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.
Children sometimes ask questions about God we are all wondering about. Recently a seven year old in our congregation had a question that her parents chose to refer to me. In essence her question was, “why can’t I hear God speaking in my ear?” This young person heard talk about God of how God speaks so wanted to know why God’s voice had never been audible to her. “How come I don’t hear him in my ear?”
So how does one explain the mystery faith to a seven-year-old? I will admit that my initial answer to her was lame and I promised that I would take some time to think about it so I could give her a better answer. I saw her next week at church and as promised had what I was hoping would be an answer that would help her. I knelt down so we were face to face; we recalled her question and here was my answer. There are different kinds of hearing. I could see by looking at her eyes a delight that satisfied her curiosity. Of course, there is more to understand as she grows older and can embrace more. We talked a little about love and how we can hear someone say “I love you” with our ear but we can also hear with our hearts they love us even if they don’t say a word. This kind of hearing with our hearts is more like how we hear God.
1. “My sheep hear my voice”, said our Lord. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the festival of the Dedication (Hanukah). This is the festival that was to celebrate the rededication of temple lead by the Maccabean king in 164 BC. In 167 BC the then reigning Syrian King Antiochus IV had tried to force conversion of the Jewish people erecting an altar for making sacrifices to Zeus along with an idol in the image of the King in the temple at Jerusalem. Judas Maccabaeus with the odds against him led the revolt that overthrew Antiochus. The altar and idol were destroyed and the temple rededicated.
Fast forward about 200 years to this day with Jesus in the temple for this festival. Rather than occupation by a Syrian king the Jewish people and Jerusalem are now occupied by the Romans. There is an uneasy peace with the Jews who were able to secure an exemption from the religious requirement to pay homage to the gods of Rome. What you can sense in the question Jesus has been asked is how it is loaded with the hopes of ending Roman occupation; the memory of Judas Maccabeus’ victory informs their current messianic hopes. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
“I have told you,” Jesus answered, “and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Which brings us squarely into this mystery of faith about his sheep hearing his voice. Being a sheep and believing and hearing all go together. These are inextricably linked. And we may be nervous wondering if we have heard his voice. The question of our seven year old member looms large—what is the nature of this hearing?
What we are probing here is the mystery of faith—and faith, biblically speaking, is encounter with God. As children of the Enlightenment our first response is try to deduce some system or theory so we can understand this faith. We want to put a box around it so we can examine it and figure out how it works. But theories and systems are not the best strategy to take when understanding the testimony of the Bible. The old and New Testaments do not present theories at any time. Instead, we find stories, images, metaphors, symbols, sagas, sermons, songs, letters, poems. It would be hard to find writing that is less theoretical. This does not mean that there is no thinking to be done. Yes, faith seeks understanding; we are to love God with our minds. At the same time faith can never be reduced to the confines of human reason.
The terms “motif”, “theme”, and “image” is a better way of thinking about what the Bible presents us in order to emphasize the metaphorical power of the biblical language rather than force it into a rationalist, reductionist approach like a technical manual. Jesus Christ explodes all theories and systems. The witness of scripture is that he truly “one-of-a-kind.” The case of Jesus is in a class by itself. These people who questioned at the temple that day Jesus know all about Jesus’s works—the works that Jesus said testified with regard to his messiahship. The point is we can examine these works (miracles) and propose theories about them but they don’t in and of themselves disclose their meaning. They mean what they do in relation to Jesus. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:17 that the gospel is “revealed through faith for faith.” We must be careful never to make this mean that “you just have to take it on faith.” Indeed it is right that faith seeks understanding. However, only in the experience of faith can we understand faith—“through faith for faith.”
This is what is happening in our worship. We come together in faith. There is some seed of faith, some measure of believing in each of us or you would not be here. As the gospel is announced (through faith) it is for faith (our enlarged faith). Yes, we may have doubts and questions but faith does not mean the absence of such. The gospel is revealed through faith for faith—for the nurturing of encounter with God.
Our Lord’s utterance “my sheep hear my voice” is a metaphor for faith. It is an image that gives us a window into that what we are experiencing in encounter with our Lord. I have shared the story with you before of a young student minister visiting a member of his church who was a sheep farmer. The farmer asked him if he would like to call the sheep to come in from the field at the end of the day. In response to his question about what to say, the farmer said—I usually say, “Hey sheep, come on in!” With his loudest preacher projection voice this young minister called, “Hey sheep, come on in!” Not one of them even looked in his direction. The farmer then raised his voice repeating the call and all twenty-five sheep began to amble towards them. Sheep know the shepherds voice and follow him. Jesus uses this well-known truth about sheep as a metaphor for the experience of faith.
2. It has to be this way—through faith for faith—because encounter with God is at God’s initiation. My sheep hear my voice; it is our Lord who makes himself known. He is the one calling or there would be no sheep who follow. It is his voice that beckons. Unless he speaks there is nothing to be heard. The gospel says that we have all turned away from God to seek our own way. It is true that humans have a religious impulse but according to the gospel such impulse will never be a route to finding God. We are in the prison house of sin and our sin blinds us to the fact we are imprisoned. Someone from the outside needs to break in and set us free.
And though humanity was quite happy to proceed without God, indifferent to the pain of the rupture of relationship with God, it was God who could not bear to leave things that way. It was God who initiated reconciliation and bore its cost though we were wholly to blame for the rupture of relationship. He comes seeking us. Our Lord is the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep. (John 10:11)
3. When Jesus says “my sheep hear my voice” it is clear that Jesus wants his sheep to know his voice. Everywhere in scripture when God speaks to people they know they have been addressed, they know who has spoken, and they understand what was said usually seen some action they took in response God’s address. Think of Mary when the Angel announces that she will bear a son and that she is to name him Jesus. In the course of time she names her child Jesus.
We might say that it is all well and good to site Biblical examples; someone who had an angel appear to them and speak. But I have never had such experience. I point out, first of all, that it is the pattern we ought to observe, not the specifics. It is evident that Mary’s special experience is borne of a heart that was devout in relationship to the God of Israel. She was one already engaged in the ordinary of payer and synagogue worship in hearing the Bible read.
Jesus’ metaphor was that “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Notice the combination of hearing and doing. Here in this sheep/shepherd metaphor for faith we hear an echo of his parable about the man who built his house on rock as the one who hears his word and acts on them.
We know that it was our Lord’s habit to read scripture; what we call the Hebrew Bible. His relationship with the One he called the Father was guided by the Bible. I point out to you that while on the cross at his lowest moment he is reciting scripture—the cry of dereliction, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?, is a recitation of Psalm 22.
The witness of scripture is that scripture is God-breathed. Yes, it is the human witness to God’s saving incursion among us. We must be careful not to confuse scripture with the Lord of scripture. At the same time scripture isn’t merely human witness, for God owns and blesses the human witness as God’s own witness to himself. Unfailingly, as often as it is read, the Father will send the promised Holy Spirit, and the Son will loom before us to seize, save and sustain. Therefore, scripture never fails with respect to its purpose, an ever-renewed encounter with Jesus Christ. Read in faith, to hear scripture is to hear him.
At the last supper Jesus said “do this is remembrance of me.” Jesus in not advocating a mere thought exercise; as if remembering meant to call to mind only. In Hebrew remembering was to bring the past into the present. We take communion remembering in that this past event is happening again as he is present with us. We read scripture the same way. We hear it as him speaking to us today. “My sheep hear my voice” has the same “now” about it as when our Lord first uttered it.
So as you read scripture, trust him that you are hearing his voice. This brings me back to something we can all learn from this seven year old member of our congregation. When I said to her there are different kinds of hearing she was satisfied; satisfied that God was capable of bypassing the eardrum and making himself heard through other hearing method. It isn’t for nothing that our Lord says “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
We children of Enlightenment put a lot of stock in our faculty of reason often limiting God to what our erudition can conceive. To the Corinthian Christians who placed great emphasis on what they knew, Paul wrote “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:23, 25)
4. In a remote valley of northern California forty-two radio telescopes point skyward. The Allen Telescope Array is a new and powerful tool for an organization called the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. The SETI Institute began decades ago, and this latest technological marvel represents a new phase in its cosmic search for extraterrestrial life. The array of large telescopes is "listening" carefully to the universe. In sync with each other, the telescopes read and record distant radio frequencies from across the universe, in the hope that something from the heavens will indicate the presence of an intelligent life form.
Friends, the gospel witnesses that we don’t need the Allen Telescope Array. The creator of our intellect is as close as our breath and but a prayer away. Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. We have heard today our Lord’s assertion, “My sheep hear my voice”; faith can begin with a prayer as simple as, “Lord, let me hear you.” And the very fact we would pray such a prayer is already an instance that he has spoken to us.
Many know the hymn—when the saints go marching in. When I hear Jesus say “my sheep” a repeated phrase in that hymn comes to my heart—“O Lord I want to be in that number.” Great shepherd, let me be named as yours. Hear what the great shepherd says for any who say yes to faith, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” I can’t imagine anyone in a clear frame of mind who would not want to be in that number.
We read today from the Revelation of St. John of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” In the vision the elders tell us the correct question to ask—“who are these, robbed in white, and where have they come from?” They are those who have “come out of the great ordeal.” John’s Revelation was written to Christians facing terrible persecution as a word of hope. Not even persecution could snatch them out of the Saviour’s hand.
A Sunday School teacher decided to have her young class memorize Psalm 23. She gave the children a month to learn the chapter. One little boy was excited about the task he worked hard to learn the lines. On the day that the children were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, this little boy was very nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said proudly, "The Lord is my Shepherd,” and froze, adding this “and that’s all I need to know."