Sometimes you overhear the unkindest things said. Perhaps you`ve heard this one. Someone says with real exasperation: “Look, are you deaf as well as blind”? As I say, it`s an unkind thing to say but if you`ll bear with I can`t escape the thought that this is what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees in the Gospel we heard a moment ago.
You`ll perhaps be aware that physical illnesses are often used in the Gospels as pictures which point to a spiritual inability to connect with the things of God; blindness and deafness being two prime examples. And this is something of what is going on here. In the section of John`s Gospel we were looking at this morning Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees about the healing of a man who was born blind. And as I say the recovery of his sight is an indication that he now sees Christ for who he is but clearly the Pharisees don`t.
And we picked up the story where Jesus begins to get a little exasperated. He tells a parable about a shepherd and some sheep. Jesus is trying to explain to the Pharisees why he`s getting such a following. Effectively, the people are hearing the Good News of God but as the passage we heard makes clear; whilst the people get it the Pharisees Quote: “did not understand what he was saying to them”. In short, they are deaf as well as blind.
But there`s more. Jesus, as I say, uses this picture of a shepherd. On one level it was a strong reminder of God`s promise to be the true shepherd of Israel. Identifying himself with this image was sure to get Jesus into the Pharisees bad books. To say the very least he was claiming to be God`s instrument in the world. But alongside this Jesus seems to regard the practical reality of how the Middle Eastern shepherd went about his business as an equally significant teaching point. And this is where he focusses on hearing. In other words Jesus likens his growing following to the way in which sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd. The people, in other words are hearing something significant…. And he makes two points.
Firstly, Jesus says: “The sheep hear his voice”. Now again, clearly he`s not talking about their physical ability hear; he`s saying that when Jesus speaks something resonates within the people. He develops this by saying it`s just like when the shepherd calls the sheep “by name”. Effectively he`s saying that when he speaks the people know themselves to be addressed. “Hearing his voice” means more than just words. It means words that create a relationship. Words that `call us by name`.
To put it another way, the people are hearing, “This means me”. And all those texts in the Scriptures that say things like, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me” and “I have called you by name, you are mine” and “I have inscribed your name on the palm of my hand” have suddenly come alive. Time and again, in my experience, this is the sign that faith is beginning to come alive- when those who were excluded find they are included. When those who feel far away draw near. When those who didn`t feel worthy feel able to come anyway; Jesus is doing his work. Why? Because we know that we`re addressed personally: `This means me`.
Now, we know there was a tone of authority in `what` he said but there`s obviously something attractive or engaging in his voice which, as I say speaks directly to the heart. And maybe that`s how it`s been for you. So I`m wanting to suggest that the task; the ongoing challenge in the Christian life is to learn to be more attentive to this voice. Elsewhere Jesus says directly “My sheep hear my voice”.
The call is to be attentive in the many opportunities which the life of faith affords such as Bible Reading and Prayer and Worship as well as in the people and events of each day. Referring to the experience of Moses, someone said that you need to get to a place where `every bush is burning` and where all things have the potential convey the voice of Christ. But what matters I believe, is actually our disposition. What`s called for I think is cultivating an attitude of conscious reflection on what`s going on in and around us. Looking at our routines and asking whether there is any space for that `Still small voice` to be heard; and beginning each time of prayer with the words of Ananias, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening`.
So firstly, Jesus talks about `hearing` his voice: that there is no generic or general word from him- it`s all personal. “Yes, this means me”.
But secondly, Jesus explains that the sheep `know` his voice. He amplifies this by saying that it matters because the whole point of the relationship between sheep and shepherd is that sheep are led; `Knowing` his voice is about recognition and trust. And so if the first task is a deliberate attentiveness the second is discrimination; the ability to recognise and choose to follow the voice of Christ amidst the many voices which clamour for our attention.
If you want another example of how blunt Jesus is with the Pharisees just notice the way Jesus says of course the sheep “won`t follow a stranger”. Again, he`s clearly pointing the finger at them but the point is that Jesus doesn`t mince his words about the conflict that`s going on. Jesus wants to lead us, he says “into abundant life” But he`s equally sure that not every way will result in this. He goes so far as to say that some of the voices we hear are best described as `thieves and bandits` who would do us harm.
And this isn`t just another dig at the Pharisees either; he`s reinforcing his words about following what he calls the narrow way that leads to life. In other words, the Christian life is about choosing and choosing well because you are responding to the faithful and trustworthy voice of Christ.
So not only does Jesus highlight the conflict we face and clearly there`s deceit going on here. He wants us to face the truth that things are not always what they seem and it can take time and practice to identify and distinguish his voice from the `thieves and bandits` in our path. But he does give us some clues and it`s this picture of theft that may be worth pondering.
So, for example, since Christ`s voice calls us to life we can distinguish this from those voices which steal our peace. We might choose to steer clear of the voice that casts doubt on your relationship with Christ; that injects fear or doubt over your salvation.
Since Christ`s voice calls us to life we can distinguish this from those voices which steals our freedom. We might choose to steer clear steer clear of the voice that is controlling or manipulative.
Since Christ`s voice calls us to life we can distinguish this from those voices which steals our energy. The Christian life will always be a challenge but we might choose to steer clear of the voice which is demanding or leaves us feeling `driven`.
In some company people will give you a wide berth if you talk about hearing voices. Even more so if you say that you`ve heard the voice of God. Well I`m afraid I`ve heard and been on the receiving end of every joke in the book where that`s concerned and candidly it`s wearing a bit thin.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees why, all of a sudden he`s getting such a following. He uses that picture of the shepherd and the sheep who hear and know his voice to describe what`s going on. The very clear implication, if we follow this analogy to its conclusion is that we who seek to follow are pitched into the same environment. Firstly, since through the Holy Spirit Christ continues to speak our task is to be deliberately attentive to his voice. Secondly, if we`re going to be faithful in following Christ it helps to be conscious of the need to recognise his voice as the one we can trust amidst the thieves and bandits that would frustrate his will that we receive abundant life.