Most, but not all, of us who form Queen’s Park Baptist Church, live in an urban environment …either by choice, necessity, or brute circumstance, we are city dwellers.
We are not alone in this, the global trend is one of growing city dwelling, and the pace of this change is accelerating. In the 1950s only 25% of the global population lived in a city. Today that figure has risen to 50% and is predicted to rise to a mind boggling 90% by 2050!
This trend has huge implications for the church worldwide and what mission looks like, but that is for a different blog. The implication of this trend toward city dwelling which has been bouncing around my head this week is the parallel disconnect with an agricultural way of life.
The parables made real
Many years ago, Alison and I had the privilege / joy of visiting Nepal. Once out of Kathmandu the countryside was full of small villages where many people eked out a living from subsistence farming. I remember having a conversation about how it felt like we’d stepped into one of Jesus’s agrarian parables. For these villagers, seed being trampled underfoot or stolen by birds was their everyday reality, as was the need to protect their animals from predators.
The Good Shepherd
The passage we will be thinking about on Sunday, John 10: 1 – 18, opens with the need to protect sheep from predators.
The sheep in question are of course the people of Israel, and it is not primarily the walled sheepfold, which is the means of their protection, but the shepherd. Unlike contemporary UK shepherds, near-eastern shepherds in Jesus’ day stayed with their sheep 24/7. Indeed, it was common, when the sheep were in the sheep fold, for the shepherd to lay down across the opening or gate to both keep the sheep in the pen and make sure no wild animals or thieves or bandits got in.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life
I wonder if the Pharisees, to whom Jesus is talking in John 10, and his disciples, pictured a shepherd laying down at the entrance to a sheepfold as Jesus talked? I wonder if it prepared his listeners for him saying “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”?
Four times in this short passage Jesus states that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, for God’s people, Israel. Jesus is, of course, the good shepherd, so he is talking about himself.
Lays down = the Incarnation
This laying down his life speaks of his incarnation, of God the Son leaving the majesty and glory of heaven to become flesh and bone, of quite literally laying down in the dirt for the sake of his “sheep”. It is this downward movement, (theologians talk of Christ’s condescension), that Paul speaks of powerfully in Philippians 2: 6 – 8 and elsewhere.
Lays down = The Cross
Yet, when Jesus speaks of laying his life down for the sheep, he is not merely contrasting his being “with the people” (especially the poor) over and against the Pharisees lording over the people, but he is announcing that he will die for his sheep.
To protect his sheep, to give them “abundant life” (v10), and to bring in “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (v16), Jesus willingly lays down his life and suffers the brutal, humiliating death on the cross. The other sheep are you and me and everyone who has come before us and comes after us who is a non-Israelite.
It does not end there
But Jesus does not just speak of laying his life down, he also says he has the “power to take it up again” (v17, 18). Hallelujah!
If Jesus had merely laid his life down, then he would have joined a list of long forgotten martyrs and Christianity would be the paragon of folly (2 Corinthians 15: 17).
Moreover, Jesus was not just talk but, as we know, the grave could not hold him. He is alive. Death has been defeated. The power of sin has been destroyed. The thief who comes to kill, steal, and destroy (v10) has been defeated!
It’s all about Jesus
The focus of John 10: 1 – 18 is Jesus … this passage is first and foremost all about him, and only then about us.
It is easy, it is tempting, to make this passage all about us, to shift the focus from who the good shepherd is and what he does (because of who he is). I think this can happen if we make verse 10 the focus and not the four times Jesus says he will lay his life down.
It is not that this (verse 10) is not important, it is! Yet, where our focus is tells us something about where our love lies.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century French monk, famously described maturing as a Christian, growing in holiness, as shifting from loving God for how he benefits us, to loving God because he is God and worthy of our love.
In recent weeks there have been several words at QPBC about making Jesus the centre of our worship, of having our focus on him (gazing not glancing).
John 10 challenges me, is my focus on myself, disclosing that first and foremost I just love me, or is my focus on God, is he my first and true love?
Here’s the rub
And here’s the rub, if my focus is on myself then my self-love, because it is a distorted love, is harmful to me (St Augustine was big on this). My disordered love(s) need transformed and re-aligned. Thus, it is only by focusing on God, receiving his love (grace), which enables us to grow to love him for who he is and not just his benefits to me, that in such love we find abundant life.
So, fellow sheep, that’s a lot to chew on for a Thursday …keep chewing and we’ll do some more chewing on this on Sunday.