The problem with figures of speech is that sometimes they don’t work. When I try to convey a complex idea—whether explaining to my children what makes a rainbow or explaining to our congregation how Jesus’ death and resurrection affect our relationship with God—I like to use images, metaphor, parable, analogy. Sometimes they work. Sometimes one or two persons leave with a slightly better sense of how the thing in question works. But sometimes they fall pretty flat. People leave asking me about the metaphor rather than the thing I was trying to point them to. Usually, you can tell by the look on the audience’s face whether the image has worked.
In today’s gospel lesson (John 10:1-18), Jesus seeks to convey to his audience the depth of God’s love for them that has been expressed through his life and upcoming death and resurrection. So he starts with a parable: “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit, but the shepherd is the one who enters by the gate. His voice is the one that the gatekeeper and sheep both recognize. He brings them out and goes ahead of them, and they follow him because they recognize his voice. Do you understand?” But they didn’t. John tells us that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” So what does he do? He tries again.
Let’s make this a little plainer, he says. I am the gate for the sheep—me. Those who came before me are the thieves and the bandits, but I am the gate. Got it? No good? How about this? I am the good shepherd—the one who lays down his life for the sheep. Sound better? The hired hand—that’s those other people—the ones who scatter when the wolf comes. I am the good shepherd—the one who gives everything he has to take care of his sheep. Yeah, that’s what I meant all along.
As a preacher who often struggles to get his point across, it’s funny to me to see that Jesus experienced that once or twice. But should we be surprised? Jesus wasn’t looking for new ways to package an old story. He was breaking new theological ground. Imagine trying to convey for the first time that the awesome, unknowable, unsearchable creator of the universe was reaching out for a personal, one-on-one relationship with each of his children in the same way that a shepherd would lie down in order to save the sheep? What a reversal of images! We are the ones who are supposed to give up our lives for the God we serve. What is this news that God might give up something so precious for us?
Language itself is metaphor. When I say the word “cheeseburger,” it evokes a reaction within each of us. My mouth starts watering. A vegetarian’s stomach sours. Either way, you can see it. Maybe you can even smell it or taste it. But all I’ve done is say a word—a word that we all associate with something tangible. “Ceci n'est pas une pipe,” the artist René Magritte asked us to consider. Even the gigantic image of a pipe is not actually a pipe. Still, unless you’re holding a pipe or a cheeseburger, all we’ve got are images or pictures or other metaphors to get that idea across.
The eternal truth that God is love is hard to wrap our minds around. God’s son—the eternal Word—came down to earth, incarnate as a human being, so that we might understand a little bit better what it means for God to love us like that. Jesus is the good shepherd. But what does that mean? What does it mean that God loves us with love we can barely imagine? If it takes a lifetime to understand, don’t be discouraged. If the preacher throws at you one image after another in an attempt to help you see how much God loves you, be patient. Hopefully, prayerfully, eventually, you’ll hear those words in a way that gives you the confidence God is trying to instill. That confidence is what we call faith. Faith is knowing what God is trying to tell us. Live an entire lifetime in the company of the one who shows us God’s love. Learn what it means to be loved like that. Let that love fill you and transform you and give you faith.