Knowing his voice
One of the frustrating times being a parent for dad’s, and often for mum’s also, are those early days when only mum can calm her child or change or feed her child or whatever else needs to be done. Dad comes off a second best and grandparents and well-meaning friends can’t do a thing either. Mum would really like a hand but there is only one person, as far as the child goes, who counts – and that’s mum.
Sometimes it happens that the child is happy to accept dad’s help and comfort until he/she hears mum’s voice and then no-one is good enough except mum. And no matter what dad does, the crying gets louder and louder, but immediately mum takes over, and says and does nothing that dad hadn’t already said and done, everything goes silent. Not even a sob. It was all about getting mum’s attention.
I recall a mum who has an identical twin sister telling me about her experiences as a twin. They are so identical that it is really hard to tell them apart. Their husbands had an interesting time when they were dating the sisters at the same time because even, they had a real hard time distinguishing between the two. Well anyway, one of the sisters had a baby and when he cried the other sister would go in to pick up the baby and for a moment, he would be fooled by the person who looked like his mother. However, immediately his mother spoke, or his aunt spoke he knew that it wasn’t his real mother who was holding him. It was obvious that he could tell which of the sisters was his mother by the person’s voice.
Today I would like to talk about the reading from John chapter 10:1-21 where we have the imagery of Jesus the shepherd who says later in the chapter, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father —and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
We hear about the shepherd who gathers his sheep together at night in a pen to protect them from sheep stealers and wild animals. During the day, the shepherd would lead his sheep to places where there was food and water but at night, he gathered them in a safe place. He would construct a sheep pen built of stones and branches and whatever he could find to keep his sheep together at night but because he had to build this while watching his sheep, it was easier if he combined his efforts with other shepherds. “You watch my sheep while I build the yard and then I’ll watch your sheep while you continue building” and then when all was complete, they would put all their sheep in together at night. It also made sense that if their sheep were attacked at night one could stay at the gate and watch that no-one came in that way while the other chased away whoever was coming over the top of their pen.
It also made good sense to work together in the remote Judean hills. The shepherd’s life was a tough one and a lonely one and companionship at night around a fire lifted their spirits. But after a relaxing night of great storytelling and a good night’s sleep, how do the shepherds sort out their sheep the next morning? Remember there are two maybe three flocks of sheep in one yard. True the mobs of sheep aren’t anything like the size the sheep farmers have here in Wales, but when it comes to sorting out one sheep from another, they all look pretty much the same to me and sheep can be quite tricky to make them go where they don’t want to go.
Here’s the trick. Listen to Jesus’ words again. “The sheep hear his voice as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice”. There’s two things to note.
Firstly, the shepherd knows each sheep by name. They might all look the same – woolly, low slung and close to the ground, small ears, and all bleat with the same strange almost annoying noise, all have the same faces, but the shepherd knows each one, has a name for each one and calls each one by name each morning to come out of the yard.
To hear their own individual name sounding across the yard from their own shepherd must have been reassuring to the sheep especially if they had experienced a bad night with a thunder storm or a dust storm or threats from wild animals or thieves. Sheep are quite helpless and to know that their shepherd hadn’t run away would have brought a sigh of relief.
Secondly, the sheep recognised their own shepherd’s voice. There might have been two or three shepherds calling their sheep and you can bet that there was more than one Shaun, or Mabel, or Doris in the yard and yet each one knew where to go because they recognised the voice of their shepherd. And so, each sheep confidently trotted out of the yard and as the shepherd started off down the track to the green pastures, they followed along behind. Jesus makes the point that they do not follow any of the other shepherds because they don’t know his voice. They will follow only the voice they know and trust.
As we wake up each day, we don’t know what the day will bring. Things that will frighten us and threaten us no doubt will at some time crop up. The path may become confusing, and we may lose our way. Other people, conflicting values, sickness, and death can send us in a spin and not know which is the right way to go.
It’s at these times we begin to wonder where Jesus is. When we are lost and alone how do we know Jesus, our shepherd, is really with us?
We go back to the imagery from John’s Gospel. The sheep listen for his voice. They listen for the voice that reminds them that they are his special sheep; that he loves them; that he will give his life to protect them; that he will guide them and protect as they wander across the Judean hills; that he will not abandon them and when one of them becomes lost he will come looking and will not stop looking until each sheep is safe and sound in the yard again.
We hear the voice of Jesus speak words of comfort and love to us through the word of the Gospel. When we come here in the presence of the flock, we listen to his voice. Here our Good Shepherd speaks to us as we hear them from the Bible and spoken in the liturgy and preached by the pastor. Here the Good Shepherd leads us, guides us, and comforts us. Like a Palestinian shepherd who needs to warn his sheep that they are in danger, sometimes he speaks a word of caution to us. We hear his words of forgiveness, and we hear his words of blessing. We hear the voice of our Shepherd and know that we are loved.
There are times when we are completely surrounded by darkness – lost, bewildered, uncertain, without hope and perhaps even angry at God. It might happen that we blame God for what has happened or feel that he has abandoned us.
I think of Jesus story about the lost sheep. Maybe that’s how the lost sheep felt. Somehow, he had become separated from the rest of the flock – now alone, frightened, thinking that the shepherd had forgotten him, now knowing which direction to go, hopelessly lost, angry that he had been left behind, about to give up until he heard the shepherd’s voice calling out his name. Not only was the sheep relieved to be found but also the shepherd was overjoyed that he had found his precious sheep.
What a relief it is to know that even when we think we are alone, that the shepherd is right there with us. That’s why Good Shepherd Sunday is in the Easter season. Jesus is our ever-present shepherd always walking the journey of life with us. His voice is always in our ear speaking his words of love and reassurance.
That leads me to my next point. What do the sheep do when they hear the voice of the shepherd calling to them? They had a choice.
They could ignore his voice and stay in the pen. They could hook up with one of the other shepherds because they think he might have something different to offer but at the same time they don’t really know him or on hearing the shepherd’s voice they could follow the shepherd out into the new day trusting his leading and guiding.
Some days it’s easier to do nothing. Some days it’s easier to listen and obey than other days. Some days it takes a big leap of faith to place all your trust in the shepherd, follow his leading and allow him to show you the way. To help us, he keeps reassuring us with his soothing voice speaking his promises. He reminds us again and again through the Scriptures and the people around us that “even though I walk through the darkest valley (of loneliness, pain, grief, and death), I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
As we share in Holy Communion, he speaks to us again as we take in our hands his body and blood reminding us of his continual presence in our lives. He journeys with us and when we are in trouble, he will comfort and strengthen us and fill us with the joy of knowing that with the shepherd by our side we can face anything.
In our life of service to others in the community and in the church, listening to the shepherd’s voice will often involve us in a big step of faith as we trust our Lord to help us fulfil the task, he is challenging us to carry out in his name. It might be something as simple as a word of encouragement or as huge as an individual or a congregation stepping out to do something new and bold that has never done before.
This imagery of Jesus the shepherd and us his sheep is about a journey – the journey of following Jesus, listening to his voice, experiencing his protection and guidance, know his love and never-ending presence as we journey through the dangers and troubles that we encounter in life. He journeys with us and one day will lead us to the place where will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.
The Good Shepherd: A Thousand‑Year Journey from Psalm - Kenneth E. Bailey
Vince Gerhardy Blog
The Lord Shepherding His Sheep – Joel R. Beeke
The Supremacy of Christ Shepherd -William McCarrell, Richard McCarrell
Intimate Moments With The Shepherd - Phyllis Benigas
Encounters with Jesus – Timothy Keller