This sermon was given on Sunday 12 May at St George’s. You can read it again here:
I grew up in a farming community and from an early age I knew the difference between the farmer and the farm labourer. The farmer had almost always inherited the farm from his father (in those days, in my experience, women could only be farmers’ wives). He had a lifelong connection with his own land and the herd was his livelihood. People would talk about how wealthy a farmer was, and he would shake his head. He was only wealthy if he sold the farm, and then what would he do? On the other hand, the farm labourer was paid a wage (and not usually very much) and his job would be on the line if times were difficult. They worked together, ate together and often lived together, but for one it was the focus of his life, for the other it was a job.
And so it was in the Bible for shepherds. When we think about the shepherds at Christmas, I am pretty sure that they were the hired ones. For one thing the boss doesn’t do the night shift. For another they left their flocks to go to the stable. But Jesus makes it clear that when he talks about being a shepherd, he is the owner of the sheep. It’s his life, not just his job. And it’s a hard life. They guided their sheep in search for food, they protected them from wolves, from thieves and from worse. Remember David the shepherd boy? While still a boy he had killed both a lion and a bear with his bare hands. Or so he told King Saul! And when David was chosen to be King of Israel, the people declared that God had asked him to be their shepherd, and he accepted that role. Psalm 23, the lovely poem that starts the Lord is my Shepherd, was attributed to him.
So, when Jesus spoke to his Jewish audience about being a shepherd, they already had an image of a shepherd king who would embody strength, justice and compassion in his leadership. In today’s gospel Jesus is refusing to explain himself to the Jewish authorities. He tells them that if they observed his actions, they would know who he was. But they are not sheep from his fold, because sheep recognise the shepherd’s voice. Jesus’ followers would not have to ask – they know that he is the Messiah, the shepherd king sent by God.
I don’t know what hearing the voice of God means to you. Many years ago, Jane, a friend of mine, told me this story. She had got married to Ian just as he was about to go to college to train to be a clergyman. She thought it would be a good idea to go along to the wives’ group, and maybe learn some things for herself. She had a strong faith, but wasn’t used to the prayer meetings and Bible studies she encountered. She was a bit taken aback when people talked about how God had spoken to them in their morning Quiet Times. She wondered if it was actual audible voices they heard, so after a few weeks she asked them what they meant. They were rather taken aback. Jane said “when I read the Bible, sometimes a thought occurs to me, and the more I think about it, the more right it seems”. And they all agreed that that was what they meant. God speaks to us when we read the Bible or pray through that conviction that grows in our hearts.
Sometimes something someone says to us, in a sermon or in ordinary conversation can strike us as significant. Often the person who has said it didn’t realise they were saying anything important. And with our minds we gradually aware that God is giving us a message for our lives.
On other occasions it’s our hearts that speak to us. It can be through a beautiful sunset, or music, or we just love the words we are hearing or reading. The poetry resounds within us. And surely the 23rd Psalm is one of the best loved chapters in the Bible. It starts with the lovely images of God the shepherd taking us to green pastures and still waters, supplying all our needs. But the Psalmist is a realist. He knows that it is not always like that, and he goes on to mention the valley of the shadow of death. We’ve all been there, in our darkest hours, whenever they have been. Whether we have walked there with those we love, or have had to face up to our own mortality, in that time of sorrow we find we are not alone. The good shepherd, who loves us more than his own life is there beside us. He uses his rod to protect us from all that might hurt us, and his staff to draw us close to him. In Jesus’ words, no one can snatch us from the safety of his hand. For the life that Jesus gives us is eternal. We do not fear the valley of the shadow of death because we know that as we travel through that dark and gloomy valley it does not go on for ever. There is the light of the resurrected Christ leading us on to a life that is fuller, richer and more satisfying than any life we have ever known.
Lastly, don’t forget that sheep are not solitary creatures. The shepherd has to go and rescue the one that wanders off, because by itself it’s in danger. The sheep need to stay in the fold, with the shepherd, but also with each other. Christ meets us personally, but not as individuals. His vision for us is to be united in one sheep fold. At St Margaret’s this morning we had the gift of a baby baptised in the service. There is nothing that brings more hope than a baby born into a church family ready to be nurtured by her parents and godparents and by us, the Christian community. Week by week we meet to hear God’s word, and to learn together, and to share the bread and wine that are the symbols of our unity in the body of Christ. God supports us not only through his voice, but by giving us each other.
Now if a sheep finds a gap in the hedge and goes through, the rest of the flock is very likely to follow. To talk about people as sheep is often to imply that they have no minds of their own. But when we talk about the sheep hearing Jesus’ voice, we assume that what he is saying to me, and what he is saying to you won’t be contradictory. However, we all know that the reality is that two people both sincerely committed to following Jesus can have very different ideas about what he is saying to them. So, part of listening to Jesus is weighing what we think against what others think. Usually it is best to work with the democratic process and go with the majority. Sometimes it is time to take a stand. The most divisive issue in the Church of England at the moment is gay marriage. Some people have felt that progress has been unacceptably slow, and they have left the church of England. Others are threatening to leave if ever gay weddings take place in our churches. Then there is the question of what will happen to the Anglican communion if gay marriage were permitted in England. Would the African churches leave and then very likely be open to the influence of right-wing Americans? I will say what I think if my opinion is asked (or, to be honest, sometimes when it hasn’t been) but I am prepared to live within the discipline of the church. The same goes for a smaller scale where any group of Christians may seek the will of God and each genuinely believes they have heard his voice, but they cannot agree. That is difficult in a marriage, a PCC or any other Christian group. Sometimes we have to have the humility to listen to others and accept their decisions even if we don’t agree with them.
So, there are many ways of hearing the voice of Jesus. It might be a dramatic once in a lifetime experience but more often we hear him in our hearts and minds when we stop for a moment and focus on him, or in the words and actions of other people. But the bottom line is we know that his promises will be kept, that we will never be alone, and that we will spend eternity with him.