I have a distinct memory of attending a rural church when I was a child where they entered into an unusual time of prayer during the service. As best I remember, it was a Sunday evening. So, it was a smaller crowd and less formal. The minister invited those present to either stay where they were in their seats or to come to the front steps near the altar table and to pray. What made it unique is that he encouraged everyone to pray out loud at the same time. The effect of all of this was that there were one hundred or so voices filling that little sanctuary all at the same time. This overwhelming number of voices was both powerful, 100 folks offering their own prayers simultaneously, but also a bit confusing. What I mean by saying this is that it was confusing in that you could audible hear all of the various voices but you could not distinguish one from another. There were lots and lots of voices but none of them could really be distinctly deciphered.
For me, that memory from my childhood serves as a good illustration of what life is like. On so many days, we live with countless voices all vying for our attention at the same time. They are many, varied and all eager to have our allegiance. In turn, just like on that night in church, though we can hear them all it is hard to decipher one from another and even harder to figure out which voices are worthy of our attention and which ones should be quickly dismissed and disregarded. I think about this, when I think about the idea conveyed by our text for today that when the shepherd speaks, the sheep immediately recognize and follow the shepherd’s voice.
Today’s primary text comes from John 10 and is one of the ego eimi statements famously linked to the fourth gospel. Ego eimi is the Greek statement that we translate as I am. In John, Jesus connects himself to God the Father who at the burning bush, when asked by Moses about God’s identity said, “tell them I am has sent me to you (Exodus 3:14).” God is the one who was, who is and who will be. Our God is the eternal one. Our God is the one who does not change. Our God is the dependable, consistent God.
In John, Jesus picks up on the I am phrase and expands it using elements of every day life to give a clearer picture of who he is and who he has come to be. You likely remember some of Jesus’ most famous I am statements – “I am the light of the world (John 8:12),” “I am the bread of life (6:35), I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6),” “I am the resurrection and the life (11:25).” And of course, our text for today, “I am the Good Shepherd,” as Jesus again picks up imagery that goes all the way back to the Old Testament as God was consistently referred to as a shepherd with God’s followers being God’s sheep.
Again, the verse in our text from John 10 that really grabs my attention is verse 4, “they follow him, because they know his voice”. The sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd and thus when the shepherd calls they follow his voice.
In my study for today, I was reminded that this statement is true to form as it relates to shepherding practices of the Middle East. In fact, one of the stories that really caught my attention was of two shepherds near Bethlehem whose individual sheep had simply gotten mixed in and intermingled as both shepherds and their flocks shared the same cave for the night. As they prepared to move their own separate directions the next day, one shepherd called out to his sheep. In turn, his sheep raised their heads, perked their ears, turned their necks and moved in his direction, separating themselves from the sheep of the other shepherd. Amazing, they knew their shepherd’s voice and they immediately moved his way when called. (The Gospel of John, vol. 2, William Barclay, WJK, 1975, pg. 57)
Let that image sink in for a moment. Here was a group of animals, who over time, had become so familiar with their master, their owner, their personal shepherd that when they heard his voice, they were able to immediately pick it out and move in its direction.
This is both Jesus’ invitation and challenge to us. On the one hand, it is an invitation. God, first through Jesus wants to be in relationship with us. And now, on this side of Easter, as the resurrection passages promise, through the Holy Spirit, God alive in our world, still wants to know us at such a level as God’s own, that we will be called, spoken to, invited personally to follow.
On the other hand, our job is to cultivate such an intimate relationship with God that in the midst of all of the competing voices of our lives, which sometimes speak at the same time and over the top of each other, that we find the ability to recognize God’s voice and to follow when we hear it.
How does this happen? It happens slowly, never quickly. It takes our whole lives. It requires our commitment to study, scripture reading, faithful worship, listening. It will not happen haphazardly or without effort. It won’t happen if our lives of faith are characterized by fits and starts and are lived out only when we can squeeze God into our calendar. No, recognizing the Good Shepherd’s voice is the result of an ongoing, intentional, daily developed relationship.
Here is something else I learned about the sheep of the Middle East. Sheep in that part of the world are raised primarily for their wool and not for meat. In turn, they live much longer lives and are under the care of their shepherds for a long, long period of time. The result is that they know their shepherd and their shepherd knows them. The result is that they are able to recognize their shepherd’s voice in the midst of all others. (Barclay, 56)
Many of you have met our dog. When we had lived in Laurens about a year, Gourrier became our pet. We got him from a young couple, Drew and Hannah Patrick, who were members of our church here for a very short period of time right after they finished college. When the Patrick’s moved, their new home was not a good spot for their puppy and so Gourrier came to live with us. Gourrie, as we call him, is a great pet. He is most definitely a member of our family and he has made us dog people for sure. But, he is not very well trained. A lot of that is our fault. We had never had a dog before and so we sort of went through on the job training with him and in the end this has created some bad habits. But, one thing Gourrier does know is his name. I am consistently amazed at how when we call his name he almost immediately stops, turns his head and at least for a moment listens.
None of us are ever going to be perfect. Our lives are all a bit rambunctious sort of like a pet that doesn’t always do what it should. But, God loves us anyway. And, if we can every reach a point in this spiritual journey, where when God speaks, we recognize instantaneously God’s voice, distinguish that voice from all others and move in God’s direction, we will have won well over half the battle. Amen.