Wolves in Shepherd's Clothing
Text John 10:1-10
4 Easter, A
In reading the text for this morning, I couldn't help but be reminded of two of my old friends Sam and Ralph. Those of you who are familiar with old cartoons might remember them as the sheep dog and coyote who would go to work every day to fight it out over a flock of sheep. They would arrive at the same time, punch in to the same clock and then take up their positions. The coyote would then spend the whole day trying every trick in the cartoon book to get those sheep away from the dog, but somehow the dog always knew what was going on, and never once let him get away with it. When the whistle for the end of the day would blow, they would both stop in their tracks, punch out at the time clock again, say their goodbyes and head home to rest for another round the next day.
Why does this remind me of our text? Like those sheep, there is a struggle going on over you and me. It is being waged day after day all around us. And most days we are simply too busy grazing through this life to look up and see it. But while there are some similarities, the situation we find ourselves in isn't so funny. It is precisely this struggle that Jesus is talking about in our reading from John 10 and all its pictures of gates and sheepfolds, thieves, robbers, and shepherds.
But to better understand what Jesus is trying to say in this text first we must look to the context from which it is drawn. In John 9, we read the story of how Jesus gave sight to a blind man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees tried to use this kindness against Jesus, they end up excommunicating the once-blind man, and Jesus as much as tells them that in their stubborn pride they are more blind than the man whom He had just cured ever was! Things begin to escalate from there and that leads us to these words of Jesus spoken to His disciples, the once-blind man, the Pharisees, and everyone else who happened to be there to hear them.
Knowing all this, Jesus' purpose for saying these words becomes clearer. Firstly, He is calling the disciples, the crowds, the formerly blind man and yes even the Pharisees to hear His voice, recognize His authority and follow Him. He is the true shepherd. Secondly, Jesus is pointing out that “All who came before me were thieves and robbers.” This was particularly aimed at those who were stubbornly opposed to Him. The Pharisees had mistreated and misjudged people. They had used their position of authority for personal gain and recognition, rather than service. And worst of all they had covered the love of God with the laws of man. And in doing so, (and claiming that others must do so) they had led people away from the simple and beautiful truth of God's love for them. They were thieves and robbers ... wolves in shepherd's clothing.
Instead of leading people into heaven by pointing them to Jesus, they had tried to get them there by other routes. They would not go through Jesus, so were more than willing to go over the wall. “Truly, truly I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.” Not only this, but they routinely persecuted Jesus and any who followed Him! Not so much because they were concerned for the lives of the common people, but because they were looking out for their own interests and power. They didn't care who got in the way, or what might happen to them. Just go back and read chapter 9 again to see for yourself. As Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Their only concern for God's flock was for what they could take from it. The Pharisees were wolves in shepherd's clothing.
And it is good for us to head Jesus' warning even today for there are still wolves around, trying to draw you away from Christ. There are teachers out there who will try to lead you in and out through a different door. There are wolves who say that all roads lead to God for all religions worship the same god. In other words, pick a section of the wall, any section you like, and jump for it, since it all leads outside anyway. Not so says Jesus. “Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.” In other words, no one gets safely through to the eternal pastures except by faith in Jesus.
There are other wolves who would tell you to trust in yourself instead. To awaken the potential within you. To realize your true capabilities. To become your own shepherd. But any of the millions of people trapped in cycles of despair and longing can tell you where this approach will ultimately lead. Left to our own potential we are hopelessly lost in no time at all. And then there are the wolves who would try to lead you to pastures other than what God has prepared for you. Heaven can wait, they smoothly say, now is the time to seek out money or security, comfort or respect ... the list is practically endless. Eventually any sheep foolish enough to wander into these pastures will realize that there just isn't enough there to sustain life.
And lest we think we are as innocent as lambs in all this, let's face it, who among us hasn't listened to these wolves from time to time? We get tired of waiting for God's answers so we come up with our own, or follow the one who says they have it already. We figure it can't hurt to do it our way just this once, or we get comfortable in the idea that nothing really matters because no one is in any real danger. You know, there is a reason why Jesus referred to His disciples (and yes that means us too) as sheep. Oh sure, there are some favourable implications in it, but more often than not it is because we are stubborn and willful, mindless followers apt to take the easy way, the path of least resistance.
But God has shown us the gate. He has put us on the right road. He has called us out. Out of the noise and confusion, away from the lies and the misleading ideas. In fact it is so difficult to describe just how much Jesus has done for us that He had to use more than one metaphor to do it. First Jesus tells us that He is the gate. He is the one and only way into heaven. No exceptions, no other way. “I am the door; if anyone enter by me he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” God's promise is that anyone who has faith in Christ will be saved. No matter who they are. No matter what they have done. Those who come into the church by faith in Christ will go on into heaven through that same Lord and Christ.
But Jesus is also our shepherd. “To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Jesus has come to each one of us here and has called us by name. He calls us in our Baptism where He made us a part of holy flock, one of his sheep. And that Good Shepherd still calls to each of His sheep personally through the Scriptures. These are His tender words to his beloved sheep. Words of comfort and words of guidance. Words of rebuke, direction, and forgiveness and joy. They are words that will see us through wherever He is leading us in this life. And like an earthly shepherd, Jesus goes on before us, to lead us, to show us the way. We are never alone. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
That's exactly what Jesus did when He came to earth, and lived the life that we should have. He faced all the wolves of this world and their temptations, but did it without giving in. He faced them down one by one and sent them packing into the hills and so cleared a way for us to follow Him in safety. Wolves have no power over us when the shepherd is with us. He knows what they are up to and is more than ready for them.
While we face these wolves who would try to become our shepherd, we will overcome because our Good shepherd made himself into a lamb. It sounds pretty ironic, but that's the only way it can work. In order to save us from the wolves and from ourselves, Jesus had to give up His own life. Jesus came to offer himself as the sacrifice for our sins. He gave up His rightful heavenly position and authority that He could die forsaken upon the cross. And God accepted that sacrifice on our behalf, clearly showing us this when he raised our Good shepherd back to life again and seated Him once again at His right hand. It is only through that blessed death and resurrection that Jesus became our gateway to heaven. It is only through death and resurrection that we can truly follow Him. The daily death of the old and the rising of the new person in Christ ... the death in our last hour and the resurrection when our Lord returns in glory and power forevermore.
It must have been frustrating for that poor old coyote in all those old cartoons. No matter how clever he was that sheep dog was always one step ahead of him. And that dog was never once frantic. He was always calm, collected, and in complete control of the situation – often thwarting the plans of the coyote even before they began. How comforting it must have been for those sheep under his care. How even better it is for us sheep of our Good Shepherd Jesus! No matter what wolves are out there, or how many there might be – no matter what sinful or stupid things we do – he is always in control. Calling us by name, speaking words of comfort and wisdom, leading us, forgiving us, showing us the way and walking through it all with us. Not just protecting this life, but promising us an even more abundant life – an eternal life in the green pastures and still waters of heaven.