John 10: 1-11


When babies enter this world they generally need at least two things in addition to proper food: one is to be feel secure. A baby is born; he or she may be placed in the mother’s arms, but then they are always wrapped in some kind of receiving blanket. They left the security and warmth of the mother’s womb and came into a world that is drastically different. Birth has some traumatic aspects to it, but one thing a child will want is security. Have you noticed how a nurse wraps the baby up in the receiving blanket? The baby is wrapped quite securely to give him or her the warmth and security they need. We need comfort, security, protection, and touch. Perhaps you remember studying the work of American psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1930s. He obtained rhesus monkeys, exposing some of them to touch and being held; others he fed and kept clean by mechanical means.  Not only did the baby monkeys that were held and touched thrive, the ones not touched actually failed to thrive and develop properly, even though they were fed.  In addition, the monkeys clearly imprinted on their mother, recognizing her face apart from every other face. The monkeys fed mechanically had no such opportunity. It is clear that security, and the face of parents, and the voice of parents, soothes and comforts the baby who gets to know the ones who offer that care and protection. The second thing babies need is protection; to feel safe. Security and protection go hand in hand throughout life. It is not just Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoons who carries around a blanket; many children, who are also well loved and protected, latch onto a security object.  It is natural. Through life many children, youth, and adults like to be held by someone special. Even at the end of life, human contact is so important even as it gets to be more difficult.

Today in John chapter 10, Jesus is offering grown men, and the crowd that is with them, images that hearken back to their deepest human needs. Years earlier in the book of Exodus, God was asking Moses to carry out the very important task of letting his people go. Moses replied: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your forbearers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses “I AM WHO I AM” which in Hebrew are the letters YHWH.  Fast forward to John’s gospel; John includes many things Jesus said that are called the “I am” sayings. It is a reminder that God-I AM-is a part of him; but also they are descriptive sayings Jesus says about himself. Let’s look at the passage.


In John chapter 10 we read: “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.” Jesus has an audience that knows something about what a shepherd did; we need a little explanation. At night a shepherd will generally corral his sheep in or around the entrance of a cave that he has thoroughly checked for animal predators or human bandits. Only when the sheep sense that their shepherd is sure that all is well will they lie down to rest. Sheep are skittish and nervous without a calm and protecting shepherd. The protected place he chooses he calls the “sheepfold.” It is too hard to protect 360 degrees by himself at night, so he places himself at the most vulnerable area, and never fully sleeps. He is alert and watching and listening. There is not actually a gate; he is the gate; it will be only over his dead body that somebody will harm his sheep. He will give his life for his sheep. Now do you see the beginnings of the analogy between a good shepherd and Jesus? Verse two: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” That is, no one else is permitted to come close to them; sheep only respond calmly to the face they know and the voice they recognize. Anyone, or anything else, startles them. And startled sheep don’t eat, they can lose weight, and their fur coat can get thin. The shepherd’s job is so important! If there is a gatekeeper in a ranch-like setting, he knows that shepherd and lets him in to see his sheep. “The sheep then hear his voice, he calls them by name, and he leads them out.” (verse 3) “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Do you hear those important words: “he goes ahead of them;” does it remind you of Jesus going “ahead” of us to Heaven? And the sheep “follow” him.  Jesus asked disciples to “follow him” as well. “Sheep will not follow a stranger.” With human freewill, how many people have gotten into trouble following a stranger? But with sheep, the shepherd says in so many words: “I’ve got you. Settle down. It’s just me.”


So Jesus is the gate. But he goes further: “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “What does that get us? We have learned: it gets us security and protection. But now we learn one other thing: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (verse 11) This is seen particular with new mothers in the animal kingdom. I just heard again this week of a mother hawk swooping down and drawing blood from the heads of passersby because her newborns are in the nest. She is protecting them. We know mama bears can be the fiercest of all animals when she is protecting her cubs. And you’ve heard of human parents willing to give their life for the sake of their child. It’s quite a gift, and our good shepherd provides it for not just “his sheep;” according to verse 7 and 11. He is for the sheep, not just his sheep. The same is true of Jesus’ death; it was a means of taking away the sin of the world; not just the sins of his flock. John himself recorded it in chapter 1 verse 29: John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and told his disciples: “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is for the world even if we’d just like him to just be for his sheep. He is bigger than that; he is more expansive than that. He is more loving than that. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And so he is. Thanks be to God that we have been given such a good shepherd. Otherwise, all we, like sheep, will easily go astray.


Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, also is the author of a book called The Lord is My Shepherd. In it he says: “To say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world, ever mindful of all the bad things that might happen to us and to those around us. The philosopher William James writes of ‘the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.’ But despite it all, we can get up every morning to face that world because we know that there is Someone in that world who cares about us and tries to keep us safe….The primary message of the twenty-third Psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us….but we will be able to face the world with more courage and more confidence because we will not be facing it alone.” (Alfred A. Knoff, 2003, p.15)


In Psalm 23 David said to God: “Thou preparest a table before me.” Today this table has been prepared for you. Prepare to eat; prepare to give thanks for Jesus; and realize how good it is to be in the flock of the good shepherd.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 7, 2017

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