Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Text: John 10:9-10
"I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness".
Shepherd at the gate of his sheep pen in Nazareth

 "I am the gate"

There is one song that every Australian knows and sings with a good deal of gusto - ‘Waltzing Matilda’. It’s a song that is known not only to those in this land but across the globe. I recall booking into a camp site in Hungary and when the camp ground manager took a look at my passport and with the biggest smile said with a strong German accent, ‘Ahh! Waltzing Matilda!’ That was the limit of his English and very excitedly showed us to a camping spot that he kept saying was ‘sehr schon".

It’s rather strange that a song about a swaggie* stealing a jumbuck* and then taking his own life as he jumped into the billabong* when approached by the mounted troopers* has become almost synonymous with the name ‘Australia’.

In this folk song one the landowners many sheep wanders down to the waterhole where the swaggie is camped. Maybe he’s an unemployed shearer always on the lookout for extra tucker* and when he sees the lonely sheep, he grabs it, slaughters it and shoves it in his tucker bag*.

You see, back in the 1890s flocks of sheep numbered in the tens of thousands and the swaggie probably thought that one sheep out of so many would hardly be missed. One jumbuck out of so many was a minor matter – the owner wouldn’t care if a bloke down on his luck grabbed this one lonely lost sheep. There was no personal relationship between the owner and the sheep. The sheep was just a way of making money. It was unfortunate for the swaggie that the troopers, the police were riding by when all this took place.

I’ve chosen to use ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as an introduction to our Bible reading today because it's so opposite to what Jesus has to say in John 10. Back in Jesus’ day and even today in some corners of the world, the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd was something very special. Flocks weren’t all that big and if one went missing it would certainly be noticed. The sheep knew who their shepherd was – all the shepherd had to do was to call them and they would recognise his voice and follow where he was leading. He would give them names that were special to each sheep and when he called Spotty, Fatso, Limpy, Horny, Bossie they knew the shepherd was addressing them.

Jesus says, "The sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. They will not follow someone else".

They needed the shepherd every day and relied on him to care for them. Much of Israel and surrounding countries are very dry and shepherds like the Bedouins live in some of the most desolate places you can imagine.

Shepherd supplies water in otherwise desert countryWater is a major problem for these people and daily they need to take their sheep to where there is grass and water. Even though their flocks are much smaller than we are accustomed to here in Australia, and the quantity of water needed is much less than for a flock of 1,000 sheep, nevertheless the harshness of the country means that the sheep are totally reliant on the shepherd to provide them with this basic requirement. To be honest, I don’t know how they do it – the hills are so bare, the soil so sandy and lacking in vegetation and water is scarce.

At night the shepherd took his sheep to a primitively created pen and camped at the entrance to make sure that they were safe during the darkness of the night. In other words, the shepherd became the door. No sheep could go out and get into danger in the dark and no predator looking for an easy meal could get in through the door. It was the shepherd’s body that became the gate in and out of the sheep fold. It is only by his grace that the sheep either come in or go out.

Likewise if someone or something came over the fence of the pen where the sheep were sleeping, it was clear that this is a predator or a thief and the shepherd would respond immediately. There was only one legitimate way in and only one way out.

When Jesus refers to himself as the gate he is saying something very similar to the time he said, "I am the way, the truth and life. No one goes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6). Jesus says this in the context of him leaving the disciples and dying on a cross. He is going to prepare a place for them in heaven so that they can be where he is. He is promising his disciples that beyond death they will be with him in heaven.

Thomas asks, "That’s all very fine, Jesus, but how do we know how to find our way to where you are going?"
In reply Jesus says, "I am the one who reveals the path to God and opens the door through death to eternal life.
I am the one who provides a way through sin to a holy relationship with the Father.
I am the one who is truthful, loyal, faithful and you can trust me when I say,
"I am preparing a place for you so that you can be where I am".

And again today in the context of the shepherds and sheep in John 10 Jesus says, "I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved".

Jesus is a bit like the gate at an airport.  Of course, there are many gates and many planes at the airport.  If you want to make sure you get where you want to go you have to make sure you get on the right plane and the only way to make sure you get on the right plane is to go to the right gate.  And so it is with Jesus. 

If you want to have eternal life there is only one gate – Jesus Christ. 
For only Jesus Christ has been sent by God to save you from sin, death. He defeated the power that sin has to condemn us and separate us from God forever. 
Only Jesus Christ has died in your place to take the punishment that your sins deserved. 
Only Jesus Christ has cancelled your debt to God. 

We heard from the first letter of Peter before, "Christ himself carried our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. It is by his wounds that we have been healed" (1 Peter 1:24).

No one else in human history can make the claim - "I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved".
There is no other way to be saved. There is no other way to eternal life. There is no other way to be safe under the protection of the shepherd who will not let anything pass by him that will attack and destroy us. With our shepherd watching over us there is nothing to fear as Psalm 23 says,
"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me". 

Jesus says that there is a time for being close together. The flock gathered tightly together is warm and cosy. The sheep pen offers good protection when the storms are fierce, or when winter snow sets in. There are dark times when we need to be hand fed. There are times when the wolves are on the prowl and the flock need to be gathered tightly together around their shepherd. Or when we are bruised and injured and need the loving warmth of the rest of the flock to encourage and support us. But the safe huddle of the flock is not the place where we perpetually hide from the large world.

The shepherd is not just a gate who keeps his sheep safe but he is also the one who leads them out. He goes in front. They follow his voice.

Of course, it’s risky to go outside of the fold and to spread out over the rough terrain and believe me the sheep in Israel live in some very rough country. It is possible to fall into a dry creek bed, to get lost, or be attacked by those looking for an easy meal. It is also possible to become so busy with your nose in the pasture that you do not see the approaching storm or the treacherous ground.

It was risky for the Son of God to come down from heaven and become human. The disciples tried to stop Jesus from taking the risk of going to Jerusalem where his enemies would surely attack him.

I believe we are called in Christ to take risks. The greatest achievements are only attained by taking risks under the oversight of the Good Shepherd. By the work of the Holy Spirit we are reborn and made members of the flock, commissioned to take risks to the glory of God.

The risk might be letting others see our faith in Jesus.
It might mean standing up for God's way even though everyone else has adopted the standards of the community.
It might be sticking your neck out and urging people to be reconciled.
It might mean supporting and being a light to those who are regarded as bludgers, perverts and no-hopers.
It might mean going out of your way to show love and provide assistance to someone you don’t know.
It means being like Christ to the people around you – taking a risk and speaking and doing as Jesus would have – showing the love of Christ even though you don’t know how it will be received.

Jesus is the good shepherd. He is the shepherd who is the gate that keeps his sheep safe. He is our entry to the safety of the sheep pen when trouble and danger are near. Through him we eagerly come in for rest, and through him we dare to go out and take risks. He knows his own sheep by name; we are not a lot of insignificant jumbucks but precious friends individually and personally known to him.

He is the good shepherd who leads us out to pasture; to find nourishment in the dangerous world and to grow strong by it. Those who know his voice will follow. Even when we become lost along the way; when we feel threatened and insecure; when we don’t know which way to turn and what choices to make and when we do make a choice we mess it up, Jesus our good shepherd is walking with us.

Sheep here in Australia are left alone in paddocks. But in my travels through Greece, Turkey and Israel I can hardly recall a time that I saw a flock of sheep without a shepherd nearby – weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, constantly looking over his flock and beyond to see any possible threats, calling his sheep together if they spread out too far, and often with a dog who was equally as zealous when it came to protecting the sheep. It’s no wonder this image of Jesus as a shepherd has had such an impact on people around the world.  "I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me".

For non-Australian readers
* Swaggie or swagman = tramp who carried his swag (his bedroll) on his back.  The swag was often given a female name eg Matilda.
* Billabong = freshwater pond surrounded by trees
* Jumbuck = sheep
* Tucker = food
* Tuckerbag = bag where he kept his food

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
15th May 2011

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