April 25, 2010 – 4th Sunday after Easter

Since two of our readings for today refer directly to a shepherd, I figured that this would be a good topic for a sermon, so I began to do some research into shepherds. Even though my family was for generations involved in sheep ranching down under, I have to confess that I didn’t really know much about it, being far removed from any kind of farm life. I knit, and I love eating lamb, and that is about my total involvement with sheep. As for shepherds – well, I can’t really say that I have ever met one in person.
Some of the things I found out were new to me. For instance, I had thought that, in ancient Israel, the main purpose of sheep was for sacrifice. We are always reading about lambs and goats being sacrificed for various reasons. We even refer to Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, and talk about how he was the willing sacrifice who made atonement for our sins. However, according to what I was able to find out, sheep were more highly praised for their wool than anything else.
In another part of the New Testament, Jesus says, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” In the middle east, at the time of Jesus and before, the sheep did indeed know the voice of their own shepherd, and would follow him where they were led. Even today, in smaller farms, this is true. And not only do sheep follow a familiar voice, they will flee from one which they do not recognize. They follow the voice of the one they know, and trust, the one who tends them carefully and would lay down his life for them. Given the importance of the sheep to the economy of Jesus’ time, it is not surprising that a shepherd would be prepared to do this. Because of this, and because most of the sheep were raised as wool producers, sheep tended to stay in a flock for a number of years, and developed a relationship with their shepherd. Because of this, and because of their trust in the shepherd, they would follow him wherever he would lead them – to, for instance, the still waters and green pastures spoken of in today’s Psalm, where they could be revived. Likewise, if we listen to the shepherd’s voice, and if we follow him, our souls will be revived.
However, it is not only to peaceful places that the shepherd leads his sheep. In order to arrive at a good place, at a place of rest, it was sometimes necessary to travel through dangerous territory, through the valley of the shadow of death. There, the shepherd’s rod and staff protect the flock from natural hazards and from the hazards spoken of in the Gospel reading – from the thieves and robbers who steal, kill, and destroy. The sheep must go out of the pen in order to find fresh pastures. They must leave their comfort zones, as, day after day, the shepherd calls them to find new places to feed. Out of the pen, there are risks, risks of getting lost or stolen or eaten by predators. But with the shepherd watching over them and guiding them, they can go anywhere.
God is never content to leave us in our safe places. God is always calling us, to new pastures, to new ministries, to new experiences. We can resist, and stay safely at home, but when we do, we are missing out on the promise of abundant life that Jesus shares with us. But we can’t experience this abundance from the safety of the pen. We must go out and take risks. However, we don’t go alone. The good Shepherd goes with us. So we have to decide if we will follow the voice, or if we will stay in the security of the pen. There is comfort in the familiar, and fear of the unknown, and it is easy to come up with excuses not to follow. What waits outside the pen is, indeed, full of risks and dangers, but it is also full of promise and pasture, joy and hope.
As most of you know, I used to be an English teacher, and poetry was probably my favourite thing to teach. One of the poems which I really loved was “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Just in case, you are not familiar with that poem, I will read it to you, and you should listen carefully, because there might be a pop quiz afterwards.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Life is full of choices to be made, and we need some kind of direction in making the right choices. Listening to the voice of the Shepherd will help us make our choices, help us decide which road to take. But which voice is the Shepherd’s?
Jesus says, “The sheep know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” The problem that we have today is in coming to recognize Jesus’ voice in the midst of the voices which surround us, calling us in every direction. Society tells us that we are called to be as successful as possible. Friends and family question our choices. To whom should we listen? How can we hear the voice of the good Shepherd in all the clamour of everyday life?
To answer this, let us take a look in the Old Testament, in 1 Kings, chapter 19, when Elijah was looking for the Lord. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. It was in this still, small voice that Elijah found God, and it is in the quiet times of our lives that we can hear God’s voice.
When we are surrounded by voices, this time of quiet becomes even more important. When each of the voices seems to be right, this time of quiet becomes essential, so that we can sift out what is true from what is false; what is wrong from what is right. And this is not as easy as it may seem, because often we, alone, cannot discern what we should believe. This is another time when we need to listen to the voice of the good Shepherd, when we must prayerfully discern what is being said. We cannot simply decide that those people who say what we do not want to hear are wrong, just as those people who say what we DO want to hear are right. Often, the opposite is true. Often, the words which soothe us are words of poison, while those which challenge us are the ones which will help us grow in Christ. Many people sound as though they are speaking with the voice of God, and we need to listen – critically and reflectively. It is not enough to say – uncritically, unreflectively – that what some people say in the name of the Lord is wrong. It is not enough to say – uncritically, unreflectively – that what some people say in the name of the Lord is right.
What we have to do is to listen to the voices around us, and those within us, and then, after prayerful reflection, after diligent study of God’s word, and after quiet and peaceful dialogue with others, ask ourselves, “What is Jesus telling me to do?”
A few years ago, there was a popular slogan – WWJD – which appeared on bracelets, T-shirts, and many other items. Of course, it meant “What Would Jesus Do”, and for a while, it seemed that you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing this. It seems to have fallen out of favour these days, but I believe that, if we listen to Jesus, we will know what he would do, and what he wants us to do. Ask yourself, what WOULD Jesus do? What is the Spirit telling me to do? What would Jesus do about the middle east? About same-sex unions? About hunger and HIV in the global south? About out of control consumerism, materialism, and secularism?
These questions can only be answered by us – and for us – as individuals and a congregation if we enter into a continuous relationship with the Lord and with each other. A relationship like that of sheep to the shepherd and sheep in a flock to each other. A relationship in which we spend time with one another, eating, listening, playing, listening, praying, listening, supporting each other, and did I mention listening? Even then, the answers we get may not be the ones we want or even the same answers that someone else gets. However, I think that we might be surprised at how often the answers are the same, when we all try, in good faith, to listen to the voice of Jesus. The important thing is not that we come up with THE answer, the definitive answer to any question we ask. It is that, in listening and in struggling with the issues, we live the answers that we have already been given by the Good Shepherd. If we look at the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, we will see the answers. Here, Paul wrote, “Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
Our Shepherd’s voice is clear about how we should act and how we should live. It is clear what our attitude should be towards others, whether we regard them as friends or as enemies. And if we have trouble figuring out exactly what the Shepherd is trying to tell us about issues within our families – and our society and our world – we will not be wrong if we just do what he has already told us. If we trust that, no matter what happens, no matter what the valley of the shadow of death we find ourselves in is like, no matter what dangers surround us, that if we keep following the voice we already know, the voice we recognize, the voice we have already heard, that our Shepherd will keep us safe and bring us to God’s house, where we will dwell forever.
If we listen to and follow the voice of the Shepherd in little things, the things that show how we ought to love God and how we ought to love each other, and if we devote ourselves as the early church did after the first Pentecost to following Jesus’ teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread together and to prayer, then we will discern ever more clearly what God is saying, and we will know what God wants us to do. And, as an added bonus, we will find within ourselves, a peace that passes all understanding, a peace that endures, even when thieves and robbers try to steal it away, a peace that brings glory to God because others see it in us. Thanks be to God.

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