When we let children go out to play, or maybe when they start walking to school, what is one of the key rules we drill into their heads? “Don’t talk to strangers!” We want to protect our children. As adults we know there are some scary people out there, and we think they may have an interest in our children. There are stories of child abductions in the news far too often, and it scares us that this could happen with our own.
So we tell them to travel in groups, to stick to main streets, and we make sure they know the safe places they can go if they need help. We inform our children about how to make safe choices in the world and when we send them off, we hope it is our voice they listen to, and not the voice of people they meet on their adventures.
But of course, they get older, they get more independent, they make more choices for themselves. At the same time, it seems like the pressure is also turned up. Their friends start trying new things and want them to join in. Things that may not always be the best choice. As adults we know the dangers of drugs, we know the dangers of driving too fast, we know the dangers of going places where there could be problems. These temptations are not coming from the mouths of strangers, these are coming from their friends. Its’ harder to say “no” to friends.
Jesus warns us this morning about listening to other voices. He uses the example of the sheep in the pen. He tells how robbers will climb the fence in an effort to steal the sheep. They don’t use the gate because that’s where the shepherd sleeps, keeping an eye on the flock.
During the day, the sheep follow the shepherd around the fields. The shepherd would have a plan to take them to a field where the sheep would be able to graze on good quality grass so they wouldn’t eat things that aren’t so good for them. Because the shepherd spends 24 hours a day with his flock, they are trained to follow his voice as he leads them from feeding spot to feeding spot. If someone came and tried to lure the sheep away, they wouldn’t follow him since they would not know the strangers voice.
As Jesus shared this thought, of course people didn’t understand exactly what he was talking about. This example made sense to them, they probably had some sort of understanding of how shepherding works, but they seemed to have trouble understanding why Jesus told this story.
Before we can begin to dig into the story we need to look at where we are in the Gospel of John. We’ve been jumping in and out of the book over the last couple of months, so it’s good to figure out where we are in the life of Jesus which led him to tell this story about the shepherd and the sheep.
Immediately before this happens is the story of the blind man whom Jesus healed by covering his eyes with mud and sending him to wash. This man, you may remember we looked at not too long ago in Lent. He was questioned by the Pharisees about who Jesus is. The Pharisees are trying to figure out how they can catch Jesus breaking the rules. Right before Jesus shares his story with us today, he has suggested that maybe it is the Pharisees who are blind, and not the man who was born blind.
In this story he tells today, Jesus is warning of thieves and robbers who threaten to come and take what belongs to the shepherd. The voices who seek to distract the sheep from their leader’s voice, who is leading them to places which will give them sustenance, safety and life. I think now you are starting to see why Jesus has shared this story.
It’s no question Jesus and the Pharisees did not see eye-to-eye on how things should be done in regards to doing God’s work. The Pharisees took care of the laws and made sure everyone was following them. Over time the laws became increasingly strict and made it difficult to do much to help other people. You couldn’t talk to them, touch them, or be seen with those who were declared unclean.
Jesus preferred another approach. He preferred to walk with the unclean, to touch them, to talk with them, and he preferred to heal them. This caused a lot of tension to say the least.
It’s easy to blame the Pharisees for all the troubles that are going on. And as you read the Gospel of John, they certainly aren’t shown in a positive light. Sure, they aren’t doing what Jesus says we need to be doing. Sure they aren’t helping as much as they should. Sure they look like the are protecting themselves at the expense of others. It’s true too! But it’s the way it’s always been done. They are just the current holders of all the rules that they have been taught by the men who were Pharisees before them. The system remains constant, nothing has changed. They are the leaders of the community and they have been handed the right to stand above the peasants and direct them as to how they should live. It has become their job. What once was the profession of interpreting scriptures for the coming Messiah has become a legal position.
The problem Jesus sees is that they are not doing the right job. Just because it’s the tradition that has been handed down to them doesn’t mean they have to keep it up. It doesn’t mean that just because it’s been done this way for generations it has to keep being done this way.
It’s been misinterpreted in the beginning and continues to be misinterpreted while Jesus walks the earth. So Jesus puts himself in the place of the shepherd. Jesus points out he is the one voice to follow and will lead his sheep, his people, to abundant life.
The concept of the stranger in the story is interesting because the Pharisees are certainly not strangers. People certainly know who they are. So how are they strangers? Are they then strangers to Jesus because they don’t follow the way God intended everything to be? This may be more accurate, I believe.
When we tell our kids not to talk to strangers, we are doing the right thing. We don’t know everyone’s motives when they attempt to talk to our kids. So we are protecting them. The interesting statistic is that many abductions are done by people known to the child. A friend, a neighbour, maybe even a family member.
In high school, our teens are tempted by their friends. They don’t decide to try drugs or to drink on their own or by being asked by a stranger, it’s peer pressure which puts them in these situations.
Were the robbers and thieves unknown in the explanation Jesus gave for his story? They were not. They were attempting to lead the sheep, the people of God, and they were taking them away from their true leader, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Who is leading us away from God? What are the things in our lives which are distracting us from following the voice of Jesus who is calling us to abundant life? Who is coming in to trick us into following them instead of Jesus Christ? Taking us away from this abundant life he brings.
Jesus is our shepherd. He is the one who lovingly cares for us, wanting to protect us from the things that will hurt and even destroy us.
The world today is full of voices, so many more than back then. We now are surrounded by voices 24 hours a day with television, radio, internet, from so many different sources and view-points. We can be pulled in so many different directions we may not know what to do with ourselves.
Jesus is still speaking to us. When we open our bibles the pages are full of messages for us to let sink in and make part of us as we seek to be faithful to our God. But there is now this great noise of voices which seems to so easily drown out the one voice we really need to hear.
It’s not easy.
But it’s important.
If we believe Jesus to be who he says he is, then this is very important. Hearing his voice above all others is of critical importance because the consequences are death.
By coming to Jesus Christ, who calls himself the gate by which we will be saved, we are entering into a relationship with the one who gives life. Had we read the next couple of verses this morning, we would have heard Jesus say that he is the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for us. Everyone else will run away in the time of our deepest need, but Jesus will not. When our lives are threatened, Jesus is there, standing in the path of our attackers, just like a shepherd will stand between his sheep and the wolf.
Jesus is our guide, the one who leads us into the path of life, the gate by which we enter the kingdom of God when it’s our turn to leave this world.
Hear his voice. Learn to tune out the other voices and focus on his. Avoid the strangers’ voices who seek to hurt us, or to use us for their own gain. Listen to Jesus, his words give us life.
His words are words of hope, love, and life everlasting. No one else can give us these things but God himself, who gave us Jesus Christ so that we may know the great love and mercy he so freely gives.
By hearing his words, we can come to see just how easy it is to receive this gift.