Jesus Calls Us Out of a Safe Place to a Place Where We Can Be Nourished
John 10:1-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 22, 2018
Where is the shepherd taking us? If you’re used to the 23rd psalm, you can think of some sensible answers. He’s taking us to still water and green pastures. That’s what sheep need.
But if you’re thinking of John, chapter 10, you might well think that Jesus is taking us to the sheepfold. There’s all this talk about the gate and who gets in and who the sheep will follow, so some readers will think that this is the metaphor: the sheepfold is heaven, or safety, a secure place in a dangerous world—and that’s where Jesus is taking us.
But actually, that’s not what Jesus is saying. I was struck for the first time that Jesus is not taking his sheep to the sheepfold as a destination. He’s coming to the sheepfold and leading his sheep out. Listen to what he says in verses 3 and 4:
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them.
Where is it that he is taking the sheep? Verse 9 says
They will come in and go out, and find pasture.
The shepherd leads them to find the pastures where they can graze. They can’t find it on their own. There is no food to eat in the sheepfold; it’s all on the outside where the grasses grow.
Here’s the situation for a shepherd in Jesus’ day. He’s a low-wage worker paid to keep an eye on rather dirty, dumb animals as they graze during the day. The purpose of raising sheep is to produce meat, and they have to eat to produce meat. But sheep are defenseless if they are attacked by predators. In the Old Testament, David tells stories about killing a lion and a bear to protect his flock of sheep. David is the ideal shepherd in Israel’s imagination. But honestly, there aren’t a lot of lions or tigers or bears, oh my, in Palestine. The main predator is wolves, just like in the cartoons. Wolves, and humans. The other predators were thieves—or, as we call them in America, rustlers. So the sheep couldn’t be left alone.
Therefore, shepherds built pens for their flocks to stay in at night while the shepherds tried to sleep. If you look up pictures of “sheepfolds,” you might think you were on Block Island. They are usually made of rocks picked up out of the fields, stacked just like stone walls on the island, except that they form a circle—a circle with one opening. Nowadays you find sheep pens made of fencing, just like corrals, but not in Jesus’ world. They are permanent piles of stone that might have been there for generations.
Is that a home for the sheep? Not at all. It is a temporary shelter, a protection from wolves and thieves, and that’s all. No sheep dreams of getting back to the sheepfold. They dream of still water and green pastures. So Jesus is not talking about sheep who long to return to the sheepfold, where they have to fast for the night. It’s not some kind of image of heaven—or the church—where Jesus stands at the gate, the opening of the sheepfold, and says, “Yes, you can come in,” or “No, you didn’t make it.” The idea, rather, is that Jesus comes to us like a shepherd coming to a flock of sheep huddled inside a stone wall, and he says to them, “Let’s go!” Let’s go out to get some grass! Let’s go find some water! Sun’s up, lazy lambkins, vamoose! The shepherd calls the sheep out of the secure holding pen to the place where they can be nourished.
Jesus says in verse 9 that the sheep “will come in and go out, and find pasture. He follows that with the familiar statement, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” He’s not talking to sheep at that point. He’s talking about us humans. The shepherd takes the sheep out of that safe and dry place and leads them to the open place where they can flourish. Jesus takes his followers out of that secure place in which we are huddled, which has nothing to make us grow or experience joy, and he leads us out to a life that is abundant, where we can do what we were created to do.
There is a counter-story that many of us believe. We see the story backwards. In our minds, Jesus’s job as the good shepherd is to gather up all the sheep that are scattered on the hillsides and lead them into the sheepfold. He drives them from danger to a place of safety, as if safety were the goal of the story.
For many people, the church is the sheepfold. Church people like the idea of being brought into the sheepfold and are focused on who gets in and who doesn’t. We like the idea of being brought by Jesus into a clean, enclosed, well-defined space. Some of us value security over almost everything else. The primary question about a course of action is, “Will we be safe?” The second question is “Will it make the predators mad?” Will the people who like to complain and bully go after us if we do that?
It’s kind of crazy to imagine that followers of Jesus would be drawn to safety. Jesus was one of the least safe people who ever lived. He didn’t want the people around him to feel safe and satisfied, and he was never safe himself. Look how they attacked him and consider what happened to him on the cross. And yet, the church is often seen as a way of insulating ourselves from the risks of the world. It’s often said that the reason the two types of citizens we have in the US can’t get along is that one group has safety and security as its chief value—it runs on fear—whereas the other group has compassion and equality as its chief values. It runs, we might say, on sympathy. And if you look at the church overall in America, you get the impression that it has more people that value security than people who value mercy. Those who are fearful and want protective structures are drawn to the church, while those structures cramp the style of bleeding-heart Samaritans.
I want you to try to set aside the story that Jesus came to gather up all of us wild sheep and take us to a safe place called heaven. That makes heaven sound like a sheepfold or an animal shelter or a zoo. Humans were not created for safety, any more than animals are. We thrive in wild places. We are made to seek out our own food, to exercise choice, to grow strong through the back and forth of conflict and the thrill of escaping predators.
The scene I want you to imagine is that this church is a sheepfold. We are surrounded by a circular rock wall. We are safe, but after a while we are hungry and we are bored. Jesus, the good shepherd, walks into this sheepfold and says “Get outta here!” Verse 4 says, “When he has brought out all his own,” but the Greek verb ekballo usually means “cast out” or “throw out.” Jesus is saying, “When I have thrown you all out of this safe place where you are huddled, I will go on ahead of you.”
Jesus wants us to leave security for faith and mission. He’s going ahead of us, and he wants us to follow. Where is he going? To the sinners, to the outcasts, to the poor, to the nations. Where is he going? To conflict with the Pharisees and ultimately to the cross. He is not afraid. And he is not afraid for us his sheep. Just because he leads us to take risks, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is leading us to our destruction. Jesus knows that if we always choose the safe path, or if we huddle at home base and don’t move at all, we will get weaker and weaker. We have to get out there where the grass is, where the water is. Real nourishment for the soul is in the real world, when we speak boldly and get caught in conflict, when we love boldly and get dirty in acts of service. The one whose goal is to save his own life will lose it, Jesus says, but the one who is willing to lose his life for my sake will find it.
There is no growth without risk. Do you recognize Jesus’ voice, as the sheep recognize the shepherd? Have you heard him calling you to go out of something safe and comfortable and to try something risky for his sake? He never wanted to give you a safe life; he came to give you an abundant life, life lived to the fullest. Verses 3 and 4 say that Jesus calls us by name, and then he either leads us out or throws us out if we’re stubborn, but he goes on ahead of us into the world. He is not asking us to go anywhere he has not already been. He’s not asking us to go anywhere he is not already working. But he asks us to let go of our need for security and follow him.