Summary: Sheep know their shepherd’s voice. Does our behavior show that we are Jesus’ sheep?
Do Sheep hear their shepherd’s voice?
There is a story told about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Apparently, sometime after being president for a very long time, he got tired of smiling that trade-mark Roosevelt smile and saying the trade-mark Roosevelt things at all those White House receptions. So, one evening he decided to find out whether anybody was really listening to anything he was saying. As each person came up to him and extended his hand, he would flash that big smile and said, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." People would automatically respond with comments like "How lovely!" or "Just continue your great work!"
Nobody listened to what he was actually saying, except for one foreign diplomat. When the president said, "I murdered my grandmother this morning," the diplomat responded softly, "I’m SURE she had it coming." [hat tip to Dennis Deese]
This story points us to the primary application of today’s gospel lesson. In it, Jesus applies to himself a metaphor that provides, without question, the most popular pictures of Jesus among Christians over the centuries – Jesus, the shepherd of the sheep. But, that picture – the one that you have no doubt seen in countless Sunday School booklets and on hundreds of walls in Sunday School rooms and pastors’ offices – that picture AS A PICTURE is somewhat beside the point. For, when Jesus begins to expound the metaphor, it is not the merely visual or sentimental dimensions he mentions. Instead, he zeros in on one aspect of the way a shepherd relates to his sheep – his voice, which, Jesus says, is known to the sheep, so that by the voice alone they will follow him. Or, as the case may be, will flee from who calls them in a voice that does not belong to the shepherd.
President Roosevelt might reasonably have expected people who heard him announce his murdering of his grandmother to flinch in shock. But, they did not. Jesus clearly expects his sheep to flee when they hear a voice that is not his, but guess what? They many, many times do not. Instead, they are like the people in Roosevelt’s receiving line – hearing the most outrageous statement and saying “How lovely!” No one was actually listening to the President. And, today, many Christians are not listening to Jesus.
We are 2,000 years removed from the incident recorded here in John’s gospel, and this poses for us an additional problem for us. When Jesus gave this teaching, he was physically present for those to whom he was speaking. Today he is not. And, contrary to what many Christians fondly suppose, I do not think Jesus speaks in an audible voice from heaven; at least not routinely. He could, but I know from his own teaching that he much, much prefers another way.
So, to put it bluntly for us today – if we are sheep of his sheepfold, how do we hear his voice?
We begin our answer with the context of Jesus’ teaching here in John’s gospel. This gospel lesson is actually the middle of one of those confrontations between Jesus and the religious leadership of Israel. In John chapter nine, Jesus had just restored sight to a man who was born blind, and it occasioned a lot of consternation among the Pharisees, who immediately challenged him.
Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson today were said to these Pharisees. He first spoke to them in a parable, in terms that they obviously would understand – the way in which sheep follow the voice of their shepherd, but flee from the voice of thieves and robbers. The people to whom these words apply are all present – Jesus, the Pharisees, and the man born blind, who has just begun to worship Jesus. In fact, this man is THE example of a sheep acting as sheep should act – he has just previously refused to follow the lead of the Pharisees who wanted him to condemn Jesus; and when he finally confronts Jesus face to face, he worships him. More to the point, it is not his sight, but his hearing that shows he is a sheep of the true shepherd. Before Jesus identifies himself, the man born blind does not know what Jesus looks like! So, it is in response to what Jesus SAYS that he falls at Jesus’ feet and worships.
Here, I think, is a very practical point of contact between each one of us here today and the man born blind. Imagine, for a moment, that Jesus were to walk into this sanctuary, say, as he did when he made his first post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. When he appeared to them, they recognized him by sight. He looked like the Jesus they had known before the crucifixion. But, if Jesus were to walk through that door and come into our midst, I am confident that none of us would recognize him, for the same reason that the man born blind didn’t recognize him. We have never seen Jesus in the flesh. We don’t know what he looks like. So, how do you suppose we would recognize the Lord today, assuming he were to walk through that door back there? Jesus tells us it is by what he would say – his voice. And, I don’t think we’re talking about the mere qualities of a human voice, for we haven’t any experience of that either – I don’t know if Jesus spoke with a deep baritone, or a lilting tenor voice. or something in between.