Listening to the Shepherd’s Voice
In the interest of full disclosure, I want you to know that I was raised in town and have very little experience with sheep. Furthermore, the farms I have visited raised mainly corn, hay, and cattle. The American South has always been just as hot and humid as it will get across this summer, so it is not a productive place to raise sheep. Actually, most of us have not been raised in the country where we regularly encountered sheep. Americans are more and more the products of towns and cities.
Jesus said to the Temple leaders who were trying to trap him, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” When Jesus speaks of his followers as sheep, I think that we, who have been raised in town, have to confess that there is nothing in this image that makes us feel warm and cozy. Here we are on Confirmation Sunday. These young people, whom we baptized 12-years ago as infants and whom we have watched with pride and anticipation, are now invited to join the whole church in being (in the words of Jesus) “sheep.” In addition, every seeker and every visitor to this worship service has to consider the apparently distasteful thought that becoming a Christian will mark them as “sheep” in a world that sees sheep as something to be fleeced.
The fact is that being sheep is not what any of us in this room aspire to become. SHEEP are timid before the world’s predators. They only live in flocks, not having the confidence to live on their own. It is my easy guess that there are no parents in the church today whose heartfelt wish for their child is that he/she would grow up to as sheeplike as possible. It is my guess that there is no adult among us whose approach to a successful career is to bleat whenever challenged.
There is no such thing as an independent or self-made sheep. A sheep needs the shepherd to guide and care for it and – in dire straits – to rescue it. There is nothing sentimental about this relationship: for the sheep it is a matter of survival, and for the shepherd a matter of business. The sheep are valuable properties, not pets to be cuddled (2).
Our society places a high value on ingenuity, initiative, and creativity. We assume it is better to be a leader than a follower. Can you imagine the parents of these young confirmands urging their children:
1. to be good sheep,
2. to stand with the crowd at all costs,
3. to aim for mediocrity in academics and sports?
In contrast, we admire people with energy and a zest for exploration. I.M.H.O., being a good sheep, even of the Good Shepherd, is not the American dream. But, look with me at this passage again. When we get over being offended at the sheep suggestion, there is more here than we realize.
II. The passage begins as Jesus walks in the Temple at the time of the Feast of Dedication. This feast takes place in December and we know it by the modern name, Hanukkah (which means “Dedication”). It is the time when the Jewish people remember that their Temple was once desecrated by a Syrian ruler named Antiochus. This ruler put a pagan altar in the Temple and made sacrifices to his pagan god there. Judas Maacabeas rebelled against Antiochus and drove him out of Jerusalem. When the Maccabean revolt was successful, the people of Jerusalem re-dedicated the Temple to the worship of the God of Israel. Thus, the festival of Re-Dedication.
This festival provides the setting for the confrontation between the Temple leaders and Jesus. Jesus was in the Temple when the Leaders approach him: “How long will be annoy us? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” The festival remembers that time, not so long before, when the Temple was desecrated by Antiochus' foreign god. They are asking Jesus if he is making the same sort of claim: that he should be honored and worshiped in place of God. What they get is a challenging claim from Jesus: “I and the Father are one.” If you believe in Jesus as I do, this sounds good. If you do not, it sounds like blasphemy. This is too close to the desecration that Antiochus perpetrated on their Temple. The leaders took up stones to stone him.
This confrontation goes to the heart of the Christian claim; this is the dividing line between Christianity and other religions. To confirm the claim that Jesus and the Father are one is to set ourselves apart from every other religion. It is a faith-claim that must be examined.
But, to examine this claim, we must come back to Jesus and the Temple leaders. In the middle of this confrontation about Jesus’ identity, which rages between Jesus and the Temple Leaders, Jesus appears to change the subject: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” The Leaders are shouting about messiah and status and identity, but Jesus jumps to sheep and shepherds. What’s going on?
The shift Jesus is trying to make is from status to relationship. The Temple Leaders want to confront Jesus over his status: his claim to be the Messiah and his claim to be one with God. Jesus is trying to turn the conversation to the relationship between himself and those who would follow him. Professor Gail O’Day, the author of the article on John’s Gospel in The New Interpreters Bible, who was with us in worship on Easter, offers a caution to all who would read this as support for the debates that came later in the church’s history about the status of Jesus and doctrines of the Trinity. While this passage was drawn into that debate, status was not Jesus’, nor was it John’s, concern. Jesus is speaking to the relationship between himself and those who follow him.
What is the relationship between us and Jesus? By going to the image of the shepherd who knows his sheep, he points us toward following Jesus with the same affection and trust that the sheep would have for the shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
We do not follow Jesus because of his status or some carefully worked out doctrines. We follow Jesus because we trust the shepherd. Little children do not reach for their momma’s and their daddy’s hands because parents have a status which was given to them by the legislature or a judge; children reach for their parents’ hands because they trust them with simple trust. Any parental status given by law is more descriptive than prescriptive. This is the kind of trusting relationship that Jesus was pointing toward as he responded to the Temple Leaders that day. They wanted to get the details on his status; he wanted to talk about relationship.
So, as we come to worship today, as these young confirmands come to confirm their faith today, this is not a test over the details of the doctrine of Trinity; instead, it’s personal. Do you come trusting the Shepherd?
+Does Jesus have the words of life for your soul?
+Do you find life abundant in his teachings?
+Do you find a feast at the Lord’s Table?
+Do you know the Shepherd’s voice?
III. The second message about faith that we get from this passage comes from its place in John’s Gospel. With this confrontation Jesus ends his public ministry in John. In the next chapter, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, and as a result the Temple Leaders will make the decision to destroy Jesus. John’s Gospel then moves to the Last Supper and the Passion Story. This confrontation also echoes a similar confrontation back in John 1 when John the Baptist was pressed to answer the same question: Are you the Messiah? (John 1.19-23). Now, they are pressing Jesus to answer the same question – as if John has put the public ministry of Jesus between bookends.
Basically, the Temple Leaders have been struggling to decide what they will do with Jesus. Should they honor him – if he is Messiah (to use their term)? Should they destroy him as Herod did to John the Baptist? The only positive outcome of these confrontations is the demonstration that they were honestly looking for the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.
Two questions for us: (1) Are we like the Temple Leaders also looking for the presence of God among us? If so, then, (2) what will we do with Jesus?
[LOOKING] It seems that a young boy was told by his mother that he should wash his hands because there were germs living in all that dirt. He refused and complained: “Germs and Jesus! Germs and Jesus! That’s all I ever hear around this house, and I’ve never seen either one” (3).
Are we looking for the presence of God among us? We live in a time in which the question of faith has become optional – not required by American society.
+Our places of work don’t require it.
+Participating in government doesn’t require it.
+There was a time in the South when a candidate could not get elected without announcing her/his church membership. But, that has changed.
+Going to vote in the upcoming primary election does not require membership in a church. When you arrive at the polling place, they will not ask your convictions about God.
So, the world treats faith as... well, an option, a preference, convenience, but not as a necessity for life.
[LOCH NESS] An atheist was spending a quiet day fishing when suddenly his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster. In one easy flip, the beast tossed him and his boat high into the air. Then it opened its mouth to swallow both. As the man sailed head over heels, he cried out, "Oh, my God! Help me!"
At once, the ferocious attack scene froze in place, and as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice came down from the clouds, "I thought you didn't believe in Me!"
"Come on, God, give me a break!!" the man pleaded. "Two minutes ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness monster either!" (4)
We live in a time marked by what you might call practical atheism. Few speak out against faith, but, at the same time, few speak out about the necessity of faith.
When faith is necessary, it has the power to shape us. It has the authority to mold the character of our lives. It has a voice when we are deciding the values by which we live and by which we die. Faith points us to the great, unseen reality which lies beyond and surrounds the ordinary world at our hands. That great, unseen reality is God.
[QUOTE] Garrison Keilor said: What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes to the dogs, cats much learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word (5).
Faith in God leads to a relationship that has the power to shape us. Relationship with God molds the character of the persons that we are becoming. Faith requires that God’s voice be one of the voices we consider when deciding the values by which we live.
[FLASHLIGHT] Living without faith in God is like walking through an unfamiliar house in the dark with only a flashlight to show us the way. We can find the doors; we can avoid the furniture so we won’t trip. But, we cannot see the whole house and enjoy its pleasures until the lights come back on. If the only light we enjoy is the flashlight in our own hands, the world is very small indeed.
Give the Temple leaders credit: they were a lethal danger to Jesus, but they were serious in their search for the presence of God among them. They asked John the Baptist: “Are you the Messiah?” (John 1.19). Then, at the end of his public ministry, they asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” They were searching. Let us also search diligently for the presence of God among us. To search for God among us is to search for God’s great world stretching beyond our limited vision. To search for God is to find God... searching for us already.
IV. Now, we need to come back to the second question raised by the confrontation with the Temple Leaders: What will you do with Jesus? This is the basic question of the Christian faith.
Jesus pointed out to the Temple Leaders that they too had seen his works: his miracles, his teachings, his way with people. They knew this information about Jesus as well as anyone. But, having this information about Jesus did not lead them to faith. Thus, Jesus turned to the relationship of the sheep who know the shepherd’s voice. It was not information the Leaders needed; it was a faith- relationship they needed. But, where does faith come from? Faith comes from God, of course. It is God’s gift of grace.
So, it is with us. Information about Jesus is important to us, of course. But, information about Jesus does not compel us to faith. Faith is the gift of God’s grace. You see, even before we confess our faith, God is working PREVENIENT GRACE to prepare us:
+teaching us what we will need to know;
+convicting us of our brokenness;
+giving us glimpses of the peace that lies just beyond our reach.
And with the strength of God’s grace we confess with our lips and believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord and that we must follow him as our shepherd. It is God’s grace that leads us to a saving, vibrant faith. Welcome that grace; welcome the coming of faith.
1. John M. Braaten, The Greatest Wonder of All, C.S.S Publishing
2. Guenther, Margaret, “Known by the Shepherd,” Christian Century, April 26, 1995, p. 453.
3. “Believing in the Unseen,” Illustrations Unlimited, p. 188.
4. “The Atheist and The Loch Ness Monster,” Illustrations 2004-2005.wpd
5. Keillor, Garrison. Printed in 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories, p. 65.