Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

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If we are to be like those who Jesus describes in today’s Gospel lesson — “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” — we must allow God’s word to grow into our lives and being.  There are no shortcuts.  There’s no wave of the hand… magic… “poof” and its done… I’m transformed.  Now I know my creator’s will and I can follow him.  Rather, this is a process that works over time, very quietly; as the way we think and act changes gradually, but powerfully.


4th Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2013

John 10:22-30

Peder Stenslie

I have suffered through a lot of meetings in my life.  Some of these experiences live on in my memory as particularly painful.  I remember one when I was still teaching at Mary Stark across the river.  On a very busy morning we were called to the library for a “quick” 10 minute meeting.  We get there and it was announced that there was only one topic for discussion.  We needed to decide whether we would continue with an end-of-the-year activity that we had done in past years… or not.  The teachers were asked how they felt.  Every voice expressed agreement that we should discontinue the activity.  Sweet!  Case is closed; meeting is over, right?!  Not so fast.  Rather, we were asked again.  There was more discussion, the same sentiment; but conversation seemed to go nowhere.  People were talking plainly, but they weren’t being heard.

What seemed like an eternity later, we were no closer to a decision than when we started, even though the collective will of the people was clear.  A couple people suggested we simply take a vote and be done with it; but our wheels were spinning and we were swerving this way and that and nobody could steer the meeting to resolution.  Finally, as the morning bell was ringing, it was crunch time.  A vote was hastily taken and it was unanimous.  No surprises.  The activity was canned.

Words were spoken, but their message was not heard.  Today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus making precisely that point about his own words:  “… the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’  Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.’”

Why did the leading Jews not know what Jesus had said?  They were told.  Were they simply not paying attention?  As a teacher (and parent) I’ve certainly seen that happen a time or two.  Or was it simply because they refused to acknowledge what they were not inclined to believe.

Jesus then makes reference to the works he’s done… which they have seen… and yet they do not believe.  They have heard… they have seen… and yet they do not know.  Then Jesus shifts his focus and talks about something completely different.  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

This is a very different thing than hearing words and accepting their meaning; or seeing works and understanding their significance.  Recognizing a voice is something else.  It is something innate, automatic, instinctual.  We don’t reason our way to it, we know it already.  Recognizing a voice is simply something we can do… based on knowledge we already have.

The animalworld provides us with the most astounding examples of this gift of God’s creatures.  Jesus, in fact, uses the animal world to make his point.  He refers to the fact that sheep know instantly the voice of their caretaker, their shepherd… and they trust and follow that voice.

I think the most amazing example of this that I’ve ever heard regards penguins.  In the stunning National Geographic documentary, “March of the Penguins,” It was said that penguin parents are able to locate their chicks from among the hundreds of thousands of others by the sound of their voice.  The chicks also can recognize their parents’ voices amidst the deafening din of penguin calls echoing across the vast Emperor Penguin colony.

This incredible ability of penguins helps them survive, grow and thrive.  For us, knowing the voice of our creator is just as important.  Hearing
God’s voice amidst all the noise and distraction of our world is essential, so that we too can grow, be safe and thrive.

It seems humans don’t naturally know the voice of their creator like penguin chicks recognize the call of their parents.  Unlike penguins or other animals of the natural world whose instincts protect, preserve and promote their well-being, we… when we follow our twisted human nature…
seem to cut a swath of destruction around us.

That is why God comes among us in Christ.  It is why God sends the Spirit… and gives us his Word.  We need to learn how to recognize God’s voice.  We need to know and follow the voice of God if we are going to find our way through the noise and dangers of the world around us.  That is what Jesus says sets his followers apart from others.   “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

What Jesus speaks of here is not mental understanding or belief… it is an innate recognition of God that guides us in our life.  It is something deeply woven into our lives and being that is active, directing us, strengthening us, giving us health and hope.  It is a gift from God that comes to us… grows in us… over time, as we let God into our lives.

To let God seep deep into our lives… that is our great life task… and this happens many different ways.  Indeed, it should happen in
different ways.  Being loved and nurtured by someone when we are young… this is one way the power of God gets woven into our lives.  This is
because when we are loved, the mark of God is left on our hearts.  And we can begin to know, innately, the voice of God, as it speaks to us through love.

Being fortunate enough to know this gift as a child can lead us very far indeed in life.  That is something you should think about very deeply and very carefully as some of you approach your years of parenthood.

You have no idea how much strength and grace is given when parents provide proper love and care for their child… or how much hurt is inflicted when they don’t.  That is why parental abuse and neglect of children is such a grave offense against God.  It’s why we as a church must always stand and work against it.

As we grow older, and our world becomes bigger and much more complex, it is necessary that the spirit of God come into our lives in other ways.  First and foremost, there just isn’t any substitute for hearing the word of God.  In order to come to know God’s voice, we need to hear the story of his love and work.  We need to hear it again and again and let it grow in us… let it stitch itself into our hearts.  As we hear and think about the word of God, it works inside us and reshapes the way we look at power, life, people… everything.

We can also open ourselves to the spirit of God through prayer, reflection, through healthy relationships with people and nature… through artistic and creative activities, such as music, painting, building, gardening, etc.

If we are to be like those who Jesus describes in today’s Gospel lesson — “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” — we must allow God’s word to grow into our lives and being.  There are no shortcuts.  There’s no wave of the hand… magic… “poof” and its done… I’m
transformed.  Now I know my creator’s will and I can follow him.  Rather, this is a process that works over time, very quietly; as the way
we think and act changes gradually, but powerfully.

That’s the process we’ve seen over the past weeks… and will continue to see… in the lives of the disciples.

Also, it’s important to make clear that “knowing” the voice of God doesn’t mean we actually hear a speaking voice in our head giving us messages.  It’s also not about putting big decisions before God and then expecting him to give us some kind of sign that we’re supposed to catch, and then follow.

God’s “voice” works in us as we do the simple, hard work of living… making decisions, fulfilling responsibilities, reaching out to others, striving to be true and good.  And the more we let the spirit of God into our hearts and lives, the better decisions we’ll make; the more able we will be to fulfill our responsibilities and reach out to others.

“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”  There are a lot of “voices” in this world that want our attention and our loyalty.  But the voice of our creator and redeemer; that one, we want to be sure we know.

So we should make ourselves ready, open ourselves to the word and spirit of God, and let the voice of God work its way deep into our hearts and lives.  There, we pray, it will abide and transform us.  It will give us life and hope that our own sinful nature cannot extinguish.  It will grant us the gift of the sheep… the simple, but powerful, ability to hear the master’s voice, and the faith and will to follow where it leads.

Amen.