May 11, 2014, Easter 4 – The Wisdom of Sheep
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I had the great privilege of being a shepherd – of sorts – for a few years, and I just love sheep. I love their strangely deep voices, and I love the oily feel of their wool. I love the way they smell – in moderation – and I am charmed by the way they enjoy each other’s company. And I love absolutely everything about lambs. Lambs are definitely on the list of God’s top ten great creation ideas. If you have ever seen a newborn lamb nursing for the first time, with its little tail going around and around like a woolly helicopter propeller, you know what I mean. I love sheep, and it has always annoyed me a little when people give “Good Shepherd” sermons that go on and on about how dumb sheep are. I can’t count how many times I have heard it pointed out that the reason Jesus used sheep and shepherd parables is because we are just like sheep – completely helpless, and really stupid.
I can’t argue with the claim that we human beings are helpless creatures and that very often we don’t act like the brightest animals on the planet, but I think sheep have gotten a bum rap. And that is why, when I was preparing for the sermon today, I was quite delighted to realize that in this passage at least Jesus is not talking about how dumb sheep are at all. He is talking about how wise they are.
John puts this teaching about the Good Shepherd right after the whole story of the healing of the man born blind. And it’s always a good idea to notice the context of a story in the Bible – what came before and what follows – if we want to understand it better. In this case, the healing of the blind man was the occasion of quite a debate with the Jewish leaders; first of all because the healing happened on the Sabbath. Working on the Sabbath was against Jewish law; therefore, any work done on the Sabbath – even healing – could not be pleasing to God – or so it seemed to them. They couldn’t deny that the man, who had been blind from birth, had been given his sight, because his parents were right there to confirm all the facts. But what they could and did deny is that Jesus’s power came from God. He broke the law, therefore he was a sinner, and God doesn’t listen to sinners. To which the blind man replied, well, I don’t know anything about that, but I know this – I was blind, and now I’m not. And it was that man you’re calling a sinner that did it. And, he added boldly, God doesn’t listen to sinners, does he?
And so it is with that whole debate about Jesus and his authority ringing in our ears that John chose to put this teaching where Jesus talks about the shepherds and the sheep. There’s more to it than just saying, “I’m the shepherd; you’re the sheep” though. First Jesus said, look, there are shepherds, and then there are shepherds. The real shepherd is the rightful owner of the sheep and he enters the fold by the proper gate. He belongs. Others, the false shepherds, sneak in any way they can: they climb over the fence, they squeeze in through a gap in the hedge. Once they’re in they might look like the shepherd to someone passing by, but there’s somebody that can’t be fooled, and that’s the sheep.
Sheep aren’t stupid, Jesus said. They know a stranger when they hear his voice, and there’s no way they’re going to follow a stranger. When he calls they’ll just run away from him. They won’t follow anybody but the real shepherd, because they know his voice and they know they belong to him.
And at that point Jesus noticed that the people around him were scratching their heads – in Greek that means “huh?” They had no idea what he was getting at, so he tried another way of explaining what he wanted to tell them. “I am the door of the sheep,” he said. Everybody that came before me were pretenders, just thieves and robbers sneaking in by the back way to take advantage of the sheep. Maybe they were in it for the wool, maybe they were in it for the meat. But in the end the sheep wouldn’t pay any attention to them anyway, because they knew this -“I am the door”. I am the only way the sheep can go in and out and be fed and be safe. And they know it. They know my voice.
Throughout the gospels, when Jesus spoke, people heard the difference. Matthew said that the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. There was something about Jesus that was different from anyone else whose voice the people had heard, even if they had no idea who he was. His voice had an authority no other voice had ever had. Lazarus heard his voice and came out from the tomb, still wrapped in his grave cloths. People came out by the thousands just to hear him. They had never heard his voice before, but they recognized it, and they followed him. And that’s what made the authorities so uneasy. Because that kind of power can be very, very dangerous.
And that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Every other voice, every human authority that had risen up and called people to follow – every one was out to get something from them. Thieves and robbers, they were all on the take. Political leaders needed followers to support their ideas and military leaders needed bodies to put in harm’s way. Religious leaders wanted people who would believe what they were told to believe, who would do things the way they were taught things ought to be done. But to the followers it was always pretty much the same in the end; the sheep were always made less by the shepherd, they were killed or used up or sucked in or brainwashed. Following the false shepherd, they lost their freedom or their individuality or their integrity or their very lives.
The Good Shepherd’s voice alone called the sheep into more life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” He alone came to give and not to take. “I am the Good Shepherd.” he told them. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He came not to take, but to give everything he had for the sake of his sheep, for those multitudes, the poor and the sick, the lame and the blind, children and widows, sinners and criminals, all those people that came crowding out to hear his voice, to feel his touch, to be in his presence. They recognized him, even though they all ran away in fear at the last – as sheep, and people, will do – but if you read in the book of Acts, about the day the church was born on the day of Pentecost, when the apostles went out to speak in the Good Shepherd’s name those people came crowding back, thousands in a single day, crowding back at the sound of the voice of the only One who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
People are definitely a lot like sheep. They can be deceived, and they wander off to places they ought not to go, and they do stupid things they ought not to do, but every person has that longing inside to hear the voice that gives life. People, even people who have no interest in God or knowledge of God, recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in the people God puts in our lives, mothers and fathers who give of themselves to make their children’s lives better; teachers who spend themselves nourishing young minds and hearts; friends who put aside their own needs for the needs of the ones they love. People know, foolish sheep-like creatures that they are, they are drawn to the voice of the Good Shepherd, when they hear its echoes in our world. And whether they recognize it or not, in their hearts there is always that longing to hear the voice itself.
And that is our joy and privilege as his witnesses. Sometimes we talk about evangelism, and it sounds like a nasty job we’re supposed to do, haranguing people to believe things they don’t want to believe and to stop doing things they want to do and to start doing things they have no interest in doing. But in reality all we are asked to do as witnesses of the Good Shepherd is to help people hear the voice they are longing to hear a little bit more clearly. We live in a cynical world, which is to say a world that has in large part given up on hope, because so much of the time people hear the voice of greed instead of generosity, contempt instead of pity, and mockery instead of compassion. But when we serve others as our Shepherd served us, when we offer ourselves in love, giving rather than taking, serving rather than being served, then we help to make the voice of the Good Shepherd heard in a world full of people that need desperately to hear it. And when each person hears his voice truly at last – and that is the job of the Spirit alone – then they will follow him, because we were all created to know him.