Hearing the Shepherd's Voice

SJF • Easter 4c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.+

Last week our Scripture readings told us about people who went on to become leaders in the church getting off to an awfully inauspicious start. Peter and Paul, each in his own way, didn’t perceive Jesus when he was plainly evident to others. They had to be shaken up by God to open their eyes and see what was right in front of them. Paul, as you remember, missed God’s message because he was so full of himself, his head so full of his own knowledge, his own understanding — which was really misunderstanding — that he couldn’t hear or see anything new. Peter, on the other hand, seems to have gotten the message but didn’t know what to do with it — instead of spreading the Gospel he decided to go fishing.

Fortunately God knocked Paul from his high horse, and set Peter on the right road. Look at today’s reading from the Book of Acts, and remember that Paul is including himself among the people of Jerusalem and their leaders — as he had been at that time — who “did not... understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath.” Remember, as we heard last week, Paul spent his youth persecuting the church, hunting down Christians and delivering them up for trial and punishment. He started hi career as the coat-check boy for those who stoned Saint Stephen to death! Yet he’d heard the Scriptures week by week in the synagogue, heard, without understanding, the God about whom those words gave such powerful testimony.

Paul finally understood the words so often heard, and came to know the meaning behind them, and the One of whom they spoke. And Peter, too, became a changed man once Jesus got him to take his mind off his fishing tackle, and sent him out to feed the sheep, and to spread the Gospel.

Powerful things can happen to you when you let God into your life. Saint John the Divine was given a glimpse, a revelation, and he shared us with us: a glimpse, a revelation, of the ultimate destiny of those who hear and follow their heavenly shepherd, people from all over the world who have heard the saving word in many tongues, and who in John’s vision of heaven stand before the throne with palm branches, praising the Lord and the Lamb, who is their protector and their God. Secure in the place where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst — not even any sunburn — they rejoice forever because they have heard and followed him who is the Savior of the world.

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But what about those who refuse to hear, who don’t let God into their lives? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s a chilly winter day, at the feast of Dedication; which we might know better as Hanukkah. The people come to Jesus with the challenge, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus returns their challenge with a challenge equally pointed. “I have told you.” If ever there were a time for that appropriate, eloquent monosyllable, this would be it. Duh!

What more could they want? By this time in John’s Gospel John the Baptist has given his testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God, Jesus has changed water to wine at Cana of Galilee, he has cast the moneychangers from the court of the Gentiles in that very temple; He has promised that if the temple were torn down he would rebuild it in three days; he has fed a multitude on the mountain, with five barley loaves and two fish; he has healed the sick — a little boy in Capernaum, and right in Jerusalem a paralyzed man, and even more astoundingly a man born blind; and — especially in John’s Gospel— he’s taught and he’s taught and he’s taught. Yet after all of this, the people still say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Verily, verily, I say unto you, Duh! As Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.”

It reminds me of the young man in the movie who is tempted to go further with his new girlfriend than he knows he should, and who kneels in prayer in his bedroom. “Give me a sign, God,” he says. There’s a crash of thunder, the lights flash, the walls shake and pictures fall from their hooks and books from their shelves; and still looking up to heaven, the boy says, “Any sign!”

Just what does it take to hear the voice of God when God is speaking slowly and clearly in words of one syllable?

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Well, Jesus gives us the answer, and in words of one syllable: My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. (O.K., follow has two syllables.) But the message is clear.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The blessed ones, the ones who belong to the flock of Christ, hear the voice of their divine shepherd. Notice that doesn’t mean that they necessarily understand the shepherd, any more than ordinary earthly sheep understand their earthly human shepherd. They may not even know what a shepherd is, but — and this is the most important thing, as Jesus goes on to say — the shepherd knows them.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to understand God’s message to us. If that were the case I’d stop preaching right now! But we need to hear God first, before we try to understand, and trust that God knows who he is talking to! God does not dial wrong numbers!

People do, of course, and it’s a good example of how preconceptions — being full of yourself instead of being open to others, as was Saint Paul’s problem — can prevent you from hearing what is being said to you. Once I was working in the church office, and the phone rang. As always, I answered, “Good afternoon, St. James Church.” The person at the other end said, “Is this the Recreation Center?”

Now, if I’d really been swift I could have said something like, “Yes, we offer re-creation every Sunday morning at 11 a.m.” As it was, I just said, “No; this is St. James Church. The Rec Center is next door.” Of course, I’d said that the first time, but the person calling simply couldn’t believe they’d dialed the wrong number. Isn’t if funny how people won’t believe that you aren’t the person they wanted: I’m sure I’m not the only one here who has had to repeat several times that no, Juanita doesn’t live here. Well, in this case, the caller wanted the Recreation Center, they expected the Recreation Center, so when I said, “Good afternoon, St. James Church” they didn’t even hear the words.

But God’s sheep do hear the voice of their heavenly shepherd; and that is how our salvation begins. It is enough for us to begin by hearing, hearing without preconceptions, and in the true knowledge and trust that the one who calls us knows exactly who we are, knows us each by name. God don’t dial no wrong numbers! Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them.” And so we begin by hearing, and being known.

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And then, we follow. Yes, that’s the third essential two-syllable part of this morning’s word to us. The shepherd knows his sheep and calls his sheep, not for casual conversation, but for a high purpose: that they might follow him to the springs of the water of life, where every tear is wiped from their eyes, where they find shelter from the sun’s scorching heat, where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst. He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of his hand. What is his is his for ever.

This is what it means, beloved, to be counted among the flock of the great shepherd of the sheep. It is nothing less than life eternal. Thank God that we have heard the voice of the one who calls us; thank God that he knows us and has chosen us. And thank God that we have set our feet upon the path to follow him. Amidst the distractions and the shadows of this life, amidst the distractions and noise and busyness of our lives, may we always be ready to hear the voice of the one who knows us, and to follow him when he calls, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+