1 Peter 2:19-25
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Silence for thirty seconds.
I don’t know about you, but I have very few moments of true silence in a typical day. It seems that I am almost continually surrounded by noise, assailed by a chorus of voices and sounds that seems never-ending. I’m not talking about my interactions with people, which are the best part of this calling to ministry. I’m talking about the mindless chatter from people I’ll never see or meet that fills my consciousness almost every waking moment. Some of that is my own fault: I wake up in the morning and one of the first things I do is turn on the radio or the TV to catch up on the news. In the office I often have some kind of media playing on my computer, whether it’s the audio of a news report or a podcast or music. When I’m driving around town, I’ve always got the radio on. In a lot of circumstances, however, my encounter with that never-ending wall of sound is not my fault. Restaurants play the radio over their loudspeakers most of the day. The waiting room at the doctor’s office usually has the TV on, often turned to stations where news and opinion compete to see what can be loudest. In truth, there are very few places that allow us the opportunity to sit without our minds being tuned to someone’s thoughts.
Today on this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus is talking about the life of faith, and drawing on the imagery of his place and time to describe the relationship he has with his followers. Notice how he focuses on the importance of listening:
“I’m telling you the solemn truth: the one who doesn’t enter the sheep-pen through the gate, BUT climbs in some other way, is a thief and a bandit! 2The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has sent his own sheep out into the pasture, he goes out ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice! 5They will never follow a stranger. INSTEAD, they will run away from him because they don’t recognize the stranger’s voice!”
Jesus doesn’t identify himself as the shepherd until after this morning’s reading ends, but it’s pretty clear that this point that he’s already claiming that role. He tells us that we who have been called by name to follow him can have confidence that he is the one leading us, because we can listen for and recognize his voice. That would be an especially comforting thought if we lived in a world in which Jesus’ voice was the only one speaking. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of world. Countless voices vie for our attention and our allegiance – some using the promise of greater happiness, others exploiting our fear of uncertainty – to gain our trust. Many of those voices come from our wider society – people who see everything as a threat or a conspiracy, people who relish conflict and hostility because they sell, people who claim to have quick fixes to our most vexing problems (for the right price, of course). A fair number of them come from within the church – people who confuse the gospel of grace with the promise of prosperity, people who feel the need to create links between specific instances of human sinfulness and natural disaster, people who claim that their way is the highway and that people who disagree aren’t welcome here. With all that and more crossing the airwaves, it’s not surprising that the voice of Jesus, though he is still speaking to a world in need, is often drowned out by the swelling tide of competing voices.
I’ve heard it said – quite profoundly, I think – that unless the good news is good news for everybody, it isn’t truly good news. As we sift through the swirling chaos of voices that offer their own versions of “good news”, how can we pick out the ones that speak genuine gospel? How can we listen more carefully for the voice of Jesus? The clue might just be at the end of this morning’s reading, where Jesus contrasts the goal of the “thieves and bandits” who threaten his sheep with his own mission:
“I’m telling you the solemn truth: I am the gate for the sheep! 8All those who came before me were thieves and bandits; SO the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9I AM the gate! If anyone enters through me, that person will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture! 10The thief comes for no reason except to steal and kill and destroy! I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”
Too many of the voices that compete for our attention have hidden agendas: they claim that security can only be gained by force (when they’re the ones with all the power), that the pursuit of freedom is a zero-sum game that always requires someone to lose (when they’re the ones who seem to be winning), that people who don’t agree with us are deserving of our scorn and exclusion (while they are always on the inside looking out). In short, they offer us salvation that ultimately benefits them at the expense of others. Voices like these are decidedly human and worldly. They transcend political persuasion or nation or religion or any other category by which people can be defined, and all of them fall short of being “good news”.
By contrast, the good shepherd who calls out to his sheep (and, indeed, to all the world), desires nothing else than to gather all people into one flock, where they can enjoy abundant life. Put another way, in the immortal words of the 23rd psalm, he offers green pastures, still waters, restoration and renewal, guidance through death-like shadow, and a table laden with life-giving food and drink, all signs of his goodness and mercy. He offers these gifts to all, without reserve, because his will for the whole creation is that it would enjoy the fullness of God’s love and grace and be satisfied. So when you hear voices that hold up this vision for us and for all people, you may be hearing the echo of Jesus himself speaking “good news” to a broken world, calling the thieves to give up their quest for spoils, the bandits to relinquish their thirst for revenge, and the sheep to surrender their desire for false security. You may be hearing Jesus, who is both the Shepherd and the Gate. You may be hearing Jesus, the one whose embrace opens wide to gather all people together and remains securely fastened against the forces of sin, death, and the devil that are powerless against Him who sacrificed everything to break their power over this world forever.
Brothers and sisters, in a busy and broken world, filled with a thousand voices that claim to bring their own version of the Gospel, let us listen always for the voice of our Good Shepherd with confidence that it will continue to sound forth until all the sheep have been gathered together and the wolves are no more, and let us bless our crucified and risen Lord for love that leads us on and holds us fast today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.