How do you respond to being told what to do?
I read an article a while back on parenting. And this Mum was talking about how she was always telling her teenage son Robin to tidy his room, and he was never doing it. And she wrote:
Finally, I wrote him a note and left it on the bedroom floor. It read, 'Dear Robin, I would like to be clean and tidy like the other rooms in the house. Please could you do something about this? Lots of love, Bedroom.' Imagine my astonishment when, next day, I found his room looking immaculate – along with another note on the floor. It read, 'Dear Bedroom, There you are, I hope you feel better now. Lots of love, Robin. P.S. You're beginning to sound just like my mother.'
We don't like being told what to do, do we? We love our independence. Which begs the question: why have Joel and Hannah, Luke and Anna done what they've just done? Because in getting baptised, they've just said they want Jesus to call the shots in their lives – to use the Bible jargon, they want Jesus to be Lord of their lives.
To which I guess at least some of you here are thinking, 'But why would you let someone else tell you how to live? You should choose for yourself.' In fact the atheist Richard Dawkins says this in his book The God Delusion:
"There is something infantile in thinking that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful… as we choose to make it."
So Richard Dawkins would say to all the Christians here, 'Grow up! You decide what's right and wrong, and what life's really all about.'
Whereas the Bible says: we're not up to that – because, according to the Bible, we're like sheep that need to be led. We're not wise enough, left to ourselves, to work out what's right and wrong, and what life's really all about.
And that picture of us as sheep is the one Jesus used in the reading we had earlier from John's Gospel. So I wonder if you'd find a Bible and turn back with me to chapter 10. And this is where Jesus says that we're like a bunch of sheep, and that he's God's Son, come into this world, to bring us back under his lead.
Now in Jesus' time, that would be about the most familiar picture you could choose. Because sheep were everywhere in everyday life. Whereas for most of us, the closest we come to them is probably the lamb section of the meat counter in Tesco's. So to get the picture in your head, you need to imagine a sheep pen – an enclosure with a wall around it. And you need to imagine it has a gate – for the sheep to come in for safety and go out for food. And you need to imagine the shepherd. And in Jesus' day, the shepherd didn't bring up the rear on a quad bike with three collies. He led his sheep from the front – more like a dog-walker with a bunch of obedient Labradors all off the lead – and he'd call them by name and they'd follow.
So in the picture, we're the sheep. And then look down to John chapter 10, verse 7:
"Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate…""
But then, look on to verse 11, and he also says:
"I am the good shepherd."
Which sounds like the kind of mixed metaphor you get from football managers and commentators. Like Kevin Keegan at half-time in a commentary saying, 'I'd love to be a mole on the wall in the dressing room.' Or Stuart Pearce after a bad run of results saying, 'But I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.' Or Terry Venables talking about the pressures of management saying, 'If you can't stand the heat in the dressing room, you need to get out of the kitchen.'
But actually, those mixed metaphors make perfect sense. And so does Jesus's. So we're going to think about both halves of it – and first of all the 'gate' bit, which is Jesus' way of saying:
1. He is the way for us to have life at its best
So have a look down to verse 7 again:
"Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers…""
So Jesus is saying that for a sheep in its pen there are only two options as to how the day is going to pan out. Either it'll go out through the gate to pasture, and then back in through the gate to safety – which for a sheep is life at its best. Or it'll go out on a one-way ticket over the wall, thanks to a thief getting in and stealing it – which for a sheep is life at its best lost, and quite likely to be life at its shortest, if the thief has dinner in mind.
So if we're the sheep, what's Jesus saying about us here? Well, look on to verse 9. Jesus says:
"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
In other words, Jesus is saying to us, 'If you trust anyone else to tell you how to live – or just trust yourself to run your own life – you'll lose out. But if you trust in me, you'll have life to the full.'
Which is the opposite of how people usually see it. Because in my experience, it's Christianity that's usually seen as the 'thief' – as this bunch of restrictive, out of date, rules and views that will steal your freedom, kill your fun and destroy your independence (to pick up on Jesus' way of describing the thief). And to be honest, Christians are sometimes to blame for it being seen like that – because they've made it into something negative, full of man-made rules that are nothing to do with Jesus.
For example, there was a French bishop called Yves of Chartres. And he encouraged married people to abstain from sex on Thursdays to remember Jesus' second coming, on Fridays to remember his crucifixion, on Saturdays to honour the Virgin Mary, on Sundays to remember the resurrection, and on Mondays out of respect for the dead. So in the week with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, I guess he'd have told them to give it a complete miss. But that's got nothing to do with Jesus' teaching on the goodness of sex in its God-given context of marriage.
So forget Yves of Chartres – and all the othere people who've made Christianity into something negative – and listen again to Jesus:
"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
Which begs the question, 'What is life to the full?'
Well, one thing the world says is that 'life to the full' is all about having money and what money can buy. I heard the story of a Texan oil tycoon. And he left instructions that, when he died, he was to be buried on his ranch, in his best suit, sitting at the wheel of his Rolls Royce, with a cigar in his mouth. So they dug this enormous grave, and a crane lowered the car in. And as it was going, one of his millionaire friends at the ceremony turned to another and said, 'Now that's what I call really living.' But in fact, having it all isn't really living even when you're still alive. o what is 'life to the full'?
Well, another thing the world says is that it's all about achievement and success. It's about climbing the GCSE ladder so you can climb the A-level ladder so you can climb the degree ladder so you can climb the career ladder so that sometime you can really think you're something. But what if you don't make it to the top of the ladder? And, actually, what if you're one of the few who do? For example, a friend of mine made it into the Cambridge University rugby team – which is really high level. And to be honest I was a bit intimidated by that and I asked him what it was like to be picked. And he said, 'It's a complete anti-climax. I thought I'd feel great. But I've just swapped the insecurity of whether I'll get into the team for the insecurity of whether I'll get dropped.' And that's what it's like if you look for 'life to the full' in achievement – because in the achievement game, you're only as good as your last performance or result.
And then another obvious thing the world says is that life to the full is about trying everything out – especially, sex, drink and drugs. But has that really delivered for people? One honest commentator recently wrote in the papers, 'My generation has probably experienced more sex and yet more loneliness than any other before it.'
And Jesus says: what's fatally missing from all those definitions of 'life to the full' is God – because we were made by God, to live in relationship with God, letting God tell us what life's about, and how he meant us to live it. And Jesus is saying: only if we get God in his rightful place will we have 'life to the full'. Because only then will we get all those other things – like money and achievement and sex –right. And Jesus is saying, 'I am your gateway to having God in his rightful place in your life – I am God's Son come into the world to bring you back into relationship with my Father.' Verse 9 again – he says,
"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."
Which means two things.
On the one hand, it means being saved from trying to live without God in this life – which Jesus says, like a thief, will only steal and kill and destroy. So, for example, what the world say about sex will only steal from your experience of relationships. What it says about how you've got to get straight A's to be a success will only kill your self-confidence. And what it says through the fashion industry, about what you ought to look like, will only destroy your self-esteem. etc. And Jesus wants to save us from being misled by all the alternative shepherds around us. And he wants to save us from being misled by the herd-mentality of our fellow-sheep – in the form of peer-pressure.
So on the one hand it means being saved from trying to live without God in this life. But on the other, it means being saved from having to live without God in the next life. Because there is a next life – and we know that because of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. He really died and he really rose again to show that death is not the end. So perhaps the most misleading thing the alternative shepherds say is that this life is all there is, and you don't need to think about anything else. But that's not true.
Some friends of ours got married recently. They'd been living together until they'd saved enough for the wedding day – on which they finally spent £30,000. But when I asked if they'd done any marriage preparation, they said, 'No.' Which I think is crazy. Because it's thinking about one day as if it's everything, when there's the whole of married life to come. And most people, similarly, are thinking about this life as if it's everything, when there's eternity beyond this life to come. And Jesus warned that if we choose to live without God in this life, then we'll have to live without him in the next. Jesus said that if, consciously or subconsciously, I say to God in this life, 'I don't want you as king, telling me how to live,' then he'll have to say to me at the end of my life, 'Then I can't have you in my kingdom of heaven.' Because you can't be part of a kingdom unless you accept the King.
So that's the 'gate' bit of the mixed metaphor: Jesus is saying he is the way for us to have life at its best – which includes life beyond this life as well.
So what about the other half of the mixed metaphor – the 'shepherd' bit? Well, this is where Jesus says:
2. He had to die, for us to have life back in relationship with God.
Let me read verse 11 to you. Jesus says,
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
So he's talking there about his death on the cross. And he's saying, 'My death is your way back into relationship with God.'
Now when I first met Christianity in compulsory chapel at school, that's not the message I got. The message I got was a watered-down version of Christianity – where all Jesus came to do was to be a good teacher, telling us how to live, and to be a perfect example, showing us how to live. It was a version of Christianity that basically said, 'Be good,' and it left you thinking, 'I guess if I am good enough, God will accept me.'
But that's a million miles off what Jesus said. Because, verse 11 again, he said:
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
In other words, he didn't just come to be a good teacher or perfect example. He came to die for us – because we aren't good enough, and we never could be, and the only way back into relationship with God is if he forgives us all the ways we've not been good enough. And that's what the cross was all about.
And this is the way a friend first explained to me how we can be forgiven because of Jesus' death on the cross. He held out one hand and said, 'Imagine this hand stands for you or me. And imagine the light up there stands for God. Well, we were meant to live in relationship with God, but actually we've all turned away from letting him be in charge of our lives to living them our own way.' Then he picked up his Bible and said, 'Now imagine this is the record-book of everything you do wrong in your whole lifetime – everything God should hold against you in the end.'And he laid it on the hand representing us, cutting it off from the light above, and said, 'That's a picture of the judgement we deserve from God. That's why we feel God shouldn't accept us. That's why we feel he's against us as our Judge.' And then this friend said, 'But now imagine my other hand stands for Jesus – God's Son come to earth as a man, who lived the only perfect life that's ever been lived. So he never did anything wrong like we've done, and he never deserved any judgement like we do. But what happened on the cross was that he took on himself the judgment our wrongdoing deserved (and here he moved his Bible from the hand representing us to the hand representing Jesus), so that on the one hand justice would be done on it, and on the other, we could turn and be forgiven.'
And those baptisms we saw earlier were a great visual aid of what Jesus did on the cross for Joel and Hannah and Luke and Anna. Those baptisms were a visual aid of how Jesus anticipated the whole lifetime's sin of each of them and took it all away – washed it all away – to make them clean, forgiven and acceptable to God forever.
So it's because of the cross that Joel and Hannah and Luke and Anna can say, 'Jesus has forgiven me everything I've done wrong in the past.' And it's because of the cross that they can also say, 'He'll keep forgiving me, whenever I mess up in trying to live for him' (which they will, every day of their Christian lives). And it's because of the cross that they can also say, 'I do trust him to tell me how to live – and I trust that his way is best.'
And that brings us full circle to the question we began with: 'Why would you let someone else – in this case, Jesus – tell you how to live?' And the answer is that, in laying down his life for them, Jesus has given every evidence of being a good shepherd, hasn't he? He's given every evidence of being a shepherd who cares for us and who has our best interests at heart – and who, faced with the choice of saving us or saving himself, saved us. He's given every evidence of being a shepherd worthy of our trust.
So, Joel and Hannah and Luke and Anna, What you said up here earlier boils down to two things: that you trust Jesus and that you'll follow his lead. And what we then said to you boils down to one thing: keep doing that – 'Continue…' Because to become a Christian – even if you can't date when it happened – is to start to trust and follow Jesus. And to be a Christian is simply to keep doing what you've started.
So if you've not yet started, can I say thanks for coming, and that I hope this has been a shop window onto what being a Christian is really all about.
But to the rest of us who, along with Joel and Hannah and Luke and Anna, would say that Jesus is our Shepherd, let's treat this evening as a re-call:
• To trust in his forgiveness;
• To trust in the goodness of his Lordship over our lives;
• And to trust that the best of his goodness is yet to come – not in this life, but beyond this life, when we follow him through that gateway to eternity which his death and resurrection have opened for us.