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I AM: I am the gate for the sheep, John 10:1-10

I Am the Gate For the Sheep

John 1-:1-10


When I was in elementary school, the small Christian school I attended at the time took all of us students to the local YMCA for swimming lessons once a week, and that sort of served as our gym class. Instead of gym class, we had fall and spring swimming lessons. So when I was in the first grade, I started taking swim lessons at the Y through school, and also on my own over the summer. So as a first grader, one thing I noticed is that when we went out to the pool, some of the kids came out of one door, and the rest of us came out of another door. At 6 years of age, it didn’t dawn on me that all of the kids coming out of the other door were girls. I missed that key bit of information. In my mind, some of us came out of one door, and the rest came out of another door. And I wondered where that other door went. I was pretty timid and shy when I was 6, so I hadn’t even explored the whole locker room I used. I thought, “That other door must open up to another part of this locker room.” So one day, after my class’s swim lesson was over, my curiosity got the best of me, and I went through the other door. Right behind my good friend. Named Candice.


When I was young, because I was so thin and so shy and timid, I was made fun of a lot by the other boys, so most of my friends were girls. It took me a long time, really into college, to grow into myself. Anyway, when we got in the locker room I walked around the turn and into every corner, fully expecting to find my locker and my other friends – friends with names like Josh and Scott. Alas, all I found were walls. So I went back to my friend Candace, who had her bathing suit off and was drying off. In fairness, we were both oblivious to the awkwardness of the situation. And I said, “I think I went through the wrong door. How do I get out?” And she said, “I don’t know, let me get my mom.” Who was a chaperone on our weekly trips to the Y. And she went and got her mom while I stood there in the girls locker room. And her mom came over and blushed and giggled at the same time and took me back out through the pool to the door I came out of – the boys locker room.


My class, the first and second graders, had finished our lesson. The kids in the pool now were the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. And all of the boys were cheering me and pumping their fists in the air and for a bit I was a legend in the school for having successfully made it into the girls locker room. I was probably in 4th or 5th grade before I really understood the full implications of my little adventure. Like I said, I was a little slow in growing into myself. I learned something important about doors that day – walking through the wrong door never gets you to the right place. Turn with me to John 10:1-10.


“I am the door of the sheep.” This is the third of Jesus’ seven “I am …” statements recorded in the Gospel of John. These statements, statements like “I am the bread of life” and “I am the light of the world” reveal to us who Jesus understood himself to be and what he understood as his purpose for being here on earth. So what is Jesus saying when he says, “I am the door?” To really get the picture, you have to kind of immerse yourself in the imagery Jesus is using here. When Jesus taught, he often used as examples, even analogies, things that the people he was speaking to would have been really familiar with. Things and ideas that were common in that culture. Some of those things aren’t as common to us in the modern world though, especially some of the agricultural examples and analogies Jesus used. But sheep and shepherds and sheepfolds were incredibly common in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, and still are to some degree today.


So when Jesus tells us that he is the door, the gate, for the sheep, and in the continuation of this passage that we’ll look at in a couple of weeks, the good shepherd for the sheep, what is he saying about us? If David in the 23rd Psalm says that the LORD is my shepherd, and if Jesus follows that up by saying that HE is the Good Shepherd AND the door to the sheepfold, what is he saying about me? He’s saying that I’m a sheep, and believe me, that’s no compliment! No one wants to be a sheep. Even in mythology, there’s no sheep-man. We have the Centaur, half human, half horse. We have the minotaur, half human, half bull. We even have fauns, half human, half goat. But there’s no sheep-man. Now I’ve raised sheep for years. I showed sheep at the fair for 7 years when I was a kid in 4-H, and then several years ago Becky and I bought out the remnants of a flock that was in pretty bad shape after the owner got cancer and her health deteriorated. We did the best we could to nurse them back to health and pass them on to others. We couldn’t save two of them, and still have one of those sheep, and another one that we picked up along the way.


So I can speak with some authority when I say that sheep are prone to wander. Even in familiar territory they can get turned around, confused, and completely lost. Sheep are utterly defenseless. They need strong fences & guard animals to keep them safe from predators. They have a nose for trouble. I’ve had sheep get caught in fences, get stuck in brush, and fall in a ditch and be unable to get up. I’ve had sheep try to jump out of fences and not quite make it, pulling heavy wooden rails down on top of them and breaking legs. I’ve had sheep get out of pens, find the feed room, and eat until they died. Without outside intervention from caring shepherds, domestic sheep don’t stand a chance. If wolves, coyotes, and cougars don’t kill them, they stand a pretty good chance of offing themselves at some point through sheer stupidity.


One day last week our sheep were out telling me they were hunger, loudly, like they do every morning and evening, so I put their evening feed in the troughs. And when I came back out of the shed, one of them, named Percy, was still standing there “baa-ing” at me like I hadn’t done anything. The other sheep and the goats and llamas were in the shed eating, and Percy, always the loudest of the bunch, was still standing there with her back to the door to the shed, complaining about being hungry. I don’t know if she went in to eat at all that evening or not. Not a smart animal.


So when Jesus tells us that he is the door to the sheepfold, he’s also telling us that in some ways, we are like sheep. Yes, as human beings created in the image of God, we are strong and intelligent and creative and can do some amazing things. But we are, at the same time, prone to sin, to causing and finding trouble for ourselves and others, and to wander away from the safety and security of God’s loving embrace. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). And St. Paul in Romans says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).


So we are like sheep, so Jesus is the door to the sheepfold. There were two kinds of sheepfolds in Jesus’ day. The first was a large, common sheepfold used by all of the shepherds in a city or village. It had high stone walls that were often topped with sharp thorns, their version of barbed wire I guess, to keep thieves and predators out. It provided shelter and protection for the sheep of many shepherds. And there was a single door to that sheepfold, and it was guarded by a gatekeeper who knew all of the shepherds and who kept predators and thieves at bay. That’s the kind of sheepfold Jesus is talking about in Vv. 1-6.


In the American west, cattle from several ranches sometimes mingle, and ranchers mark their cattle with brands to protect them from being lost or stolen. People have tried branding sheep, but it’s difficult. It damages the wool, which is one of the primary reasons we raise sheep, and if you brand the skin, the wool grows over it, making it invisible. These days we put plastic or metal tags in the ears, but that’s a fairly modern invention. In the ancient world, shepherds obviously mixed their flocks at times, especially in the village sheepfold at night. So how did they tell them apart without getting caught up arguing about which sheep are whose? It was vocally. Each shepherd developed a unique to him or her call that they used with their sheep. And because the shepherd, the one who guided and fed and watered and tended to the injuries of the sheep, used it with his flock all the time, the sheep came to know it, recognize it, and come to that call.


In Palestine today, you can still witness that scene – a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago – that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so they get all mixed up together – eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. Their shepherds don’t worry about the mix-up though. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call – a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a particular reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.[i] They will actually run AWAY from any other voice. And when he sheep have come to him, he walks ahead of them, leading them instead of driving them, as is usually done today with sheep dogs and 4 wheelers. And as he leads he keeps calling back to them with his unique call, and they follow. All others they ignore and flee from.


Gives the phrase “following Jesus” a whole new feeling, doesn’t it? If we’re going to follow him, and him alone, we have to learn our Shepherd’s call, tune out the voices of this world, and tune in to his voice. This world is filled with so much noise, activity, and bustle. We have grown accustomed to having the TV on when we’re home, and the radio on in the car, and our earbuds in when we’re working out, or shopping, or mowing the lawn. When was the last time you took the time to still your mind, and quiet your heart, and just be silent?


And we’ve learned prayer as talking TO God, or maybe more accurately talking AT God, instead of speaking WITH God – both talking AND listening. Listening to the voice of God in the Bible. Listening to the voice of God in the voices of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When was the last time you spent some time in silence, with your Bible open, reading and listening to God?


And not only do the sheep recognize and respond to the shepherd’s call, they come running. Sheep aren’t elegant runners, it’s a goofy thing to see, but they do come running. Sheep LONG for the voice of their shepherd. They love to hear it, and they come running to the call. Do we LONG for the voice of God? Is it like a cool drink of water on a hot day to us? Or do we take it for granted? Do we not really care?


They come running because they know it’s the voice of the one who feeds them, who leads them beside still waters to drink, who carries both a straight rod and a hooked staff. He protects them from themselves with his staff, using it’s hooked end to pull them out of tight spots or dangerous places they’ve gotten themselves into, using it to nudge them this way or that when he needs to. He’s the one who beats off predators with his rod, protecting them from mountain lions and wolves and other predators that they cannot fight off themselves. And when they return to the fold at night, he places his staff across the door that has been opened by the gatekeeper, and he inspects each and every one as they enter the fold, putting salve on wounds and caring for injuries.


Now, I said there were two types of sheepfolds. The first is the large communal fold that we’ve been talking about so far. The second is a smaller fold the shepherd builds out in the fields. During the hot summer months, the shepherds sometimes have to take their flocks farther into the wilderness to find enough food and fresh water to sustain them. When they do that, they don’t return to the village every night. They build a temporary fold out in the wilderness to protect the flock in the dark of night. Thieves are the primary danger to flocks in the village fold. Predators are the main danger out on the hills in the wilderness. So the shepherd builds a temporary sheepfold out of stones and branches and whatever else he can find. It’s four sided and has a single opening, but because it’s more rustic, it doesn’t have a door in the opening. Instead, the shepherd himself sleeps in the opening. For a sheep to escape, they have to climb over him. For a predator to get in, they have to climb over him. He protects the flock using his body as the gate. That’s the kind of sheepfold Jesus is talking about in Vv. 7-10.


And he is the only way in or out. The sheepfold represents safety and security and healing care. The way into the fold is through Jesus. The pastures and fields represent freedom and life and provision. The way out into the fields is through Jesus. He is the gate. And, according to Jesus himself, he is the ONLY gate. There is no other. And in our modern, pluralistic society, that doesn’t sit well. Our culture says all roads lead to God, all religions lead to God. Jesus says I am THE gate. Not A gate. THE gate. He’s making an exclusive claim. No one else can make this claim. I am THE gate.


Theologian and pastor Dr. R.C. Sproul tells this story about an experience he had while in college. “My English professor at college was openly hostile to Christianity and one day asked me in front of the whole class, ‘Mr. Sproul, do you think that Jesus is the only way to God?’


I felt the stares of everyone in the class. I knew I was in deep, deep trouble, because if I was to say, ‘Yes,’ then I would be a bigot. If I was to say “No,’ I would be a traitor. So, I mumbled my answer. She said, ‘What did you say?’ I said, ‘Yes, I think he is the only way.’ She attacked me, saying ‘That’s the most arrogant, narrow-minded, bigoted statement I have ever heard.’


She humiliated me before the class and, when I left, I stopped at the door and calmly said to her, ‘I know that you do not believe in Christianity, but do you think it is possible that a person can be truly persuaded that Jesus is at least one way to God?’ She said, ‘Well, yes, of course.’ I said, ‘Well, if someone is persuaded that Jesus is one way to God, and then he finds that the self-same Jesus says he is the only way to God, what is the person to do? If I thought Jesus was the only way to God because he happens to be my way and that you have to believe my way because only I have the truth, then of course, that would be arrogant, bigoted, and narrow-minded of me. If, however, I am persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, and he teaches that he is the only way, do you not see that I would be betraying hi if I said to make you happy or the culture happy that there are many ways?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do see that. But I have to say, how can you believe in a God that only gives one way?’ I replied, ‘Well,  that is the thing that amazes me.’ She said, ‘What?’ ‘That he gives a way. Why should he give any way. Think of what he has done, the extent to which he has gone to redeem a fallen world through the ministry of Christ, whose life and person is not worthy to be compared with Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, or anyone else. They are all dead. None of them made an atonement for sin. None of them bore the sins of the world before the judgment seat of God. If God sent his only Son into the world to bear every sin that I have ever committed, and he kills his Son in my place, and then says that if I put my trust in him, he is going to forgive every sin I have ever committed, and he’s going to give me everlasting life so that I will never die, am I going to look at him and say ‘You have not done enough?’” Jesus said, “I am THE gate. The way into God’s sheepfold is through me. The way out into the pastures under the care of the pasture, to the abundant life that God has for you, is through me.


Now, that doesn’t mean we get militant about this truth. We don’t compromise on it, but we don’t beat people up with it either. Jesus invites, but he doesn’t coerce. Those who reject Jesus are free to reject him. That doesn’t mean they are free of the consequences of their decision to reject him, but they are free to reject him. Following Jesus, hearing and listening to and longing for his voice, receiving his healing care, means living fully as his follower in this world in such a way that his light shines through you and I and others are drawn to that light like moths to a flame. It means we swim against the current of our culture, and at times of our own hearts, in ways that others can see, knowing that sometimes they will mock, and sometimes they will yell and scream in anger. But we don’t force it on people.


Jesus said, “I am The gate.” Jesus is the way into God’s forgiveness and loving embrace, and Jesus is the way into the abundant life that God has for you and for me. Remember the lesson I learned about doors – walk through the wrong one, and you’ll wind up in the wrong place. Have you walked through that only door to abundant life yet? Do you want to? Let us pray.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 147