The Voice we Know and Follow
I have never met anyone who does not love John 10 and the 23rd Psalm. Everyone takes comfort from the image of the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep. No matter what our lives are like on the outside, no matter what success and security we have enjoyed, we all have our sheep-moments.
We all experience times of weakness and pain, times of vulnerability and fear. We all wind up sooner or later lying on hospital beds looking up at fluorescent lights, like sheep on a mountain ledge with the sun in our eyes, not knowing what the outcome will be, desperately needing to know that someone is there for us.
Most of us have families that have given us sheep-moments, when we were worried and afraid, and had absolutely no control over the outcome. All we could do was pray for a Shepherd’s care for those we love, and stand aside, waiting.
All we, like sheep
So, we are the sheep. I have seen sheep, most of us have. Frankly I don’t know how they managed to survive as a species. They don’t have fangs. They don’t have claws. They cannot fly, climb trees, scurry down holes or even run very fast. Neither do they seem very smart. Without a protective shepherd, they are at the mercy of predators. Wolves come to mind first. Sheep are easy. No wolf should ever take pride in devouring a sheep – it’s almost as convenient a way to get lunch as a fast-food drive-through. No triumph there.
They are also attractive targets for human predators: thieves, for several different reasons. No one wants to go steal a ferret, but sheep are tempting. As long as you keep them alive, you’ve got a steady supply of wool. Or, if you prefer, they can be lamb-chops for tonight’s supper. Both reasons make them tempting targets.
Both of these dangers, animal predators and human bandits, are the dark shadows that loom over this text. Vulnerability to danger is the reason the sheep need a shepherd.
The Shepherd’s Night-job
So, the shepherd has both a night-job and a day-job if he wants to keep his sheep alive. At night he has to gather them all into the fold. The rock
walls will protect them from incoming wolves on all sides – except the doorway. In the old days, the shepherd himself had to be the door. He had to sleep in the entrance, laying down his body between his flock and the wolf-black night. He had to literally lay his life down for his sheep. And if a wolf came to test him, he had to put his life on the line for his sheep.
We really are like sheep – vulnerable and unable to fend off predatory fangs and claws on our own. We are at the mercy of forces we are no match for. Viruses and cancers, accidents and aging, global economics, domestic politics, family issues – who needs to be reminded of that list? “All we, like sheep” are at risk.
This is the first take-away from this text. We can be certain that we are not alone, that we do have a Shepherd. Our Shepherd loves us and cares for us. He laid down his life for us.
There is a mystery here; life is not as tidy as a nursery rhyme. There are bad things that happen. We are not immortal. We are not immune from viruses or cancers, accidents, aging and all the rest. But we do have the confidence that our Shepherd is with us through it all. We will trust him to be with us, no matter what. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23)
The Shepherd’s Day-job
Sheep are safe in the fold, while the shepherd is there, but they cannot stay there 24/7. Security is not the only thing necessary for survival; so is food and water, and for those, the sheep have to venture out of the fold into the wide world.
The dangers of the day are as life-threatening as the dangers of the night, only in a different way. At night, in the fold, sheep have no place to go but to sleep. In the day time, they might go anywhere. They desperately need to get to green pastures for food and quiet waters to drink, and then back to the fold for the night. That’s only going to happen on one condition: they must stay with the shepherd. He will lead them; and if they follow, they will receive what they need. If they follow, they will not wander off into danger.
The Voice-Recognition Issue
How will the sheep follow the shepherd by day? By staying within the sound of his voice. His call will keep them on the right path. His voice will guide them. They may not be smart, but one thing they do know is how to recognize the shepherd’s voice.
This is what scares me most. This is where the whole metaphor gets weakest. We are like sheep in a number of ways, but in this one, they have an advantage over us. We are not nearly as good at voice-recognition as they. I wish it were true that we all would automatically know the voice of Jesus in each moment today, but it doesn’t seem to work that way, does it?
It took the church many years to finally hear the Shepherd leading us to abolish slavery – why did we not hear his voice for so long? It took a lot of suffering before we heard his voice telling us that black sheep and white sheep were of equal value in his eyes, and that we had no basis for discrimination. Why did we take so long to recognize the Shepherd’s voice?
Today, there are people on both sides of every issue who will tell you that they are speaking for the Shepherd and we should listen to them. How do we distinguish?
I believe there are several important ways by which we can learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice, and by doing so, to follow him today. The first is the most crucial and really the others follow from it: we will only recognize the shepherd’s voice by frequent exposure to it.
I wish we could make it a rule that only those who had a regular discipline of reading scripture, especially the gospels, could ever vote or even speak publicly in the church on issues requiring decisions. I wish we were certain that the voices we heard in leadership were constantly attuned to the Shepherd’s voice and knew how to recognize it with ease.
This is not a guarantee of course: plenty of slave-owners read their bibles every morning – but it certainly is a foundation without which we have no chance of being corrected. Certainly it was the teaching of Jesus that the abolitionists took to heart that convinced them that slavery had to cease. They kept listening to the voice, and eventually they recognized it.
Where to Begin
The second way in which we can recognize the Shepherd’s voice as we face issues of our times is to begin first with what we know for certain, and to work from there to things that are less obvious.
So what do we know? We know that Jesus, our shepherd, cares passionately for the unity of the flock. His long prayer in John 17 repeatedly reinforces the fact that his sheep, his disciples are one with him in the exact same way he is one with his Father. Our Shepherd’s voice is clear on the subject of unity. Therefore, voices calling for division are automatically suspect.
We know that our Shepherd cared passionately for people who were suffering. Whether they were injured, lame, hungry, or diseased, he responded to their suffering with compassionate practical care. He allowed people in pain to interrupt his plans for the day. He went out of his way to bring healing, even when it was costly, and even when it was dangerous, as on the Sabbath. Therefore, any voice telling us that the sufferings of others are not our concern is automatically suspect.
We know that our Shepherd cared passionately for those who had been excluded. Whether they were excluded because they were ceremonially
impure or were foreigners, or were notorious sinners, he welcomed them into God’s circle of mercy and grace. Therefore we are automatically suspicious of any voice advocating modern forms of discrimination.
We know that our Shepherd cared passionately about his relationship with the Father. He regularly left the group to be alone in prayer. He brought the Father into his conversations with his friends and even with his opposition. Everything Jesus did, he did as a consequence of his relationship with his Father in Heaven. Therefore, we are deeply suspicious of any voice coming from a source which does not give evidence of a deeply spiritual relationship with God the Father. For us, the authentic voice of the Shepherd is recognizably one that serves and obeys God, praying that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
I am painfully aware that these ways of recognizing the authentic Shepherd’s voice are not fool-proof. I know that there will be disagreements among people who genuinely believe they are following the Shepherd. But this is at least the base-line for us. At least, let this be our earnest quest. We wish to follow no other voice, regardless of which party, which network, or which “expert” it comes from.
We have a Shepherd. In the dark night, he will be with us; we will trust him. In the day, he will lead us; we will follow his voice.