[Jesus said:] My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.John 10:27-28
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, in today’s gospel reading (John 10:22-30). “I know them, and they follow me.” And I want that to be true. I want it to be true that you and I hear his voice. And that we always follow him. But I’m not always sure that it is.
After all, we live in a very noisy world these days. A world filled with all kinds of different voices, all competing for our attention. And it seems difficult, in the midst of all this noise, to hear the voice of our Shepherd, doesn’t it?
You and I have heard a number of different voices this week, to be sure, all competing for our attention. And some of these voices are incredibly good at convincing us to pay attention to them. They create ads, geared just toward us. They convince us that we need whatever they are selling, to be safe, or to be popular, or to be successful, or simply to feel better. Modern technology and social media means that companies know us better than they ever have, and they use that information to convince us that we need whatever they have.
Just for fun, as I was preparing this sermon I googled this question: “Is my phone listening to me?” And the top hit was a simple answer: “Yes, and here’s how to stop it.” Have you ever had an experience of talking to a friend about buying something – let’s say a power-washer – and the very next time you went on Facebook or somewhere like that, you saw ads for power-washers?
Yes, our phones and other devices are listening to us. They hear our voices. And then they try to sell us stuff. They know us, and all too often, we hear their voice, and follow them. But they are often false shepherds, making promises that they cannot keep. There is only one true shepherd. And we are all his sheep. And today, we are reminded to listen to his voice. Because at the end of the day, there is only one voice we can trust; one voice that truly matters to our soul. And that is the voice of the shepherd, the voice of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
So why don’t we always hear that voice? And how might we hear it more effectively? I want to put aside the obvious reasons why we don’t hear his voice – that there are too many other competing voices, and we don’t always take the time to listen to his voice. And, instead, I want to share three other reasons why, according to Scripture, we don’t always hear his voice as well as might, and three corresponding ways to do something about that.
Jesus Is Not Saying What We Expect
The first reason why we sometimes miss hearing Jesus’ voice is that he is not saying what we expect. That was true of the Jewish leaders in today’s gospel reading. They were right there, listening to Jesus. But they didn’t really hear him, because he was not saying what they expected to hear. They expected the Messiah to act differently. They thought he’d be like King David, and lead them into battle to overthrow Rome. Jesus was different. And he didn’t say or do what they expected. So they didn’t really hear him. And isn’t that often true of us? We miss Jesus’ voice because he is not saying what we expect to hear.
It’s challenging these days to listen to anyone or anything with an open mind. As soon as anyone speaks to us, on social media or anywhere else, we are listening for their agenda, or for evidence of how they view the world. We are making up our mind about what they are saying, even before they finish saying it. That’s the nature of the world we live in. And this is why it is more important than ever to listen to Jesus with an open mind, and an open heart. Not to listen for what we expect him to say, but simply to listen. Let our minds be changed. Let our hearts be changed. Put aside all the voices in our world, and listen for the loving voice of our true Shepherd.
We Are Too Ashamed to Listen
This is the first reason we sometimes miss hearing Jesus’ voice, that he is not saying what we expect to hear. What is the second reason? It is that we are sometimes too ashamed to listen. Our sin and guilt causes us to feel unworthy of Jesus speaking to us, so we fail to hear him. In Genesis (3:8), we see this happen with Adam and Eve, after they committed the first sin:
“They had heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
That can happen to us, too. Our sin can cause us to feel naked and ashamed. And we are tempted to hide ourselves from God, so that we can miss hearing his voice calling us.
I have talked to people, and maybe you have, too, who won’t come to church until they get their act together. Or who won’t come to church until we get our act together! But church, as Martin Luther reminds us, is not a hotel for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.
That is one of the reasons we begin our worship as Lutherans with confession and forgiveness. To acknowledge that we are not worthy, that we don’t have our acts together. And to confess that. But also to receive God’s forgiveness. To be reminded of God’s grace, mercy, and love. And then, because we have been made worthy by Christ, we can listen to the voice of the shepherd.
He Is Saying Something We Don’t Want to Hear
But there is a third reason why we sometimes miss hearing Jesus’ voice that I have to mention today: Sometimes, he is saying something to us that we don’t want to hear.
Remember Jonah? “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh …” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”
Remember the rich young ruler? He wanted to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, then come and follow him. That was not what he wanted to hear! He “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
Jonah, the rich young ruler, and others in scripture did not want to listen to God, because they didn’t like what they were hearing. That can happen to us, too. We don’t really want to go where the shepherd is calling us to go, or do what the shepherd is calling us to do. So we give up listening to him.
Often when this happens, we need something to happen in our lives that forces us to listen. Our own version of finding ourselves in the belly of the whale. The astonishing thing, of course, is that sometimes God does send a whale. Or speaks through some other life event.
C.S. Lewis says that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
And sometimes that is the only way we will hear him. Like a shepherd in search of lost sheep, Jesus looks for us. And doesn’t stop until he finds us. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” We can and do ignore this voice, but still the voice persists. And we often find ourselves restless and unsettled until we hear and respond to his voice, and follow him. We have heard his voice enough to know and believe that our lives are not complete until we hear and respond to the voice of the Shepherd; until we allow that voice to lead us through our days on earth and to finally lead us home.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
As I wrap this up today, I just want to emphasize that in this reading, Jesus is calling us sheep, rather than followers or disciples. This is important, because the people who first heard these words would have pictured the shepherds that they knew. They would have known that these shepherds would often get together with their sheep at various times during the day,a bunch of shepherds all together with lots and lots of sheep. Say at a watering hole. The shepherds catching up on events, the sheep getting something to drink. It was noisy and chaotic, to say the least. But at the end of the day, the shepherds would call for their sheep. And the sheep would follow their own shepherds to a safe place to sleep. In the midst of all that chaos and all those competing voices, the sheep would hear their shepherd’s voice, recognize it, and follow him.
And I think that is why, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd, and we his followers as his sheep. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says, “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
You and I have heard a number of different voices this week, to be sure, all competing for our attention. But at the end of the day, Jesus seems to be saying to us, it is only the voice of the shepherd that can lead us home, that can lead us to safety. It is the voice of the shepherd that has called us to this place. It is the voice of the shepherd that calls us to follow him. And it is the voice of the shepherd that leads us home.
“Listen,” Jesus says in the Book of Revelation (3:20), “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Today, we are invited to listen again to the voice of our shepherd. To hear his voice. To open the door. And to follow him. And in so doing, to discover once again that there is nothing else that we shall want, when the Lord is our shepherd. For his goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord. Forever. Amen.