The Cure for a Joyless Soul
Dr. Jim Denison
After my recent travails with my new electric trimmer and the two power cords I cut, one of our members sent me this story. It seems a pastor was out riding his bicycle when he saw a young boy with a lawn mower for sale. “How much do you want for the mower?” he asked. “I just want enough money to buy a bicycle,” the little boy answered. After considering for a moment, the pastor asked, “Will you take my bike in trade for it?”
After examining the bike, the boy made the trade. The preacher took the mower and pulled on the rope a few times with no response. He called the boy over and said, “I can’t get this mower to start.” The boy said, “That’s because you have to cuss at it to get it started.” The pastor replied, “I’m a minister, and I can’t cuss. It’s been so long since I’ve been saved that I don’t even remember how to cuss.”
The little boy looked at him happily and said, “You just keep pulling on that rope. It’ll come back to you.” We’ve all owned a mower like that one, I fear.
When Johann Sebastian Bach returned from a concert tour to discover that his wife and two of their children had died, he wrote in his diary, “Dear Lord, may my joy not leave me.”
Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman described a period in his life when his health was bad and his spirits low. He confessed to a friend, “I’m about to lose my joy. I can feel it physically. I’m running out. I’m just drying up, inside.” Bergman said he wanted to rediscover what Bach had called his joy.
Maybe you need to discover or rediscover your joy today, the “abundant life” Jesus said his followers would experience. A deep sense of well-being and purpose which transcends your circumstances. The feeling that all is well with your soul, no matter how things are with your life. A trusted friend told me this week, “Everybody’s hurting, or about to.” Despite it all, how can we find “life to the full” today?
Admit you need a shepherd
According to our text, we are sheep. Forty-four times, the Bible describes us that way. In fact, did you know that “sheep” is the most common metaphor for human beings in all of Scripture?
This is not a compliment. Sheep are beautiful animals to view from a distance, but among the dumbest animals on earth.
Have you ever seen a sheep in a circus? Can they be trained for anything?
Sheep are totally defenseless against every predator. Ever seen a sign on someone’s fence, “Warning: vicious sheep inside”? Sheep must be guarded and led every day. The shepherd must live with them and watch them constantly or they’ll wander into trouble. God is not trying to increase our self-esteem when he calls us sheep.
Well, surely this isn’t true of us all. Surely some of us are smarter and more self-sufficient than sheep. But listen to Isaiah 53:6: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” God thinks we’re all sheep, every one of us.
None of us wants to admit that fact. But we can never have a shepherd until we admit that we need one, that we are sheep.
We cannot find the abundant life until we admit that we don’t have it. We cannot experience the joy of Jesus until we admit that we need the joy of Jesus.
Self-sufficiency is the enemy of joy. Self-reliance is the enemy of “life to the full.” Imagine a sheep taking on a wolf by himself, or wandering through the wilderness by himself. You’re picturing most of the people you know. And maybe yourself as well. We think we’re shepherds, but we’re not—we’re sheep.
To find the joy of Jesus, begin by admitting that you need the joy of Jesus. Admit that you’re a sheep, in need of a shepherd.
Find the “gate for the sheep”
Now we come to Jesus’ fourth “I am,” the fourth time he uses God’s personal and holy name for himself: “I am the good shepherd” (v. 11). “Good” is emphatic in the Greek. The word meant to be lovely, attractive, not just moral but beautiful and desirable. How could he make this claim for himself?
Because “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep” (v. 7). “I am” is emphatic. “The” gate uses the definite article—he’s the only one.
Sheep in the countryside stayed at night in sheep-folds, walls enclosing a space. There was no door of any kind. When the sheep were in for the night, the shepherd would lay down across the opening. No predators or thieves could get in, and no sheep could get out, without crossing over his body. He was literally their only door.
Scripture consistently makes this claim for the Lord Jesus. He said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Paul said, “Through him we have access to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). The writer of Hebrews said, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Hebrews 10:19-20).
Now Jesus is the gate for the sheep, the doorway to the Father. Think of him as the heavenly doorman, opening the way for us to come into the Father’s mansion.
How did he provide this door? He came to die for his sheep: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).
That’s how much he loves us. Jesus is the shepherd who would leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:13). He’s come to find you, today.
Has anyone else died for you? Has anyone else offered to forgive your every sin and mistake, to redeem your every failure? To love you no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done? To like you even when you know you don’t deserve it? Has anyone else laid down his life for the sheep?
Make him your shepherd
Here’s the catch: we must walk through this “gate.” We must make this shepherd ours. How? First, as we have seen, we admit that we need his joy, that we are sheep in need of a shepherd. We repent of our own self-righteousness and self-reliance. We see ourselves as God sees us—sheep. And every sheep needs a shepherd. Wolves love to find self-sufficient sheep. Do you know that you need him?
Next, we make him the shepherd of our souls.
Peter described each of us before we came to faith in Christ: “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
To make him your shepherd requires a personal decision, a personal relationship. Salvation is not joining the church, or being baptized. It is not trying harder to do better. It is not the product of your works and righteousness. No good deeds a sheep can do can replace its relationship with a personal shepherd.
If you’re not sure you’ve made that personal decision, you likely haven’t. But we’ll introduce you this morning, if you’ll let us. Wolves love to find sheep without a shepherd. Do you really know him?
Now we stay close to our shepherd. We start the day under his leading. We turn to him when the wolf comes near, or when the grass runs out, or when the water begins to rush by, or the storm clouds gather. We walk as closely with our shepherd as we possibly can. Wolves love to find sheep far from their shepherd.
So, when last did you spend a day, or an hour, practicing the presence of Jesus? Are you close to him today?
And we stay with the flock. You’ll never see a sheep out on its own. Where there’s one, there’s two or three or thirty. They know they’re not safe on their own. Some of us are not that smart. We don’t know that we need each other, that we cannot do life on our own. We keep our problems to ourselves, refusing to allow the body of Christ to be his arms and hands for our hurting hearts. But wolves love to find isolated, lonely sheep. So, what sheep is standing at your side today?
Here’s the payoff, the Shepherd’s promise: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (v. 10). This is not a feeling. Nowhere does the Bible describe what it feels like to have God’s joy. It is not a circumstance. The joy of Jesus is not “happiness,” which depends on “happenings.” You can have joy even in hard times. Nor is his joy a temporary experience. You can have the “abundant life” no matter what the past has been or the future holds. This is your shepherd’s will for your life, no matter how rugged the terrain or barren the landscape of your life. If you will stay close to your shepherd and his flock.
I was discussing this sermon recently with Tommy Sanders, our Minister of Childhood Education, and he sent me this story:
“Children who are sick or handicapped have a special sensitivity to [the Good Shepherd picture]. Maria, two years and ten months old, was being treated in the cancer ward of the Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital in Rome. She came from the south of Italy, so her parents lived far away.
One cannot describe the sadness in her small, pale face nor the impossibility of establishing any rapport with her. ‘She is always on her own,’ related the other children, ‘sometimes she cries and cries but she says nothing.’ A [teacher] went to the hospital with the intention of speaking to Maria about the Good Shepherd’s love, but her endeavors to make contact with the little girl seemed completely in vain. While the [teacher] presented the parable materials to a small group of children who had gathered around her bed, Maria appeared to be far away, if not actually asleep.
However, as the [teacher] read the parable, Maria’s breathing became gradually calmer; when the [teacher] started to rise slowly from the chair beside her bed, Maria stood up abruptly, threw herself into the [teacher’s] arms and kissed her. Discarding her doll, she cleared a space on her bed for the materials and indicated in an obvious way that she was waiting for a new presentation of the Good Shepherd.
Then she took the parable book herself and suddenly began to say a number of things that unfortunately the [teacher], who was a foreigner, could not understand. But communication had been established just the same: Maria wanted to be held in her arms, carried around the room, and fed when the dinner arrived. When it came time for the [teacher] to leave, Maria refused to let anyone else hold her and let her leave only after she promised to return the next day. The night nurse heard Maria singing softly: ‘He knows my name.'”
Maria was right.
There is an old story of an elderly pastor and a young man in the same worship service. As part of the program each of these speakers was to recite the Twenty-third Psalm from memory. The young man, trained in the best speech technique and drama, gave the words of the Psalm. When he had finished the congregation applauded loudly, amazed by his resonant voice and remarkable talent.
Then the elderly gentleman, leaning on his cane, stepped to the pulpit and in a weak, shaking voice repeated the same words. But when he finished no sound came from the congregation. People seemed to be deep in prayer and worship. In the silence the young speaker stood and said, “Friends, I wish to say something. You clapped when I quoted the Psalm, but you remained silent and moved when my friend was done. The difference is simple. I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
You know the Psalm. Do you know the Shepherd?