"He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way..."
The following sermon, “Children, Can You Hear Me?,” which I will preach this Sunday to the people of The Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection, is also a continuation of our series on Jesus epithets. Today’s epithet comes from John 10:11 where Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd”:
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go 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. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” –John 10:1-10
My son got a book for Christmas last year titled, “Children, Can You Hear Me?” It’s supposed to be written in the voice of Jesus- only this Jesus, with the exception of his trademark fashion signature (the white toga swathed in purple which he promptly trades in for jeans and a T-shirt), has a crew cut and is good at swinging from monkey bars and karate chopping the devil.
If it’s not creepy per say, it seems at least a bit cheesy- the idea being that Jesus goes everywhere with us like a perfect tag-a-long partner, and we simply call on Him and He answers, like some cosmic dial-up figure. He’s a superhero and a magic genie and a best buddy all rolled into one convenient package.
But there’s a sense in which it really doesn’t matter if Jesus can swing from monkey bars and do karate chops and other “cooler,” more powerful stuff, if we can’t actually hear his voice. And by “hearing,” I don’t mean audibly picking up some sound from the heavens, be it in the form of a booming command or a gentle whisper. I mean, rather, simply being able to recognize when Jesus is speaking to our hearts. If we can’t recognize Jesus speaking to our hearts, then who Jesus is or what He came to do is, practically speaking, of no real consequence for our lives.
And Jesus would say in today’s passage that his sheep “hear His voice.” Jesus would say that His sheep “follow him because they know his voice.”
“I know it when I see it,” said one chief justice about obscenity. Maybe something similar could be said about God’s voice: we know it when we hear it.
The thing is, what about those times when we’re wrong? What about those times when we think God is speaking to us when in fact God is not- or at least not in the way we thought God was or wanted God to? Do we need to worry in times like these that we’re not among Jesus’ sheep? That is the question that first hits me when I read this passage.
These days there are a lot of voices. Sometimes they’re external ones- all those things that society would tell us we should be. Fit, toned, rich and beautiful, thanks to a gym membership and a secure retirement savings account or the latest in plastic surgery. Fashionable. Successful. Strong. Youthful. Rich, or at least comfortable.
Sometimes these voices echo what we’re hearing on the inside. The voices say, “I have to have more of x, y or z”- you can fill in the blank- “to be somebody, to make my mark in this world, to survive and to win.” They say, “I have to have more financial security.” Or, “I’ve got to look more attractive.” Or, “I want to be powerful.”
And, if we think these voices (be they internal or external) are loud, that’s probably because they’re only giving voice to the nature of the world you and I inhabit. Because we live in a “dog-eat-dog” world. A world in which Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is more than just a scientific theory with its adherents and detractors, but actually plays out on factory floors, in school classrooms and within halls of government (not to mention the church). Most of the time in our world the strong really do rule the weak, and “the one with the most toys wins,” as the bumper sticker goes.
The other day I saw a chilling picture. It showed a newborn antelope snuggling up next to, of all things, a leopard. What the picture didn’t show was that the leopard had done what leopards in the wild do: it had caught the baby antelope and was about to eat it- and would one hour later. But for almost a whole hour before its ensuing kill, the leopard had let this poor, helpless animal snuggle up next to it and even play with it, like a baby with its mother. The baby, oblivious to the danger it was in, had not been able to recognize its mother’s cry and would die because of it.
When we don’t hear Jesus’ voice, we’re no sheep at all- because we’re dead sheep, or at least on our way to being dead: it will be just a matter of time before the wolf and the thief snatch us away. So I suspect the question of greater importance to contend with is not whether or not we can be sure we are Jesus’ sheep. The question, I think, is really whether we are on the pathway to everlasting life, or whether we, like sheep gone astray, are just waiting to die at the hands of the next marauder and intruder who come along.
Because if we only get to be dumb sheep, we might as well be alive ones, with hope and a future. Because what Jesus is saying here is that He really is the only Source of everlasting life. Because if Jesus is “the good shepherd,” He dutifully, faithfully and lovingly leads the sheep back and forth from the safety of the pen to the rest and nourishment of green pastures and then back again; and, he is the only one who has staked his life on our livelihoods. And, similarly, if Jesus is the Gate itself- if He keeps out the wolves and the thieves who would seek to steal, kill and destroy us- He guards all of our comings and goings.
This Jesus is far more than a feel-good, best friend with superhero powers whom we can call upon any time of day, like a genie in a bottle. This Jesus is one who is in fact calling us all the time, who by virtue of the fact that he calls us by name, knows us intimately, better than we know ourselves. He knows we’re all like sheep gone astray and He knows we need guidance and protection and crave abundant life- things we’re often prone to forget.
This Jesus is the same anointed king of Israel that the prophet Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 34) speaks of as God Himself. In a world in which the powerful prey on the weak, the rich on the poor, and the healthy on the sick, Jesus is the one, true and trustworthy Shepherd. His is the one, often lonely voice who tells us we’re more than simply pawns in the depressing cycle of Nature’s brutal elimination of the weak.
Listen to the words of this Divine Shepherd as Ezekiel hears them: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land…I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:11-19).”
Rich pastures that feed us. Homecomings for the lost. Healing for the sick. Strength for the weak. When God speaks, God’s voice transforms and informs our conceptions of reality: it asks us to believe that God’s way and God’s kingdom are best for us, and not just best for us, but best for the whole world.
And, Jesus is talking to you and to me and has been all the time. He has been telling us we’re His. He’s been telling us we belong to His kingdom. He’s been telling us to follow Him, because in following Him we’ll discover what real life looks like. Life that doesn’t end once we stop breathing but keeps on welling up from within us and beyond the grave. Life that can’t help but dribble out and touch other lives and all creation.
And if you can’t hear Jesus talking to you, then chances are you’ve been letting those other voices speak to you too much. Maybe you need to silence those voices just a bit. Turn off your radio. Disconnect your iPhone. Tell your brain to stop its frantic mutterings for just a little while. Then ask God to help you listen better, and center in on Jesus and His words in Scripture.
And, if your issue is not distraction, it may be one of discernment- because if it’s true that we’ll know God’s voice when we hear it, it’s also true that sheep must learn to hear the shepherd’s voice. If you’re struggling to distinguish God’s voice from the rest of the din, here is a hint: chances are that God’s voice will have something to do with this abundant life Ezekiel and Jesus are talking about. Life that cannot be reduced to a better wardrobe or the right job or the next prescription drug or the perfect relationship. Life, instead, that rings with a God-breathed purpose to simply feed on God’s goodness and dwell in God’s love. Life that honors God’s justice for those at the bottom of the food chain. Life that will often demand some level of dying on our parts.
There is no general rule here for how to discern God’s voice. Scripture doesn’t give us a handy two-step litmus test or a reader-friendly manual with a 1-800 number to call if we get in a pinch. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest at least two ways we can begin to discern God’s voice from all the rest.
The first has to do with the content of what we hear. The Westminster Shorter Catechism in our Reformed tradition states that human beings’ chief aim is to “glorify God and enjoy God forever.” And, I suspect that one clue as to whether we’re in fact hearing God’s voice will be whether what we’re hearing can be said to fall clearly within one or both of these categories of glorifying and enjoying God. Does what we hear glorify God, insofar as it helps us to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves? And, does what we’re hearing help us simply enjoy God? These are questions we might ask ourselves anytime we’re not sure whether what we’re hearing is actually God’s voice.
The second way to discern God’s voice has to do with community. We will do well to look around and see where the rest of the sheep are and whether we’re hearing the same thing they’re hearing. It is hard to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re off behind some rock clinging to a craggy hill far away from the rest of the herd bleating for help. Sure, when we’re all alone out there we can be assured that the Good Shepherd will come looking for us- but it will be a whole lot easier to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re with the rest of the bunch to begin with. Are you seeking God’s voice in community and with one another? The particulars of what God says to you may differ a bit from one person to another, but the overall direction should, I suspect, be similar.
And when we begin really to hear and discern God’s voice, Jesus’ assurance is that we won’t want to do anything other than follow. We follow because we hear and recognize whose voice it is. The Good News here is that God is speaking to us all the time whether or not we choose to hear- so much so that He even risked his life for it.
The question, then, for us today really is the title of a somewhat cheesy children’s book, afterall. This time, though, the question doesn’t come from a guy who belongs in a J.Crew catalogue and follows us around all the time with a spooky smile, or magically appears next to us in our office or at the grocery store. This time the question comes from the ruler of a kingdom that will one day prevail over the “dog-eat-dog” order of this world that is passing away. This God of the universe who is making all things new and is leading, wooing, and calling us out, who is herding us with the rod of a good shepherd, who is sending us out into the jungle out there and inviting us to be by his side all the while, this King who commands a kingdom that is not of this world but for which He tells us to pray, this same One, asks, “Children, can you hear me?”
Lord Jesus Christ, give us ears to listen.