerful religious leaders in Israel. In John 9, the Pharisees are up in arms because Jesus has healed the blind man in the first place. Why? Because they believe the man is a terrible sinner who doesn’t really deserve to be healed. They’re also up in arms because Jesus has performed the healing on the Sabbath. And they’re especially up in arms because the blind man — now healed — has decided to follow Jesus as a disciple instead of following them. When they themselves are the true and rightful leaders of Israel — not Jesus.
Jesus, clearly unhappy with the Pharisees’ leadership, responds quite sternly to them. First he tells them they’re the blind ones, which insults and angers them. Then he tells them this parable about sheepherding. He introduces the parable with these very serious words, “Very truly, I tell you.” These words are like taking the face of a distracted person, or an upset person, in both your hands — like this — and saying to them: “I want you to focus, because I’m telling you the solemn truth — something you really need to hear and understand.” Then Jesus tells this simple story about an extremely common occupation in 1st-century Israel: sheepherding. Everyone in his audience knew all about sheep and the work of shepherds. But since we might not — even though I shared some of this same information in a sermon back in October — here’s what we need to know to understand the parable.
In the Middle East, sheep live in flocks, and each flock is under the constant care of a shepherd. During the day, shepherds lead their flocks to pasture. At night, they gather them into the safety of an outdoor enclosure called a sheep pen. These sheep pens have waist-high walls made of stones. They often back up against the face of a cliff or are tucked into a canyon.1 To discourage predators even further, shepherds top these waist-high walls with thorn bushes. There’s also a gate in the wall of the sheep pen. A small opening that serves as the only entrance and exit. Shepherds sometimes use thorn bushes to close up this opening — and often there’s a doorkeeper or watchman (a bouncer!) whose job is to prevent unauthorized people from entering the sheep pen.
Every evening the shepherd ushers his sheep into the safety of this outdoor enclosure — and usually several flocks spend the night together in one pen. As the sheep enter the pen, the shepherd inspects each individual animal for injuries, gives water to the thirsty ones, and so on. Every morning, the gate is opened — and the various shepherds take turns calling the sheep of their own flock out of the pen. There are several components to this process. One is the shepherd’s voice — which his own sheep recognize. Another is the shepherd’s own unique call or song. And another is the shepherd calling to his sheep by name — because Middle Eastern shepherds always name their sheep, and the sheep know their names.
It’s important to know how economically valuable sheep were in 1st century Israel — and also how needy they are, in general. Sheep really can’t take care of themselves, or see to their own needs. They require a shepherd. They are, for example, extremely vulnerable to wolves and other wild animals — so the sheep pen’s a place of protection for them at night. But people can also be a threat to sheep — and in his parable, Jesus names two kinds of human predators: thieves and bandits. The Greek word for thief — kleptes — emphasizes secrecy and craftiness. Thieves sneak into — and out of — sheep pens. Their MO is tricking the sheep and tricking the shepherds.
The Greek word for bandit includes the element of violence and plundering. Bandits break into the sheep pen. They overpower shepherds and take sheep by force. Of course, even if thieves and bandits succeed in nabbing a few sheep, that doesn’t mean the sheep will follow them. Sheep are hapless animals and dumb about a lot of things — but they’re brilliant at discerning human voices. They’ll run away rather than follow anyone but their own shepherd, whose voice they know.
So listen to the parable again, with this information as a backdrop:
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 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.
It’s all supposed to be very clear, but John tells us that the Pharisees didn’t understand what he was saying to them. So Jesus breaks it down a little further — again beginning with, “Very truly, I tell you.” Come on, guys, focus…focus…focus. And, really, this shouldn’t be that hard for them. Just as bread and light have a long history in Judaism, so does sheepherding. Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd — and Israel as God’s flock. There’s Isaiah 40, where today’s Call to Worship came from. There’s Isaiah 49 and the 23rd Psalm. There’s Ezekiel 34 — which we just listened to part of — and also Zechariah 11. So Jesus is drawing on a prominent and familiar motif. What exactly is the hang-up? Well, like most of us, the Pharisees have a hard time hearing something that will challenge the way they see themselves. The parable is basically about leadership and authority. In the world of sheepherding, the shepherd is the only one who’s authorized to enter the sheep pen and to lead the sheep in and out. He’s the only one who can be trusted to care for the sheep. But when it comes to leading the people of God, the Pharisees think they’re the ones who are authorized to do that. They’ve been accumulating religious and political power for over a hundred years in Israel. Like our modern political parties, they have a philosophy, an agenda. The Pharisees’ agenda is to purify the nation of Israel. To purify it by emphasizing the Old Testament laws — and to promote very strict observance of those laws by every single Jew. They’re not just being picky, by the way. They want God to send his Messiah — and they think this kind of purity will, in a sense, “force God’s hand.” The Messiah will lead the Jews in a military and political defeat of the Romans — and Israel will stand tall once again. So the Pharisees think they themselves run the show in Israel — and ought to, until God’s own shepherd arrives. Until then, they know what’s best for the nation. They believe they’re the ones with authority to oversee, and lead, and care for God’s flock. They believe they know what that looks like. And they certainly get to determine who else is, or isn’t, authorized to enter the sheep pen — and to lead the sheep in and out. In a sense, they think of themselves as the gate for the people of God — which is exactly how they’ve acted where the blind man is concerned.
But Jesus says, “No.” No, you aren’t the gate. You haven’t been authorized to oversee, and lead, and care for God’s flock. You’re not like the shepherd in the parable. You’re like the thief, and the bandit, and the stranger. You’re like shepherds of Ezekiel 34. You’re exploiting the people — not protecting them. You’re oppressing them — not caring for them. You’re excluding and scattering them — not gathering them together. Just look how you’ve treated this man who used to be blind!
So let me give you a modern-day example of this dynamic — the TV show, Undercover Boss. Undercover Boss features top executives of big companies going “undercover” in their own organizations. There have been about a hundred episodes by now, and my guess is the show’s become way too formulaic and predictable. But the first few episodes were genuinely funny and heartwarming. I still remember the pilot, which featured a “boss” named Larry O’Donnell. At the time, O’Donnell was President and COO of Waste Management, the largest trash company in the country. But he went undercover as an entry-level employee at Waste Management, trying out various jobs in his own company — working with and for several of his own employees. He sorted waste at a recycling center; cleaned port-a-potties; and collected garbage at a landfill. Not only did he not excel at most of these positions — he even got fired for the first time in his life.
But he also learned a lot.
He learned how hard people in his company were working.
He discovered how far removed he’d been from what real life was like for many of his employees.
He saw how certain company policies and procedures exasperated his employees, and discouraged them, and even in some cases oppressed them.
He witnessed how policies that came directly from his office didn’t work well at all, or had been misapplied by division managers with very negative consequences.
It was quite a revelation, and it drove Larry O’Donnell to tears. He’d discovered, you see, that he hadn’t been that great of a leader — that he’d done a pretty lousy job of promoting the well-being of his employees. This was never his intention, but it’s what happened. Fortunately — and this is the main point of Undercover Boss — Larry was in a position to change what kind of leader he was. If his learning — if his transformation was sincere, Waste Management became a better company for people to work for. Because Larry and others like him aren’t just the President, or CEO, or COO of their companies — they’re the gate. Who they are, and how they lead, affects the lives of thousands of people every day. Everyone who went in and out at Waste Management went in and out — in a sense — through Larry O’Donnell. And O’Donnell discovered he’d been more of a distant stranger, or an exploitive thief, or an oppressive bandit to his employees — than a wise and benevolent shepherd to them: a leader who cared for them and extended abundant life to them.
Jesus will have more to say about what it means to be a good shepherd when we continue with this passage next week.
For today, he claims to be the gate for the sheep. The gate through which people go in, and go out, and find pasture. The one who protects us and gives us abundant life. Life that satisfies us in the deepest parts of who we are. This is the work of God, and Jesus is authorized to do it. So here are a couple of simple questions. Hard to answer, maybe, but basically pretty straightforward:
Who’s leading you in and out in your own life? Whose voice do you recognize and heed? Is it Jesus? Or is it someone else — or something else?
And who’s leading MPC in and out? Especially now, as you transition from the church you’ve been — to the church God has in mind for you to be going forward. Are you praying for one another — and for those who lead in various ways in this congregation? People like Deacons and Elders, the Transition Team and your Interim Pastor, the Congregational Nominating Committee and, soon, the Pastor Nominating Committee? I know many of you are. Please keep praying that all these people and groups will be listening to Jesus and following him. Because Jesus is the gate for all his sheep. He himself is qualified — and authorized — to lead his people through a world like the world we live in. And his sheep will follow him, because they know his voice.
1 Gary M. Burge, The NIV Life Application Commentary: John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 289.