“When the Good Shepherd has gathered all his own he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
Lambs for sure are lovable, cuddly, little animals in our popular imagination. There are few babies and toddlers that don’t have a lamb to snuggle with amongst their menagerie of stuffed animals. But, grown up, sheep sometimes are seen in a less favorable light. We call someone “sheepish” as a putdown, implying that they are shy, fearful, lacking in courage, timid – all words that somehow suggest weakness. To be a sheep, we might also think, is to have no mind of one’s own, to go along with the crowd, the flock, to be easily led – or led astray.
That’s the problem with metaphor. When a poet or storyteller or teacher uses one thing to represent another, they usually pick and choose the characteristics of the example they are using to make a point. So when Jesus talks about his followers as sheep, I don’t think we are meant to consider everything about sheep and apply them all to ourselves but just those qualities of sheep Jesus wants to emphasize. And in the teaching from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, I think Jesus is emphasizing two things about sheep he wants us to understand about ourselves. One is how vulnerable we are. And the other is how lovable and loved we are.
There is no question that sheep are vulnerable. Wolves and coyotes and other predators will attack them for food. Rustlers will try to steal them away for illicit profit. And there is no question that we are vulnerable. It is a dangerous world out there. There are physical risks we are susceptible to everyday. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. Natural disasters happen. Treachery happens. Economic downturns happen. In other words, life happens.
There is a story about a fellow who, out of the blue, sold his lifelong home and moved into a motel. His daughter asked him why and he answered, “I heard on the news that most people die at home so I decided I’d better move out.” The fact is, though, we cannot entirely protect ourselves from all the risks we are vulnerable to in living.
Maybe other kinds of risks are even more dangerous and insidious. We are vulnerable to the misdirection and outright lies fed us by the media and its skewered version of the world, by advertisers and telemarketers who are in it for their own gain, by peer pressure and social conditioning that try to make us conform to the crowd, by ego-centred control freaks – including some preachers – who try to build up their own little empires by sucking people into their grand delusions. We are vulnerable to fear itself and to those forces and people in the world – including some preachers – that use fear to control and limit others. We are vulnerable before the many influences around us that erode our self-respect, our self-image, our self-worth, and lead us to forget that, in God’s eyes and in God’s heart, we are always loveable and loved.
And that brings us back to the cuddly lambs. For what is emphasized in this parable of the Good Shepherd and his flock is his fierce love for them. Because of their vulnerability and his love, the Good Shepherd goes to extreme lengths to protect them and keep them safe.
In fact, he offers them so much more than safety; he desires for them life and life abundant. To my ears and heart, that is one of the most beautiful and compelling and alluring promises of all the promises in scripture: life in abundance. And that is certainly an image of life that the 23rd Psalm describes so luxuriously. I want that, don’t you? That longing planted deeply within us is probably why the 23rd Psalm is so beloved and so enduring. Yet, so many experiences and forces in our experience chip away at us and undermine our assurance of God’s love and desire for us.
What experiences have you had in your lifetime that have eroded your sense of self-worth and self-esteem? Who has treated you badly? Who has told you lies about yourself? Who has convinced you that you are not worthy in yourself and so have to prove your worth to gain their love? Who has suggested you are dispensable and not worth saving? Who has tried to manipulate you for their own purposes? What messages have the advertisers and our culture fed you about your inadequacies which can be overcome if only you buy this product to improve yourself or conform to the crowd to be accepted? I hope you understand that the deeper truth is that, in the eyes and heart of God, you are held precious: loveable and loved without condition or limit.
Yes, we are vulnerable, of course we are. There is no creature that is not: not the sheep and not the wolf; not the dove and not the eagle; not the jackal and not the lion; not the minnow and not the shark. Those of us who are parents and grandparents, know how the vulnerability of our children tears at our hearts and will lead us to extremes to protect them, to keep them safe, to steer them away from danger and towards life in all its goodness and abundance. Our experience as parents and grandparents helps us to understand the heart of God broken open in love for the beloved children of God exposed to so much risk. Our experience as parents and grandparents helps us to understand the lengths the Good Shepherd is prepared to go for love of the vulnerable ones in his keeping.
In the end, this is not a story about sheep at all. It is the truth about you and about me. We are the ones at risk. We are the ones held precious by God. We are the ones Jesus came to protect, to save, and to call to a richer life than the crowd imagines possible. And we are the ones who have the seed of faith planted deep within our souls allowing us to recognize the voice of God calling us amid all the other voices that clamour for our attention and would lead us astray.
We need to practice to help us hear that voice of love calling to us, surrounding us, guiding us. We need to provide space for stillness in the midst of our busyness. We need to search out oases of quiet in the midst of the noise of our world. We need to turn off the TV and our hand-held devices once in a while and tune into the Scriptures to help us remember what the voice of God in Jesus sounds like. We need to work prayer into the rhythm of our daily lives, not so much as a time to speak but to listen.
As we practice listening for the voice of God – the voice of Jesus, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the whispering of the Spirit – guiding and directing us, what will we hear? I don’t think we will hear an actual voice in the way we hear other voices speaking to us. I am not sure we will even sense beyond physical hearing words clearly stating that we should do this or that. My hunch is that, as we practice listening, we will cultivate intuition. We will be nudged this way or that from some deep place of knowing intuitively how to recognize God amidst all the other impulses trying to influence us. We will learn to allow trust to encourage us, rather than allow fear to restrict us. We will learn to let compassion flow from us, rather than let judgement create walls around us. We will learn to let wonder expand us, rather than ordinariness keep us in our usual ruts. We will learn to act with freedom not from obligation. As these deep, inner promptings help us to take this little step instead of that one, over time we will see a path unfolding that is leading us to where our heart desires to be for our heart, in its purity, desires to be in harmony with God, desires green pastures, still waters, abundant life, all the days of our life. Intuition nurtured in God will always lead us from love to love.
On so many levels and in so many aspects of our lives right now, there is uncertainty, anxiety, change, and confusion working its way out. We have the assurance today that someone is looking out for us. Someone will keep us safe and lead us beyond safety itself and into abundance. We have the assurance as well that we will recognize the voice of love amidst all the competing voices that do not have our best interests at heart. Let us take God at God’s word today and listen for that voice and allow it alone to guide us.
The Rev. Ted Hicks