The appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday is John 10:1-10.  We heard the same reading, under very different circumstances, on 17 April 2005.

Who would have imagined that, fifteen years later, I would be trying to talk to a computer camera about these verses and then sharing them with a gathering of people each huddled around their own computer?


Here are the words I spoke in church in 2005:

As you listened to the first ten verses of John chapter ten, you could be forgiven for feeling a tiny bit confused. But you will be encouraged to know that, if you find the logic of John 10:1-10 a little hard to follow, you are not alone. In the middle of this passage in verse 6, referring to Jesus’ disciples, John says,

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So don’t feel disheartened. This is a puzzling piece of Scripture.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that Jesus uses many images here and he uses them in often confusing ways. There are thieves, bandits and strangers. There is a shepherd, a gatekeeper, a gate, a sheepfold, a pasture, and of course sheep. And Jesus is not always entirely clear in pointing out to whom it is that these images refer. At times, he uses different images to refer to the same thing in ways that seem quite contradictory. At one point Jesus says that he is the shepherd for whom the gatekeeper opens the gate. Then he turns around and, apparently in an attempt to clarify his imagery, he is the gate that is being opened.

It is important not to get caught up in the details. Jesus is setting up a contrast between two forces at work to gain the allegiance of his disciples. There is the force of “the thief and the bandit,” later referred to as “a stranger.” This force exists only “to steal and kill and destroy.” The other power is the presence of Jesus who says that he has come that the sheep “may have life and have it abundantly.”

The battleground where these two opposing forces engage is the human heart. There is within us a force for life and a force for death. We are all confronted with the choice every day with which of these forces we will cooperate. The war may look different in each of our lives but it is always the same. It may be waged more visibly and intensely in some lives. Or it may be conducted in more apparently civilized and outwardly acceptable terms.  But the battle is the same.

In Deuteronomy chapter thirty Moses is preaching his final sermon to the Hebrew people before Joshua takes over as leader, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  At this point of great transition, Moses says,

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.  (Deuteronomy 30:19)

That’s all – just “choose life,” almost as if it should be the easiest thing in the world.

But we know it is not always easy. Something in us wants to go with the thief, the bandit, and the stranger. There is some small miserable part of ourselves that wants to bear a grudge, wants to pass on that nasty little piece of gossip. Something in us wants to get even when we feel betrayed. That little self wants a bigger piece of cake and finds a tiny bit of gratification when our neighbour falls. Some sad quirk in the human condition causes, even people in positions of enormous privilege and power, to resort at times to corruption, fraud, conspiracy, influence-peddling, kick-backs, profiteering, secret cash donations, phoney paper trails, unmarked envelopes stuffed with cash, and bogus billings.

So, what are we to do?  How are we to “choose life”? Or, possibly, this is not the most important question.

In John chapter 10 Jesus puts the emphasis less on our responsibility to choose than on our need to listen. The question really is: which voice are we listening to?  If we listen to the right voice and identify the voices in our heart for what they are, we will follow the voice that leads to life.

Jesus says in verse four,

the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

The word translated “know” is a much bigger word than when we say simply, “Oh I know it is Sunday today.” The Greek word is “oyda” it means “to perceive, notice, discern, pay attention to.” The sheep have a deep inner perception of the voice of life speaking in their hearts and they pay attention to that. Those who go astray are paying attention to the voice of the thief. What we need to understand here is that we do know the difference. We do know what the voice of the bandit sounds like. And we do know the sound of the voice of life. The question is to which are we listening.

William Butler Yeats wrote his extraordinary poem “The Second Coming” shortly after the end of what we now call the First World War. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918. More than 20 million people died. It must have seemed as if the world had gone mad. Looking at this world, Yeats used the image of a falcon that has lost connection with the sound of his master’s voice. Yeats described the world he saw saying,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In Yeats’ dystopian vision, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

But we gather in this place to counter Yeats’ dark vision. We meet to affirm our faith that  “Innocence” is not “drowned”. “Innocence” is what we aim at here this morning. When we come here we leave all our power and our prestige at home. We don’t gather because we have it all together. We meet because we know we need a shepherd. We don’t know the way; we need a voice to guide us.  We don’t know how life works and have no power to fix the world, or sometimes even to fix our own little lives. We are the ones who know that we don’t understand. We know how incredibly limited is our ability to make sense of the world.  We are the ones who know that we depend upon God and have no strength of our own to find our way through the  “The blood-dimmed tide.”

Innocence is purity. Innocence is light and truth and goodness.  We come here because here we are surrounded by people who try to listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow where that voice leads.  And being around those who are trying to attune themselves to the voice of the shepherd helps us to stay attuned to that voice of innocence in our own lives.

There is a show on television to which I have become slightly addicted.  It is called “Joan of Arcadia.”  Each week it recounts stories of Joan’s life as a high school student. It is an ordinary life. The only really unusual thing in Joan’s life is that she keeps running into God. God appears in a variety of human forms and whenever they meet they share wonderful conversations.

On a recent episode Joan has been deeply hurt by her boyfriend Adam’s betrayal. She is faced with a painful decision. How will she respond to this terrible thing that has happened? What voice will she listen to? Will she choose death or will she choose life? At the end of the show with nothing resolved Joan leaves Adam and gets on a bus. She sits down next to God and says,

Joan – You knew and you didn’t tell me. That’s your idea of justice?
God – I don’t interfere. You know that.
Joan – Yeah, well maybe free will wasn’t such a great idea. I believed in Adam.
God – I know. That’s what makes it hurt so much.
Joan – What did I do to deserve this?
God – Nothing. This isn’t punishment, Joan. It’s simply part of being alive, of being involved, of loving.
Joan – Yeah. I’m not doing that anymore. I’m never doing that again.
God – I know how painful this is. But what you and Adam had was beautiful, too. And that was every bit as real as the pain that you’re feeling now. You experienced how deeply two people can be connected.
Joan – So what do I learn when someone I trust destroys all that, huh? Maybe it was never real. Maybe you’re not even real, you know? This whole morality thing, right and wrong, it’s all just junk. We’re all just animals, taking what we want.
God – Do you know what innocence is, Joan?
Joan – You know, I don’t want a mock trial right now.
God – Well, it’s more than an absence of guilt. It’s having faith that there’s goodness in the face of cruelty and pain. Someplace, you still feel that way. And that’s me. And I’ll always be there.

The voice of life is the voice of innocence. It is the voice of the shepherd. It speaks in a gentle intimate tone and it leads to openness and love. The voice of the shepherd leads the sheep out into a spacious place, a pasture where the sheep will be fed and nourished by the shepherd’s presence. Joan is tempted to build a wall around herself. She is determined never to love again. She seems to have decided to stay within the sheepfold, in the hopes that the sheepfold will keep her safe. But, Jesus makes it clear, that safety is not found within the protective confines of the sheepfold. Safety is found only by being in intimate loving relationship with the shepherd and the other sheep.

You do not need to scheme to get even. You do not need to build a wall around yourself.  You do not need to plot to get the accolades, or the wealth, or the power of the world. You have the shepherd with you. The shepherd guide you to the place of healing and wholeness, the place of freedom and nourishment for which your heart longs.  Jesus says,

I am the gate for the sheep.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

That is what we want.  We actually don’t want any of those things the thief and the bandit promise. We only want to follow the shepherd whose voice brings life.

The fundamental question of life is who are you listening to.  To what voice are you paying attention?  What force is governing your heart?  Listen to the voice of life, goodness, truth, and innocence; that voice will lead you to the fullness of life for which you were created.