Tuesday 21 August 2012

Knowing our sheepness (John 10:11-18)

I had the privilege of speaking to the brothers and sisters at the English Congregation of the London Chinese Alliance Church last weekend from a passage in John’s gospel where Jesus reveals himself as the good shepherd. Compared to Jesus’ other “I am” statements, this one stands out as unique in that it doesn’t simply show us who Jesus is - to help us know him better, to worship him better, to see him clearer - this passage actually gives us a glimpse into how Christ sees us - as his sheep. That was the theme of my talk, “Knowing our sheepness.”

In order to do that, Jesus tells us that we have to know three things: (1) We have to know who our shepherd is, (2) We have to acknowledge our sheepness (and that isn’t as complimentary as you might think), and (3) Jesus wants us to be more than just sheep and he shows us how.

1. Know your shepherd

Sheep were valuable to their shepherds. This was before there were banks where you could safely deposit all your money. In the ancient world, all the shepherds had were invested in these livestock, such that every single sheep in the flock mattered to the shepherd. That is why earlier in the chapter Jesus talks about the thief and the robber climbing in the back gate to try to steal the sheep. If you went home today and found that your house had been broken into (this is just an analogy by the way, I really hope this doesn’t happen), you would expect the robbers to take your stereo, TV, computer, iPod, money. You would not expect them to run off with your pet cat (“They’re taken Fluffy!”) But these thieves and robbers run off with sheep which were valuable - for its wool and for its meat. Incidentally, in another parable told by Jesus, the one where the shepherd goes out to search for his one lost sheep, leaving behind the ninety-nine, illustrates this same point. They actually did that. If you drop a one-pound coin, you don’t say to yourself, “It’s OK, I’ve got ninety-nine other pounds in my wallet.” You go after it. (At least if you’re Chinese, you do!)

The sheep were valuable to the shepherd. They were his treasure. And Jesus is saying to us, his sheep, that we matter that much to him. Here is the Lord over all creation, who owns all the gold in all the mines, all the money in all the banks, saying, “If you want to see my treasure, here they are: Sheep!” The same cannot be said, however, of the hired hand. The hired hand might be doing the job of the shepherd - he looks after the sheep - but unlike the shepherd, has no attachment to the sheep. In fact, Jesus says, the hired hand cares nothing for the sheep. The hired hand is simply doing a job.

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
John 10:12-13

Sadly, many churches don’t get this. If I were speaking to a roomful of bankers and said to them, “Here’s your CEO. He’s going to be a fantastic CEO. He’s going to run the company well, generate huge profits, expand into new markets... you are going to love your new CEO. However, if the company collapses, he’s going to look for another job. If you stop giving him his bonuses, he will jump ship.” All the bankers and investors will say, “Of course! That makes sense. That’s what we would do.” No surprises there!

But with churches it’s a different story. They hit a rough patch, the pastor splits, and everyone goes, “What’s happened? How could he leave us?” They don’t get it. What they had was not a shepherd but a hired hand. The hired hand sees trouble and bails. We will take a look at what it means to be a faithful shepherd in just a moment, but for now, I want to talk about us as sheep - about our responsibility as the church. What are we looking for? Just another guy to do a job? The candidate with the best CV? Someone to babysit the English congregation? Someone to keep the chair warm until we find “the One”? In other words, when we think of a Christian leaders responsibility as no different from that of an Managing Director of a company, there to run the programs and keep the boat afloat, we miss something vitally important about what the shepherd is there to do in the first place: to fight off the wolves. We forget that the sheep face real mortal danger.

When the apostle Paul said goodbye to the church in Ephesus, I wonder if he wasn’t thinking of these very words of Jesus. In Acts 20, he says to the elders, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Here is the senior founding pastor saying goodbye to his church telling his people they are going to have it rough once he leaves. Paul doesn’t mince his words. Why? Because the danger was real. Because the wolves were always there. And the last thing he wanted to drum into the heads of their leaders was, “Don’t take this for granted! Be shepherds! Lead the flock. Protect the sheep.”

Jesus says he is not a hired hand, he is the good shepherd (notice the definite article “the”). Jesus doesn’t merely risk his life for the sheep, he lays it down.

The question I want to ask you is: Who is your shepherd? Who are you looking to for direction in your life? Is it someone who will be there with you when things get tough? Will that person give his life for you? If he is only there as long as it’s convenient for him, he’s not a shepherd. If he’s only there as long as make it worthwhile, as long as everything is smooth-sailing, he’s not a shepherd. You know this. And yet, some of us actually prefer hired hands to shepherds. The hired hand is someone we employ, and therefore someone we control, someone who has to listen to our orders because we pay him to do the job we hired him to.

If Jesus is the shepherd, he owns us, we don’t own him. He speaks to us and we follow his instructions. Friends, who is your shepherd? Do you even have one? Jesus says he is the only shepherd you can fully trust with your life, because he lay down his.

2. Know your sheepness

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.
John 10:14

When Jesus calls us sheep, it’s not exactly a compliment. Sheep are stupid. Any other domestic animal - think of your pet dog or cat - if they got lost, the dog or the cat would adapt. They would learn to live in the wild. They would do OK on their own. Either that, or they would use their tracking skills and eventually find their way back home.

Sheep aren’t like dogs and cats. They’re helpless. When sheep get lost they either (1) stay lost, or (2) get eaten. They just wander around aimlessly. If the shepherd turns up looking for it, the silly thing runs away. Furthermore, they’re totally defenceless in the wild. Even chickens are better survivors than sheep!

Now many of us hear Jesus calling us sheep and think that it means he is saying how cute and cuddly we are. Actually, what Jesus is describing is how lost, how helpless, how troublesome and yes - how stupid - we are. That’s our sheepness; and the truth is, most of us probably don’t get it. So here, when Jesus says “I know my sheep,” what is he saying? Jesus is telling us how he sees our hidden sheep - all the stuff we’re embarrassed to let our friends know, all the stuff we are ashamed of, all our sinful thoughts, all the stupid things we ever did. Jesus sees all that is in us as sheep, and he still says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” That’s amazing! But the point is: We don’t see. We don’t see our sin, and therefore, we don’t see him as our saviour.

Here, it is worth saying something about the background to this passage. In the previous chapter (John 9), Jesus had just healed a blind guy. It was a big deal. This guy had been blind since birth, Jesus healed him, and this actually caused the guy to get into trouble with the religious police. They kept hammering the guy because Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath which was a big offence in their eyes. All he knows is, he used to be blind, then Jesus healed him (these words were later adapted into a hymn called, “Amazing Grace,” - the line where it says, “I once was blind, but now I see”).

Anyways, by the end of the chapter, Jesus bumps into the guy, reveals that he’s the Son of Man, and the guy worships him. But then Jesus saying something really controversial. He says, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39) Jesus didn’t simply come to open blind eyes. In judgement, Jesus also closes seeing eyes. The religious teachers immediately say to him, “Are we also blind?” to which Jesus answers, “If you were blind,you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” What kind of blindness has Jesus really come to deal with? The religious teachers knew it wasn’t physical blindness. It was spiritual blindness.

Spiritual blindness is the theme of the chapter. Jesus has come to save those who are humble enough to see their own guilt by revealing himself as their saviour. Or to put it another way, Jesus reveals himself as the shepherd to those who recognise their sheepness. The whole of Chapter 10 is a response that Jesus gives to the religious leaders who don’t want Jesus as their shepherd because they refuse to acknowledge that they need to be led. Do you recognise your sheepness? Do you see your sin?

Jesus says he knows his sheep but he also tells us that his sheep know him. They recognise him. How? His sheep listen to his voice.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 10:16

Some of you might be wondering: How can I hear Jesus’ voice? You might even be praying earnestly to God, “Lord, I wish I could hear you.” That’s a good prayer, by the way; One which God loves to answer. And yet, when Jesus tells us that his sheep hear his voice, we need to remember that it is the voice of the shepherd leading his sheep. Earlier on in verse 2, Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice and he leads them out. The shepherds in Jesus’ day didn’t use sheepdogs. It wasn’t like cattle, where the farmer would go, “Yee ha!” and drive the cattle from behind (or use a whiplash - Whhhtisssh!!!). The shepherd was in front, not at the back. And his sheep followed his voice. That’s the voice of Jesus we need to listen out for as sheep; his voice leading us every step of the way.

Many of us only come to Jesus when we’re in trouble. “Lord, tell me what to do, I’ll do it.” That’s not listening to the shepherd. Sheep have to follow the shepherd every step of the way. Some of us want Jesus to speak detailed directions to us. That’s not what the shepherd does. He doesn’t say to his sheep, “Go up the mountain, down the ridge, follow the river, and I’ll see you home by six o’clock.” No, the shepherd goes ahead. The sheep keep listening out for him, “There’s the master. I need to follow him. There he is.” Every step of the way.

Are you listening out for his voice? Now, I didn’t say, “Are you hearing his voice.” You might, and Jesus does speak to us at times, especially clearly to remind us who he is. But that’s not what I asked. Are you listening out for Jesus? Meaning: Are you always looking out for the master, the shepherd - obeying him. Following him. Jesus says his sheep listen to his voice.

But the point of verse 16 is Jesus telling us that he has got other sheep. Sheep not from this sheep pen. Different sheep who are his sheep. And Jesus says, “I must.” Did you hear that? I must bring them also.

It is a very risky thing to have a big sign in front of our church that reads, “Chinese Church.” Why? Because if we preach the gospel, if Jesus’ voice is heard clearly, if we tell our friends about the shepherd, do you know what will happen? Sheep will come in. Not our sheep, other sheep. But if they follow Jesus, they are his sheep.

It is good and godly to witness to our Chinese friends in Cambridge. But what about the other sheep? Do you see your non-Chinese friends and go, “Maybe?” Or do you go, “Must.” Jesus says there are other sheep, non-Jewish sheep, non-Chinese sheep, who need to follow him. He will call them. And he says to us, he must; Jesus must bring them in.

3. How to be more than sheep

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from my Father.
John 10:17-18

These verses tend to get left out of bible studies. I think I can see why. There’s nothing there about sheep or the good shepherd. There’s nothing there about us: only Jesus going on and on about his relationship with his Father. But you see, that’s why these verses are the most important. Jesus wants us to be in a real relationship with him. He doesn’t want us to stay sheep. He turns us into sons. The question is: How?

Jesus lays down his life. Did you notice how he keeps saying that? Each time he introduces himself, “I am the good shepherd,” he qualifies that statement, he defines the good shepherd, as someone who “lays down his life for the sheep.” He did that twice in verses 11 and 14. But here in the final two verses, Jesus really cranks up the volume. “I lay down my life... I lay it down of my own accord... I have authority to lay it down.” What is he saying? Instinctively, a lot of us are thinking, especially if we know anything about the bible, “Duh! It means Jesus is gonna die. It means Jesus is going to the cross.” It’s actually more than that.

The word describing the “laying down” of Jesus’ life (tithemi) means taking something that is upright and not simply knocking it over - the way you might knock over a cup of coffee in the morning at the breakfast table - that’s not what it’s saying. To lay something down, means to intentionally, purposefully place it in that low position. The word can even mean “foundation,” as in the parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock which withstood the rising waters; there in Luke Chapter 6, Jesus says, the man built a “foundation” (themelios) in the rock.

The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and it’s not something unforeseen that shepherd has to do this. No, Jesus says, “I have authority.” It wasn’t unplanned; “This command I received from my Father.” Jesus wasn’t forced; “I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus is telling us that the cross was planned. The cross was purposeful. The cross was given him by his Father as a privilege, a charge, a command, and he willingly, obediently, humbly went to the cross and lay down his life for the sheep.

Now, something extraordinary is going on here, because what Jesus is saying is the shepherd is taking the place of the sheep (In fact, Jesus uses the word huper in verse 11, which means “in place of” or “instead of”). It is a substitution: the life of the sheep for the life of the good shepherd. If you look at Isaiah Chapter 56, you will see there what I think is the clearest and most profound statement of what this means, and I wonder if Jesus wasn’t referring to these promises from Isaiah. Listen to what it meant for Jesus to take on our sheepness.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
Isaiah 53:6-7

On the cross, Jesus didn’t simply just die. He was oppressed. He was afflicted. And yet, like a sheep, like a lamb, he opened not his mouth. He humbled himself to the point of death. He lowered himself to die a painful, humiliating, sin-bearing death he did not deserve. The good shepherd lay down his life.

Don’t you see. Jesus Christ took on our sheepness, he took our place by bearing our sin, so that in him and through his death on the cross, we might be more than sheep. We become sons and daughters of God. That’s why he talks about his relationship with the Father. He wants us to have that same relationship but the only way that can happen, is through the cross. Jesus Christ leads us to his Father by leading us to the cross. There we see our sin. There we see our Saviour.

What does this mean for us?

Firstly, know your shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd. He owns you. He loves you. He lays down his life for you. Don’t settle for the hired hand. Follow Jesus, every step of the way.

Secondly, know your sheepness. We’re sinful, we know that. But you know what? Jesus knows that even better than we do, and he still tells us that he is willing to lay down his life for us. There is a part of us that always wants to run from God, even when the shepherd turns up to save his lost sheep. We struggle, we fight back, we question his goodness. We need to trust Jesus and see what he is doing in our lives: He is bringing us home to his Father and he is rejoicing over us.

But lastly, be more than sheep. Jesus lays down his life. We should too. Those of us who have been given any form of responsibility or authority need to understand that it’s given us as the privilege of laying it down. We’re not to take advantage of the sheep. We’re not to make ourselves comfortable at the expense of the sheep. We lay it down. Jesus lay down his life on the cross. He humbled himself. He lowered himself. And that’s where we need to meet him, in his obedient submission to the Father, in his substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf. At the cross, the shepherd became a sheep; Christ became the lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world - and in doing so, transforms his lowly sheep into sons of the kingdom. That’s where we need to be: at the cross, in his death, in Christ alone.

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

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