May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What do you know about sheep?
I didn’t grow up on a sheep farm, and I have no personal experience with sheep. This is different than Jesus’ first listeners. Many of them had personal experience with sheep; they knew shepherds or were shepherds themselves. So to understand today’s Scriptures, I thought we should start with some fun facts about sheep and also a video which can help us to understand what Jesus meant when he described being the good shepherd and being the gate.
Three fun facts:
- Sheep have wool will grow forever (One sheep can produce between two and 30 pounds of wool a year, and one pound of wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn!)
- They have nearly 360 degree vision (between 270 and 320)
- Sheep can’t right themselves if they get on their backs
- Note: Fun Facts are from The Modern Farmer
And here is a video about sheep and shepherds from Sermon Central (note: we have a license to show these videos at Kerr in worship).
Our Scriptures this morning set out one of the most stark contrasts in the Bible. It is the contrast between the sheep and the thieves. Or as John says it in his letter, the contrast between those who love and those who hate.
Notice that this is very unusual for the Bible, and especially for the words of Jesus. Generally speaking, Jesus works really, really hard to teach us that there is no division between people. Jesus continuously goes into places where other people won’t go and does things other people won’t do. For instance, Jesus teaches women. He allows them to sit at his feet and learn, just as men did with their Rabbi’s in the synagogues. And Jesus goes to Samaria, a place which most people go miles and miles out of their way to go around. Jesus welcomes to his dinner table tax collectors and sinners who no one else would invite.
But today, we see Jesus making a very stark contrast. Jesus speaks of two groups: the sheep on one hand and the thieves and bandits on the other.
John takes us that theme of Jesus’ in our 1 John passage today and says it even more strongly, if that is possible. He stands with Jesus and says there are two kinds of people—those who love and those who murder.
This is a hard teaching. Either we are sheep or bandits. Either we are ones who love or ones who murder. There’s really not any wiggle room.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve really struggled with these Scriptures this week. My natural inclination is to just say: well, I haven’t murdered anyone lately so (whoosh), I’m safe. End message. But both Jesus and John thought this was an extremely important point and because it is out of character for Jesus to make such categories, I think we need to pause and pay attention when he does.
First, a little about the context.
If we go back a little bit and look at John 9, we see that Jesus is having a conflict with the teachers of the law—those who were charged with teaching Scripture, specifically the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.
Jesus had met a man who was born blind and as we see in many other places in the Bible, Jesus healed him. But, this healing brought him in to conflict with the religious leaders because he healed on the Sabbath.
It is sadly true, both in Jesus’ day and in our day, that we religious leaders are often wrong. We are imperfect people. And yes, we dedicate our lives to studying the Scriptures. Yes, we dedicate our lives to following God with all that we are. Yes, we pray and try to live our lives in the way that Holy Spirit guides us, but we aren’t perfect.
And sometimes we religious leaders, instead of confessing our sins and holding our knowledge with open hands, recognizing that this side of heaven, we don’t know everything, sometimes, we try to set up hedges around our congregation to make sure the congregation does the right thing. We set up walls between people so that we can be sure our people are doing the right thing.
That’s what the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had done. They read the Torah and they knew that it was really important to keep the Sabbath—to set a day aside for rest and worship of God. And to keep their members pure, they made very strict rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. And you were not allowed to heal people. That’s work.
Jesus looks at this teaching and he calls the religious leaders thieves and bandits. The Torah, the law of God, is meant to give life—not to take it. The ten commandments teach us how to live an abundant life and part of living abundantly is taking rest and worshiping God. The Sabbath matters. But if our practice of Sabbath is causing another to suffer, than that’s not following in God’s way. That’s not living an abundant life. The teachers were taking people who were sheep—people who were trying to follow God’s plan and purpose—and they were steeling them, teaching them to seek their own needs over the needs of others. Putting rules in place that are not life affirming.
Sadly, this happens today as well. We are thought things in our culture which do not affirm life, which do not support loving all people. And we are taught that we have keep sin at bay. That we can’t accept “those kinds of people” here. That there are some who cannot be embraced by the church because they don’t follow the rules that these teachers think have been established by God.
Jesus calls those who put rules above people thieves and bandits. They may be teachers who have dedicated themselves to studying God’s word, but they haven’t actually heard what God said.
I’ll be honest with you and tell you that as your pastor, this text weighs heavy on me. And it’s not the only place we see teachers condemned. If you read the daily lectionary, you know that we recently went through the Book of Jeremiah. Over and over again the false teachers are criticized. Religious people have often lead others astray—just look at whole period of the Crusades or the Reich Church in Germany who supported Nazism or KKK in the us where in sometimes people left their churches and immediately went out to lynch another human being.
My heart hurts more than I can say when I think of the wrongs we Christians have done, often in the name of Jesus.
So how do we avoid making the mistakes of the past? How do we make sure that we are actually sheep and not bandits?
Well, John suggests that it is actually pretty easy. There are two types of people, he suggests: those who love and those who murder.
We are seeing in our nation a rise in those who murder. In particular, in the last year there has been a large increase in violence against people of Asian descent. Let me be clear, violence against any person is not the way of God. In fact, John insists that it is better to lay down your life for another than it is to commit violence against them.
I know that is a hard lesson to hear. We as Americans believe in “stand your ground laws” and being ready to defend ourselves at any moment, but I have to teach what the Scripture teaches, and Scripture insists in the way of non-violence.
Early Christians were killed for their faith. They were stoned, thrown into lions dens, and had their houses burned to the ground because they believed something that others did not. But they did not fight back. They took it literally when John said that the world may hate them but that their call was to lay down their lives.
I know this is hard for us to hear. I know it is an unpopular opinion in our day. But in an age when talk radio is convincing us that we need to buy more and more weapons and be ready to defend ourselves against any who don’t look like us or speak like us or pray like us or love like us or have a passport like us. We need to be willing to really read the Scriptures and really hear what they are telling us.
And murder is not just about actual death. Jesus said that any who look at another say “You Fool” are guilty of committing murder. John says “All who hate a brother or sister are murders.” This is a tough teaching and we cannot soften it. I wish I could. I would be much more popular if I did. But this is what the Scripture teaches. And I would be a bandit, leading you away from the will of God if I didn’t teach what it says. We are called to a life of non-violence.
So, what does this look like in our lives?
Well, first of all, all of us have called someone else a fool at some time in our lives. I know that. I certainly have.
Actually, just this morning as I was driving in I stopped at a red light, behind the stop light line. But a person making a left hand turn cut the corner of the light and almost hit the front bumper of the car. I wanted to stick my head out the car window and shake my fist and yell, “you fool!” and then I remembered that I’m preaching this morning against that exact kind of anger.
When we do that, when we call our neighbors fools, we need to realize that we have sinned. It is a sin to devalue another person and to not see the image of God in them. Every single human being has the image of God in them, and when we deny that, we are sinning.
So, let’s confess that. Let’s recognize that the anger we hold in our hearts, that the hate we feel towards those who do not think like us or pray like us or love like us or look like us is evil. And let us remember that God is a forgiving God who gave us these Scriptures to teach us and heal us and help us to be who God called us to be.
Second of all, let us become like sheep.
One. Just as the sheep wool never stops growing, let us never stop growing. We should be like the sheep continuously growing day by day and continuously producing something that is for the good use of others.
Two. Let us learn to see and hear. Let us be like the sheep who not only see what is right in front of them, but who are willing to look around. Who are willing to see others—to really see them. To see those who are in need to love them not just in words, but in actions as John tells us. Let us be continuously listening to the truth of God, recognizing that we need to test the spirits, we need to think about things that we hear an ask whether or not what they are saying actually lines up with God’s Truth.
And three, yes, we have to realize that we, like sheep, can’t get up on our own. We will fall. We will land flat on our backs. Those old habits of hatred and anger and beliefs that we know better than others so why should we bother to listen them will come back. So when we fall, we remember to turn to Jesus who puts us back on our feet. Who gives us new mercy to start over again. To lead the abundant life of love. Amen.
6 Fun Facts About Sheep You Might Not Know. (2018, October 19). Modern Farmer. https://modernfarmer.com/2017/12/6-facts-sheep-might-not-know/