“My sheep know my voice,” says Jesus. “My sheep know my voice”.
My brother is a shepherd, so I always love preaching on the shepherd texts in John’s Gospel. His sheep are fairly brainless, as sheep go, but they do eventually learn to recognise his car, and that of the other shepherds, and their response to those cars is quite different from their response to, say, my father’s car. They know when they see those particular cars, they’ll get fed, or looked at, or moved to a new pasture, or something nice.
However, some years ago now there was a foot-and-mouth epidemic, and you weren’t allowed to move your stock at all without permission. So the sheep were stuck in one field, from which they had eaten all the grass, and were bored and restless. Sometime around then, we drove past in my father’s car, and their reaction was as if we had been my brother – they came rushing up, bleating, hoping for something nice to happen.
This Gospel reading always reminds me of that incident. Jesus says "My sheep know my voice". My brother's sheep obviously did not know who was their shepherd, and were quick to run after any passing car or person who might have been able to move them to another field. Normally they knew, but because they were stuck and hungry and bored, they wanted anybody or anything to be their shepherd.
So I wonder, how is it that we know the Shepherd's voice, and what does it mean in practice?
How is it, then, that we know the Shepherd's voice. I think there are two reasons. The first is that He speaks to us; the second is that we listen to Him.
He speaks to us. Well, in one sense that's somewhat of a no-brainer, as the Americans so graphically put it. We are told, from our earliest days as Christians, that God speaks to us through the Bible, and through other people, and even, although we must be careful, through our own imaginations. But being told it and knowing it seem to be two different things! Of course, there are times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, times when we know we are His, held in His arms - or round his neck, the way shepherd today will still carry a young sheep. It is, my brother tells me, far and away the easiest way to carry a sheep, but it does make nasty stains down the front of your jacket!
Sorry, that was a diversion, where was I? Oh yes, we have all known times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, but, of course, we have all known those other times, too; times when God seems far away, when our prayers go no further than the ceiling, when, so far from hearing God's voice, we wonder whether, in fact, our whole faith has been based on a delusion! I'm sure we've all been there and done that, too!
Now, it's traditional to be told that when those times happen, it is our fault. We have stopped listening, we are told, we have gone our own way, we have sinned. And, of course, some of the time that is exactly what has happened, even if some preachers do make it sound like God isn't talking to us any more because we've offended him! I think, rather, it is we who cannot hear the voice of God when we are uncomfortable in God's presence. But usually when that has happened we know that is what the matter is, and sooner or later we admit this to ourselves, and to God, and things come all right again.
But some of the time, with the best will in the world, we know we have not sinned, and it really doesn't seem to be our fault. Times when everything goes pear-shaped, and you wonder where on earth God is in the middle of it all? And part of you knows that this is exactly where God is - in the middle of it all - but that part is operating on sheer faith. You can't sense God's presence, or hear the Shepherd's voice at all, no matter how hard you listen.
It happens to all of us, probably more often than we care to admit. Again, preachers have various explanations for it, and you've probably heard them as often as I have. That God is testing our faith, as though God didn't know how strong our faith actually is. Actually, of course, God does know, but we don't necessarily, and it can be a salutary shock to us!
The thing is, of course, that we don't understand, can't understand, why these things happen. God is God, not just another person like us, and it's not possible to understand. We don't know why we suddenly seem to lose the ability to hear God's voice, and why, even worse, we suddenly seem to lose all sense of God, and seem to simply be going through the motions.
The fact that it's almost universal, that almost every Christian goes through it from time to time must mean that it is normal. But I don't know why it happens, and I don't altogether accept the explanations as to why. I think it's just "part of the human condition", or, if you prefer, "part of the mystery of faith", and we must accept it as such.
There are times when we just don't understand what God is doing, and that's okay, too. My brother had a very good reason that year for not moving his sheep to a new field, no matter how much he wanted to move them, and how much they wanted to be moved. He wasn't allowed to by the Government, because of foot-and-mouth precautions. And you try explaining that to sheep! And since God is even further beyond us than we are from real sheep, how could we be expected to understand what constraints He has?
Sometimes, of course, the matter seems urgent, when we want to know what God wants us to do, and yet God simply doesn't seem to answer. The more we pray, the less we know what to do, and the quieter God seems to get. It's so frustrating! And we rage and rampage and know no peace.
Or those times when something simply dreadful has happened - when someone has died prematurely, or killed in an accident, or beaten up by thugs, or any or all of the dreadful things that can and do happen nowadays. We wonder where on earth God is, we ask how a loving God can allow such dreadful things to happen, we cannot hear God's voice.
In our reading from Acts, the believers in Joppa were despairing – Tabitha was dead. Tabitha, who had been the first to lead her community in good works – how were they going to manage without her? Where was God in this? The voice of the Shepherd seemed to have disappeared from their universe.
But they sent for Peter, who brought them God’s voice, and who brought healing to Tabitha, enabling her to carry on with God’s work.
This is rare, of course. Mostly, when people die, they stay dead! We grieve, and we know that God grieves with us, even though sometimes it feels as though all trace of Him has vanished from our universe.
Jesus says "My sheep hear My voice". It is a given. There are no ifs, buts and ands. He says "My sheep hear My voice". We do hear His voice. Even when we think we don't. Often, when seeking guidance, we know in our hearts that a given path might probably be wrong. Or wrong for us, if not intrinsically wrong. And when something dreadful happens, it is God's heart, I think, which is often the first to break.
We, of course, behave like sheep from time to time. We think we do not hear the voice of the Shepherd, so we rush after any and every passing thing that looks as though it might be the Shepherd. Just as my brother's sheep ran after my father’s car, hoping that we were coming to move them to a better field. Is this the right Shepherd, we ask ourselves, rushing to find out. And sometimes, in the process, we get ourselves badly lost. We find that the better field was no such thing.
But remember our Lord's story about the lost sheep? When we do get lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to pull on Barbour and Wellies forthwith, and head out to find us. "No one will snatch them out of my hand," Jesus said. And earlier in the chapter, in the part we didn't read, he reminds us that not only do we know him, and hear his voice, but he knows 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."
So even if we, or someone we care about, has gone off down the wrong track and got lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to come and find us again.
Because the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us, is come "that they may have life and have it abundantly". Abundantly.
So when we get to a time where we seem not to hear His voice, a time when we look round and He seems to have vanished, let's not panic. Let's not assume it was all our fault - it might have been, but not necessarily. Let's not abandon all idea of Christianity, of churchgoing, of being God's person. Instead, let's sit and wait, calling out to God in prayer, but accepting the silence, trusting that one day the Good Shepherd will come and find us, and say "There you are! Come on, I'll take you back to the rest!" Amen.
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