Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A, 15 May 2011)

The risen life: the Shepherd’s voice

Readings
Psalm 23
John 10.1-10

If you look at the titles of the sermons since Easter Day on the home page, you’ll see there’s a theme. It’s ‘The Risen Life’. We’ve had ‘The Risen Life: forgiving sins’ and ‘The Risen Life: walking in hope’. Today is ‘The Risen Life: The Shepherd’s voice’.

It’s clear that we can draw a ‘Risen Life’ theme from stories about resurrection appearances like Doubting Thomas or The Road to Emmaus.

It’s not so obvious today though: today’s Gospel Reading is taken from John 10. Surely that’s well before the resurrection of Jesus? Why do we read this passage during Eastertide?

I wonder if you’ve noticed something when you read the Gospels? The Jesus of John’s Gospel doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke. His ‘voice’ is quite different. He talks in long discourses rather than in pithy parables.

Let’s say it clearly, let’s hear it clearly: the voice of Jesus in John’s Gospel is very often the voice of the risen Lord Jesus. It’s what people have heard who have listened to the Spirit of Jesus speaking to the Church. The ‘historical Jesus’ didn’t necessarily say the words that John puts into Jesus’ mouth; but we can believe that the Risen Lord did say them, through his Spirit, to those who knew his voice.

So when Jesus says ‘I am the gate’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, we are hearing the words of the living risen Lord Jesus, now, to his Church.

And when we hear Jesus say, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, then he is saying that now to us—his sheep. And his sheep hear his voice now—in the original Greek, that word ‘hear’ is in the present tense.

You know, sheep have a bad press. We see them as silly creatures with very little if any sense. We think so little of sheep, I’ve heard sophisticated Christians say they’re offended to be called ‘sheep’.

We don’t need to be that sophisticated. We can and should accept that we are sheep—though I must say their stupidity has been exaggerated.

In an English research project, sheep were shown pictures of other sheep and rewarded with food if they moved toward a particular image.

The sheep quickly learned to recognise the face that produced a reward, and went for that face. They got it right eight out of 10 times!—and they remembered faces for an extended period of time. Some sheep could remember up to 50 images for two years. This is a sign of higher intelligence, according to the scientists who conducted the study.

So why do sheep seem so daft? Well, it seems that they’re scared of just about everything. And, says one of the scientists,

Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behaviour.

Did you know there are 110 million sheep in Australia? We should be glad they’re permanently scared! With their brains—in those numbers—if they could organise, they’d take us down. The ‘Republic of Sheepstralia’ would be declared, and we’d be on convict ships headed back to England. Or Manus Island, or Malaysia.

Now we’ve discovered that sheep have hidden depths, what does our passage say about them—I mean, ‘us’? I’m interested in one thing it says about ‘us sheep’:

the sheep hear [the shepherd’s] 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.

Sheep know their shepherd’s voice.

Two people were driving when they came upon a flock of sheep grazing near the road. One wanted to have a photo taken of her with the sheep. As soon as she got out of the car, the sheep moved away, and, as she walked toward them, they again moved further away. They wouldn’t let her get near enough to get both her and the sheep in the same picture. They didn’t know her voice, so they stayed at a safe distance.

Sheep know their shepherd’s voice, but do we? For us human sheep to know the Good Shepherd’s voice, we must practise listening for it. Remember last year we talked about spiritual practices? Here’s another: listening. It’s part of prayer, really; prayer is more about listening to God than it is about talking to God.

A few years ago, I was a chaplain at NCYC. I spoke with a young man there who was quite troubled. He belonged to an active congregation, which encouraged a high degree of involvement from its people. So far, so good.

But it seemed there were a lot of guilt messages there. A lot of ‘shoulds’ weighed him down. This young man felt guilty whenever he did anything for himself. There was little evidence of the ‘abundant life’ that Jesus promises.

There was some promise. Several times a week, he would go to the pool on the way home from work, where he’d swim for 30 minutes or so. This was a great time of re-creation for him, which he really looked forward to.

So, what was the problem? He felt guilty for enjoying time alone, time that just couldn’t be used to witness to other people. Every moment had to be at least potentially useful to share his faith with others; the fact that he enjoyed time alone was very troubling for him.

It was pretty clear to me that he was an introvert. So he replenished his energy from solitary pursuits. Like swimming laps. It was very good for him to do it. He needed to do it.

But I couldn’t convince him that it was useful of and by itself to swim. So I suggested he use the time he swam as time to pray, to listen for God.

I’d like to say he went away with a new way of being ‘in his own skin’. But that wouldn’t be true. I couldn’t help this young man break free from the belief that enjoying time alone was sinful.

I was trying to get him to hear the Shepherd’s voice, leading him into green pastures and beside still waters. But he could only hear a voice that accused him.

Was that the voice of God? No. Emphatically, no.

God’s voice never accuses us. God is grace, God is compassion, God is love. Remember: when the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples, he greets them with ‘Peace!’ rather than with accusations about their cowardice.

More than that, Satan is The Accuser. The word ‘satan’ actually means ‘accuser’. God does not accuse us. That’s the Enemy’s job. We can be sure the voice the young introvert swimmer was listening to was not from God.

Listening is a counter-cultural practice. By that, I mean our society doesn’t encourage us to listen well. Information comes our way in short sound bites. Conversation can be more like a verbal jousting match, in which each is trying to score hits on the other. Television commercials are loud and intrusive; you don’t need any listening skills to get what they’re saying.

Remember the ‘still, small voice’? Elijah the prophet was once holed up in a cave, hiding for his life. He was listening for a word from God; there was an earthquake, a cyclone, and bushfire—none of them meant anything. God wasn’t there in these great events.

Then Elijah heard it—a ‘still, small voice’. It was God’s voice, and it was so quiet that Elijah could easily have missed it. And so can we.

The story is told of a naturalist who was walking down a city street. He said to his friend, ‘Can you hear that cricket?’ his friend replied, ‘How can your hear a cricket with all this noise?’ The naturalist replied, ‘You hear what you’re trained to hear.’

We human sheep need to train ourselves to listen for the voice of the risen Lord Jesus, the Shepherd’s voice. It’s a voice leading us to green pastures, beside still waters; it protects us in dark valleys and restores our soul. It never accuses, and it’s usually still. And small.

The daily grind often discourages us from being quiet enough within ourselves to listen, let alone to listen for God. That’s why it’s important to see listening as a spiritual practice. When we read the bible—which is each day (?)—when we pray, again each day—we can build in a time of intentional listening. It may be just a minute or three. We don’t rattle off our prayer time ‘shopping list’ and then get rushing; we sit with the Good Shepherd and listen to him have his side of the conversation. We don’t read our bibles and go straight to the TV; we still our hearts and wait for the Spirit to speak to us.

Jesus said,

the sheep follow [the Shepherd] because they know his voice.

Knowing the Shepherd’s voice requires us to listen for that still, small voice that Elijah heard. It requires spiritual practice. It’s a way to that abundant life the Good Shepherd has for us, his beloved sheep. Amen.

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