Psalm 23, John 10:1-21
March 2, 2008
We read today what are considered to be some of the most comforting words in all of the scriptures. I don’t think I’ve ever done a funeral where I haven’t read the 23rd psalm! And I can usually ask people to say it along with me, with no words in front of them, and they can do it! This is a well known and much beloved psalm! And I’m sure it was in Jesus’ time, too.
We need these words from time to time, don’t we? A few weeks ago my message was entitled “Through the Valley.” And it was all about those times of our lives when we go through difficulties, and when we’re hurting. And I wanted us to know, once again, that “yea thou we walk through that valley,” that God is with us “his rod and his staff, they comfort us.”
Many of you told me you were glad for that “reminder.” Because we know that life is tough sometimes. God never promised our lives will be perfect and happy and fulfilled all the time. But, he did promise he would be with us always. And it’s in those times – in those difficult times – that we should seek to know even more, that he is with us. God’s people have looked to this 23rd psalm to remember his presence down through the ages.
As I said, this is a much beloved psalm down through the ages. And as we read this passage from the 10th chapter of John, I have to ask you, do you think those people recognized what Jesus was saying about himself? This is one of those passages that we often read as “words of comfort,” but these may not have been words of comfort to the people who were hearing them. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice.” We think, “Isn’t that nice?” But that wasn’t the case for the people who were listening that day. To hear Jesus referring to himself this way, to hear him casting himself in the role of the good shepherd, using 23rd psalm kinds of imagery, was dramatic and probably shocking!
This reminds me of a time 4 chapters earlier where Jesus said some other words that we’ve come to think are nice and comforting, but weren’t so when they were first spoken. Go back and read the 6th chapter of John sometime! Back there he told the people, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.” Again, that sounds all nice to us, but think about what he was saying! He was making reference to the manna in the wilderness. He was likening himself to that bread which God gave the people in those days. And his listeners realized that! And stories of the wilderness and the manna was such an important part of their spiritual heritage that they even kept a jar of it in the Ark of the covenant – right along with the tablets of the Ten Commandments! They could hardly believe it that day when Jesus had the audacity to refer to himself in that manner! Those words were tough to hear! And at the end of that chapter it says, “After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”
Well, do you think the people understood what he was saying to them here in chapter 10? When he said, “I am the good shepherd,” do you think they would have realized that he was referring to these beloved words of their most beloved king, David? I think there’s no doubt! Remember, they really knew their scriptures. They knew these stories, they knew these images, and they thought a great deal about their heritage and their past. They often talked together about their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And especially they talked about the time of king David, which they considered to be the “glory days” of Israel. And I have to think they would have been shocked that day as well, to hear Jesus referring to himself as “The Good Shepherd,” after the manner of David’s psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Sure enough, look at what they said about him. “He has a demon!” He is possessed! “He is mad!” He’s crazy! He’s loony tunes!! He’s not just a blasphemer! That means “One who mocks God!” (Which was a bad thing to be accused of, by the way!) He’s way beyond that! “He’s crazy!” That’s what Jesus had to be in order to say these things about himself! He had to be mad! He had to be possessed! Or, he had to be who he said he was!
Isn’t that a comfort to know? Though this was shocking to those people, it is a comfort to us to know that Jesus is who he said he is! That’s what’s so good for us to hear, even though it was hard for them! Jesus is the “Bread from Heaven.” He gives life to us, just as God gave life to the people in the wilderness! He is the “Good Shepherd,” he comforts his people, just like the shepherd in the psalm.
Now, think about how he comforts his people. He said, “My sheep hear my voice. And they know me!” And that was true about sheep. They knew the shepherd’s voice. They could all be out in the fields together, with all the other shepherds, everybody all mixed in. But when it was time to go home, they would all know the voice of their own shepherd and they would follow. Jesus used that wonderful imagery to describe his people knowing his voice.
Animals are amazing that way! It’s funny for me to home by myself with Annie, (Our Labrador) and she’s laying over there on the floor, like a “throw rug with eyeballs.” And then, her head pops up, and she runs to the door. Why? Because she’s heard the sound of Patty’s car! I haven’t heard anything. In fact, there are all kinds of cars going up and down Bristol Pike. But she’s heard that one special “engine sound,” and she knows what it means! And if Jesus were giving this message today, maybe instead of saying “My sheep hear my voice,” he would have said, “My dogs hear my car engine!”
Well, I think we need to ask ourselves, do we know the shepherd’s voice? Do we ever even take time to try to hear that voice? There are a lot of voices in our world. There is a cacophony of voices all around us. I love that word. There is a cacophony – a jumble of many voices. There are a lot of cars going up and down Bristol Pike! And that jumble of voices make it tough to hear the voice of the shepherd. Some of those voices in our world simply drown him out. But others insist on our attention, and they turn us away from hearing the shepherd!
Lent is a good time to practice listening for the shepherd’s voice. How do we do that? For one thing, we do it by spending time in silence – listening. The many voices around us – the cacophony of voices – are very loud and very insistent aren’t they? The “sirens” of our world call out to us constantly and compellingly. And like Odysseus, we need to stop our ears and lash ourselves to the mast in order to be able not to listen to them, and to focus on what we want to hear. So listening for God’s voice is a practice of our faith. And it’s something that we must do – practice.
I’d like us to try that right now. I’d like us to spend a little time in a spirit of prayer. And I want us to do no talking – aloud, or in our heads. That’s a problem many have with prayer. They think they always have to be saying something! But let’s get beyond that. Let’s take a moment now, clear your mind as best you can, shut out the cacophony, and just listen. Let us pray…
Did you hear the shepherd’s voice? I can’t even tell you what it should have sounded like, or what it said. That’s always going to be different for each person. But I challenge you to practice that listening every day. Be open to what God might say to you. It may be a comfort, it may be a challenge, or it may be some new direction in your life. But do that. Take time to listen – literally.
Do you know the voice of the Good Shepherd? And then, do you know that the good Shepherd has indeed laid down his life for his sheep? That’s more of this wonderful imagery Jesus was using that day. He was telling them what they knew in those days, that a truly good shepherd would stand between the sheep and the wild animals. The good shepherd would not run away. He would defend his sheep – with his life if need be.
Now, think about it. Was some of that directed at his adversaries that day? Was he casting the religious leadership in the role of those wild animals that a shepherd would have to fight off to protect the sheep? That’s a little hard to say from the text. But as he also refers to himself as the door. And that was a pretty bold thing to have said! Again, we who read that now know it as a comforting thing. We have “access” to God through him. For him to have claimed it then was hard for some to hear.
I’ll leave you to think about that for now. Because I want to end with verse 10. All of this is wonderful imagery of the Good Shepherd. And, difficult though it was then to hear, it’s that much more wonderful for us to hear all these years later. But in all that imagery of sheep and protection, and hearing the voice of the shepherd and all, we have this passage that I don’t want us to miss. “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. But I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
I want us to remember those words as we go today. Most Christians are pretty good with the first part of that. “I have come that they may have life…” Eternal life through Christ is a prominent theme in the Christian message. Most Christians would point to that as the reason for Jesus coming to this earth, But we sometimes forget about that second part. “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” That’s the part we sometimes miss. Jesus wants us to have life more abundantly!
Think about it. Sometimes the question is asked “Why did Jesus come?” And we can answer that a number of ways, but it would “behoove us” to answer it the way he answered it, don’t you think? He came that we may have life more abundantly! And that’s the thought I want to leave you with today. Are you living the abundant life? Is your life fulfilled and fulfilling? Are you joyous – not necessarily in the way the world thinks we ought to have joy – by filling our lives full of things, or by being happy because everything is “going right.” But instead, are we living that abundance because we know the shepherd’s voice! Are we living in an abundance of joy and fulfillment because we are living this life in relationship with God.
How about you? Do you know the shepherd’s voice?
Eternal God, we rejoice because you are with us always. We rejoice because you are with us on the mountaintop, and in the valley. Help us to listen and to know your voice better. Help us to follow. Help us to seek and to have the life that Jesus offers, and to have it abundantly. For we pray in his name, Amen.