Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Dying to Live

John 10:1-10

 In the Judean highlands, the region of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, shepherding was a vital part of life, more so than farming.  In other parts of the land of Israel, there were rich agricultural regions: the Jezreel Valley in the north, the Jericho Valley in the east, and the coastal lowlands in the west.  But the mountains of Judea did not have good soil for growing.  So raising sheep was more important there.  

 Sheep were raised mostly for their wool, not their meat.  Meat was eaten very seldom, usually just for religious festivals and other celebrations.  So the shepherd would tend the same sheep, year after year.  He would come to know each of them by name, and they would know him.  

 It wasn’t an easy job.  In the winter, it wasn’t bad, because then there was grass everywhere.  Winter is the wet season in Judea.  The sheep were kept near the village in winter, in large, permanent sheep pens built with stone walls.  But in the summer, it was much harder to find grazing for the sheep, so the shepherds would take them off into the wilderness.  They went in groups for protection.  The wilderness was a dangerous place.  There were robbers who would kill the shepherds to steal the sheep.  There were wild animals:  Wolves, bears, and lions, in ancient times.  

 Since they had to move about to find grazing in the wilderness, there were no permanent sheep folds.  They would use natural features, if they could, such as a cave or a steep, narrow ravine.  There were plenty of both in the Judean wilderness, called Jeshimmon.  Lacking those, they would built a sheepfold out of briar bushes.  The shepherds themselves became the gate for these folds.  They would sit or sleep across the entrance to keep the sheep in and keep watch for robbers or predators.  

 In the morning, each shepherd would lead out his own flock by calling them.  They recognized his voice.  The flocks were small enough that it was easy for the shepherd to know and recognize each one of them.  

 In spite of their importance to the Judean economy, shepherds were not highly regarded members of society.  The religious elite looked down on them as “unclean.”  It would be hard to maintain all the required religious rituals while living in the wilderness for months on end.  The social elite regarded them as dirty and unsophisticated.  But Jesus despised no one for his work in the world.  Neither should we.  

 And considering how many times in the Old Testament God is described as a shepherd, they should not have been looked down on.  God’s people are described in the Old Testament as sheep.  False leaders, who acted out of self-interest rather than seeking the good of God’s flock, are described as thieves or robbers or bad shepherds.  

 One of the things we shouldn’t miss is that there is no break between what’s happening in chapters 9 and 10 of John’s Gospel.  In chapter 9, Jesus is dealing with the hard-hearted Pharisees, and this follows directly from that.  Jesus is calling the Scribes, Pharisees, and other religious elites thieves and robbers.  The false messiahs that plagued first century Palestine could also be called thieves or robbers.  They were more interested in serving themselves rather than seeking the good of God’s flock.  

 The image of Jesus as a good shepherd is, to this day, one of the best known and most loved images of Jesus.  We see it frequently depicted in art.  And we keep the language of the shepherd in the Church today, even though most of us really have no clue about tending sheep.  The English word “pastor” comes from the Latin word meaning shepherd.  

 But there are, in fact, two different images of Jesus in this passage.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and Jesus is also the Gate for the Sheep.  The images are related, since sometimes the shepherd became the gate, but they are not totally identical.  

 Jesus is also the Gate, the way in.  Hebrews 10:20 describes him as “the new and living way.”  Jesus says, “Those who come in through me will be saved.”  Later in John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  A few years later, the disciples said of Jesus, “There is no other name by which we may be saved.”  (Acts 4:12).  

 That message is offensive to modern ears.  We live now in a society that says, “All truth is relative.  There is no universal truth.  What is true for one may not be true for another.”  Exclusive claims are now seen as a form of “violence.”  When it comes to religion, many say, “All paths lead to the top of the same mountain.  All religions are basically the same.”  

 That is not a true claim.  All religions are not basically the same.  Certainly, there are a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to moral teachings.  Most religions teach the same basic ideas about right and wrong, fairness, and compassion.  But when you look at what religions say about the nature of God, the nature of human beings, and what it means to be saved, then they are not the same.  And I would argue that

Christianity is unique.  Other religions focus on a set of rules or knowledge to achieve salvation.  Christianity teaches that it is impossible for us to save ourselves.  Salvation is a gift from God.

 Both images of Jesus, the Shepherd and the Gate, find their meaning and fulfillment in his death.  Christ opens the way to life through his death.  And like a shepherd, he leads the way to “green pastures” through his death.  

 We often think of life in Christ as “eternal life,” that is something in the future.  But Jesus promises us abundant life now, not just in the future.  And there is abundant life in Christ.  There is freedom from guilt and fear.  There is hope for the future.  There is a peace that passes understanding.  There is a sense of identity and purpose.  

 But the paradox is that abundant life isn’t what we would expect.  It’s not the world’s idea of abundant life.  The world defines abundant life as being wealthy, having the best “stuff.”  The world would say abundant life is traveling and eating exotic foods in fine restaurants and enjoying “the good life.”  Jesus tells us that abundant life is found in self-sacrifice and self-denial, not self-indulgence.  Serving others is the path to abundant life, according to Jesus.

 Perhaps a good example of this is parenting.  Parenting requires an enormous amount of self-sacrifice to do it right.  And one of the things that we’re seeing in our world now is that more and more people are choosing never to have children.  I’m sure some have good reasons not to.  But often, the only reason seems to be that having children would put an end to their “abundant,” that is self-indulgent, life.  The irony is that the joys of family far exceed what pleasure we derive from self-indulgence.  

 If you want to live an abundant life, don’t ask “What can I get?” but rather “What can I give?”  We find the joy of God when we pour ourselves out in seeking to bless others and build up the Kingdom of God.  When we sacrifice our desires for the sake of a greater good, we find far more purpose and fulfillment than we could in self-indulgence.  

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