1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
EASTER GREETING: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!
I have a confession to make. I don’t know much about sheep. I know; maybe that’s not the best confession for the start of a sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday. But I have a feeling that is a common thought among most Americans.
Here’s my experience: I remember a farm of sheep outside of Watertown, WI where I grew up. Whenever we would drive to Milwaukee or when I was on a longer run on that country road I always remember seeing those sheep. There weren’t many, but I remember thinking sometimes how simple it must have been for that farmer. There was a fence around a couple acres of grass. That was it. Maybe the farmer had to call in the shearer to cut the sheep’s wool once a year, but besides that it didn’t look that tough. I don’t even know if I would call a present day farmer who has sheep under his care a shepherd. Their job is pretty easy.
That’s the way we Americans think about sheep and shepherds, but that is not even close to the way people in Old and New Testament times thought about sheep and shepherds. Lush grassy fields covering the landscape did not exist in Israel. There were no places to put up fences outside of town and let the sheep eat their fill every day in serene safety. Judea was a dry, arid, rocky, and rolling place. Shepherds had to take their flock out into the wilderness, over rocky and threatening terrain, where they would graze on hillsides for little pieces of grass here and there. The sheep were exposed to danger and attacks could come from any direction so shepherds had to keep a watchful eye at all times. They had to protect the sheep from danger. Shepherds back then had to work – hard.
No wonder the idea of a shepherd watching over sheep was such a beautiful picture for the people living in Israel. No wonder the kings of the Old Testament were called shepherds over God’s people. No wonder Jesus used this concept of sheep and shepherds to describe who is he and what he does.
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s also Confirmation Sunday for Emmy. What a fitting day it is for this celebration, where the Church rejoices in our Good Shepherd, Jesus. He doesn’t leave us alone in this wild world, but guards us, guides us in our journey, and leads us safely to his eternal home. It’s such a good thing, because sheep need shepherds.
The interesting thing in this section of John 10, also known as the Good Shepherd chapter, is that Jesus is not yet calling himself the shepherd. We are most certainly the sheep, but in the first 10 verses of this chapter, Jesus refers to himself as the gate for the sheep pen – the only way in to the safe place where the sheep could rest for the night.
Sometimes the shepherds in countryside nearby would keep watch over the flocks at night. Does that sound familiar? Yes, like on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But if the flocks were well watered, they had found enough little clumps of grass during the day, and they were close enough, the shepherd could take his flock to the sheep pen. This isn’t like the that modern sheep farm I saw growing up in Watertown, WI. The sheep pen wasn’t the place for feeding or drinking. It had one purpose, protection. It had high enough walls that kept out wild animals looking for a meal and safely kept the sheep in. There was only one way for the shepherds to get their sheep in or out, through the gate. And, as Jesus says, there was a watchman at the gate, who would only allow access to the shepherds of the sheep.
Jesus is the gate. He’s the one who opened heaven to us by living in our place. He took our punishment on himself to free us from the destruction of sin. He rose from the dead to show us the victory was won. Death holds no power. We have life in the safety of the Father’s sheep pen forever. The only way in – THE ONLY WAY – is through the gate, through Jesus, the Savior who conquered sin, death, and the devil for us.
All of this protection was necessary not just because of wild animals, but also because of thieves and robbers. Sheep were valuable back then. It was an agriculture, animal based economy. Their wool made clothing. Sacrifices were a huge part of worship that God had set up for his people, and sheep were needed for those sacrifices. Owners of flocks were always looking to add to their business. If you had bigger, healthier flocks you were successful. And so sheep and lambs were sought after.
We are sought after, too. God wants us, but so does the devil. And the devil has a lot of thieves and robbers looking to carry out his evil purposes. They want your heart and your mind and your allegiance, but what they don’t want is Christ. They won’t come through him. They are trying to sneak over the wall and get you away from God and the safety of his sheep pen.
That can include friends or even family members, who don’t really think you need to hear God’s Word and praise his name that much. “It’s not that big of a deal, you know all that stuff already,” they say. The thieves and robbers can include your devices and the internet and anything else that is trending. These things call for you attention, but they don’t use Christ.
These thieves and robbers can even come from religion. That’s the point Jesus was making to the Pharisees. They weren’t shepherding God’s people; they were trying to steal them. Any religious man or church that tries to lead people to God by good works, acts of penance, or through their pockets isn’t using the gate. Anyone who says you can choose your own god or that all paths lead to heaven, is trying to get people away from Jesus. Anyone who denies the Spirit’s power in baptism and communion isn’t trying feed you the way God does. Anyone who uses some but not all of the Bible or adds their own ideas to it, is not using the voice of Christ. These thieves and robbers come “only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Today, is a good day to remember just how much sheep need a shepherd. There are so many voices out there and even coming from within these sinful hearts of ours who want to steal us from Jesus and destroy us for eternity. The sad part is we have to often listened to the voices of the thieves and robbers. We have gone astray. We have wandered from the safety of the sheep pen. When God says, “watch out” and “keep away” we don’t listen. Like dumb lambs we go our own way.
But there’s one voice that will always be different. There’s one voice that will always call us. There’s one voice that will rescue us from the dangers of the thieves and robbers. Jesus says, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
That’s the interesting thing about sheep. They might be dumb, they might wander, but there is one voice that will always get them back on track. It’s the voice of the shepherd. Now, if Jesus is the gate, the only way in to the sheep pen, then who is the shepherd? Well, it’s certainly not the one who tries to get your attention away from the gate, right? The shepherd is not the one who promotes your own way. The shepherd is not the one who lets you follow the path to destruction. The shepherd points in the right direction, the right way; the shepherd uses the gate. And sheep know that voice.
I get to be that shepherd. Only by grace, Jesus can use a man like me, not because of some special skills that I have, not because I’m so exceptional, but because I go through the gate. For a shepherd of God’s flock, that’s the single, most important factor: do the sheep hear the voice of Jesus when they listen to me? Do the sheep hear the familiar warnings of God’s law? Do they hear the soothing comfort of God’s gospel? That’s what matters. Does the shepherd take the sheep through the gate, week after week in sermon after sermon, bible study after bible study, counseling session after counseling session, visit after visit, meeting after meeting? Does the shepherd use the gate and only the gate of Jesus? Because there is only one gate for the sheep pen. There is only one voice for the sheep.
That’s what Jesus’ sheep are listening for. That is the voice the confirmation students are getting familiar with during their classes. And that is the voice the sheep constantly are listening for. It’s not just for a couple years. It’s not just during the really dangerous times. It’s not just when they are looking for food or water. Sheep listen to the shepherd all the time, in every situation, because only the voice of the shepherd is familiar and comforting. Only the shepherd knows them each by name.
That voice is not mine. I am not the gate to heaven. I am not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep only to take it up again in victory. That’s Jesus. But the gate lets me be a part of the shepherding. He allows me in because I use the gate. It’s not my voice that is necessary, it’s his. When I speak, I don’t want you to hear my voice or my style, I want you to hear the life-saving comfort of Jesus. I am not perfect. I cannot make everyone happy. But Jesus is and Jesus will fill you with eternal joy. He can do that because he lives now and forever.
Brothers and sisters, and especially you, Emmy, never forget his voice. He calls your name. He calls your name in his Word and Sacrament. He tells you just how much he cares and how he doesn’t want you to get hurt by wandering off. Those other voices might sound popular, sensible, or even exciting, but I can guarantee that they will be strange at the beginning. Don’t listen. Don’t let the voices of this world, of the devil and all his temptations, of your own sinfulness become familiar. Listen to the voice of your Savior.
He has a promise for you that nothing and no one else can give. He says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” See, Jesus doesn’t tie you up with rules and guidelines. He sets you free from sin and guilt with his promise of life. He doesn’t want to keep you from experiencing things, he wants to keep you safe in his sheep pen. His voice calls to a full life through the only gate to heaven. That’s the only place where life can be full.
So listen to him. And when you hear him, you’ll know. It’s the voice that he used to get you out of danger and darkness into his flock. It’s the voice he used to build you up. It’s the voice that he will continue use to feed you and lead you until the day you are safe with him forever.
In his name, Amen.