Year B, Easter 4
One of my joys in life is a small group of writers who meet a couple times a year. When we meet we start with an exercise called “listening to God.” In this exercise you start by asking God a question and then writing down what you hear in response. You are not allowed to edit yourself. You write down everything that pops into your head, whether it is relevant or not. After you have written everything, you take turns reading it out loud. You don’t have to read out loud, but with this group I do because I know it is safe place. I have also realized that you can learn a lot from what other people write.
One of the most interesting revelations I’ve had is that God talks to each one of in our own voice. For instance, when God talks to me, he’s a little sarcastic and likes to say: “Seriously?!?” a lot. At first I thought that must mean that I am not listening to God. I am listening to myself. But then my friends reminded me that of course God sounds like us. This is in our heads. God’s words are being filtered by our personalities. Of course God talks to us in a way that we would understand. If God spoke to me in Hebrew, I would be in serious trouble.
I thought of that exercise as I read the Gospel today. John writes: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” In what is often referred to as the Good Shepherd Discourse, Jesus explains that the sheep follow the good shepherd because they know his voice. They know his voice because they have heard it before. They know his voice because they have a relationship with this shepherd.
You will find shepherd imagery throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the shepherd represents a powerful leader, a king and often the one true God of the Hebrew people. Jesus is sharing the parable that we heard today with the Pharisees…the Pharisees who are already pretty ticked at him. This parable isn’t just a nice comforting story; it sheds light on an earlier incident. In this earlier incident Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were so angry at this display of power and disrespect for their rules that they questioned the formerly blind man. When the blind man did not tell them what they wanted to hear, they cast him out. When Jesus learned that this had happened, he went out and found the man and told the man who it was that healed him. It was not just some run of the mill miracle worker, but the Son of Man. In response the blind man worshipped him. This all happened right in front of the Pharisees.
It is after this that Jesus tells the good shepherd parable. Therefore we can assume that while he is talking to his disciples he is also talking to the Pharisees. He is telling them that he is the good shepherd, that he is God. They become so angry that they try to stone him. While this seems like a nice comforting image to us now, it served a greater purpose than comfort. It was a proclamation of the identity of God, but also the character of God.
Our God is the kind of God who will not only heal the blind, but go out and search for the man who was cast out of his community. Jesus is not just any old shepherd. He is the good shepherd, the shepherd who leads, and is also willing to die for the people he is shepherding. That is the part that makes him more than a shepherd. It makes him the savior of the world.
Yet what interests me is not merely the character of God, but the character of the sheep of his flock. Sheep are not exactly renowned for their intelligence or bravery. They are anxious and afraid of almost everything. They get lost and wander off to places that are unsafe. Usually they cannot find their way back unless someone leads them. Humans are much more intelligent than sheep, but we seem to share some of the same characteristics. We are easily distracted and anxious. We tend to wander off course in our life. Sometimes we are able to find the path that leads back to God, but often we cannot.
What we can do is listen to the voice of God. According to this parable, that is what sheep are really good at, discerning the voice of the shepherd and then listening to that voice. Because the reality of life is that we will veer of course…a lot. We will wander and get frightened. When that happens we will do things that will lead us even farther from the path to God. We can’t necessarily control that part of us. Perhaps some can, but most cannot. If we know that we are prone to wander, then we need to be prepared to listen for the voice of God. And the best way to do that is to strengthen our relationship with God now. We can do that through prayer and meditation. We can do that through worship and singing. We can do that with the help of a spiritual guide or others who are wandering the path with us. But whatever option we choose to build a relationship with God, we have to start now. We can’t wait until we veer off course. If we do that it will be harder to listen. We can’t listen to a voice that we don’t recognize in the first place.
This process of being in relationship with God is not easy, even when we are trying. Perhaps we might even think that we are too far gone. We have waited too long. I can assure you that is not the case. It is never too late to get to know God and learn the voice of God. God knows that we will wander. That’s why Jesus compares us to sheep. If we know that we will wander, we can work on casting out the other voices in our heads, the voices that say we are not good enough to hear God, the voices that say we are crazy to even try, the voices that say that God would never sound like our voice. None of that is true.
What we can rely on is the fact that God’s voice will always be the voice of love and truth. It will often be the voice that tells us what we do not want to hear. Let us get to know the voice of God now, as individuals and as a community. There will come a point when we will need God to rescue us. We will call out and God will respond. The question is, will be able to recognize the voice of that response?