Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
There are certain sounds and voices in our lives that we hear differently than all the others. Walk around with anyone who loves to bird watch, and you'll know immediately what I mean. You can be having a perfectly normal conversation about something and all of a sudden they've stopped walking; stopped listening to the conversation; it is almost as if they have tuned everything out, because what they've heard is a bird they've been looking for; or a rare bird they've only hear recordings of; or a favorite bird. And when they hear that bird call, they stop and listen and look-- because they are attuned to listening for the sounds they love.
When I was growing up our neighbor, Rick, used to go out with the other boys in the neighborhood, including my brother, to play touch football in the afternoon. They would stay out as late as they could. But each evening, as dusk grew darker and darker, Rick’s dad would walk out onto his deck, put two fingers in his mouth, a blow. The loudest, shrillest, whistle I have ever heard would come forth and within five minutes Rick would at his house, and my brother would walk in the door. Rick's ear was tuned in to that whistle-- even in the middle of a football game.
In smoke alarms now there are some companies that have an option where you can program your own voice. What they’ve found is that children won’t wake up to loud beeping when there’s a fire, but if they hear their parents’ voice yell, “Get out of the house, there’s a fire!” children will wake up and follow the directions. The trust built between parent and child will get them out of the house when they hear their voice, even if they don't see them.
In our Scripture this morning, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd. He says that a shepherd knows his sheep by name and when he goes out, they follow him because they know his voice. He says that the sheep will not follow a stranger, and then he warns about thieves that come in to steal at night— those who bring destruction instead of life— and it makes me wonder-- how do we know Jesus' voice?
Even though we began at the beginning of a chapter today in the Gospel of John, we are actually in the middle of a story— a story we read during Lent. Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. The religious leaders of the day are upset about this. If they’re honest with themselves, they’re probably upset because Jesus is gaining followers and credibility by doing such miraculous things. But they say they’re upset because he healed him on the Sabbath which was against Jewish law. And as the Pharisees go back and forth trying to find someway to discredit Jesus, they end up throwing the man who has been healed out of the temple and that is where Jesus finds him. And it is here that the now-sighted man recognizes Jesus’ voice— remember he’s never seen him before— and he begins to worship Jesus.
So it is in the context of this healing story, in which a man born blind depended on his hearing in order to know which voices to listen to, that Jesus then turns to the Pharisees who have thrown the man out and says to them, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in another way is a thief and a bandit.”
I don't know if Jesus is meaning to refer to the Pharisees as thieves and bandits, but it doesn't seem like too big of a leap. After all, they are the ones casting people out; they are the ones who judge whether someone is clean enough to be in the temple or whether they have to stay out; they are the ones whose voices people would think would reflect God's will, and yet they are the ones that are upset with the way Jesus is doing things-- because he's not following the rules; he's hanging out with people they think are unfit; he's widening the circle of who's in and who's out, and there doesn't seem to be anyone who's too far out to experience God's grace.
Let's take a minute and walk back through the stories in the Gospel of John so far. What happens to those who listen to Jesus? At a wedding in Cana, water turns to wine when the wedding steward listens to Jesus. At Jacob’s well a foreign woman receives new life when she listens to Jesus. In Bethzatha a paralyzed man gets up and walks. And in the chapter after this one, Lazarus is called from his own tomb. The people who listen to Jesus’ voice, are the ones who are finding new life in ways they never imagined. The circle of who can receive God's grace and love is getting wider and wider-- including foreigners and Roman soldiers and people who believe the wrong things and even the dead! No one is outside of where God's love will go.
Back in the WWI era, a young man applied for a job as a Morse code operator. He answered the ad in the newspaper and went to the address listed. He entered a large, noisy office with a telegraph clicking in the background. A sign at the counter instructed all job applicants to fill out the form and wait until they were called to enter the inner office. The young man completed his form and sat down where seven other applicants were waiting. After a few minutes, he got up, went to the door to the inner office and walked right in.
The other applicants were wondering what was happening. A few minutes later the young man came out from the inner office escorted by the interviewer. The interviewer said, “Gentlemen, the job has been filled by this young man.” Grumbling, one of them spoke up,“Wait a minute—He was the last one to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair!” The employer responded, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ He heard it and followed, so we gave him the job.
If we take Jesus outside of his context and think of him in this passage as talking to all the people of the world—Christians and non-Christians alike—and chastising those who do not know his voice and praising those who know his voice, I think we will have missed the point. Jesus is talking to those who are supposed to know God’s voice. He is talking to the religious leaders who are trained in prayer and fasting and the laws of Moses. They are like the morse code operators who sit and wait and sit and wait to be called because they think they are following the right set of rules, and then Jesus just walks through the door because he is listening on a deeper level. He wants the Pharisees to understand that the rules they have been following, the rules that have become like god to them, are not the way to have abundant life. Keeping people from being healed because it is Sabbath, is not abundant life. Making rules about who’s in and who’s out based on their health or their status or their wealth is not abundant life. Creating isolation between people as a way to know who’s righteous and who’s not, is not abundant life. Those are all barriers; walls; fences that they have built that are getting in the way of people experiencing God’s love.
When we listen well to Jesus’ voice, then we are able to hear clearly that violence will not bring life; war will not solve problems; hoarding does no one any good; contempt for our enemies is not in any way loving. When we listen well to Jesus’ voice in our lives, then the other voices of fear, of shame, of greed, of addiction, of manipulation— whether from others around us or even the voices right inside of our head— are revealed for what they are— thieves, coming to steal our lives. And it's not just you and I that Jesus is concerned for-- this metaphor also reminds us of another shepherd Jesus tells us about in Luke-- a shepherd that lost one sheep out of 100 and spent the rest of the night searching for that one sheep to be found. When we listen to Jesus, when we follow Christ's voice, than we will find that not only do we have abundant life, but so does everyone else. The Pharisees were concerned for themselves-- and the criticism Jesus has is that they are living abundantly while others are hungry. Jesus invites us to listen to his voice and live abundantly by doing as he did-- widening the circle; crossing boundaries; reaching out to our neighbors— until we all have abundant life in Christ!