On this week 3 or our sermon series of the 7 “I am” statements made by Jesus, today we focus on Jesus referring to himself as the gate or the door for the sheep. There is a lot to unpack in this statement, and it helps to review the context of scripture and events in order to better understand Jesus’ bold statement. First, think about the front door of your home. How does it appear to others? Are you using the door as a barrier to keep others out, or as a mode of welcome into your home? Here are some pretty good examples of both. These first two seem very welcoming, to the point where you picture a beautiful home filled with cozy touches and of course cookies in the oven! These other two – not so much!
Jesus’ statement as the gate for the sheep comes right after he performed a wonderful miracle for a man who had been born blind. This man was in literal darkness when Jesus brought him into the fold of welcome by restoring his sight. Jesus healed this man of his physical blindness while describing himself as the light of the world – a world steeped in darkness. Like this blind man, we are all walking in darkness without the love of Jesus surrounding us, casting the light of true joy on all of us who choose to see it.
Many of the Temple leaders were so blinded by their own importance they were more concerned with the fact that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath rather than the fact the Jesus restored this man of an illness he carried since birth. They were accusing Jesus of being a sinner because he did not keep the Sabbath – a law of works, but instead chose an act of grace for someone in need. Jesus brings a message of love in a world blinded to the presence of God. Would the door or gate of these religious leaders be one of welcome of condemnation? Take a look at this church sign we found (there’s a back story but this is a church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.) I would think the blind man healed by Jesus was just as confused by the Temple leaders, as they not only brought in accusations and criticisms, but even questioned his parents to see if in fact he had been born blind.
In spite of everything, a blind man received his sight and became a witness for Jesus stating a very simple message – I once was blind but now I see. That sounds like a very popular hymn. Some of us are walking in serious spiritual darkness yet Jesus offers the gift of light if we are willing to accept it. He provides the welcome as a gate for the sheep in need of protection, security, comfort and peace. We are the sheep – we are the ones who need a respite from the darkness, where thieves and robbers are lurking.
What are the thieves and robbers that are out to take our joy? What are the things of the world that work to draw our attention away from Jesus Christ? Is it stress, or worry, fear, addictions, busyness, all-of-the-above? This is part of our year-long focus on ‘What Weighs You Down.’ In other words, what is keeping you from a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ? It is easy to get caught up in so much we tend to neglect our communion with Jesus, the good shepherd. We get so distracted perhaps we miss the calling of the shepherd. Maybe we begin to believe all the negative comments and actions of others to the point where we cannot hear how much we are valued and loved by God. We forget that God cares so much for us God sent God’s son to earth in order to relate to us in a very special way – like a good Shepherd who knows his sheep.
The occupation of shepherd was considered one of the lowest status jobs. Often shepherds would sleep outside in the fields with their sheep, therefore according to Jewish law, shepherds were always considered unclean. That would make them outsiders – those not welcomed into any fellowship. While out in the fields, sheep would need to be ‘penned in’ for the night, so the shepherd would seek out a place with limited access, possibly a rock formation or cave in order to protect the sheep from predators, both animal and human. Once the sheep were placed in this area, the shepherd would lie down in front of the opening and become the gate. This was the ultimate protection for the sheep and a powerful image for us – Jesus laying down his life for us, his sheep.
Shepherds would routinely put themselves in harm’s way in order to save the sheep. Other scriptures refer to the difference between shepherds and hired hands. Hired hands would not take on predators or fight off thieves. Hired hands would simply step aside, save themselves, and let whoever or whatever was lurking to prey on the flock. But shepherds see things all too differently. Shepherds see themselves as fully responsible for the flock. Shepherds care enough about the flock to spend time with every sheep so that the sheep know who their shepherd is and will follow only that one. Shepherds would challenge anyone or anything that would attempt to harm his sheep.
Many have raised the question of why God saw the need to send Jesus to earth as a baby, only to have him crucified in a most heinous fashion. Was this really the only way to save humanity from sin? Would God not have been able to wield some power that would have been a lot easier and more efficient? What we see in the relationship of shepherd to sheep is a parallel to God’s desire for a relationship with God’s people. As human beings we have the freedom of choice – we can choose to follow God or not. We can choose to know the shepherd as our gate of welcome in Jesus Christ, through prayer and reflection, studying God’s word and caring for others. Or we can choose to stay out in the field, as sheep outside the comfort and care of the shepherd, keeping our hearts and minds closed to the love God offers.
Humans in general take great pride in doing things on our own. We look back at our accomplishments in our work, our families, our children’s achievements, and stand tall knowing it was all because of us. Yet in our times of quiet reflection, (for some of us that only occurs just before sleep) in those times perhaps we feel the calling of welcome that God provides to each of us. It is that message that we do not have to bare the burdens of life alone. It is that message of celebration with us, showing us we are not alone even in our greatest achievements or our greatest sorrows. It is a welcome like an open door to all the wonders of heaven – on earth as it is in heaven.
I recently spent time with extended family. My husband’s sister is 16 years younger than he is so her children are in elementary and middle school, so it’s very much like another generation. Her three boys are involved in sports, play instruments, and are active in school events when school is in session. When we chose the location for our family reunion, we talked about having access to multiple activities to fill our time. What we found was a desire for downtime. We found that busyness had taken hold of most of us and we just enjoyed spending time with each other. We watched the women’s world cup with the USA beating Japan (most of us do not follow soccer at all.) We spent time listening to music and sharing stories, lifting each other up, and grieving losses of those no longer with us. We spent time in reflection and yes, listening to God and feeling God’s presence as we supported one another. We spent little time doing more stuff because we are all caught up with doing too much.
Every now and then we need to be reminded that the shepherd as our gate is welcoming each of us into the fold of joy, peace, love, and safety. The thieves of the world are ready to drain us of any joy we may be able to carry. The robbers known as criticism, prejudice, hatred, fear, depression, anxiety, addiction, are all attempting to steal your relationship with your Maker. But the gate, our shepherd, has already laid down his life for you, noting you are more valuable that the birds of the air or the lilies of the field. Our gate, Jesus Christ, the son of God, has noted just how valuable you are and seeks to know you in a real and personal way. “I am the gate [for the sheep.] 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.” Amen.