One of the most popular television shows these days is “The Voice.” I have not watched it many times, but I’ve enjoyed it when I have. “The Voice” is a music competition that involves four stars from the music industry who serve as judges for people who are trying to start a singing career. The premise is that the judges begin by listening with their backs turned to the people performing on stage. When they hear a voice that they like—one that’s got talent, one that might be a winner—the music stars smack a button on their chair that makes it immediately swivel around so that they can face the singer and, at that point, see what the singer looks like.
The idea is that the judges and the coaches respond to and judge only to the voice of the singer, rather than their appearance or stage presence. It is the voice that grabs their attention. One of the best parts of the show is when all four judges realize they’re hearing a winner and they all smack their buttons right away. That’s when the magic starts to happen. The excitement builds as all four experts, the audience, and the millions of folks watching on their TVs across the country realize they may be hearing the next voice.
There is no music industry in Jerusalem, of course, and no one watches television either, but Jesus wants his disciples to know that he is the voice. He sings and speaks from the stage of a hectic and often dangerous life. His people hear him and respond to him, smacking those buttons and swiveling their chairs to face him no matter where they are because they know they’ve found a winner. “I know my own and my own know me,” he explains, and then he reaches for the most familiar and easy-to-understand image of the day. Hearing Jesus’ voice and following him will be like sheep who respond and follow the voice of their shepherd.
As it turns out, sheep are one of the few types of livestock that can actually be led. Cattle, for example, have to be driven, as if you’re forcing them to go where they need to go. Pigs are the same way. Could you imagine what Psalm 23 would sound like if this weren’t the case? “He drives me beside still waters (yee-haw!). He whips me until I walk in the right paths for his name’s sake.” It just doesn’t sounds quite the same, does it?
Sheep, by contrast, can be led. In fact, in Jesus’ time flocks of sheep spent considerable time mingling with other sheep at watering holes and wells. When the time came to graze for the day, the shepherd would go off to a hill that looked like it offered good grazing and would call out. The sheep that belonged to that shepherd would respond and join him wherever he was.
|a shepherd in Afghanistan (Wikipedia)|
This, Jesus explains, is what life in his Father’s love is like. This is how he will lead his disciples. He knows his own and his own knows him. We can trust, then, that Jesus is not going to force us or drive us to get us to follow him. He is never going to coerce us or scare us. The good shepherd does not work that way. Jesus loves the sheep and tends for them by leading with his voice.
However, disciples don’t just naturally follow that voice because it’s naturally so compelling or beautiful or true (which it is, by the way). They follow because, like sheep, they’ve been around the shepherd enough to know what his voice sounds like. They’ve associated that voice with protection in times of danger. They’ve learned to connect the voice of that shepherd with green pastures and safe pathways. What have you come to associate with the voice of Jesus? How have you spent time in relationship with the one who calls out and beckons you to follow? To be sure, this is something that happens over time when we become aware of the dangers that actually exist around us and how vulnerable we are. It takes relationship and patience to be able to recognize that voice of the shepherd.
This point about relationship ties in to a crucial concept to understanding what we’re praying for, for example, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. In his Large Catechism Martin Luther is sure to point out that humans need more than material things for existence. In a time where everyone tends to be so careful about the food they’re eating and the quality of the environment around them—good things, for sure!—it is easy to lose sight of this. Praying for daily bread covers those things—food and drink, house and property, work and income, a devoted family, etc.—but human existence is not just about things, even as you expand that definition of daily bread ever outward. Human beings also need love to survive. We need trust. We need comfort. We need to hear the voice of someone who says they love us so much they’ll die for us. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer that follows daily bread, the one about the forgiveness of sins, addresses these innermost needs of ours. Through its appeal for forgiveness, it acknowledges our community with other sheep and the fact that trust and love can be broken and needs to be mended.
|a shepherd in Romania|
Learning the ways of the Good Shepherd involves praying to the Father and learning more about him, but it also therefore involves remaining in contact with the other sheep, by recognizing that we are a species that flocks. The word congregation, in fact, comes from the Latin words “con,” or “com” which means together, and “gregare,” which means to gather into one. Jesus is reminding us this morning that there is something fundamentally group-oriented about following him. Remember? The magic happens when lots of people smack those buttons. That’s how God designs it.
And unlike the television show, we also can’t choose Jesus for our team and have him for ourselves. He’s chosen us for his, and part of our salvation, part of our deliverance in God’s kingdom, is the deliverance from loneliness and isolation. It’s not just that we learn to respond to a savior shepherd, but that we learn to respond to each other, and that we learn to respond along with each other. There are those who say they don’t need the church in order to lead a life of faith, but Jesus words about the flock seem to go against that. I know that many people tell me that when they feel alone in the valley of the shadow of death it is the nearby presence of other sheep who have embodied for them the presence of the shepherd.
In fact, it also sounds like Jesus isn’t finished calling his flock together. There are more that will join him. They aren’t in this flock at the moment—not in this congregation, not in this denomination, maybe not even in this faith—but they are out there. Jesus promises that there are others who will eventually, at some point realize how comforting this voice is, too, and turn to face him.
This is all well and good, of course—the growth of our flock, the green pastures, hearing the voice and staying nearby so we learn more about him and each other—but the real fact of the matter, even with such a large flock, is that sheep don’t always remain close. Sheep don’t always listen either, or know what’s good for them. They wander and they get stuck in some pretty scary places. They run into wolves and other predators who do them harm. Ultimately, the safety of the sheep is not in the sheep’s hands, or hooves. Ultimately, the cohesion and salvation of God’s flock does not lie in its ability to listen or keep up. The safety of the flock is up to the shepherd, and the shepherd who calls you and calls me, the Good Shepherd who has claimed you and has claimed me in Holy Baptism has laid down his life for us. The salvation of any one of us is not dependent on how close we draw to the shepherd, but how close he draws to us. We know this because he is the only shepherd who has gone to stand on one particularly dark hill in the distance called Golgotha. There he calls on our behalf to the Father that loves him with a voice that punctures the darkest valley, the deadliest death.
The other evening a bunch of us were gathered for Wednesday night ministries. It had been raining pretty hard all afternoon, but then, in the middle of dinner, the sun came out. Knowing what often happens when it is raining and the sun is shining at the same time, some folks went out to see what they could see. Pretty soon there was a whole yard of children rejoicing in the sight of not one, not two, but three clear rainbows arching over the church. By the time I got out there, some of the spectacle had already faded, but there was still one portion left.
One end of the bow seemed to end right in the place in the sky that was over our big cross outside. The other end disappeared into the horizon right where our columbarium is. Behind it loomed a dark, foreboding cloud. It had been vanquished and was receding into the east. On the green, wet pasture of grass beneath were a whole bunch of kids and parents. We’ll call them a flock. Their voices laughing, shouting, marveling, like cups overflowing. Little sheep that they were, they had smacked that button and they were responding, I believe, at this huge reminder above them. It was a gracious reminder that their Good Shepherd calls us all, his promises leading from that cross of Golgotha where the rod and the staff yet comfort us to the place where we rest in his eternal embrace. As I watched them taking photos and jumping up and down, the words of the shepherd came to my mind:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their life.
And they shall dwell in the house of the Lord their whole life long.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.