Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church
Our scripture this morning is a part of a larger story. Therefore, to understand what we are about to read we must pay attention to the context.
As some of you remember, the last few chapters of John record conversations between Jesus and all sorts of people who are trying to figure out who he is. Some people, especially those who have been healed by his miracles or transformed by his teaching, believe Jesus is from God, maybe even the Messiah. Other people, however, have become increasingly convinced that he is not from God. Some are suggesting he is a fraud, maybe even from the devil. Finally, in addition to the believers on the one hand and the skeptics on the other, there are a whole bunch of wafflers in the middle, people in the crowd who, to this point, don’t really know what to think about this mysterious rabbi from Nazareth.
All this is to say that the dominating question at this point in John’s Gospel is this question: Who is this man Jesus? Who is this miracle-worker who teaches with such authority? Is he from God? Is he God? Can we trust him? Should we follow him? Where will he lead us if we do? What will he ask of us?
When you stop and think about it, they’re the sorts of questions we’re still asking today. Who is this man Jesus and what would it mean to give your life to following him? 2000 years have passed and we still haven’t all agreed on the answer to that question.
I borrowed the title to this sermon from writer John Ortberg, whose latest book is entitled, simply, Who is this Man? In the introduction to the book he points out that it’s not so much what we don’t know about Jesus which is puzzling, but what we do know.
Jesus was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He was a poor carpenter most of his life and an itinerant preacher for less than three years. He never wrote a book, never held an office, never had a family, never went to college, never traveled more than 200 miles from his birthplace. He had no credentials but himself. Here’s what’s puzzling. How is it possible that this one solitary life, which was lived in obscurity and ended in agony and disgrace, has seen its legacy grow to the point where now Jesus is, without question, history’s most familiar and influential figure, the centerpiece of the human race and leader of the movement of human progress.
Ortberg points out that you can’t look at a map without seeing Jesus’ influence. Our own city,Sacramento, is named after a meal Jesus once had with his followers that became known as a sacrament. Just down the road,San Franciscowas named after a man, St. Francis, who was once a devoted follower of Jesus.
Look at a calendar and you see Jesus’ influence. In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the onset of a New Year and our new calendars will all change to reflect the number of years, 2013, since Jesus’ birth. His life is the very dividing line of human history.
Look at our names and you see Jesus’ influence. Many of us in this church, including two of our pastors, Jim and Patrick, are named after Jesus’ followers.
Look at human advancement and you cannot miss Jesus’ influence. The establishment of democracy, the abolition of slavery, the advancement of science and medicine, racial equality, gender equality, the founding of institutions of higher education, countless organizations dedicated to serving the poor, all these movements were largely inspired by Jesus and initiated by his followers, many of whom gave their lives for these causes. Jesus inspires Leo Tolstoy, who in turn inspires Mohandas Gandhi, who in turn inspires Martin Luther King Jr., who in turn inspires Desmond Tutu. On and on it goes.
Look at the crowd Jesus gathers even today and you wonder what sort of person has enough influence to bring these sorts of people together? Ortberg writes, “Look at the people Jesus brings together: Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell; Jim Wallis and Jim Dobson; Anne Lamott and Thomas Kincaide; Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and Bill Clinton and “Bill” Shakespeare; Bono and Bach; Galileo and Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler; Thomas Aquinas and Thomas à Kempis; T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; George Washington and Denzel Washington and George Washington Carver; Sojourner Truth and Robert E. Lee; Constantine and Charlemagne; Sarah Palin and Barak Obama; John Milton and John Bunyan and Mr. Rogers and Jimmy Carter and Peter the Great.” Add to that list you, and me, and the rest of the characters in this church, and you’re left wondering how in the world Jesus has managed to bring such a group together!
Jesus’ influence is so great he even survives his followers. The inquisition, the witch hunts, the Crusades, the defense of slavery, the resistance to science, sectarian wars and violence, judgementalism, intolerance, bigotry, sex and money scandals in the church – Jesus’ followers, Ortberg says, cause him far more trouble than his enemies sometimes. And yet, his influence persists.
Who is this man? That is the question that hung heavy in the crowd that day which had gathered to hear what Jesus had to say for himself. It is the same question that hangs heavy in this crowd today which has also gathered to hear what Jesus has to say.
True to form, when he does speak Jesus doesn’t give us the straight answer we’re hoping to hear. Instead, he gives us an image. He tells us a parable. What he says, as you’ll hear in a moment, begins with these words, “Very truly, I tell you…” Loosely translated, Jesus is saying to us, “Listen up. Pay attention. What I’m about to say is especially important. You are not going to want to miss it.”
So I ask you, are you ready to pay attention? If so, I believe Jesus is about to tell us who he really is.
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“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:1-10, NRSV)
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When Jesus looks out at people what is it that he sees? Apparently he sees a flock of sheep. It’s not just in this passage. Read through the Gospels and you’ll find that Jesus is always calling us sheep.
Now, we may not know what to make of that in our day. We may not enough about sheep to get Jesus’ point. Many of us have never even touched a sheep. People in Jesus’ day knew what he meant. Sheep were integral to ancient Jewish society. Everybody knew what it meant to be compared to a sheep.
Even we know this much. Sheep are not the brightest bulb on the animal kingdom Christmas tree. I read this week that sheep are so dumb and helpless, in fact, that sometimes they often roll over on their backs and cannot get up again. (Coincidentally, something similar happened to me just after Thanksgiving dinner this year, but that’s another story.) The point is, this happens regularly to sheep who, unless a shepherd comes to help, just lay there, hooves flailing in the air. They will even die there on the backs if the weather is hot enough.
Sheep are also known to graze and graze in a particular pasture until every single blade of grass is gone and will starve unless the shepherd leads them to another pasture, which may be just over the hill. Other sheep will graze and graze without ever looking up, and only realize later, when it’s too late, that the entire rest of the flock has left. (Again, something similar happened to me on Thanksgiving.)
Not only are sheep mentally helpless, they are also physically defenseless. When attacked by wild animals, all they can do is run. I read of an instance where two wild dogs got loose in a sheep pen one night and killed 292 sheep before morning came. 300 against 2 and they couldn’t protect themselves.
The dominant characteristic of sheep is dependence. If cockroaches and rats are one end of the animal self-sufficiency scale, sheep are on the other end. They are helpless, dependent, easily frightened and forever getting lost. And like it or not, Jesus says that we, all of us, are like sheep.
Now, in Jesus’ day, some sheep had it good. Let me describe for you the good life for a sheep. Fortunate sheep had a shepherd, a caretaker who would spend all his time with the flock. And since sheep in those days were used primarily for their wool and not their meat, shepherds often spent years with the same animals. That meant that they came to know their sheep well. They even grew to have affection for each animal, giving them each names. The sheep, in turn, knew the voice of their shepherd and would come immediately whenever they were called.
During the day shepherds would lead their flocks to good pastures, guiding them to nourishment and standing guard to protect them from predators. At night the shepherd would then lead his flock into a sheep pen, or sheep fold, where the animals would be protected from other predators or thieves. If they were out in the countryside, this pen was nothing more than a crude circle of rocks piled up with an opening on one side. Since these pens had no gate to block off the entrance, it was common for the shepherd to lay down and sleep at night in the opening to keep the sheep from wandering off and predators and thieves from coming in. The shepherd himself became the gate.
A sheep who found itself under the care of such a shepherd who was an animal who, in sheep terms, was living the good life. It was cared for at all times, protected at all times, provided for at all times, known at all times.
With all this in mind, let’s turn back again to the parable Jesus tells here. Speaking to a crowd of people still trying to figure out exactly who this man is, Jesus paints this picture. You are like sheep, he says. Helpless and dependent, we live in a world full of enemies who would like to harm us, enemies against whom we have no adequate defense. The wolves and thieves which Jesus mentions here are meant to symbolize our enemies: sin and evil and death. We can run from these enemies but we cannot hide. Alone, we cannot protect ourselves. Even in the sheep pen we cannot hide. Constantly, sin and evil and death are trying to come over the wall to get at us.
But wait, Jesus says. All is not lost. For there is a shepherd, a good shepherd. And he doesn’t sneak over the wall in secret, but, instead, he comes right up to the gate. When he comes he calls out for us to follow him, to go with him out into the world. And when he calls, we know his voice. Somehow it is familiar to us. It’s not like the voices of the others who come for us. We don’t recognize their voices. But the shepherd’s voice we know. He calls us each by name. He speaks as if he knows us. His voice sounds as if it can be trusted.
Now, I know that this image is a bit vague. It was vague to those who first heard it. John tells us that day that the crowd had no idea what Jesus was talking about. So in verse 7 Jesus says again, “Very truly, I tell you. Listen closely. Pay attention. Are you ready to pay attention?”
I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me [all who come in my place] are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me [or, literally, through me] will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Think about this for a minute. In Jesus’ day, the sheep gate was absolutely central to ensuring the good life for the sheep. Sheep could not stay forever in the sheep pen; they would starve to death. Neither could sheep stay forever out in the pasture; they would be attacked to death. Therefore, the good life for a sheep depended on its constant coming and going through the sheep gate. From pasture to pen, from provision to protection, always through the sheep gate.
Do you see what Jesus is saying here? Life in all its intended fullness comes to us through Jesus, and only through Jesus. Apart from him we are utterly helpless against those in this world who would seek to do us harm, who come only to kill and destroy. Through Christ, however, we find protection and we find provision. Through Christ we find salvation, we find security, we find satisfaction. It is through Jesus that we find what he called abundant life. This is more life and better life than you ever dreamed was possible.
Psalm 23, the most beloved passage comparing us to sheep in all the Bible, speaks vividly about this abundant life. Using stunning imagery, the Psalmist reminds us that this is life where we lie in green pastures and beside still waters, life where our souls are restored, life where we stay forever on the right path, life where we fear no evil even when we are led through the valley of the shadow of death. This is life with a good Shepherd who is always with us, protecting and comforting us with his rod and staff, preparing banquet tables before us in the presence of our enemies, anointing our heads with the oil of blessing, filling our cups to overflowing. This is a life where goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, a life where we get to go home in the end, to the house of our Shepherd, and live there with him for days on end.
Are you beginning to see how Jesus answers the question, “Who is this man?” “Who am I?” Jesus asks. “I am the gate through which the life you have always desired, the life for which you were made, the life which I came to give you, is found. I am the gate, and the only gate. Everybody else who comes for you, every other voice calling after you, comes to kill and destroy. Only I come to bring life. If you come through me, you will find life.”
The message I want to leave with you all this morning then is actually quite simple. It’s an answer to the question. It’s the answer I believe Jesus gives.
Who is this man? Who is Jesus? This is who he is. When it comes to life, Jesus alone is the center, the foundation, the source, the giver, the entry point, the cause, the author, the creator, the redeemer, the sustainer. Life, true life, abundant life, is found in, and through, and with, Jesus. Apart from Jesus we are like sheep, utterly helpless, dependent, and vulnerable. As we pass through Jesus, however, as sheep through the Sheep Gate, we come into life, abundant and eternal life. This is who Jesus is, he is the gate through which we find life.
You know, we stand amazed every Christmas that all this activity and commotion goes on in the name of Jesus while so little attention is actually paid to Jesus. We should not be amazed. The Christmas season only accentuates what is true all year round. All of life revolves around this man, his fingerprints are all over everything and everyone, and yet the world carries on as if he were a decoration or a side show.
Even as the world around us misses it, Jesus invites us to see things as they truly are, to see him as he truly is.
Our first thought in the morning when we wake up ought to be Christ. The last thought in the evening before we drift off to sleep ought to be Christ.
The center and glue of every relationship we have, our marriages, with our children, with our parents, our friendships, our neighbors, complete strangers, even enemies, the center and glue of every relationship ought to be Christ.
The work that we do, no matter what work we do, ought to be done for the sake of Christ. Our money, our possessions, our time, our abilities, they all should be dedicated to Christ. Every conversation should be had with the awareness of the presence of Christ. Every thought should be held captive to Christ. Every sin forgiven by Christ. Every blessing credited to Christ. Every effort offered towards Christ.
Any preacher who does not, in every single sermon, center his or her message on Christ should be removed from the pulpit at once. Any church that does not center its life and witness on Christ should take the cross down from the steeple immediately. Any teaching or philosophy, any art or music, any book or article or blog, whether Christian in name or not, which points us towards Christ should be embraced. All others, whether Christian in name or not, should be ignored.
There is no theme, no message, no agenda, no emphasis worthy of our attention, much less our devotion, other than Christ. What Jesus does, we should do. Where Jesus goes, we should go. What Jesus says, we should say. Who Jesus loves, we should love.
Jesus is the gate. Through him we are saved, secure, satisfied. Through him we come in and go out and find pasture, life, abundance. Who is Jesus? Jesus is life.
As I close, I am reminded of the Prayer of St. Patrick, a prayer we have used before in our worship. Its beauty comes from its relentless focus on God, in Christ, as the way through which, and only through which, life becomes ours. I want to ask you to let these words tune your heart this morning as we prepare to come to God in prayer.
As I arise today,
may the strength of God pilot me,
the power of God uphold me,
the wisdom of God guide me.
May the eye of God look before me,
the ear of God hear me,
the word of God speak for me.
May the hand of God protect me,
the way of God lie before me,
the shield of God defend me,
the host of God save me.
May Christ shield me today.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit,
Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
May it be so in my life. May it be so in yours as well. Amen.
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The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
- Read John 10:1-10. What do you notice here?
- Jesus compares our relationship to God to the relationship sheep have with their shepherd. Does that metaphor help?
- So you’re a sheep. What’s good about being a sheep? What’s not so good?
- Jesus says, “I am the gate.” He says it twice, actually. Think of the purpose of a gate. How is Jesus like a gate? A gate to what? Leading where? Separating what from what? Opened by whom?
- What do you think it means that Jesus’ sheep know his voice and follow him? There are countless voices speaking to us in life. How do we know when it is Jesus’ voice speaking to us?
- Jesus speaks about “abundant life.” How would you define abundant life? Have you experienced it?
- Who is this man Jesus? How do you answer that question?
- How is the Prayer of Saint Patrick your prayer? How is it not your prayer? Consider using it as your prayer today.
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Psalm 72 ~ Luke 3:1-6
Tuesday: Psalm 80 ~ II Peter 3:8-13
Wednesday: Psalm 85 ~ Luke 1:68-79
Thursday: Psalm 89 ~ Romans 15:5-13
Friday: Psalm 126 ~ Malachi 3:1-4
Saturday: Psalm 146 ~ Isaiah 40:1-5
Sunday: Psalm 25 ~ Isaiah 9:1-7
 Borrowed from the well-known essay adapted from a sermon by Dr James Allan Francis, The Real Jesus and Other Sermons, (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1926), p. 123-124. Read it at http://www.anointedlinks.com/one_solitary_life.html
 The following observations are borrowed generously from John Ortberg’s wonderful introduction. Who is this Man?, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
 Ortberg, p. 18.
 These references taken from Philip Keller, A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 1970).
 See II Samuel 12 for a very moving picture of a relationship which could exist between a man and his sheep.
 New Testament writers pick up this message/theme in places like Ephesians 2:18 and Hebrews 10:20.