(A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter based on John 10:1-18)
Even as we worship here today, thousands of people are out at the Augusta National golf course watching the final round of the Masters Tournament. People take different approaches to the experience. Some just walk the course, seeing what and who they can see. Others park themselves at a particular hole and watch all the golfers play that hole. Others, though, follow their favorite golfer. Tiger Woods fans will follow him all day long; Phil Mickelson fans will follow him all day long; if Arnold Palmer were still playing, Arnie’s Army would follow him all day long. The nice South African lady that we met on Saturday may well follow her countryman Trevor Immelman although Retief Goosen is her favorite.
Who knows why someone likes one golfer more than other?
But we do know why we follow Jesus Christ. We follow Jesus Christ because we are Easter people. We follow him because he is the resurrected Lord. We follow him because in some way we are compelled to follow him. We follow him because in him we find life. We follow him because in him we find God. And, as Jesus said in our text, we follow him because we know his voice: “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
How well do we know his voice? Now, our hearing of his voice is first a matter of the mystery that we call grace. Jesus said of the shepherd, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v. 3b). He calls our name and we hear his call and he leads us out and we are thus a member of his flock. We chalk up such to the amazing grace of God. It may not be far from right to say that we hear his voice because he allows us to hear his voice.
But having heard his voice and having entered into his salvation, we are to keep hearing his voice and to keep following him. That raises questions, though. How do we know his voice? How well do we hear his voice and then follow him?
How do we know his voice?
We could talk here about the avenues through which we hear his voice, such as the Spirit, prayer, experience, the written Word, and the Christian community, and that would be valid.
I am more interested today in content. Based on what we read here in John 10 and on the overall witness of the Bible, I believe that we can say that the authentic voice of Jesus speaks to us of matters of life.
Jesus speaks to us of the totality of life. We therefore follow Jesus in all the events of our lives. In our passage, Jesus mixed his metaphors. He described himself as both the shepherd of the sheep and as the gate of the sheep. So he said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (v. 9). To be “saved” is to have life in God; it is to have life in all the ways that God intends it. That salvation encompasses all of life, both in this world and the next.
So we are hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us about every aspect of our lives. A chronic problem that some of us have is that we try to block off some aspects of our lives from the guidance of Jesus. It might be the work part of our life or the relationships part of our life or the money part of our life or the thought part of our life or some other part of our life. We need to understand and accept, though, that in Jesus we find life that encompasses all of our life. He is our Lord in our coming in and our going out. He is Lord in everything that we do.
We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us about his constant care for us. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus cares deeply for his sheep. In him we find pasture. In him we find everything we need for the living of life. He knows us and loves us and takes care of us. He is always with us and he makes sure that we have what is necessary for life—particularly the grace and love of God. If you hear a voice saying that you are not loved and cared for, it is not your Shepherd’s voice.
We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us of his sacrifice for us. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11). Elsewhere Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus laid down his life voluntarily out of love for and obedience to his Father and out of love and compassion for his flock. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again,” he said (v. 18b). The way to his life-giving victory was through his sacrifice.
We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking of us about the expanding nature of the Christian community. He said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (v. 16). Commentators are not in agreement as to who these “other sheep” were in the context of John’s Gospel; most think that the reference is either to members of the Jewish diaspora or to Gentiles. While I tend toward the Gentile explanation, the point either way is that God’s salvation and membership in the Christian community is for people beyond whatever our little circle is. The voice of Jesus does not say that his love and life are for just “these” or just “those.” It says that his love and life are for all who will.
How do we follow him?
How do we, the sheep, follow the voice of such a shepherd?
We follow the voice of Jesus when we submit the totality of our lives to him. After all, he is Lord of everything about our lives. He is our Lord in this life and he is our Lord in the next. There is nothing in life or in death or in life after death that our salvation in him does not change and affect. The way to have abundant life (v. 10) is to follow him in and through the in and out, up and down, and backward and forward of our lives. We still have to live our lives; Jesus does not lead us out of them. But he leads us to live them in ways that come to look more and more like his ways.
Make no mistake about: every part of our lives is to submitted to him. In the film There Will Be Blood, turn of the twentieth century oilman Daniel Plainview desperately wants to build a pipeline from his oilfields to the California coast. The only thing standing in his way is one plot of ground that he has not been able to lease. The owner of the land eventually agrees to lease it to Plainview on the condition that Plainview be baptized into the church. Plainview is subjected to a humiliating conversion ritual at the conclusion of which he is baptized. You get the idea that he almost has a breakthrough in which he could have moved toward becoming a whole human being. But the first words out of his mouth following his baptism are, “There’s my pipeline.” Now, an oilman ought to submit his pipelines and every other aspect of his business to the Lord. Real submission, though, is not looking for the angle. It is looking for life.
We follow the voice of Jesus when we accept his care for us and share it with others. Having experienced the grace of God, our first thought and assumption can be that Jesus cares for us utterly and completely. He cherishes us, nurtures us, and watches over us. We will still have difficult times and challenging experiences, but our tendency toward anxiety should be lessened by the knowledge that Jesus cares about us.
In a flock of sheep, all of the sheep are dependent on the shepherd and I don’t expect that the sheep try to help each other and I certainly wouldn’t look for a sheep to help some animal from outside the flock. But we are human beings who have hearts, minds, and hands. And so we are capable of taking the Shepherd’s care for us and converting it into active care for others. The joy we have in his care is multiplied when we do so.
We follow the voice of Jesus when we live the sacrificial life. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, his sheep. He bids us to follow him. We are called to lay down our lives for one another. We are called to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. We have heard his voice and followed well when we live sacrificial lives.
We follow the voice of Jesus when we live toward the expansion of the Christian community. Jesus commissioned us, his followers, to reach out to all those who are out there who need to come into his flock. That means thinking beyond our own fold; it means thinking past the categories that we establish and over the walls that we build. It means living faithfully and loving radically and reaching out gladly.
Yes, they’re out there today, following their favorite golfers. We’re in here today, promising and trying again to follow Jesus. We’ll leave here in a few minutes and re-enter the world. Will we know his voice when we hear it? Will we follow his voice by following his example?