Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, RCL, Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, John 10:22-30
We have all been there, wondering why we can’t hear God’s voice wondering why we can’t feel his presence in our lives. I’ve experienced this so strongly that I felt like a child who lost their parent in a department store. You know they must be close by, but you can’t see or hear them, and even when you cry out, you may not get a response. As Deacon Mark spoke about last week, even Mother Theresa went for decades wondering where God was. Where is the Good Shepherd whose voice I know?
According to our passage today, the sheep know the shepherd’s voice. The sheep follow the shepherd. They do what the shepherd asks. This “following” is the example that Mother Theresa gives us. Even when she couldn’t hear the voice, she kept doing the work that she was given to do. And she trusted that the Lord would speak to her again; somewhere, sometime.
For those of us who have heard the voice of God clearly in our lives, the voice is unmistakable. It is also probably safe to say that we don’t usually hear it as often as we would like. For others, who may have only heard the whispers of God’s voice in their heart, we still follow that voice, for somehow we know this voice is right and good. I believe it is these whispers, that encourage us to move closer, so we can hear the shepherd’s voice more clearly.
God’s time is very different than ours. It is unpredictable. Sometimes we find God when we ask, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes God arrives just in the nick of time and at other times, God is like an unwelcome guest who comes into our lives at an inopportune time and asks us to do something we either don’t want to do or we believe we can’t do. I’ve personally experienced this feeling especially when I received my callings to the priesthood.
Now, this idea of needing a shepherd seems outdated or overly controlling. After all, we are independent, civilized people who don’t need to be told where to go, or what to do. Most of us have no desire to be obedient sheep following a person with a rod and a staff, as Psalm 23 describes. Some of us may even have experienced shepherds who were uncaring, afraid, or even angry. These people are not good shepherds. The shepherds of abuse, addiction, greed, and desire only lead us astray. They are untrustworthy shepherds who are not looking out for our best interests no matter what they promise or how they make us feel. These shepherds only bring pain and suffering to us and those around us.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”
This shepherd, the Good Shepherd, brings us to a place where we have all that we need. A sheep surrounded by green pastures and still waters has all of its necessities met. With the shepherd present and an abundance of food, there is peace and there is nothing to fear. This may sound like the Garden of Eden, some unattainable utopian dream. But there is a truth, an indescribable truth, that when we relinquish ourselves into the hands of the Lord, we find a place where we have little to fear. We find generosity and abundance everywhere we look. We find peace within our life. This philosophy is not new. From medieval mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and Julian Norwich to the enlightenment of Jean-Pierre De Caussade, and even modern writers, we find the Christian tradition of letting go, surrendering our lives, so that we can fully live our lives in the love of Christ. This is when we see Christ as the Good Shepherd. A shepherd that doesn’t constrain our lives but opens us to a peaceful life full of possibilities
I believe, for some of us, there are times when we have listened to the lord and we follow the lord, doing the work that has been set before us, and yet we don’t hear the Lord speaking to us. For example, Mother Theresa was doing the hard and grueling work that God set before her. And because she was faithfully doing this work, there was no reason for God to poke at her. This can be a hard place to be, a place of silence. And as abandoned as she felt by God, she never doubted that the work she was doing was ultimately for God and God’s people.
Our faith is built on trust. We trust in a God who is with us, even if we feel abandoned. We trust that God is with us, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Life is not easy. Life will take us to places where we do not want to be. Life brings us heartbreak, illness, and pain on many levels. Yet God is with us. Immanuel.
I believe when we know God, even in the smallest measure, that the rod and staff that the shepherd carries are not the tools for discipline and punishment. We are not looking at the proverbial ruler in a nun’s hand ready to give us a whack. The rod and staff are the tools of protection. They are there to shield us from harm, from the wolves who want to scare and scatter the sheep. The rod and staff, the mighty power of God, are why we have nothing to fear in death or the shadows of life. For the Shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep listen to the Shepherd. And the life we are given cannot be taken away.
Once you hear God’s voice, you can never un-hear it. Even if the voice was just a tiny whisper, you know God has touched your life. And sometimes it may be the lack of sound, the lack of confirmation, that increases our desire to be in a closer relationship with our creator.
We see this in today’s scripture when a group of people come to Jesus and ask “how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus tells them, “I have told you and you do not believe.” After all, in the previous scene, Jesus healed a man born blind. The authorities didn’t believe this act was from God or that Jesus could do this with God. Some people heard the voice within them and knew this sign was of God, and others rejected that voice. Maybe what the voice told them didn’t fit their religious, political, or worldview. There was no room for curiosity, only rejection. And Jesus tells them my sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.
I wish the voice in my heart was always as clear as a bell. But no matter how you hear God’s voice or experience God in your life, Jesus shows us that we do not need to wait for a disembodied life to have life. The eternal life we are given is now. At this moment, we can do incredible things. We can touch people’s lives in tremendous ways. A small act of generosity, taking time to care for a stranger, greeting someone in a friendly manner when they are having a rough day. These may be the gift that offers them hope and shows them that they are loved.
Each of us is given the gift of life. Each of us is given the gift of love. And even if we can’t hear God’s voice at the moment, God trusts us to know what to do with these gifts.