(Based on John 10:7-18)
Today we continue our series “Hearing God’s Voice” and throughout this series we look at the Bible’s picture of the relationship between Jesus and his followers and how it describes that relationship as being like that of a Middle Eastern shepherd and his sheep, where the shepherd directs the sheep, not with a fence and not with force, but with the sound of his voice. As Jesus said in John, chapter 10: 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28) So the Bible is telling us that the normal pattern for a follower of Jesus is to able to hear his voice. And my prayer is that this series will help you to do just that.
So today we are thinking about the Shepherd’s Voice and our three points for today are Hearing, Listening and Following.
So we begin with Hearing and our first question is “How does God speak to humans?” Let’s start by taking a look at the book of Genesis to see how God spoke to humans there, and as we do that please keep in mind that at this point in human history there is no Bible. When we study the book of Genesis, we are reading a written word from God, but the people that we are reading about did not have any written word from God to read. And that is important to remember.
As we take a quick overview of Genesis, we notice that there are at least five different ways that God spoke to humans during this time frame. God spoke directly to Adam, Eve, the serpent, Noah and Abraham. God spoke through circumstances, (in Genesis chapter 12) such as when he allowed serious diseases to come upon Pharaoh and his household to communicate to Pharaoh that Sarah, who he took into his harem, was actually Abraham’s wife, an important piece of information that Abraham withheld from Pharaoh. In the book of Genesis, God appeared in human form, such as the three men who appeared to Abraham near Mamre (in chapter 18), and the man that wrestled with Jacob wrestles near the Jabbok River (in chapter 32). God spoke through dreams to Abraham (chapter 15), Abimelek, (ch. 20), Jacob (ch. 28) and Joseph (ch. 37). And God also spoke through angels. The word angel means messenger so, for example, there were two angels that brought a message of warning to Lot before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (ch. 19).
All of the information in the book of Genesis was passed down from generation to generation as an oral history and at some point, about 35 centuries ago, Moses began writing down that oral history. Moses was probably able to do that writing task because of the education that he received as he was raised in the household of Pharaoh. Moses also recorded the history that happened during his lifetime and so those other books that he wrote—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—along with Genesis, formed the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible.
From this point in history onward, God started speaking to humans in a new way: through written words which he inspired people to write down and pass on to others. Over time these writings were gathered together and compiled into what we know as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
God also spoke through a special group of people called prophets. We often think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future. But a prophet in the biblical sense is someone who speaks a message from God to people. Many of these messages from God were written down and included in the Old Testament of the Bible. Books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Jonah and several others all contain messages from God given to people through a prophet.
One of the unexpected ways that God spoke in the Old Testament was through a donkey owned by a man named Balaam. This is a fact which gives preachers like me great hope, for if God can speak through a donkey, then it is possible for him to speak through me also. But, as far as we know, God only spoke through a donkey one time, and so we preachers continue to pray that God will speak through us, not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are.
Another thing that may surprise some people is that in the past there have been times when God has spoken through people who do not believe in him. In the Old Testament, we have the example of Cyrus, king of Persian. In Ezra 1:1-3, we read,
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. (Ezra 1:1-3)
So through Cyrus, God gave a very clear message through someone who did not believe in nor follow the God of Israel. In the New Testament, we have the example of Pilate’s wife who sent her husband this message as he was about to pronounce judgment on Jesus, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Mt. 27:19b)
Most significantly for us today, starting about 2,000 years ago, human beings began hearing the voice of God through the God-human, Jesus Christ. We read in Hebrews 1, In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2) As Jesus speaks to us through the Bible and through the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, he tells us that he loves us, forgives us, accepts us, renews us, enlivens us and heals us.
So God can speak to us in many different ways, but the main way that he speaks to us is through his Word, the Bible. That is one way that we can know with certainty that God is speaking to us. And when we may wonder if God is speaking to us through another way, we always compare what we are hearing to the Bible to see if what are hearing lines up with what God has already said to us in the past.
Our second question under Hearing is “How do we hear God speak to us?” Most of the time God does not speak to us with an audible voice that we hear with our ears. Usually, he speaks to us spirit-to-spirit. When Jesus gave us the give of faith in him through the Holy Spirit, he brought our spirit to life. Prior to the time when we believed, we had a spirit, but it was dead. Jesus brought our spirit to life, and Jesus now communicates to us from his Spirit to our spirit. Regardless of what way Jesus speaks to us—whether it is when we read or hear the Bible, or when a mature Christian friend gives us some thoughtful advice, or when something significant happens in the circumstances of our life, or we use our common sense, or when a thought comes upon us—whichever way Jesus speaks to us, that message is communicated to our spirit and that is where it will land. Our spirit is how we receive messages from God.
So it is very important that our spirit be healthy for two reasons: 1. So we can hear with our spirit, and 2. So we can discern whether what we hear is from God or not. To use the Shepherd and sheep metaphor, we sheep not only need to be able to hear someone speak to us. We need to be able to tell if the voice we hear belongs to our Shepherd or someone else.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Here it comes. The pastor is going to give me something else that I need to do in my life. And I don’t have any extra time or energy to do one more thing.” I can see what you might be thinking that. But what I actually going to say is the opposite. Becoming more spiritually healthy usually does not mean adding more things to your already busy life. Most of the time, what is required is to take away something from our already over-busy lives. Too much noise and too much activity can actually draw health, life and energy away from our spirit. So what our spirit usually needs to become more healthy is to turn off whatever noise is in our lives, take a time-out from the frantic activity we are engaged in and be still and know that God is God (see Psalm 46:10). We are better able to hear Jesus and discern whether or not it is his voice we are hearing when we are spiritually healthy.
So this might be a good time to practice hearing Jesus’s voice. I invite you to pray and ask Jesus to tell you one thing that you can do in your life to help your spirit to become healthier. After you pray, take a few moments to sit in silence with your heart and mind open to whatever Jesus wants to say to you. And if something comes to your mind, I ask you to take note of what it is.
Okay, now Jesus may have said something to you or he may not have. One of the things about hearing his voice is that we cannot force Jesus to speak to us. He speaks to us when he wants to and often he speaks to us at a time when we do not expect. So if you did not get any sense of Jesus communicating something to you, do not be concerned about that at all. But if Jesus did tell you something that you can do to help your spirit become healthier, I invite you to share what Jesus has told you with another Jesus follower.
Our second main point is Listening. And there is a difference between hearing and listening. And every mother knows this. For example, a teenage son may hear his mother calling out to him to clean up his room, but if he doesn’t pay any attention to the sound that he hears, is he really listening? No. So there is a difference between hearing from God, which happens when our spirit receives a message, and listening to God, which happens when we pay attention to the message that our spirit has received.
And when it comes to paying attention, our motivation becomes very important. What motivates us, or what are the reasons why we should pay attention to what God is saying? First of all, there are negative reasons regarding why we should pay attention to what God is saying. In other words, there are reasons why you do not want to not listen to God. And to get at those reasons, let us look at John 10:7-10a
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a]They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; (John 10:7-10a)
I believe that everybody is listening, that is, everybody is hearing and giving their attention, to someone or something. And when it comes to who we are listening to, all of those different voices can be distilled down to 4 categories. And here are three of them: First, we could be listening to our own flesh. This happens when our pride, our ego or our own self-centredness is the main voice that we listen to. Second, we could be listening to the world. Examples of listening to the world would be when we pay attention to voices—it might be people we know, or songs we hear or movies or TV shows that we watch, it could be ideas that we read in books—basically anything outside of us that lead us away from God. Third, we could be listening to the devil. Now, just a word about the devil. The devil is powerful, but the devil is in no way equal to God. The devil does not know all things, the devil is not all-powerful and the devil is not present everywhere at the same time. The devil is not able to create anything, he can only corrupt good things that God has created. And the devil tries to manipulate and entice people by twisting the truth and making false promises that pledge heaven but deliver hell. We listen to the devil when we believe his lies and give in to the temptation that he holds before us. Addictions, whether they are drug addictions or behaviour addictions, are a significant way that the devil binds people in our culture today.
The devil is the thief of John 10:10 who only, and let me emphasize the word only, he only wants to steal and kill and destroy. And while I have made a distinction between the flesh, the world and the devil, they all have the same effect when you give your attention to them. They all lead you away from Jesus and his protective, sustaining life-giving love.
The fourth option of people that we could listen to is Jesus and here are some positive reasons, or some reasons why you do want to listen to God. Let’s turn once again to John, chapter 10, and we pick up on the last part of verse 10 where Jesus said
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:10b-18)
So here are some reasons why we do want to listen to Jesus. First of all, we want to listen to Jesus because he is God. Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, created us, he knows us and he knows what is best for us. And since Jesus is God, then doesn’t it make sense that he should have the most prominent place in our life and that we should listen to him?
Second, we want to listen to Jesus because only Jesus is going to protect us from the thief. This means that only Jesus is able to pay the price to protect us from the thief. To pay the price to buy back all of humanity from our bondage to sin would require a perfect human life of infinite value. Only a perfect God-human could fulfill that requirement and that is exactly who Jesus is. But it also means that only Jesus is willing to pay the price to protect us from the thief. Of all the human beings who have existed throughout all of human history, only Jesus loves us with the pure, unconditional, infinite love that is necessary for someone to be willing to suffer and die for the whole world, even those who hate him.
Jesus not only protects you from the thief, Jesus also gives you abundant life. The life that Jesus gave you when he gave you faith and brought your spirit to life is an abundant life because of its quantity. In other words, it is an eternal life. The life that Jesus gives you is everlasting and nothing, not even death, can take that life away from you.
The life that Jesus gives you is also abundant because of its quality. The life that Jesus gives is far superior than any other life because Jesus gives us life with him. Our relationship with Jesus is what makes our life richer, fuller and abundant. We simply rest in Jesus and he lives his life through us. And as he does that, he makes things happen that are far beyond what we can ask or imagine. Our life has more meaning, more purpose and produces more Holy Spirit-fruit because Jesus is living in us.
The life that Jesus gives you is also abundant because of what is to come. One day Jesus will come back to this earth and raise us from the dead to give us a body that will never grow old, never get sick and never die. We will see Jesus face to face, he will wipe every tear from our eyes and every wrong will be made right, every injustice will be overturned and every wound will be healed. We look forward to that time knowing that, because of Jesus, that life is already ours. And that is part of make life with Jesus so rich, full and abundant.
So we want to listen to Jesus because of who he is. He is our Good Shepherd. So we hear him and we listen to him.
Our third point is Following and let’s think about what it means to follow. Imagine for a moment a flock of sheep who know the sound of their shepherd’s voice, they listen to their shepherd and they follow him. When the shepherd says to the sheep, “let’s go” what do the sheep do? They go. When the shepherd says to the sheep, “let’s stop here” what do the sheep do? They stop. So following involves obeying what we hear Jesus say to us.
Now sometimes when we hear the word “obey” there is something inside of us that bristles at the thought. It is important for us to remember that our relationship with Jesus is not a master-slave relationship. The relationship that we have with Jesus is like the relationship between a padawan and a Jedi where the young apprentice patterns his or her life on that of their master so that one day they can become a Jedi too. That is why we obey Jesus when he tells us something. We do what Jesus directs us to do because we want to pattern our life on his so that we can become more like him.
So today we talked about hearing, listening to and following Jesus. Now I want to tell you something that is very, very important for all of us to remember, especially when we find ourselves far from God. When we realize that we have been listening to the wrong things and we find ourselves mired in some kind of evil quicksand, remember that Jesus is always the way out. Jesus is love, so it is fitting for us to take the words of 1 Corinthians 13 and substitute Jesus’ name for the word “love”. And I want to leave with these words from Jesus and about Jesus. Please, please, please remember that Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Jesus never fails. Amen.
(Shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on November 22, 2015.)