Staunton Mennonite Church
10“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
We all get those phone calls. The phone rings and the person on the other end of the line says, “Hey Kevin, it’s me.” It’s me? What help is that? Of course it is you, who else would it be? Nobody ever calls and says, “Hey Kevin, it’s you calling.” And is it really easier to say “It’s me” than it is to say “It’s John, Joe, Jack, or Bill”?
I was thinking about this way too much this week, and I wondered what would happen if I called someone that I have never spoken with before, like the president, and said, “Hello George, it’s me.” What would he do? He wouldn’t have a clue who it was, would he?
There is a person that often calls me and says, “it’s me”. And that person is my mother. She can get away with that because I have been listening to her voice since my days in-utero. I know my mother’s voice instantly, and she really doesn’t have to say “It’s your mother calling.” Because I have been listening to her voice for a long time, I recognize it without her needing to identify herself.
Well today we are going to look at the scripture above and we will hopefully find out how to recognize the voice of God, the Good Shepherd, when he is calling us. And hopefully we can see together how we might be able to help others hear the voice of God as well.
Sheep are not the brightest animal in the world. I apologize if that offends anyone, but they are really stupid critters. We had a few sheep as we were growing up for pets, and I think I learned a fair bit about these animals.
Sheep tend to move in groups. This is an instinct that keeps them safe in the wilderness. If one wanders off, the others will follow. But as I said, they are not smart animals. In 2005 a story was run in the Washington Post telling the story of some shepherds in Turkey who had the responsibility to look after a flock of sheep totaling 1,500 head. The shepherds watched in amazement as one of the sheep began walking toward a cliff and fell off. Well what do you think that the other sheep did? They followed the first sheep. Remember, it is in their instincts to stay together as a group. And the shepherds, who I can only imagine lost their jobs after this, watched as each one of the 1,500 sheep walked off the edge of that cliff. Thankfully, only about 400 of the sheep died from the fall. The other 1100 survived because the first 400 broke their fall. (http://www.wfa.org/newsletter/archive/2005/0540_051007/0540_051007.html)
Now that I have told you how stupid sheep are, I feel kind of bad bringing this up. But we find in the Bible frequent references to God’s people being sheep. Now obviously, I believe that we are more intelligent than the average sheep. But we do have a lot of things in common with sheep. We tend to be social beings, gathering together in groups, just like we are gathered here today. And sometimes, we are willing to follow a leader, even if it means our death.
Our scripture for today is one of those instances where God’s people are described as sheep. Jesus tells us in verse one that anyone who does not enter into the pen by the gate is a thief and a bandit. And that makes sense to me. If you see someone climbing a fence to get into someone’s private property, then you probably assume that they aren’t supposed to be there. But the one who enters by going through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He is the one that is supposed to be there. The shepherd isn’t sneaking in, he is able to gain access to the sheep by walking right into the pen.
When this shepherd gets into the pen, he begins to call out to the sheep. See, back in the first century, the shepherd of different herds would take their sheep out during the day into the pastures and hills of the country. But then, when night would come, they would seek shelter and often more than one shepherd with more than one flock would seek shelter at the same place. So when morning came and it was time to take the sheep back out to the pasture lands, they had to separate their sheep from any other sheep. So the shepherd would walk through the herd and call out to their sheep.
Now I don’t think animals really understand every word that humans say. Though I don’t know for sure, I don’t believe that sheep have very large vocabularies. But I do think that they recognize certain pitches and tones. If you come home and your dog has knocked over a potted plant on your white carpet, and you yell at the dog, what happens? They drop their heads, put their tail between their legs and whimper. They may not know exactly what you are saying, but they know that you are mad. Dogs can detect changes in our tone of voice. And I believe that sheep are the same way. They don’t know what we are saying, but the recognize tones and variations in voices. And that is how the shepherd is able to call to his sheep and they know him. They know his voice, the tone, the pitch. Like when my mother calls and says, “Hi Kevin, it’s me” the sheep just recognize the unique nature of the voice of a person that they are familiar with.
Jesus goes on in verse five to say that the sheep will not follow a stranger because they don’t know his voice. In fact, the sheep will run from a strange voice because they recognize the stranger as a possible danger. And you said sheep are dumb.
We as God’s sheep need to recognize his voice in order to discern his will and follow him. The word recognize is important. The prefix “re” means to do something again. If I want to review a book, I am looking at it again. If I watch a rerun on tv, it is on for a second time. So to recognize a voice means to cognize it again. Cognize means to perceive; become conscious of; know (dictionary.com). So for you to recognize God’s voice, you need to first cognize it; you need to first perceive it, become conscious of it; you must first know God’s voice.
We laughed earlier when I said that if I called George W. Bush on the phone and said, “Hey George, it’s me” he wouldn’t have a clue who was calling. He has never cognized my voice, so he could not re-cognize my voice. If you don’t first know someone’s voice, you don’t recognize it when you hear it. It is just that simple.
So how do we learn God’s voice so that we can follow him and not be led astray by false shepherds? I think that one of the first steps is something that you are all doing right now, be a part of the church. It is in the church that we learn to know God’s voice. As we gather together on Sundays and throughout the week, we learn stories of how God has moved in the past, we share our stories of how God is moving in our lives and in the lives of others. We hear people ask for prayers in areas of their lives where they are struggling. We discern together how God is leading us. We discern together God’s voice so that we can continue to recognize it throughout our lives. And like sheep, we might not always be able to hear clearly what God is trying to say to us, but by recognizing aspects of his voice, we can at least identify God moving in our lives.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to first cognize the voice of God in order to then recognize God’s voice. There are other voices that they are much more familiar with, voices that are telling these people that they are the shepherd. Yes Jesus said in verse five that the sheep will not follow a stranger, but they will follow a familiar voice. And the voices of these false shepherds, though familiar to the sheep, can still be destructive. Even when done in the name of religion.
If you have been paying attention to the news these last few weeks, you have probably heard about the polygamous sect compound in Texas that is being searched and raided by government officials because of allegations of child endangerment, incest, and forced marriages. It has been claimed that girls as young as 14 have been made to marry men four times their age, and bear their children. More than 400 children were removed from this sect’s compound and are now under the care of Texas Children’s Protective Services as well as other organizations.
I can’t help but wonder how so many families could be led astray? How could you even think that something like this was okay? It makes me sick, to tell you the truth. All because these people were following a voice that did not belong to God, a voice that belonged to a false shepherd.
If the people had only known the voice of the true shepherd then so much of this would have been avoided. But there is no use in wondering “what if” now for these children. But we are still left to wonder why. Why did God allow this to happen to people that were trying to follow him?
In our scripture we find beginning in verse 7 that Jesus seems to be switching his metaphor a bit. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Now we criticize the disciples sometimes for not getting what Jesus was trying to tell them. They seem to be always missing the point. But I think maybe they had a reason for missing the point, because sometimes Jesus can be downright confusing! So Jesus, are you the shepherd or are you the gate? Which is it? No wonder the disciples were so easily confused.
Well, maybe this isn’t as confusing as we might think. Jesus didn’t have to be the shepherd or the gate, he could be both. When we think of sheep pens, we probably picture split rail fences and a big swinging gate where the animals can go in and out. But in the first century, it was more probable that a shepherd would simply take the sheep into a cave or in a corner somewhere protected on three sides by rock or shrubbery or dense trees. These natural barriers would provide protection for the sheep on three sides as well as keeping the sheep from wandering off.
So what would the shepherd do to keep the sheep from walking right back the way they came into the area? The shepherd would sleep at the opening. That way, anything that came out needed to pass by him. And anything that tried to come into the sheep pen needed to go through him. Lions, bears, coyotes, wolves, sheep poachers, you name it. If it wanted to come in to dine on mutton, it was going to have to go through the shepherd first.
This is how Jesus looks after his sheep. He is willing to lay down his life for those who are his. And indeed, he did just that. But then we have to come back to the question about the teenagers being forced to marry and conceive children against their will. We could probably argue all day and all night as to whether or not this polygamous sect was actually made up of what we might call Christians or not. But the fact is that these people are still children of God. Regardless of what they profess to believe, it is our belief that there is only one God, and as the Psalmist says (24:1) the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. God cares about these children, so why allow such a thing to happen.
Tragic events happen all around us. And I don’t have an answer for why, but it does and it will continue to do so. The famous theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote that there was a time when Christians didn’t question why tragic things happened, tragedy was going to occur. And Christians didn’t question why these things were happening because they were too busy caring for those who had been affected by the tragedy.
I said it isn’t helpful for the children to ask what if. And it probably isn’t going to help us to continue to ask why. So we can begin to ask “what now?”. What can we do to prevent such a thing from happening again? What can we do for the 400 children that were removed from this compound? The first answer I have is the easiest of all, yet perhaps the one we do the most seldom. We can pray.
And when we pray, we are not only asking God to comfort those who have been hurt, but we are also learning to listen to God as well. The more time we spend in prayer, the more we learn to listen to his voice, to recognize him as the good shepherd. When we pray, we shouldn’t just do it for ourselves. But we do gain by strengthening our relationship with God.
The second thing that we can do is to make sure that others know the voice of God as well. Take the things that we are learning here in the church and take them into the public sector of life. Share your struggles and your concerns with others. Help them to know that we as Christians don’t have it all figured out, but that we are still seeking our Lord’s will together. And invite them to join us on this journey as we all seek to hear God’s voice more clearly.
With all of this talk about shepherd and sheep, I am reminded of one more passage of scripture that may be helpful for us today. This one came about 1,000 years before Jesus was born. I am talking about Psalm 23. And for this, I feel like I should turn back to the Bible I grew up with, the King James Version:
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
That is beautiful. The Lord is my shepherd. God will take care of me, give me rest, water, restore my soul, and lead me in the path of righteousness. But we make a huge mistake if we stop reading at the end of verse three.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
God doesn’t always promise that we will be safe. But he has promised that he will be with us. David knew about the valley of the shadow of death when he wrote this Psalm. Little did he know the hardships that would continue to come his way; the attempts on his life by Saul, the loss of his 1st child with Bathsheba, God denying him the opportunity to serve him by building a temple. The life of a king was not all good. There were many more periods of walking through the valley of the shadow of death before him. Yet he was not about to fear evil, because God was always with him.
It might not sound like much comfort to some people when they ask “where was God, where was Jesus when these teenage girls were being raped and forced to bear children for their husbands?” But I believe God was there, crying next to those girls.
As I began preparing the sermon for today, I just happened to come across the story of the sheep walking off the edge of the cliff. And I knew that I wanted to address the tragic situation with the children of the polygamist compound. It just happened that the number of sheep that died when they fell off the cliff and the number of children taken from the compound both numbered around 400. Now I by no mean am implying that these children taken from the compound are a lost cause, but they have been through a lot. And I see two options for us. We can sit back like the shepherd in Turkey that watched the entire flock stroll off the cliff, or we can work in our world to prevent any more from having to go through the same thing.
Choose today what you will do, whether you will sit back and watch others be led off a cliff by false shepherds, or if you will help others to know the voice of the Good Shepherd. But as for me, I want others to know the voice of God. It is my desire that anyone will recognize God without him needing to say anything more than, “Hey, It’s me.” May God’s voice be so easily recognized by his people.