The gospel of John likes to take the parables of the other three gospels up a notch to be more of a riddle than life lesson. I thought I knew exactly what I was going to preach on today the first time I read the scripture, but the more I read it, the more complicated it seemed.
We like the image of Jesus as the shepherd. It is a warm, intimate, comforting and loving image. But then Jesus says “I am the gate”, a gate keeps the sheep safe but also one that separates the sheep from the world. Then there is the odd phrase that some know his voice but others don’t. Are there some sheep that don’t belong to God? Aren't we all God’s children? Then we have the image of Jesus who came to give us a full and abundant life.
How can all these be true? We aren't the only ones confused. The people listening to Jesus say these words were so confused he had to tell them twice and they still didn't get it. And we as believers have been reading it for thousands of years and still find it confusing and perplexing.
Maybe the confusion comes because we try to think about it too hard. We try to analyze every little detail and in the effort, we miss the big picture. In the passage just prior to this in chapter 9 Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees for being blind to whom Jesus is. Maybe in our effort to study, scrutinize every detail and find the “real” Jesus, we over stimulate our brains and in our efforts to know everything we possibly can, we become blind to what the gospel is speaking to our hearts.
For me the truth in this scripture reading is the very last sentence- “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But this in and of itself is vague and confusing. What does it mean to live life abundantly?
For some, this may mean wealth and luxury or as Robin Leach used to say “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” The freedom to make choices and do whatever to whomever they choose -bar the consequences, eat what they want, buy what they want, work when and where they want, or not work at all. Sleep in and watch TV, find pleasure in whatever way they fancy at the moment.
I have to admit that sounds pretty good to me, maybe that sounds like a good life to you too. Maybe that is your dream life. But this is not what God intends when we are told Jesus wants us to live life abundantly. When we go back to the scripture we realize that all the sheep, those who know the voice of Jesus and those who don’t are all in the sheepfold. They are all hemmed in and there are always limitations to the freedom we experience in that place.
Those who desire to live in abundance outside the will of God are still hemmed in- but by a desire for money, things, the consequences of their ruthless pursuit of the next greatest thing is what traps them in. Maybe they think that the next Dr. Oz show or self-help guru will be what helps them feel fulfilled and loved, or it is the most up to date technology which will make their life easier but in reality they are continuing to run on the hamster wheel of life, bound by the limits of credit, never really going anywhere and this endless pursuit adds stress and worry preventing them from experiencing what God truly desires for them.
It is the sheep who hear and listen to the voice of Jesus, the one true shepherd who are led out of the confines of the pin and into a world of experiences and nourishment beyond the wildest dreams of those still confined.
Maybe it is the unknown of the great big world out there that scares us. We feel safe as long as we are in the confines of this building, our homes and our jobs. We know that there is a nice fence around us to protect us from the dangers “out there” but this is a false sense of security. The analogy in our scripture tells us there will be thieves and bandits who come to steal and kill and destroy, even entering the confines of perceived safety to do so, but it is the shepherd which keeps them safe, not the walls and fences of the pin.
It is a natural tendency to want to stay safe, to not take any chances or not trust that which we cannot see or understand. We want to protect ourselves and those we love. It is scary to take risks on others and on our-selves.
There is a phenomenon in modern day parenting called the helicopter Mom- maybe you know a few. The one who refuses to let their child out of their sight-they are over protective, over cautious, overly worried and they try to create this protective barrier around their child with the hope that they never have to face the disappointments and challenges of life. While I understand this desire, the problem is that this doesn't work. We cannot put ourselves or others in a bubble. They will have their feelings hurt, they will get sick, they will get disappointed, not make the team or get the job they want, and they will have their hearts broken. That is just the way life is.
It takes a leap of faith and a great amount of trust, to let our children go but also to allow ourselves to wander out into the world, following the voice of our shepherd and teaching our children to do the same.
Currently, one of the young adults from this church is on a whirlwind mission experience, 11 countries in 11 months. I am sure when she told her parents and grandparents she wanted to do the world race as a missionary it took every ounce of their being not to lock her in her room and refuse to let her go. Letting your child, no matter how old travel the world without you to protect them is a scary thing. But instead, they decided to pray about it and trust that wherever she goes- God goes with her. And the result has been an amazing transformation of her life; and the abundance she is experiencing could have never been experienced had she decided not to follow the voice of God and stayed in the safety of her home town surrounded familiarity and the people who love her.
Accepting the freedom to roam is a scary thing. It comes with the sacrifice of control, the possibilities of failure, real fear of the unknown and the likelihood that we will make mistakes and others might hurt us and those we love. Taking the risk to live life in abundance with Christ has its rewards but you don’t have to travel the world to partake in this adventure that leads to abundant life.
What it takes is more than just listening to the voice of God and reading the words of scripture- it calls us to action. Jesus isn't calling all of us to travel the world. Some he is simply calling to volunteer to read to school children, mentor a woman at Clean Slate or send cards of encouragement to missionaries or soldiers. The voice of Jesus beckons us to follow him to unknown people and to unfamiliar places so that others too will recognize his voice and find abundant life in him.
Not only is Jesus, the good shepherd, our protector, he is our guide. He leads by example. In the fullness of his life, we see his self-giving sacrifice, his tender approach, kind words and healing touch to all those around him. Love and compassion for all people are the driving force of his life and ministry and He calls us to live a life imitating him, loving those he loves, caring for the poor and the sick, the lonely, the orphan, the elderly, the imprisoned and the sinner.
Abundant life is not simply what we aspire to achieve in the next life. It is something we can experience now. Imitating Jesus is how we live and experience this life to the fullest. It is in loving these, that we can get a glimpse into the love God has for us. And, when we mess up, because we will, Jesus will be there to help us pick up the broken pieces and start again with the grace and love of Christ. Failure is not the enemy, it is the fear of trying something new which prevents us from experiencing the abundance Christ desires for us.
This life is one with abundance of love. It is found not in things but in the intimacy of a relationship with God in which Jesus knows each of the names of the all the children of God and everything about them. It is in this intimate relationship with God and others that we receive life; not just life eternal but life now, in this world, full life with all its ups and downs, in the midst of chaos and fear, reasons for joy and reasons for sorrow and peace knowing that the loving shepherd goes with us through it all.
Those of you who are parents, know this is true. You have tried to shepherd your children to be the best adults they can be. You have witnessed their heart breaks, broken bones and broken spirits. You have witnessed them face the consequences of their own poor choices and live with the consequences of the poor choices of others. You have laughed with them and cried with them, been angry at them and rejoiced with them.
You know that because we are humans, no matter how good of a parent you are, children can’t be protected from everything and God realizes this too. Some of you know first-hand what it must be like for God to be heart broken when your children choose to leave the fold. But because you know the depths of sorrow, you also know the potential for the ecstasy and joy when you see your child make the right decisions, grow from their mistakes, and become stronger because of the adversity they faced.
This is what Jesus intends as he tells us this riddle. Abundant life is not found hiding underneath the bed or behind the door or even within the walls of the church. Abundant life is found when we walk bravely through the gate, trusting that it leads to a place full of wonderful experiences, life giving diversity and nourishing pastures. And trusting that the shepherd goes with us, leading us to an intimate relationship where we know the voice of the shepherd and he calls us by name.
God is calling each and every one of us by name to come out of the sheepfold. Leave the confines of perceived safety into the loving embrace of Jesus. Follow him, encourage others to come along too and experience the abundance of life together.