Jesus: I am the Gate
Good morning friends. Pauline and I miss you all and we hold you in our prayers.
Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Chapter 10 of John is one which I never tire of reading and I never worry that I have heard the allusion to Jesus as the Good Shepherd hundreds (even thousands) of times. As with many parts of the Bible I never seem to stop finding new messages in the passages in this chapter.
What we heard in our reading this morning was the opening to the chapter; in which Jesus describes himself as the Gate. In doing so he prepared his listeners for the real message of the passage; that he is there to lead his flock to salvation as the shepherd of mankind.
There can be little doubt that the people of Biblical Israel were familiar with sheep and shepherds; almost obsessively so. Sheep graze all the way through the pages of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Jacob, Rachel, Moses and David ,for example, were shepherds; even Adam’s son Abel was a keeper of sheep (Genesis 4:2).
Sheep provided wool (Job 31:20) and hides (Matthew 7:15) for clothing; milk (Isaiah 7:21) and meat (1 Samuel 14:32) for food; and leather for tents (Exodus 26:14). Sheep were a form of wealth and they were integral to the sacrifical system. And there were a lot of them; Job had fourteen thousand sheep (Job 42:12) and Solomon managed to round up 120,000 sheep and goats to sacrifice (1 Kings 8:63).
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Micah, Habbakuk and Zechariah use sheep or shepherding imagery. By the time Jesus began his ministry, the Jews had many interpreted laws about sheep, their ownership, care and even stealing.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these facts, some commentators have suggested that the idea of a shepherd and sheep was fine for the people Jesus spoke to because they would have been able to identify with the subject very easily; but that it holds less power for us today. I disagree fundamentally and I will try to explain how the ideas expressed by Jesus bring so much of the Bible and so many messages together for our world and its lost sheep.
How many of you have experience as shepherds? Hold on while I count! I can see (or imagine) at least three hands raised; Pauline, Mary and John! We had a small farm together before we came to Swindon in 2014 and the memories of the fun we had keeping sheep remain with us still.
The Bible is full of examples of the shepherd and the sheep used particularly to express the way in which leaders should care for those over who they have authority and the way in which God cares for his people. Isaiah 40:11 is a fine example. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young”.
But the Bible is also full of examples of rulers and leaders who are described in truly negative terms; as poor shepherds, or false shepherds. Jeremiah railed against the bad kings in this way, but the best example is Ezekiel 34 where the whole chapter is an attack on those bad shepherds. It really is worth a read if you can manage to find the time during the week. I’ll read a few excerpts to illustrate the point anyway.
‘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’. AND
‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness’.
In our reading today there are a couple of points to be aware of. Firstly Jesus was speaking around the time of the Jewish Festival of Lights (Hanukkah). It is a feast which celebrates the rededication of Jerusalem’s second temple after its recapture by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC. The fight was between the devout and faithful Jews (led by Judas) and the temple leaders who had almost abandoned their faith and allowed the Greeks, whose ways they favoured, to dominate the temple rules. Many of them no longer even spoke Hebrew.
Hanukkah is the time when those unusual candelabras (Menorahs) are used to remember how the tiny amount of oil in the temple when Judas recaptured it, burned miraculously for eight whole days until new oil could be found.
So Hanukkah was a time to celebrate a miracle but it was also a time when people would remember the impact of failed leadership and the synagogue leaders would preach about good leadership. Aileen Guilding, head of Biblical History at Sheffield University, in her book “The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship” tells us that, in synagogues at the time Jesus was speaking; the passages I just read to you from Ezekiel would have been commonly read.
The second point to bear in mind is that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees whose own leadership of the Jews, Jesus was telling them, had utterly failed. They had let down their people; they were false shepherds and hypocrites when they celebrated the defeat of poor leaders at Hanukkah but could not see their own faults.
At the end of John chapter 9, just before our reading, Jesus warned them that they were spiritually blind because they saw and rejected his healing miracle.
In those days, shepherds would keep sheep in compounds with walls all round except at the entrance which was a gap in the wall. In our reading, Jesus describes himself as the gate for the sheep. He paints a picture of the shepherd standing in the entrance to the compound letting the sheep into the place where they would be safe from attack by wild animals and thieves. The shepherd let in only the sheep and denied entry to anyone or anything that threatened the sheep. He would settle down to sleep by the entrance and then, in the morning, as Jesus explains, the shepherd would call his own sheep out and lead them to pastures where they would have all they needed to sustain them; safe under his protection.
You may think that the idea of a shepherd calling out sheep by their name is unusual but it is really possible if you know the sheep. When we needed to move our flock from field to field, we had no need for a dog. Pauline would call our most senior sheep (Solo) and she would come to her. Then she would open the gate and lead Solo to the next field with all the sheep and lambs following along.
It is a simple, but profound message. Jesus calls us by name and, as his sheep, he says; follow me and I will lead you to salvation, I will be your Gate to heaven. Jesus was not, and is not, a false shepherd or a failed leader. Under his authority we can expect to be cared for and loved; to be protected and be developed in our spiritual lives.
Before I finish I would just like to say a few words about the idea of Jesus as a Gate for the sheep for that idea is bound up in his whole ministry. There are only 8 gates into Jerusalem today but there were twelve when Jesus was alive. One of them was known as the Sheep Gate and it led into the area outside the temple compound. It was the gate through which the sacrificial lambs were brought into the temple from the market outside the walls of the city. In fact a sheep market was held there up to 1990 right outside the place where the gate used to exist many centuries earlier.
We know about the Sheep Gate because in the book of Nehemiah, Chapter 3, we are told that it was the first gate which the priests rebuilt when the temple was restored. When Jesus first came to Jerusalem he performed his first healing miracle; to make the lame man walk by the pool of Bethesda. John, because of the details of the location of the healing, leads us to the conclusion, in chapter 5, that Jesus must have entered through the Sheep Gate.
Back then, when a thief entered the compound and stole the sheep, it meant that the sheep would lose its life. The thief had little choice. Keeping the sheep meant they risked being caught; keeping the sheep meant wasting time and money feeding and caring for them; keeping the sheep brought them no satisfaction for the greed they had. Killing the sheep and taking their fleece was the only way, and that, as Jesus makes clear in verse 10, is what they would do.
If we choose to follow those who are evil, (that is allow ourselves to get stolen) or stray into the ways of evil, it will lead just as inevitably to our death. When we lose sight of the Gate, we will be lost and unable to find the way to enter heaven. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, goes ahead of us to be our guide and our pattern for life. He is the Gate to heaven and if we want to enter we must choose to follow him; the only leader who will not fail us as the Pharisees failed the Jews.
So here is a marketing slogan for you: “Be a smart sheep; choose the Good Shepherd”.
Let us spend a few moments pondering the earth shattering and life changing truth; that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice that a shepherd can make to keep his flock safe, dying for them; and then he defeated death on that first Easter Day.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.