Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – John 10:22-30 NIV
Farm Life as I Remember It
I think I’ve told you about the two weeks my mother sent me to south Georgia where her family lived so I could experience life on the farm. At least I think that’s why she and my dad sent me there, but I was about 10 at the time, so it could be they needed a break from my frequent misadventures.
In any event, I spent two weeks with my cousins, and of course my aunts and uncles, at about the time the tobacco was harvested. I’ve told you that story, but in addition to the tobacco harvest, life on the farm went on as usual. Part of farm life was calling the various animals primarily at feeding time.
Each animal grouping — pigs, cows, chickens, and horses — all had distinctive calls they responded to. Chickens were the easiest because all you had to do was show up in the chicken yard with the pale of feed and the chickens flocked around your feet. Which was a little scary for a boy from the city, primarily because I had been warned about the rooster who had a nasty disposition.
The cows responded to the pickup truck in the pasture, which usually had bales of hay on the back which we pitched out as the cows gathered around. My cousins also put out salt licks, but I stayed pretty much on the back of the pick up because cows were a lot bigger than chickens, and the bull apparently also had a bad attitude.
But I remember the pigs most. Now they didn’t have a lot of pigs, maybe six or seven, and they were all in the pig pen out back. The pig pen was not huge, but big enough for a half dozen really big pigs, and of course it was a muddy mess and the pigs were muddy, and the whole thing kind of reeked of, well, pigs. So, after each meal, we went out to slop the hogs. Now that term pretty much describes the whole event. Slop is not a word you use for anything that’s anywhere close to appealing, but that’s what we did.
One of my aunts had a lot of kids — two girls and four boys — plus I was there, and then there were some other cousins who came along to help with the tobacco harvest, so at mealtime there was a pretty big crowd.
After the meal, all the plates were scraped into the slop bucket. This produced a kind of slurry of mashed potatoes, lima beans, half eaten biscuits (although there weren’t many of those), soppin’ gravy, tomato peels, and so on. You get the picture. It was not a pretty sight.
Once the plates were scraped, and the kitchen scraps all dumped into the slop bucket, off my cousin and I set to slop the hogs.
For some reason, you had to call hogs to come get the slop. The hogs were usually lying on the sides, in the mud, up near the back part of the hog pen. So my cousin would have to holler, “Sooo-eee, sooo-eee.” Which seemed like a ridiculous way to call pigs, but since the pigs were going to become bacon sometime in the future, they didn’t have names, so I guess they had to be summoned to dinner with some call.
Sure enough, the hogs, because they were really to big to be called pigs, would rouse themselves, get up, and head toward the direction of the sooo-ee call to dinner.
The amazing thing was, I discovered during my two weeks on the farm, that each type of animal knew what the feed bucket, or the pickup truck, or the call of “sooo-ee” meant. And they responded to whatever it was that got their attention.
My cousins didn’t have any sheep, so I don’t know what calls sheep respond to, but Gene Logsdon, one of my favorite writers about rural farm life recalls this story from his childhood:
“I grew up— woke up many mornings— to the wail of my cousin, Ade, calling his sheep. His farm was next to ours and he took to practicing this primitive ritual at about four o’clock in the morning. Mom said he wanted us to know he was already up and about and anyone still in bed was a sinner. But his sheep call was music to my ears. Up the little creek valley that connected our farms would roll this long drawn-out wail of “shoooooooooooooopeeeeeee” that began on about high A over C on the musical scale and fell, quaveringly, a couple of notes on the second syllable. The call lasted as long as he could keep expelling air with enough force for the sound to carry a mile or two.” (Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, “Calling Home The Sheep”).
Logsdon continues by saying that he practiced his cousin’s sheep call until he got it down pretty well himself. He said later when he had sheep of his own on his own farm, all he had to do was start the call “shoooo…” and before he could get it all out, the sheep came trotting down the path to the new pasture he wanted them in.
But How Do the Sheep Know the Shepherd’s Voice?
Okay, that was a long introduction to the scripture for today, but if you haven’t figured it out by now, the verse I want us to focus on is verse 27 –
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus made this statement in response to the rather impatient insistence from some in Jerusalem, in the Temple during the Festival of Dedication, that he tell them plainly if he was the messiah or not.
Jesus reply was that he had already told them, but they did not believe him. Jesus told them that the works he did in his Father’s name was testimony that he was the messiah, but they didn’t get it because they aren’t his sheep.
It’s then that Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
So, the one question we have to answer today is, How do we hear the voice of Jesus today?
There are More Sheep Than There are Mystics
Of course, we might point to examples of extraordinary people who heard the voice of God in extraordinary ways. God calls Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees and makes him the father of a great nation. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and speaks audibly to him about the assignment to lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. God speaks to a discouraged Elijah with a still, quiet voice. And then there are the priests, and kings, and prophets of the Old Testament, many of whom God speaks to directly and unmistakably.
The history of Christianity is also filled with stories of people who had a special ability to hear the voice of God. From Paul’s Damascus road experience, to the revelation God gave to John on the Isle of Patmos that has become our Book of Revelation, we know that God speaks directly to certain people at certain times.
Amazingly, God’s voice does not go silent with the passing of the Apostles. The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too apparently — were mystics who lived lives of asceticism separated from the urban centers in order to seek to hear God more clearly and fully.
These monastics lived solitary lives at first, then later formed communities of monks and nuns who lived separated from the everyday distractions to spiritual devotion. Prayer, scripture, work, deprivation, vows of silence, poverty, and celibacy, and other acts of devotion marked their existence. And down through the centuries there were those who heard the voice of God and lef their mark on Christian spirituality.
But there are others who have heard the voice of God, too. Joan of Arc claimed to hear God’s voice calling her to save her people. Some thought her mad, others thought her a mystic. In any event, she died a martyr’s death for her witness.
We could spend more time than we have this morning naming the outstanding mystics of the Christian faith who heard the voice of God. But for most of us, their experiences, while interesting, are the stuff of inspiration, not our experience. Most of us are not mystics. So how do we hear the voice of Jesus calling us today?
Sheep Congregate in Flocks Just Like We Gather for Worship
When Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he gave us some clues as to what this means for us today.
First, for sheep to listen to the shepherd, he or she has to say something. The first thing we need ot realize is that Jesus still speaks to us today. Of course he speaks through Scripture, which is how most of us know anything that Jesus has said.
But Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice…” For sheep to listen, the shepherd has to be speaking. Now this may seem obvious, but we often gather for worship, go through the order of worship, sing our songs, give our offerings, listen for more or less 20 minutes to people like me, and then go home. And we can do all of that without being aware of the Shepherd’s voice at all.
The first expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us.
The second expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us all — as a group, or flock, if you will. Because Jesus imagery was not accidentally chosen. Jesus knew that sheep congregated in flocks, and he referred to himself as the Good Shepherd.
So when he says, “My sheep hear my voice…” he means the flock, the whole bunch of them, as a group — or in Israel’s case, as a nation.
Most of us aren’t mystics, but we are members of this congregation. And it is gathered here that we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us. It is the congregation gathered for worship that should have the expectation that Jesus is going to speak to us, and speak clearly. About who we should be. About what we should do. About the mission to which he has called us.
Each week when we gather here, we should ask ourselves, “What will Jesus say to us today?” and then we should listen for the way in which he might say it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the time, the voice of Jesus is not going to be my voice. Of course, I hope I speak the words of Jesus faithfully, but most of the time I think Jesus is going to speak to us in some other way that we have to pay attention to.
Like when our children touch our hearts with their sweet sincerity and honesty. Like when a concern moves us to pray, as I understand you prayed for me when I was so sick. Like when we rejoice at a new birth, either physical or spiritual, and are reminded that the kingdom of God continues in the lives of those just coming into it. Like when a song resonates with us all and together we sing or listen in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So, the question for us in not, Does Jesus still speak to people today? But the question for us is, “What is Jesus saying to us this morning?”
What is Jesus saying to us about the violence in our nation? About the bombing in Boston? About the violent crimes tried in the courthouse across the street from this sanctuary? Does Jesus have anything for us to do to be his peace, his shalom, in this world? in our community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about the poverty in our county? About those who live in substandard housing, or who go to bed hungry, or who are victims of domestic abuse? What is he saying to us about how we can be salt and light in this community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about those who have no church family? Who, when sickness or difficulty come into their lives, have no one to gather and pray for them, as we gather each week and pray for one another.
Of course, I may be wrong today. Jesus may not be saying anything to us about any of those issues. But he is saying something. What are we listening for today?
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”