I had a shepherding experience this week. It was not leading sheep, however. It was leading my dog. Those of you who know Otis know he’s a pretty laid-back dog most of the time. I wouldn’t bring him to church with me during the week if he wasn’t. But one of the things that I have found that scares this dog to death is the sound of a smoke detector with a dead battery. One instance of that high-pitched beep is enough to turn my big 68-pound dog into a quivering pile of goo. Well, the people that lived two doors down from me moved out at the end of March, and that apartment was vacant. However, with the warm weather, the front window got left open. As Otis and I were walking past one day to go for our usual walk, through this open window came the dreaded sound: beep. The smoke detector in this vacant apartment had a bad battery. Otis started shaking and pulling very hard on his leash to get away from the sound. And when we came back from our walk and walked by the apartment again, the sound came again: beep. That was it. For the past several days, Otis has been afraid to even go outside of the house, even though the landlord has since come by and taken care of the problem. And I am faced with a shepherding problem: how do I get this animal to trust in me to the point that he will forget his fear and remember how good it really is to go outside and run, walk, and play in the fresh air rather than spend all day curled up in a ball on my bed? Now I think I understand a little bit of what Jesus goes through when he calls us to listen to his voice and trust in him, and instead we listen to our fears and stay huddled where we are instead of following him.
Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” I have long said that when Jesus calls us sheep, he’s not paying us a compliment. In some ways, sheep are incredibly stupid. Like sheep, we human beings often have a herd mentality. If our leader goes over a cliff, many of us will follow without questioning why. But I’ve also heard from those who have raised sheep who say that sheep are not as stupid as their reputation suggests. And one way in which I think sheep are actually incredibly intelligent is that they know the voice of their shepherd, and they will not come if anyone else calls them. I know I showed this video last year, but I loved it so much, I wanted to show it again this year as we think about how we are like sheep. So, let’s take a look.
So, if we Christians are part of Jesus’ sheepfold, are we hearing Jesus’ voice? Are we running to him when he calls us? Are we following him when he leads us to green pastures? Or are we listening to other people’s voices? And how do we know whether it is Jesus’ voice that we are hearing or someone else’s?
Well, I hope the confirmation kids don’t mind, but I’m going to use them as an example today. Last Wednesday, we talked about the Gospel of John. Now, when we only have an hour, we can only go so far into this Gospel, but I think we got a good overview of John’s perspective on Jesus. John opens up his Gospel by saying that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now, that’s confusing for all of us, not just confirmation kids. But I asked them to think about Jesus as God’s Word to us, God’s message to us. And I asked them, “If Jesus is God’s message to us, what is God trying to tell us?” And the kids had some good answers, mostly along the lines of God showing us, through Jesus, how to live a good life. And so I asked them, “Is that all?” And the kids looked at me blankly, and so I said, “How about, ‘God loves you’?” For John also tells us that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but should have eternal life.
Because if all we hear is God wants us to do this and God wants us to do that, we are not truly hearing God’s voice through Jesus. That is all Law, and there is no good news in that. If the only thing we think Jesus is saying to us is do this, and do that, then how will we know when we’ve ever done enough? No, to hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd is to hear the voice which speaks to us of God’s love, and that God’s love is enough to sustain us, and that the only work which God truly asks of us is to believe in the one whom he has sent: Jesus. All that other stuff that we do flows out of our faith, and keeps us busy until Jesus returns.
The problem is that it’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus if, as I told the kids this morning, our headphones are plugged in to another voice. The voice of our consumer culture, for instance, which says, “Do you feel like you’re not beautiful enough? Buy this skin product, go on this diet, get a membership at the gym and work out, and you will be so beautiful that people will be falling all over themselves to be with you.” But what happens when we do that, and the promises these products made don’t come true? Well, the voices then say, “Buy this self-help book, get this big-screen TV, decorate your room like this, and people will want to be with you.” But when we run after those next things, those don’t always work out either. And the world keeps giving us more options, more things to buy, and we always come up empty, not fully knowing what it is we’re missing.
Jesus tells us, in John’s Gospel, that what we’re missing is his voice, telling us that God loves us and telling us that when we believe in him, no one will take us away from him. Jesus offers us what the world cannot give us: true safety and security. Jesus gives us eternal life, and that life doesn’t just start when we die. No, that eternal life starts now, from the moment that we first believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save us. When we know that we have that security; when we know that we have eternal life, then we listen to the voice of the shepherd and all of the other voices that we hear in life fall away. We know that we are loved for who we are, and that we don’t need all of those self-help books, diets, and gym memberships to be loved. And when we rest secure in that knowledge, our priorities change. We want others to know that peace and we want others to know that they are loved, and so we invite them in to the sheep fold, so that they can also become part of Jesus’ flock.
The question then is, how do we hear Jesus’ voice? How do we hear his voice cutting through the din of the voices of our culture and the damaging messages it sends us? Well, here I would like to return to the example of the sheep. As I was reading up on how sheep behave this week, I found an account of how sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. When a new sheep is brought into the fold and hears the voice of a new shepherd, it doesn’t automatically respond to that new shepherd. The sheep actually is in distress at first because it doesn’t hear the voice that it is used to hearing, and it has a temporary nervous breakdown. The new sheep “runs around and around banging its head against the rough stone walls of the sheepfold emitting a stream of pitiful, heartbreaking cries. It needs a few days of ‘therapy’ to retrain its ear to recognize the voice of the new shepherd” (Bailey, 215). I’ll admit that when I first read this, I almost broke down in tears at the thought of the poor new sheep listening for a voice it wasn’t going to hear. But then I began to think how we poor human beings are like this.
First, we who are Christians need to regularly have our ears retrained to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd. We are not immune to the voices of our culture which make us question who we are and whether or not we are loved. We need to regularly come to worship and hear again and again how much Jesus loves us for who we are, and how he forgives us and welcomes us back into the fold when we stray. Second, when we welcome new sheep into the fold, we need to help them retrain their ears to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. This means encouraging them to come to worship and to Bible study; not putting up any barriers to their full participation and removing any barriers that they may encounter, and in other ways helping them to become fully a part of the sheepfold, so that they can clearly hear the voice of their Good Shepherd.
With a Good Shepherd who loves us for who we are, we have nothing to be afraid of in this world. We can trust that he will lead us, guide us, and protect us through everything this world can throw at us. And when we have this confident trust in Jesus, when we trust that no one will snatch us out of his hand, we are eager to hear his voice and we are bold to follow where he leads us, no matter how frightening it might be. So when he calls us, let’s not huddle up in a little ball and tremble in fear. Instead, let us joyfully run to him and go where he takes us, trusting that he will indeed lead us into green pastures, and no one, no thing, will snatch us out of his hand. Amen.