"Father God, please help us we pray. May your Spirit which first inspired these words to be written make clear to us their meaning. Teach us, rebuke us, correct us, train us we pray. For our good and your glory. Amen."
Well can I add my welcome to all new students. And can I also say "Congratulations!" Making it to University is a great achievement in the first place. It's also a great opportunity – and I pray that you'll make the most of it. You've probably been given loads of advice on just how to do that. There's certainly a lot of advice about. Every newspaper and online magazine seems to be publishing lists at the moment telling you exactly what you should and shouldn't do to make the most of university life. Here's how "The UNILAD Guide to Surviving Freshers Week" starts:
"This week thousands of nervous freshers will be getting dropped off, by even more nervous parents, at university halls across the country... If you are one of those people being unshackled from your parents' watchful eyes for the very first time: ...I'm jealous. You are undoubtedly embarking on the most debauched and frivolous years of your life. But every year people make the same mistakes. You probably will too, as many of them are practically a rite of passage, but here's a list of do's and don'ts to guide you through your first year of uni."
And there follows a list of advice including such pearls as:
• Don't Make A Really Bad Impression On The First Day – Because of course that was exactly what you were planning on doing!
• Don't Waste All Your Money On Sandwiches And Coffee
• Don't Get A Sexually Transmitted Disease
• Don't Lock Yourself Away
• Don't Start Selling Drugs
• Do Make The Most Of It And Wring Out Every Last Drop Of Hedonism
And if you've just arrived as a student, you'll have spent the last week or two having had people give you similar advice I'm sure. People like the Freshers' Week organisers telling to you to enjoy your all day Freshtival! As they encourage you to get lashed on the cheap booze and get off with whomever you fancy. And that's true of all of us, not just students. Adverts, TV, films, magazines, teachers, the organisations we work for, the people we look up to, the government… they're all trying to tell us what to believe and how to behave.
And while most of us like to think we're our own man or woman – influenced by nothing and no-one – the fact is we are all followers at heart. One of our youth group members a number of years back had a poster on his door for a heavy metal band called "Corrosion of Conformity". And you can imagine what it's like at their gigs, can't you? Thousands of people turning up in identical tee-shirts saying "Corrosion of Conformity". 'Cos the fact is: we are followers by nature. That's why we look out for the latest fashions, and why British people love to queue, and why everybody when starting a conversation in Freshers' week asks exactly the same three questions! What's your name? Where are you from? What are you studying?
And here in John chapter 10, that's exactly how Jesus describes us. He says we're like sheep. We're all sheep at heart, whether we're conformist sheep or non-conformist sheep. And we all have our shepherds in life – people who we allow to influence the way we live:
- Boyfriends or girlfriends
- Peer-group leaders down our corridor or in our class at school
- TV and the media
- Parents even, dare I say
They all seek to win us over to their ways. They all seek to shepherd us. And according to Jesus, the most important decision we make in life – whether we're starting Uni, still at school or we're further on in life than that – is:
- Who will we ultimately allow to be our shepherd?
- Which shepherd is worthy of our trust?
- Which shepherd will really give us Life to the Max?
So let's turn to John chapter 10 – As there we will find Jesus gives us a warning and an encouragement as we attempt to answer those questions. Here's the warning first – if we want to live Life to the Max we need to:
1. WATCH OUT FOR THE THIEF
Here's Jesus speaking in John 10v.7:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd."
A friend of mine gave me some golden rules of travelling abroad just before I went on a trip to Romania. One of them was this: never, ever exchange money with someone you don't know. Needless to say within hours of landing in Romania, my team and I found ourselves in a situation where we badly needed to change some money. We'd missed our train late one night and had no Romanian currency with which to get new tickets. We only had dollars and the official money exchange place was closed. We were faced with the nasty prospect of having to sleep rough in a shady looking hell-hole of a railway station, which seemed to be populated solely by extras from the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
All of a sudden out of the shadows a knight in shining armour emerged. Well okay, it was a big Romanian fella in a canary yellow shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, so that we could get a good look at his glistening medallions and slightly protruding stomach. Why should I have been suspicious? Mummy always told me that one must never judge by appearances! Anyway, we had a bit of a chat. And out of the goodness of his heart he was willing to exchange some of our dollars for Romanian "Lei". We were saved! Hoorah! Only my team-mates weren't so sure. For some strange reason they thought this all sounded too good to be true. So I had to talk these unreasonable kill-joys round:
• "He's a really friendly guy."
• "He speaks excellent English."
• "He says he loves Scotland… and that we've got a really good football team - so he obviously knows what he's talking about."
• And finally my clincher: "I'll watch him really closely – what could possibly go wrong?"
Five minutes later we were £300 poorer – but we were now the proud owners of 50 strips of neatly cut newspaper wrapped up in £10 worth of Romanian currency. We'd been robbed!
And here in John 10, Jesus is saying that's exactly what will happen to us if we trust anyone other than him with our lives. Jesus is painting a picture of our lives, where we're like sheep surrounded by would-be shepherds who are actually thieves. They look like they want to help us, but they will only ever take an interest in us for what they can get out of us. And Jesus is saying: "You can't trust them! They will steal and kill and destroy. I'm the only one who can deliver you life as it was meant to be, life to the full. Choose any other shepherd but me, and you will ultimately mess up your life."
Why? Because all other shepherds but Jesus have one thing in common – they sell us a dream of a life lived without God. They give the impression that God can't be trusted to provide us with the good life, so we'd better get out of his sheep pen and start living it up. And so they cry: "Oh come on! Don't give up your freedom to be part of Jesus flock! It's the other way round, he's the thief who will steal, kill and destroy your life! What does Jesus know about Life to the full?" Despite the fact that Jesus gave us life in the first place, despite the fact he made us in His image – they make out that God is the great threat to enjoying your freedom to the full.
And if you're a student just arrived from, or just returned from, a Christian background, you'll be feeling the force of that message all over the campus. Let me quote from one would-be shepherd. Decca Aitkenhead is an author and a journalist with the Guardian. But as a student she wrote a piece for a Student Survival Guide one Freshers' Week – she wrote this:
"There is no point in being coy about this. Nobody else has been. Your friends have savoured endless speculation on the subject. Your father has mumbled about condoms. Even you, dare I say it, have given it some thought. In the awe-struck words of your younger brother, 'Wow! You're going to have so much sex.' … What you do, how often you do it, and with whom is entirely your own affair… Your freshers' pack will probably include a free condom, but this is unlikely to last you for your entire university career, so it's wise to stock up…. Hopefully your little brother is right. It would be a shame not to sample all the opportunities of life at university - particularly those between the sheets."
Which sounds so persuasive doesn't it? But Jesus says in John 10v.10 that Decca Aitkenhead is a "...thief who comes only to steal and kill and destroy." She promises life, but her advice steals your precious virginity, kills your conscience and destroys your relationships. She is a false shepherd who is out to rob us. And likewise the teacher in the PSHE lesson who says, "All normal people are experimenting at your age," is out to rob us. The group leader in the bar or the office party who's always pushing people to drink more than they want to, is out to rob us - of our individuality and dignity. The advertisers who sell us airbrushed images of models and celebrities are out to rob us of our contentment to be ourselves. The retailers and banks and credit companies who encourage us to work and earn and spend more and more are out to rob us of our generosity and our balance of life. TV programmes and movies are out to normalise sin and so rob us of the life God wants for us.
And Jesus is saying here: look at all the people who are trying to influence us, while building their lives on rejecting him. Look at them and see them for what they really are. Not shepherds, but robbers. Don't put your trust in them. Instead...
2. TRUST THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Take a look at John 10v.2:
"...he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."
Do you see the sheep merrily gambolling out of the sheep pen without a care in the world – because they have complete and utter trust in the Shepherd?! Well that is a picture of what we should be like with Jesus. But why should we trust Jesus above everyone else? Well that's because Jesus is saying...
i) Life to the Max is about Relationship with God (v.1-6)
Sheep farming in Jesus' time was an intimate affair. A shepherd who had 20 sheep would have been thought to have had a large flock. They were not grown for meat; they were grown for wool. And they were like pets, as each one had a name! And when their shepherd called them by their name the sheep would recognise his voice.
And you see that's the issue here. It's not like me and the government – where I am just a tax file number. That's all I am. That's what I am Mr Cameron, sir. That's all I am to you! Whereas here in John 10 – this is personal. As here Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd." And the word "good" there has the sense of personal magnetism. There is a goodness about Jesus that is so compelling. If you've ever read the gospels for yourself you will know that. And if you haven't you really must! And one of the best ways to do that is to get along to one of our Christianity Explored Courses this term – grab one of these leaflets to find out more. In it you work your way though Mark's gospel and find that there is a goodness, a trustworthiness in Jesus that is so magnetic – it just draws you to him as he walks off the pages of the Bible. You see, the good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. They know his voice. And he knows theirs.
It's like going into the crèche here on a Sunday morning. The crèche amazes me – all I can hear is bedlam coming out of the crèche! But a mum can be on the other side of the room and then amongst all the wailing and crying and screaming she can identify her child's cry from all the others. The antennae just goes up – "My baby is crying" as she breaks off conversation and goes over and picks him up for a hug. That's what it's like with Jesus. He knows us and we can know him like that.
You see to the Christian – God is not aloof. He isn't distant. Many people view God like some people view the Queen – they respect her and hold her in high regard, but they don't know her and she doesn't have a clue who they are! And many view God like that! Whereas the Bible takes the alternative point of view that God offers his friendship to us – to me, an insignificant sheep in a worldwide human race of 7.3 billion people, on a little planet in one small galaxy, in a vast universe – And the creator God knows me by name. He knows you by name. Now that is breathtaking!
You are known personally by the King of Kings. You are deeply loved and very much treasured. And that is a truth that those who are in his flock need to take to heart again and again. Because it is so easy to believe the lie that the shepherd is out to fleece us. That he doesn't have our best interests at heart. That following him will just ruin our life. No, no, no - not the Good Shepherd! Yes he may allow us to endure tough times, but we are never alone, even in the darkest nights of the soul. Even when those we love forsake us – which they will because human love isn't reliable enough to build our whole security on. And even when our nearest and dearest cannot or will not understand, the Good Shepherd does. And Jesus says that relationship with Him... is life. It is abundant life. But, it's more than that, as...
ii) Life to the Max is about Following Jesus' Leadership (v.7-11)
As he leads us where others can't. Check out John 10v.7:
"So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.""
Now the picture changes slightly, as Jesus is no longer the shepherd who goes through the gate to call his sheep out – he is the gate. Now this may be referring to the practice which some shepherds engaged in whereby they slept across the entrance to the sheep fold and so they acted as a human gate as it were. But the emphasis here is more on what Jesus does – as he leads the sheep in and out so that they find green pastures, so that they find the nourishment that they need in life.
And please see how unflattering this is for us! You see there are wild horses, wild dogs, wild cats – but I am told that there is no such thing as a wild sheep. Because sheep are so dim-witted and helpless that they can't be wild. Without a rancher the horse goes wild – without a shepherd the sheep just die! They simply can't cope alone! You see if you let a sheep loose – and I'm speaking here as an urban dweller, so the closest I've ever come to doing that was on a friend's stag night – that is another story! But I've been told that if you let a sheep loose it has no sense of direction so they'll just get lost; no sense of what to eat so it will eat poisoned plants; or they'll fall over and not be able to get up again. Do you know that if sheep fall onto their back they can't get up and will die just lying on their back unless you put them upright again?!
So can you see? Jesus is saying – That is what we are like! And that's why we need a shepherd. And Jesus is also saying that he is like the old school shepherds who lives with the sheep 24/7. He never goes home, he's never off duty – he does everything for the sheep, he is our leader. As his leadership protects, guides and provides for us, his sheep. So who is in charge: Jesus or you? Jesus the great, good shepherd says: "I am the one who knows how life is lived for the best. So let me lead you in each life situation." I mean, who knows better than the one who made us?!
For above all we need His wisdom in life – because human wisdom isn't enough to answer all the questions life throws at us. So if you know God through Jesus, that's a great privilege that you have over others – to have his wisdom to guide you. So other students and teachers may be cleverer than you, have a higher IQ than you or be able to wipe the floor with you in an argument. But in knowing God and trusting his will as revealed in the Bible, you have wisdom which they don't. So while they're in the dark about how God intended life to be lived – and are misusing it to their harm, you have the privilege of knowing God's design and being able to trust it and live by it.
We don't always get it right. But it's a great privilege to have that wisdom to guide and guard us. And don't let the world tell you otherwise – that it's a straitjacket, or that you've missed out. You haven't. Abandon God's wisdom and the only thing you miss out on is life as God meant it to be. So to have Life to the Max is to know relationship with God, it's to know Leadership from Jesus, but lastly...
iii) Life to the Max is about Knowing Jesus Died for you (v. 11-21)
As right at the heart of Christianity is the truth that Jesus Christ the Son of God died in our place. And we see it in verse 11 as we look down:
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."
And that word "for" in the Greek means "instead of". So the good shepherd lays down his life instead of the sheep – he takes our place. As on the cross he is deliberately dying for us in our place so that we can be forgiven. When I look at the cross of Jesus I can say: "I am forgiven because Jesus died for me. I am forgiven because of what Jesus did."
And can I say that it's even more striking because of verse 14, where Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. I know my own..." So Jesus the shepherd knows you completely and you can do nothing to surprise him. Now there are dark places in all of our lives that no one knows about, that we don't want anyone else to find out about. But Jesus knows them all and yet is still willing to be our shepherd, still willing to go to the cross for us!
There is a story told of a young Russian officer who was embezzling funds from his troops and he realised that he was going to be discovered. So he decided that the only honourable thing to do before he was found out was to kill himself. So he got himself drunk to get ready for the desperate deed. But the trouble was he got so drunk that he passed out. And the Tsar himself came into the room and looked at the book of accounts that the young man had passed out over. And he figured out what was going on. And he left a note in the books with his seal on it saying: "I will make good the debt." I will make good the debt. So when the young man woke up from his drunken stupor he realised that the Tsar himself had looked into the books, had seen his heart – and knew his sin to the bottom... and yet was still willing to pay for him.
Now that is what this passage is saying about Jesus. It is saying that you can have a shepherd who knows you all the way down to the bottom. Shepherds know their sheep inside out and Jesus knows all your faults, all your vain thoughts, all your sins, all the desires of your heart. Even the ways you have stumbled into sin this week. He knows your sins to the bottom! He knows them all! And yet he still says: "I will lay down my life for you!" He knows us to the bottom, yet he loves us to the skies! And can I say that when you understand that, it is freedom. How do you think that young Russian soldier felt when he came round with his hangover and he realised what had been done? Freedom! He felt the release of freedom! His sin had been seen to the bottom and yet it was still going to be paid for. And in the same way, you can know this glorious release. That Jesus knows you to the bottom and yet he loves you to the sky. And that is life!
To trust in Jesus is to be known and to be forgiven and to be accepted and to be lead by the only good shepherd there is. So let me ask you: Can you really say "The Lord is my shepherd"? That you know his friendship, you know his leadership, and you know his forgiveness? For if you can then you will experience the only way to make it through the minefields of life - the only way to make the best possible start, or restart, at Uni. It's the only path to life in all in all its fullness. It is Life to the Max.
""The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." Father God we ask that you would help us to make this our prayer. We thank you so much for Jesus the one Shepherd that we can really trust – who loves us so much that he gave his life for us. And we ask that you would help us to overcome our doubts and fears and depend on him with all of our lives. We pray this for his glory and our good. Amen."