Sunday, April 25, 2021
If you didn’t realize already, I’m a nerd. In particular, I am a PBS nerd, and also a college English major, so what was I doing recently on a Friday night? I was watching Ken Burns’ latest documentary on Ernest Hemingway. I was halfway into the first episode when it was bothering so much who was narrating the voice of Hemingway and who the familiar female voice was of his second wife that I had to stop and Google the cast. Do you know that feeling, when you recognize a familiar voice but you just can’t seem to place it? Turns out, Hemingway is played by Jeff Daniels and his wife Pauline is Kerri Russell. I felt like I could truly focus on the rest of the documentary knowing who those voices were I was hearing.
As we continue to think about who Jesus is for us this Easter season, today we hear Jesus assure us: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” As followers of Jesus, the good shepherd, we try to listen for Jesus’ voice and follow him. But this is hard to do, because most of us don’t directly hear God speaking to us out loud most of the time. We live in a very noisy world, and it can be very difficult to sort out Jesus’ authentic voice from all the rest.
In 2001, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model for what a first century Galilean man likely looked like, to give people a better idea of what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. Perhaps you have seen this picture. If you Google, “What did Jesus sound like?” you can also listen to a voice, supposedly Jesus, reading a British-sounding Lord’s prayer on YouTube, but Jesus of course, didn’t speak English at all, likely Aramaic, Hebrew, and possibly Greek, so I’m not sure how much stock to place into what you find on the internet. While it’s interesting to speculate based on what we know about Jesus in scripture and through historical research, we have to admit we don’t really know what Jesus looks like or sounds like – we walk by faith and not by sight or by sound.
Of course, we don’t have to know exactly what Jesus looked like or sounded like during his time on Earth to still follow him and listen to him as our Good Shepherd today. Thankfully, John’s gospel in particular gives us an abundance of images and metaphors for us to picture who Jesus is for us and how we might listen to him anyway, regardless of historical accuracy. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a powerful one for many of us, even though we don’t likely know any sheep farmers today. We hear in our scriptures today that Jesus our shepherd leads and guides us, protects us, comforts us, loves us, gathers us into a community, and of course, lays down his life for us in order to take it up again – meaning, Christ willingly dies and is raised for us. Christ our Good Shepherd gives up his life so that we might share his life. We may not fully understand what a shepherd does but we can easily relate to our need for God to comfort, protect, guide, and gather us.
How do we listen to Jesus our Good Shepherd, then, if Jesus is clear that he knows us and we know him, even if we aren’t always sure what Jesus’ voice sounds like? Perhaps you can think of a time when you had a gut instinct or a feeling that you couldn’t shrug off, a strong pull, even, that God was trying to tell you something, leading you in a certain direction, or even saying to you, “No.” To listen to Jesus and to know his voice, we have to make space in our lives to pay attention to these feelings and instincts. We take time for weekly worship and daily prayer. We make space for even a tiny bit of quiet; we read and listen to what Jesus says in the Bible. We listen to the people in our lives who care about us, people we trust, who are also people of faith. It’s always a good idea to check out our instincts and God-thoughts with someone else.
We have to practice listening to Jesus, for the voice of the Good Shepherd, because as Jesus warns us, there are voices of wolves lurking about that are looking to steal, kill, and destroy. There are voices that try to tear us down, making us question our value and our values. There are voices that try to entice us to just buy this one more thing to make us happier, prettier, more energetic, more youthful, and so on instead of being satisfied with what we have. There are voices that try to divide us as believers, confusing partisan politics with religious convictions and putting labels on us of “far right”, “extreme left” “racist” or “socialist” rather than “Christian” for our primary identity. And the voice that concerns me the most is the voice that tries to convince us that we don’t need each other and we certainly don’t need God for a fulfilling, quality life with purpose. We need the voice of our Good Shepherd to lead us away from the distracting, destructive howls of the wolves.
The thing is, while we may hear some voices and have a hard time placing who they are at first, like I did with that Hemingway documentary, there are other voices we would know anywhere. The voice of Elvis or Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong or Judy Garland most of us would recognize right away. More intimately, we know the voice of our parents, our spouse, our children, our best friend. As a young mom, I remember being able to recognize in a crowd of kids my daughter’s particular cry, and which daughter’s cry when my second came along, and what that cry probably meant – hungry, tired, hurt, just whining for attention. And it doesn’t matter how old I get, if my mom takes a certain tone with me, I know just what she means by the sound of her voice. Jesus knows us and our voice that well, if not better.
Jesus the Good Shepherd promises us that “I know my own and my own know me.” With all kinds of voices shouting at us and seeking to draw our attention away from God, we have this assurance from Jesus that as his followers we will hear his voice above the noise. We may not hear it all of the time, but when we do, we will recognize it. We will know him. When we first fell in love, we couldn’t have predicted who it would be with, what they would look like, and how that relationship would end – in marriage or in heartbreak, but somehow, we knew love when we found it. In Jesus, we know love when we find it because God is love. Because of God’s love, we know his voice, and he knows ours. Jesus our Good Shepherd doesn’t just call us to follow his voice and listen to him, Jesus also promises that he knows us and will listen to us. It’s a two-way relationship. And that is why I think the image of the shepherd for Jesus is still a powerful one. We aren’t literally sheep, thank goodness, and most of us don’t know any sheep farmers. Nonetheless, we understand and need to know that God in Christ wants to be in a loving, caring relationship with each of us and bring us into a caring, loving relationship with each other. Jesus our Good Shepherd gathers us as the church into a community of care led by the powerful voice of one who with a word can dispel the darkness, scare off the wolves, calm our fears and even raise the dead. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus promises. Listen to his voice. Amen.