Psalm 23, John 10:1-18
Pastor John Beehler shares this story: A man in Australia was arrested and charged with stealing a sheep. But he vigorously protested that it was one of his own that had been missing for many days. When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter. Finally he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom. Then he ordered the plaintiff to step outside and call the animal. The sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened. The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and call the sheep. When the accused man began to make his distinctive call, the sheep ran toward the door and that voice. It was obvious that he recognized the familiar voice of his master. “His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!”
The parable Jesus shares in today’s scripture may seem like one that we simply cannot relate to unless we are familiar with herding sheep. I illustrated part of this story with the kids a couple of weeks ago so I hope you were paying attention! Sheep in general tend to be very simple creatures. They are not natural-born leaders but followers. They require a shepherd to care for them in every way. Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. There are differences between good and bad shepherds. The Bible notes the difference as shepherds and hired hands. Shepherds have a vested interest in the flock. While to the outsider the sheep of a flock all look the same, the shepherd understands the subtle differences between the sheep. The good shepherd sees all the unique details of each member of the flock, and knows which ones are part of the flock and which ones are not.
In Palestine, it was common for sheep herders to share the pastures and fields. Each shepherd would have between 10-25 sheep on average and these would graze with the other flocks in the same area. It would be important for the shepherd to spend time with the sheep, training them to hear his voice and listen for his specific calls. Often you would hear the shepherds calling their sheep with unique call sounds, and each sheep of each flock would know which shepherd to obey.
Jesus refers to strangers who enter the sheep pen not through the gate but by another way. These people are known as thieves and robbers. Typically, in the fields a shepherd would seek an area that was hemmed in by rocks or trees to ‘pen’ his sheep for the night. Once all the sheep were tended to and accounted for, the shepherd would lie down across the opening and become the gate. If anyone was avoiding the gate and trying to get to the sheep by another way, it was pretty obvious that person would be trying to steal the sheep and avoid the shepherd. Those who entered through the gate, in this case through Jesus, were considered saved – like the sheep that were safely penned in for the night.
If we are the sheep in need of the Good Shepherd, we need to listen for the shepherd’s voice. Better yet, we need to know the Master’s voice so that when Jesus calls, we know his voice and follow his lead. Some folks are offended that Jesus referred to us as sheep because of the simplistic mind of a sheep. Sheep have been known to walk off a cliff in confusion. They often forget and must be constantly re-taught lessons again and again. But in all this simplicity, they know their master’s voice. They know they need a leader and follow the one with the familiar call.
If we are like sheep and need to know our Good Shepherd’s voice, how do we do that? How do we learn to discern Jesus’ voice from that of others seeking to lead us astray? There is a story of a man who was concerned that his wife was losing her hearing. He decided to test his theory and while she was cooking dinner, stood 50 feet behind her and called, “Honey, can you hear me?” With no response, he moved and stood 25 feet behind her and repeated, “Honey, can you hear me?” Again she did not respond so he stood directly behind her and repeated, “Honey, can you hear me?” She responded, “For the third time, yes!” At times many of us think that God is not speaking to us – we think the problem is with God. Yet often the case is with us – we are not listening. God is communicating with us all the time, but if we do not attempt to focus our hearing, we completely miss the message.
So how can we improve our listening for the Good Shepherd? How can we better discern when God is speaking to us? It starts with a return to the basics. First we need to get serious about prayer. I think it is easy to put prayer on a back burner as something to do when and if we get the time. There are too many other important things to do – real things instead of wasting time in prayer. Is pray a waste of time? Is prayer frivolous and unnecessary for important folks like us? Martin Luther was known to say that if he was facing a particularly packed day he needed to spend 2 hours in prayer instead of just 1 which was his custom. Many of us feel we need permission to set aside time to pray with God, as if we are stealing time from other important tasks. But if we can make prayer a priority, somehow all the other tasks seem to fall better into place. We have incorporated special prayer times in our worship services and it seems we need to do this more often. I encourage you to keep up this practice of prayer at home. Only when we dedicate ourselves to God will we ever hear God’s voice.
The second important way to better discern God’s voice is to spend time studying God’s word. I wonder how many of us spend regular time reading or studying scripture. It seems to be something else that can easily be put on a back burner of things to do when we get time. God’s story of love for us is threaded throughout the Old and New Testament. Jesus as God-incarnate left us numerous examples and teachings that are meant to be read and studied and most importantly followed. I had several instructors at Wesley that repeatedly taught the same scriptures every semester, yet each teacher will tell you how they find something new and undiscovered each time he/she studies these passages. Every time we read scripture, even familiar passages, we are at a different place in our lives. We very well may see and discover new insights as God continues to speak to us through scripture. Take time to listen for the Shepherd’s voice in scripture.
Third, we can discern when God is speaking to us as we come together regularly in Christian fellowship. Our time together is slated to worship God. We come together to give thanks and praise to God for all God provides for us. We come together to lift one another up and share our concerns and joys. We are all at different points on our Christian journey, so we come together to share our stories and read scripture and pray to God as this body of Christ. We are choosing to walk with God and each other as we strengthen and encourage our brothers and sisters in faith. God is in our midst often leading us together as one flock following the Good Shepherd’s voice.
Today we are also celebrating and recognizing our mothers. I can say from experience that the job of mother is not for the faint-hearted. We become experts at multi-tasking, carpooling, pulling lunches out of thin air, dolling out reminders and permission slips, keeping track of everyone’s schedules and maintaining a CEO mentality for management. Moms seem to have an innate ability to give us a glimmer of hope even when things are at their worst. Christian Mothers are able to give us a glimpse of Jesus the ultimate giver of hope eternal – our Good Shepherd. Thank you God, for our mothers.
We are sheep in need of a shepherd. If we fail to recognize the shepherd’s voice we will eventually wander away from the flock and find ourselves lost and alone. I challenge you to find ways to connect with God this week. Spend time in prayer. Open the scriptures on a day other than Sunday and study the word of God. Seek fellowship with other brothers and sisters of faith. Go and share the news of Christ’s love for all through not just your words but your actions. On this Mother’s Day, call your mother! Honor your mother today as she in turn honor’s Jesus our shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows what we need and provides love and care for us always. But as sheep, it is up to us to hear and recognize the shepherd’s voice. Respond to the call and come through the gate of Jesus Christ into the safety of the fold. Amen.