Sermon for 12th May 2019 Easter IV

305 12.5.19 My sheep hear my voice Clifton 4th of Easter

‘My sheep hear my voice.’

What does Jesus mean? The Bible is full of metaphors, none more obscure than this.

We who see sheep around all the time might not necessarily think of ourselves as sheep, and we might not be impressed by the idea that we behave like sheep.

And again, we can’t hear Jesus speaking in a literal sense. He is not physically here, standing in front of us, talking, so that we might hear with our ears.

So I guess that there must be something more to all this.

But first, let’s have a look at the context. Jesus is up to His usual tricks: behaving like a good Jew, observing this holy feast. The Temple had been desecrated by the occupying Seleucid Empire. After the Maccabean Revolt, it had been cleansed and re-dedicated. This was one of those rather short periods in history when the Jews really thought that they might manage to get rid of occupying powers and be led by a Messiah to complete political independence.

Jesus was not the first to come forward and claim to be that Messiah. The others had all been duly executed and lost to history.

As we know, Jesus had a habit of giving offence: healing on the Sabbath, and suchlike. Some of His fellow-Jews were inclined to take Him seriously and others wanted to be rid of Him.

In this case, they came asking Him directly: ‘Are you the Christ?’ As usual, He gave an indirect answer, saying, in effect, ‘if you had ears to hear, you would have heard already’.

But let’s go back to the sheep for the moment, and the hearing. One commentator writes:

Faith comes from hearing. To be a Christian is to have acquired a heightened sense of hearing….The believer’s ears are attuned to the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. His voice is discerned as a voice of love, of authentic leadership……To follow Him is not to be enslaved, but to be enchanted.

This is perhaps where we part company from our real-life sheep. The farmer aims to get his sheep exactly where he needs them to be in exchange for little more than a rattling food-bucket. In our terms, the sheep might be considered to be slaves. ‘We are not enslaved’, says the quotation, ‘we are enchanted’.

So where does your faith come from?

We read from time to time of people somehow getting hold of a Bible, or perhaps just one of the Gospels, reading it, and finding faith. But we all know of the many inconsistencies and contradictions that can be found in the Bible, and of the places, even within one account of the Gospel, where what we read doesn’t quite hang together. We might even think that a little bit has been slotted in later, or has been miscopied at some point.

And of course Bible scholarship now tells us that this is exactly what has happened. The various books of the Bible, NT as well as OT, were written for a time and a place – often we don’t know where or when – and it is up to us to draw lessons and understanding from our reading. They have been subject to changes and additions, some by accident, some by design. We have to apply our own time and place to what we read.

This means reading with an open mind, even a sceptical one, but also a listening mind. How often something pops into your head which has a ring of authority: you don’t know why, but there it is. ‘If it sounds right, it probably is.’ (And the corollary: ‘if it sounds dodgy, it probably is dodgy!)

So we must take it that the people, who find themselves reading the Bible with no previous background of faith, or even a background of another faith, are aware that they are looking for something and are open to the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures.

Somehow the Holy Spirit does speak to them. A phrase jumps out of the page and comes alive. You might say that the reader is ‘enchanted’ by it.

But perhaps your faith didn’t come in the first place from reading the Bible. Perhaps it came from family, friends or neighbours. Perhaps it was the quietly faithful life of a parent that set you thinking, that made your mind open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that set you to read the Bible, and you found layers of meaning as you delved deeper.

For many people, faith has come from a line from a hymn burrowing its way into the mind. Hymns are good at this. The poetry can be so full of meaning, but it is often the tune that sticks in your head and brings the words along with it.

However it happens, you feel drawn, usually in a way you can’t understand.

In a sense, you are the sheep, but you are not enslaved, you are invited to follow. It is your choice to accept or reject. You are not enslaved: you are enchanted.

We must remind ourselves at this point that we cannot stay on an enchanted ‘high’ permanently. That is not the way we are made. The opposite of ‘faith’ is ‘doubt’: we’ve heard that said enough times! We’ve all had times when we have felt alone, when things have gone wrong and life seems empty. But, amazingly, when that period comes to an end, we see that Jesus has been there beside us all the time. We just couldn’t see Him. We were deaf to His words.

So we pick up again and follow Him.

What does that mean?

I recently came across a phrase which might be old hat to you, a phrase which appears to be commonly used in some American churches. The phrase is: Our worship has ended: our service begins. I find that very powerful. Our worship has ended: our service begins.

Our life should demonstrate our faith. For some, that will be more overt than for others, but in the week in which we have read the obituary of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’arche communities, there’s a model of service if ever there was.

I know that some of you are familiar with this organisation, but in case you are not, it stems back to an occasion in 1964 when Vanier visited an asylum in Paris and saw how ill-treated and effectively imprisoned were people with mental problems. He bought a house outside Paris and invited two men from the asylum to join him. The idea was that people with all levels of mental ability could live together in mutual love and support. This was in 1964. There are now 147 communities in 35 countries.

The philosophy is a simple one: all are equally important in the sight of God, regardless of intellectual ability or disability.

We might not all be called to such a role as this, but I don’t suppose that Vanier realised what he was setting in train when he bought that house.

Vanier was open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. He was the sheep willing to hear the voice.

Are you willing to hear? Am I?

There is so much wrong in the world. If we were to stop what we are doing and start to make a list of wrongs to be righted, we would be completely overwhelmed. There is so much healing to be done: healing between neighbours, families, nations, races, faiths, as well as between people of varying intellectual abilities.

Vanier started small. He started from where he was. He started with what was possible.

We can all start small. We must all start from where we are. We must start with what is possible.

But first, we must be willing to hear His voice.

When our worship ends: our service begins.