In this week’s readings we are presented several times with the familiar shepherd motif. The text from Revelation declares that the “lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” and the gospel reading is about belonging to God, as sheep belong to a shepherd. And who can hear about sheep and not think about Psalm 23; the Lord is my Shepherd, which assures us that God the shepherd guides, leads and restores us, even in the darkest of times.
As I read this lesson, there was a bit of background music playing in my head. Too many years of teaching Sunday School I guess because the refrain, “I just wanna be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa” kept circulating through my brain. Not a Pharisee. Not a Sadducee. I just wanna be a sheep.
So what is it with all this sheep talk? In this passage from John 10, Jesus describes what it means to belong to his flock. His sheep know his voice and choose to follow. This isn’t just a random statement made at the time. It was based in fact. Sheep actually do learn their shepherd’s voice and those same sheep only follow when they hear that voice. But there is so much today vying for our attention and his call may go unheeded as people chase after other shepherds. Jesus wants his followers to not only listen for his voice but then to also respond accordingly. But hearing for God’s voice raises other questions about listening skills and discerning; about knowing when it is the Good Shepherds voice and not some other wanna be shepherd.
Here in the temple, Jesus is asked once again if he is the Messiah, and Jesus responds, “I have told you, and you do not believe”. The Jews might have heard his words, but they did not respond with any kind of commitment or action. If these people in Biblical times, with Jesus in their midst, cannot plainly discern what it is that God wants them to do, then how when Jesus is no longer walking on Earth are we to hear his voice? We must remember that learning to listen for God is a life-long process. Our hearts and minds become attuned to the values and truths of scripture and they resonate with us, or even within us. We begin to discern God’s work in the world and in our everyday lives. And perhaps even more importantly we recognize when something goes against God’s way. We feel something isn’t right even though we may not always be able to articulate it. As Christians, listening to God serves as an anchor in this world.
But what about those who have not yet been able to discern God’s voice and don’t know where to begin. Often times those people show up at church as visitors. Some come because they feel something is missing in their lives and they seek to have a relationship with God to fill the emptiness that only he can fill. Some come because they are experiencing difficult and painful times and are hoping to hear God’s promises of protection and care. And then there are those of us who try to hear God and follow him and yet still wonder why it seems like we are missing something. This can be especially true when others seem to hear God’s voice so clearly.
For those struggling to hear God’s voice, it can be reassuring to know we are not alone. We are all God’s sheep, whether we can hear him plainly or not. It should be a blessing to us to know that others can witness to its sound. And during those times when you are just learning to listen for God’s voice or are at a time in your life when you are just unable to hear it, it is important for the rest of us sheep to step up.
Jesus calls us to follow him, making it really hard to be an armchair Christian. We have to get out of our chairs – or, as the case maybe, pews – and actually live out our Christian faith. Whether you have been to church just once or a thousand times, each time you come you should expect to have an encounter God. The encounter may come in hearing the words of forgiveness and absolution or in the partaking of the bread and wine. It could even come to you in a conversation with one of the flock. God wants us to take these encounters out into the world with us and share them with others.
It is in the doing that we are more likely to hear God’s voice calling to us. It can be in the volunteer work we do, a brief encounter with someone at the store or kind words or assistance given to someone in need. It could also come in the sharing of our own faith story that others may begin to hear the voice for the first time. Or it could be in taking time to listen to someone share their story with us. It is in the doing that we can share with others how God is working in the world.
The Good News is Jesus knows His sheep. He cares for us all the same. He promises all of us the same thing, eternal life and safety, saying, “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28). I just wanna be a sheep. Baa. Baa. Baa. Baa!
- What do the images of the sheep and shepherd conjure up in your mind?
- How does your Biblical understanding of being a sheep fit in with societal expectations of being the Shepherd? Is it our goal to become the shepherd?
- How do we know the voice we hear is God’s and not some other “shepherd” leading us astray?
- Do you think it is easier or more difficult to hear God’s voice today than it was when Jesus walked the earth?
- Think about a time when you felt lost and wanted God to find you and bring you back into the fold. How did you hear God calling you back?
- What do you have to do to be able to listen more deeply so as to hear that voice? What needs to be set aside, turned down, put off until later so that you can pause and listen, too? What is the shepherd calling us to do and how do we balance that with finding time to pause and listen?
- Especially in light of the events of the past week, where can we find God’s Good News and how can we share it with others?