"Do You Know the Shepherd's Voice?"
Scripture - John 10:1-10
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2014

Being a city boy, I confess I know precious little about sheep. For most of my life, the only sheep I encountered were in petting zoos. These child-friendly parks allow you to reach into their pen and sink your hand into their soft wool or hold out food for them to eat out of your hand. Of course, these controlled spaces provide little insight into the habits of sheep in their natural environments.

When Camilla and I have spent time in Scotland, we have seen sheep grazing emerald green fields, and we have witnessed their effective lawn mowing skills.

The first time we visited the tiny island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, we were walking to the far side of the island, which requires you to cross people's property. It is fine with the property owners as long as any gate you open, you close behind you.

We came to a gate, opened it, stepped inside and dutifully latched the gate behind us. We took a few steps forward before we spotted a large dog about 25 yards away charging us at full speed. First thought: Uh-oh! Second thought: Not to worry. I'm with Camilla and wild animals always go after the smaller prey!

No, wait, delete that! I mean, I gallantly stepped in front of Camilla and thrust out my chest to take on the beast! Or was it that she pulled me behind her and she did the manly thing? I don't really remember; it happened too quickly. But this dog charged us at full bore and then when it was just a few feet from us, it pivoted at a 90-degree angle and raced around the perimeter of the large corral we had entered. All of the sheep immediately leapt to their feet and rushed to their pen because the dog was herding them in for the evening.

In this morning's passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus invokes a popular image from the Hebrew Scriptures: God as shepherd and God's people as sheep. Today's passage echoes the well known 23rd Psalm The Lord is my shepherd.

This metaphor was powerful in an agrarian society where sheep and shepherds were commonplace, but how well does the image work in 21st century America where many have only seen sheep in zoos and few have ever met a real, live shepherd?

This was the dilemma facing David Lewicki, a young pastor serving a church in New York City. He wanted to know more about sheep and shepherds.

If you have spent time people-watching in New York City, you quickly form the opinion that you can find any type of person there. That's what David must have thought, because he went looking for a shepherd on the streets of Manhattan. Believe it or not, he found not one, but two, at the Union Square farmer's market. Jody and Andy are shepherds in upstate New York, so David began to quiz them.

Jody told him that sheep are social creatures. "If you take one away, it will desperately try to get back to the others." They want to stay with the flock. This has led some to conclude that sheep are not the brightest bulbs in God's chandelier of creatures. Not true. They are not dumb, they just like hanging out with each other. In fact, Andy told David that a sheep can remember the face of more than 50 other sheep. One sheep may look pretty much like another to us, but not to each other. They even form bonds with certain other sheep. It also seems that female sheep have definite ideas about what makes a ram attractive.

If you think of sheep as dense four-legged creatures, you will likely feel insulted that the Scriptures equate us with them. There is no doubt that we definitely have our moments when we lack wisdom and make poor choices. However, the Scriptures use sheep as a metaphor for people not because we are dumb, but because, like sheep, we are social creatures. Contrary to the ideology of rugged individualism, God has created us to be in relationship with others. We cannot fully flourish all alone. Living only for ourselves is a feeble substitute for loving another person. We are incomplete in isolation. We become whole through our ties with others.

Another thing David unearthed in his discussion with the two shepherds is that sheep are vulnerable. Jody said, "Sheep have no defense mechanism...they don't bite and they don't kick." All they can do is run away and they are far from being the fleetest of hoof.

That is another way that we are similar to sheep.1 We are definitely vulnerable. We can construct a sturdy fortress and arm ourselves to the hilt, but a microscopic virus can knock us off our feet. A tiny time bomb nestled in our DNA can spell "Curtains." An automobile accident, a tornado, any number of things can end our lives prematurely. We are fragile and vulnerable.

Third, sheep are reliant on their shepherd. Sheep cannot live for long without someone to care for them and protect them. They depend on their shepherd to lead them to food and water, and to guard them from predators.

In today's passage, Jesus is alerting his followers to keep a watchful eye on those who would lead them astray. He has just come from a confrontation with the Pharisees who tried to smear his reputation because he opened the eyes of a blind man on the Sabbath, thus breaking the command to do no work on the Sabbath.

In our text, Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit" - a veiled reference to the Pharisees who do not have the people's best interests in mind.

To follow the imagery, a sheepfold or pen is an enclosure to protect the sheep and can be made of stone walls or wooden fencing, tall enough to keep predators at bay. In ancient times, these enclosures had one point for both entry and exit - one point where the wall or fence did not meet. Today, we would put a gate on hinges at this opening. In the morning, we would lift the latch, swing open the gate and let the sheep out to graze. In the evening, we would herd the sheep back into the pen and close the gate so none of the sheep would wander out and no predators could slip in. In ancient times, there was no physical gate in the sheepfold, just an opening four to six feet wide.

Continuing with our passage, Jesus says, "The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep...and the sheep hear his voice as he calls his sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice."

Jesus refers to himself as the shepherd and his followers as sheep. We will get back to that in a moment, but first I want to clear up the remaining verses in the passage which sound confusing. After identifying himself as the shepherd, Jesus suddenly refers to himself as the gate. He says, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:7-10)

In the time of Jesus, there was no physical gate in the sheepfold, just an opening. So, why didn't the sheep wander out or the wolves sneak in? The shepherd would lie down across the opening, thus becoming the gate. So, when Jesus refers to himself as the gate, it is a specific reference to a crucial role of the shepherd. Any predator - be it wolf or Pharisee - would have to get past the shepherd.

Back to what he said in the previous verses. Jesus said that sheep know the voice of their shepherd. This is actually true. If a stranger calls sheep, they will ignore the unfamiliar voice. They know the voice of their true shepherd and they trust their lives to him. Jesus says, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice."

That conjures up a charming image. Jesus calls to us and we follow because we know he will not lead us astray. However, that is much too timid an image because we have a translation issue in this verse. Our English translation says, "When he has brought out all his own." The Greek verb that is translated "brought out" appears a number of times in the gospels and it is a strong word, an active word, a word with a great deal more punch than "brought out." It is the same word used when Jesus "casts out" demon or "drives out" the money changers. It is a word to describe what parents must do to get their kids up and out the door for school in the morning!2

In other words, Jesus does not send us a tastefully engraved invitation to follow him. More often than not, Jesus commands, cajoles, persuades and prods us to follow him. Which means that there are times when his challenges are uncomfortable and annoying. That is because Jesus refuses to leave us snuggled in the safe confines of the sheepfold all the time. If we are to live the passionate and adventuresome lives God intends, we must be booted out of our comfortable routines from time to time.

A colleague tells what happened when one of the members of her church stood up to deliver a Moment for Mission. He is a prominent physician who occasionally volunteers at the Kansas City Free Health Clinic. He stood up in a morning worship service and began by saying, "My name is Dr. John Hall, and on Thursday afternoon I received another obnoxious email from Mason Ormsby."

Calling a fellow church member "obnoxious" is not the most appropriate way to address the faithful on a Sunday morning. Although, you can bet that the shuffling of papers and whispering to neighbors ceased immediately and he had everyone's full attention.

Dr. Hall went on to say that Mason's email indicated there were not enough doctors for Saturday's shift at the Free Clinic. Dr. Hall thought to himself, €˜I am tired.' However, Mason's email to Dr. Hall stated, did not ask, but stated: "We will schedule some patients for you." Dr. Hall said, "Good Lord, he was unrelenting!"

So he went to the clinic that Saturday, and met a client named Mr. Tanakas who had lived in Kansas City for seven years on a green card. He was complaining about a problem with his wrists. Dr. Hall studied the man's chart. There was no mention of wrists, but notes about tests run for AIDS, anemia, thyroid disease, hepatitis and leukemia - all of which turned out negative. No one had found anything wrong with him.

So Dr. Hall started asking questions. He said, "You are extremely thin. Do you have digestive issues?"

The man replied, "No."

"Do you have trouble keeping food down?"


"Do you eat?"


There was an awkward pause and then Dr. Hall asked, "Would you eat if you had food?"


"You don't have any food?"


Dr. Hall figured out how to get Mr. Tanakas emergency food stamps and set him up with their church's food pantry. And, Dr. Hall charted the first case of starvation he had ever diagnosed.

He ended his Moment for Mission by thanking his fellow church member, Mason Ormsby, for being so obnoxious.3 He thanked him for having the audacity to send out unrelenting email reminders that the sheep are called to follow their shepherd.

Jesus seeks to lead us where we need to go to experience and to share love and joy and purpose and hope. God yearns for us to live beautiful and bountiful lives - lives that can be described as truly abundant.

Do you know the shepherd's voice? Where is he calling you to go?


  1. The information about David Lewicki talking to the two shepherds in Manhattan, comes from Michael Lindvall, "Of Sheep and Shepherds," April 21, 2013.
  2. Susan Langhauser, "Defining Moments," Lectionary Homiletics, April - May, 2014, p.56.
  3. Meg Perry McLaughlin, "Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Wearing Out God's Ear," Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2014, p. 50.