(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 4/17/2016)
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
I remember when my fiancé Lauren and I were in college, one of our regular prayers was for a Divine Billboard to show up in front of us. We were having a great time in college-I was working on my music degree, she was working on her biology degree. But when we thought of life after college, it was kind of scary. We were both in a time of discerning the way forward in our lives, what God wanted each of us to do with our majors, what God wanted our life after college to look like-lots of those kinds of questions. So we would regularly ask God for a Divine Billboard to drop down from the sky outside of our apartment complex at ONU, one that said
“Andy and Lauren, this is what I want you to do with your lives-God.”
We had this feeling that our lives were moving forward inevitably, but God wasn’t really directing us or speaking to us. We were afraid that we were missing God’s voice, that we weren’t listening right. So we thought all of that would be solved if there would just be a Divine Billboard with God’s plan for our life written on it, something that we couldn’t miss even if we tried. We thought it would be sooooooo much easier. It would take the guesswork out of this whole following Jesus thing.
Have any of you ever felt the same thing? Maybe at some point in your life you’ve been at a crossroads in your life. You’ve had a big decision to make, and all of the options look equally good (or equally bad), and you have no idea what to choose. Maybe you’re at that point in your life right now. Wouldn’t a Divine Billboard make everything easier?
Maybe you’re thinking “Why is God not speaking to me? Am I not listening well enough? Is God still speaking?”
I think our Scripture from John really speaks to that.
At that time, the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one. (John 10:22-30, CEB)
So we have this story of Jesus walking through the temple when John says “Jewish opposition,” probably Pharisees and temple authorities, stopped him with a big question. “If you’re the Messiah, if you’re the God-sent, God-ordained savior of our people, why don’t you tell us plainly?!” Now I think we can all sympathize with the authorities asking Jesus this question, right? They’re asking for a Divine billboard from Jesus saying
“I AM THE MESSIAH YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.”
Now, to us it might seem strange that the opposition didn’t believe Jesus or didn’t listen to him, right? They tell Jesus to tell them plainly whether or not he’s the Messiah, and Jesus says “I’ve told you, but you don’t believe. All the works I’ve done, all the miracles, they prove my status as God’s Son, the Messiah, but you still don’t believe.” The authorities, those who opposed Jesus couldn’t understand Jesus’ clear signs because they weren’t listening. But Jesus was literally in their midst-how could they not hear or understand?! That’s better than a Divine Billboard, that’s Jesus himself, right in front of you!
I think it was because they were looking for someone different than Jesus. Jerusalem, Judea, all the surrounding territory, was under the power of the Roman Empire, and the Jewish people hated it-they wanted freedom. So when they looked at the prophecies about a Messiah or a Savior for the Jewish people, some of which we have in our Old Testament, they were picturing a military Messiah, someone who would come in and kick Rome’s butt, get them out of here.
But there’s a problem-Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus doesn’t come as a warrior. Jesus comes as a shepherd. The Good Shepherd. You heard Psalm 23 read earlier. [Online only readers: Psalm 23] Many people, including myself, see a beautiful image of Jesus in that Psalm. But that Jesus is far from the military Messiah that those who opposed Jesus were looking for. Jesus the good shepherd “lets me rest in grassy meadows, leads me to restful waters, restores my soul.” “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff-they protect me.” This image is not of a God who comes in, guns blazing, to rescue us and pull us out of the dark valley and gets rid of the enemy.
I think that Jesus as a Good Shepherd would be an image of the Messiah, the Divine Savior, that would be inexcusably passive to a people who are suffering under the oppression of Rome. But this is the image that Jesus gives them. So they don’t want to listen to it.
Now, it would be easy for us to make the opposition to Jesus the bad guys and say “Well, we listen to Jesus so much better today.” But I think we can really understand why they didn’t listen to Jesus because…we don’t listen to Jesus for the same reason they didn’t listen.
To put it plainly-we want a Jesus who is like us.
We want a Jesus who is white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, American.
We want a Jesus who follows the same political party as us…
who supports the same wars as us…
who vilifies the same people as us…
We don’t want to listen to a Jesus who is not made in our image.
And we’ve gone further than that. Not only do we only look for a Jesus who looks like us, we’ve fashioned a world that makes it almost impossible to hear anything besides what we want to hear.
We surround ourselves with people who think and believe and behave only like we do-Get those liberals away from me, I’m not going to listen to them! My liberal friends say “Get those conservatives away from me, I’m not going to listen to them!” My moderate friends say “Get both of them away from me, I won’t listen to either of them!”
The Internet, and all of our electronic devices, they’re all great tools, but they can take over our lives. Too often, I find myself enslaved to my iPhone, not able to listen to anything.
And we, as a people, are so driven by achievement and work and earning our way and clawing our way to the top that we’ve lost the concept of rest. We’re controlled by our workaholism, leaving little space for anything else, almost no space to listen to anything except that incessant mean little voice telling us to do more, create more, earn more.
But Christ says “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Are we Christ’s sheep? Do we listen to his voice?
Do we find ourselves asking questions like “Why doesn’t God speak to me? Is God silent? I hear the stories from the Bible and from other spiritual giants in our time about God speaking to them. Why doesn’t God speak to me like that?”
The only answer I have to that question is this: Are you really listening?
You who want so badly to hear from the God you worship, are you even able to listen?
Is there room in your life for the voice of the Good Shepherd?
Or are you too busy listening for a different Jesus, one who fits your preconceptions, one who only speaks to you when it is convenient with your schedule, one who doesn’t require you to turn down or turn off all the other voices around you?
Are you really trying to listen?
Now the next question we’ve gotta ask is “How are we to listen in a world full of noise and distractions?”
Has anyone ever seen the TV show Smallville? I was crazy about it in junior high and high school. It’s basically a show about Superman when he’s just Clark Kent, a mild mannered high school student. The show starts when he’s a freshman in high school, and his super powers are gradually developing as Clark matures. In one episode, Clark’s trying to get control of his new power of super-hearing. So his father takes him into the barn, they turn on all the machines, tools, farm equipment, anything that makes a bunch of noise. Then Clark stands at one side of the barn and his Dad stands at the other side. Clark’s dad then whispers something from across the barn, under all of that noise. Clark has to focus his hearing so that he can hear his Dad whispering over all of the other sounds surrounding him.
You see, the Resurrected Christ is still speaking to us, but we must learn how to listen. Now the question is, how do we do learn how to do that? How do we develop within ourselves the ability to listen to Christ our Shepherd in the midst of the craziness we call life?
It’s not some magic formula.
It’s all about a regular practice of our spiritual disciplines.
It’s all about taking time out of your day to care for your own soul each day.
Study the Scriptures; intentionally set aside a period of time every day to spend in prayer, meditation, contemplation.
Don’t just do this on the go, don’t just pray in the midst of everything else in your life. That’s not bad, but it’s not enough.Your soul is starved.
Carve out time in your day to spend with God, developing a stillness in yourself. Spend it studying and meditating on the Scriptures and spend it in prayer and reflection, learning how to listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd.
There are so many voices in our lives vying for our attention. But the truth I hear Jesus saying here is that the voice of our Good Shepherd is the most important one.
If we don’t listen for that voice, none of the other voices matter.
Christ our shepherd leads us, his sheep, to good pastures, clean water, makes us lie down in green meadows. Christ leads us on the path to life, the path we can’t find on our own. Because we can’t lead ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to follow anything we think to be our shepherd’s voice unthinkingly and uncritically. But if we put our focus and our energies on listening to and discerning this voice, we can be certain that our shepherd’s voice will lead us to true life.