One of the most striking features of John’s gospel is the presence of what are known as the “I AM sayings” of Jesus. In the gospel of John, Jesus defines himself with such famous statements as: “I am the bread of life . . . I am the light of the world . . . I am the resurrection and the life . . . I am the way, the truth and the life . . . I am the true vine . . . ” In our scripture this morning,
Now as much as we may treasure this image of Jesus as our shepherd, the downside of the metaphor is that it makes all of us sheep. My father grew up in Montana, where they have so many sheep that he used to pronounce the state’s name “Mont-aaaa-na.” One of my dad’s favorite topics was the stupidity of sheep. On a cold night, sheep will pile on top of one another to stay warm; the sheep at the bottom of the heap often suffocate. Unless prevented, a sheep will eat until it becomes bloated, falls over and dies, a victim of its instinctive “slop ’til you drop” mentality. I heard a truck driver say that when he transports horses and cattle, they always lean in the proper direction when his truck goes around a corner. In contrast, sheep often lean in the wrong direction, fall over and cannot get back up. A frightened sheep will sometimes walk right off the edge of a cliff. And so my dear Peachtree flock, as we look at this morning’s scripture, we must acknowledge our massive, one-way dependency on our shepherd Jesus Christ. Let’s read
Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He 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.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [If you are a leader this morning here is the ultimate measure of a leader . . . The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.] The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Lord, we are gathered before you this morning in our great sheep pen. Sheepishly aware of our weakness, we wait to hear our shepherd’s voice. We are eager to feed on your Word. Come to your flock now, Lord, and fill this room with your mighty shepherding presence. Lead us into the ways of life and truth. Guide us along the paths you wish us to take. In Jesus’ name. Amen
The famous novelist Frederick Forsythe tells a story about Christmas Eve 1957. A young Royal Air Force pilot is stationed at a base in Germany. As Christmas approaches, he yearns to visit home, but his hopes are dashed when his commanding officer tells him that he has to stand duty on Christmas day. He resigns himself to the prospect of a lonely holiday, when suddenly late on Christmas Eve, the word comes: he is released from duty and can fly home to England.
At ten o’clock on Christmas Eve, the young aviator climbs into the cockpit of his single-seater Vampire fighter jet and takes off under a moonless sky for the 400-mile flight home to Kent, England. But just ten minutes out over the North Sea, there’s a short in the jet’s electrical system. His instrument panel goes dark, and both the compass and the standby compass fail. Fighting a rising sense of panic, the pilot realizes he only has 80 minutes worth of fuel for the flight home. Recalling what he has been taught to do in such an emergency, he descends in altitude, slows his airspeed and flies in an emergency triangular pattern in order to be picked up on radar. He wonders: Will anyone see me? Will help come in time? He begins to pray: “O heavenly Father, lead me home . . . ”
Suddenly, from out of nowhere there appears beneath him a dark object – a plane that dips its wing as a signal for him to follow. This plane leads the young aviator to a landing field with a lighted runway. As he gets into his landing pattern, the plane disappears into the night.
In aviation parlance, such a plane is known as a shepherd. As he touches down, the young pilot breathes a prayer of thanks for that unknown shepherd who found and led him home.
My friends, today we live in a dark and dangerous world. In
Today’s business climate is also frightening. Who knows when we’ll find the bottom of the stock market? Some of the families and business persons in this congregation have been hit hard. Last week a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal showed a high- powered CEO behind his big desk, phone receiver in hand. The caption read, “Security? Bring me my blanket . . . ” Where do we find security in today’s world?
As the father of three beautiful young women, I have taken up an unofficial hobby over the years: collecting personal protection devices for my daughters. Near the checkout stand in many stores you can find displays of such devices: screecher alarms for your key chain, pepper spray, etc. Well, I have a whole bureau drawer full of those things. One evening last summer, one of my daughters wanted to go jogging. I said, “Hold on . . . ” and presented her with my latest purchase: a strobe light that Velcros onto your arm and flashes when you’re running at night. My daughter sighed and said, “Oh Daddy.” It’s so easy for anxiety to take over our lives.
To drive his point home, he says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
Here’s a riddle for you. What is the one thing God can’t do? Philosophers pose hypothetical questions about God’s power: can God make a rock that would be too heavy for himself to lift? That would be some rock, wouldn’t it? I do know one thing God can’t do: look out on this room and see a crowd. You and I walk in and say, “Hey, there’s a nice crowd at the 9:00 service.” God looks and says, “There’s Bill, and Mary and John and Charlotte . . . and Holly and Kevin and Tammy.” By far, the hardest thing for me about coming to Peachtree has been the challenge of learning 10,000 names. This task is a definitely a work still in progress. This shepherd, your pastor, may not have retained your name yet, but the good shepherd knows you through and through. As we entered his sheep pen this morning he was standing there looking over each one of us, scanning our lives, saying, “Look at that cut, I need to take care of that bruise . . . Here’s some salve of the Holy Spirit for that nasty wound . . . Here’s a momma sheep bringing her baby lambs, she looks tired, I’ll give her some time beside still waters . . . There’s a big old daddy ram who’s been butting heads a lot lately; he needs time out in green pastures, the ones with 18 holes . . . ”
God knows our needs. When we need to be out in green pastures, he answers that need. When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” he means, “I know my sheep completely – their diseases, their fears, their dreams and joys.”
And then Jesus says, “My sheep know me.” Here’s a little more “shepherdology.” In ancient times, every night all the sheep from all the flocks would be herded into a single pen. That way one shepherd could have night duty, while all the other shepherds got some sleep. The shepherds didn’t worry about intermingling all the sheep from all the herds. Why?
Because in the morning the shepherds would line up and whistle, and each sheep instinctively recognized the call of its particular shepherd. I have even read that if someone tried to impersonate a shepherd by simulating his call, the sheep would sense danger and scatter in panic. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice.”
In this passage Jesus seems to mix his metaphors, because he also says, “I am the gate . . . whoever enters through the gate will be saved . . . ” Well Lord, are you the shepherd or are you the gate? The answer is: both. After getting the sheep into the fold and bedded down for the night, the shepherd would then lie down across the doorway to sleep, so no intruders could enter. The shepherd became the gate.
Jesus is saying, “I’m not only the shepherd, I am also the gateway through whom you must pass into the presence of God.”
The implications of this statement are very controversial in our society today. We live in a marketplace of religious options. It seems that nearly every belief subscribed to in the history of human civilization is available for us to believe. And so many people take a “mix and match” approach to religion: “Let’s see, I need a God . . . Okay, I’ll take the Christian God, New Testament, not Old Testament. Now I need a code of ethics . . . the Eastern concept of karma seems pretty cool. What is it they say, ‘may your karma run over your dogma’? Okay, I’ve got a good mixture, let’s try this recipe for a couple weeks.” People actually attempt to create a “make your own” salad for the soul. But we are not saved by a recipe – we’re saved by a relationship. I can control a recipe by varying the ingredients. My relationship with the shepherd is mysterious and wonderful, and it is beyond my control.
As a central doctrine, Christianity states that a Jewish man who lived in the first century is the sole gateway through whom all people must pass into the presence of God.
Karl Barth called this doctrine the “scandal of particularity.” It is the official doctrine of our Presbyterian denomination, formally declared this June at our general assembly meeting in Columbus, Ohio: “We are neither confused nor hesitant to declare [that] Jesus Christ is the only savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him.”
Some may ask, “How can you put down other religions like that?” Jesus’ statement is not a declaration against other religions, for the simple reason that no founder of any other religion made the claims Jesus made for himself. Friends, there is simply no parallel figure to Jesus in all of history. Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Moses – none were as egomaniacal as this Galilean carpenter. The “I am” statements are a prime example of this. Jesus actually ends the New Testament by saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” – the beginning and the end. There is nothing before the letter alpha in the Greek alphabet. If we go back through endless ages to a time when there was nothing – there was already God. Go beyond Omega into a future unimaginable, and God will be there. There is no before God and there is no after God. God is.
That is the meaning of the encounter Moses has with God at the burning bush. Moses asks God’s name and God replies, “I am . . . ” Tell Pharaoh “I am” sent you. We wonder, “‘I am’ – what?” Finish the sentence, God. But God maintained his sovereign silence, leaving us hanging on his words for centuries, until one day an awestruck John writes, “I am has come among us. In the flesh . . . ” God’s perfect self-expression has come to finish the sentence: “I am the bread of life . . . I am the light of the world . . . I am the resurrection and the life . . . I am the way, the truth and the life . . . I am the true vine . . . I am the good shepherd . . . I am the gate . . . ” And in case we miss his point, in John chapter 8 Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am . . . ”
My favorite “I am” moment in John comes in the garden of Gethsemane. The posse is closing in. Soldiers are dashing through the trees, torches are lit and swords are flashing as they swarm around him. But Jesus has to pull back and rein in his power before they can even touch him. Cool as a cucumber, Jesus asks, “Who is it you want?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus says, ” I am . . . he” Scripture says, “They went backward, and fell to the ground.” (KJV) So Jesus dims his glory and power enough to allow himself to be taken prisoner, to die for you and me.
Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep . . . ” The statement would have surprised Jesus’ listeners: “What? God was a shepherd in the Old Testament, we have no problem with the metaphor, but what shepherd would go so far as to die for his sheep?” When I was in Houston, a man was fishing in Galveston Bay when his hat blew off. The man dove in the water to retrieve the hat, and he never came up. People in Houston were sick over that – it seemed so senseless to die for a six-dollar hat. Jesus’ audience probably felt the same – die for a sheep? It made no sense. But what Jesus had in mind with this metaphor was even more incomprehensible: that God himself would die for sinners like us.
My friends, you’ve been bought at a great price. Now are you willing to be owned? Earlier in the service we used water to gently brand our children. Notice that in the baptism ceremony, we take the baby out of the parents’ arms. The baptized child is now the property of Jesus – his little lamb.
Can you say with complete personal confidence this morning, “The Lord is my shepherd”? You may ask, “How can anybody be completely sure?” Well, can you imagine a child who is unable to say with confidence “This is my mom” or “There goes my dad”? There are some things in life you just need to be sure about.
Let me tell you candidly about a disturbing experience I often have. It highlights the thing that bothers me most about our Presbyterian church. I’ll meet someone who says, “I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. I was baptized, went to Sunday School, got confirmed, and memorized the Apostle’s Creed. None of it meant anything to me; my parents made me do it. I went off to college and ran wild, did things I still regret. Then I met some Baptists, and they led me to the Lord.” A story like that makes me want to go screaming into the night.
Friends, what was missing for these folks was a living relationship with the Shepherd. In the Presbyterian church, we have wonderful traditions, but we must not mistake going through the motions of devotion for a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Not even baptism will make up for the lack of a living, personal relationship with the Shepherd. If you wear the brand, you must live the life. What matters in Christianity is not a recipe, but a relationship. Join me this morning in saying with confidence: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Lord, long ago you wept over the people of Jerusalem, saying they were like sheep without a shepherd. How you must weep over Atlanta this morning because so many wander aimlessly. Lord, we pray that you would make your Church bold enough to proclaim our wonderful Shepherd. And may we who wear the brand live the life. Amen.