+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
From the opening lines of Scripture to its final verses, if we learn only one thing about God, it’s this: God speaks. In the beginning, God speaks a powerful word over nothingness, and by that word the whole creation comes into being. The other people who lived around the Israelites didn’t talk about their gods like that. When they talked about creation, they imagined their gods were engaged in a cosmic struggle with the forces of darkness and chaos, often in hand-to-hand combat, and the gods worth worshiping were the ones who prevailed and brought creation into being. But the people of Israel knew differently. They had experienced God as a God of speech, one who addresses particular people in particular times and places, one who by the act of speaking made the world, spurred people to action, brought a nation into being, and moved to save and deliver that nation. Scripture testifies to this truth over and over again. God speaks, and Abram leaves his house and family to go to an unknown land in pursuit of a promise that wouldn’t be fulfilled for decades. God speaks, and Isaac is born to a mother and father who are so old, the Bible describes them as being as good as dead. God speaks, and Joseph winds up as a slave in Egypt, rises to power, and saves thousands. God speaks, and the descendants of Jacob are freed from slavery and oppression and promised a land to call their own. God speaks and kings are raised up and brought low. God speaks and the world is changed – day after day, year after year, again and again.
God has indeed spoken “in many and various ways” – or, put another way, “in many fragments and fashions.”* Indeed, the Bible records mere snippets of the conversation that has been going on between God and humanity since the beginning. Our ancestors in the faith, including the prophets who served as God’s mouthpieces, bore witness to the on-going dialogue that has shaped God’s people, changed our understanding of who God is and what God is up to in the world, and kept us connected to the one who first said, “Let there be light!”
That conversation went on for centuries, reaching a crescendo at those key moments that defined the history and destiny of God’s people, until, one day, everything changed. Suddenly, God was no longer content simply to speak. As powerful as God’s voice had been, the time had come for something different, and that something different was the arrival of Jesus. In him, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, the one who had brought all things into being, visited our world. In him, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being took on flesh and dwelt among us, and our world has never been the same. No longer would we look to the heavens in search of signs of a divine being beyond our comprehension. No longer would we struggle to hear the voice that thundered over the waters at creation. God spoke once more, this time into the life of a young woman named Mary, and that Word became truly human, lived in our midst, died for our sake, and rose for our salvation.
This is the deep and profound truth that is proclaimed through this morning’s reading – and, in fact, throughout the piece of writing that the Church has known for centuries as “the Letter to the Hebrews”. God has spoken in many different and incredible and world-changing ways since creation began, but none of it can rival the importance of how God spoke through the Son, the one whose name is Jesus. The surpassing greatness of that revelation will be unpacked throughout the rest of this letter and during our exploration of it over the next four weeks.
For now, this introduction gives us the opportunity to get our feet under us, and to reflect on all the ways that God has spoken to us through the prophets whose words reverberate through the ages, through the ancestors who helped to reveal the character of God by the way they bore witness to that character in word and deed, through the one whose name we bear and whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension define our lives. It gives us the opportunity to look around our church and our world and to realize that God is not finished speaking yet, that God continues to send prophets and teachers to orient us to God’s will for our lives, that the God who came to dwell among us in Jesus continues to be present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It gives us the occasion to be reminded that the many fragments and fashions that have shaped the contours of the conversation between God and us are still shaping it today, though not as much as the reality of Christ’s living, dying, rising, and ascending for our sake and for the sake of the world.
That reality can’t be forgotten, because if we don’t remember the surpassing greatness of Jesus when we acknowledge or recognize that God is still speaking, we open ourselves to the danger of putting ungodly words in God’s mouth. Our knowledge of the Son helps us to filter the “God-talk” that comes our way and to test its authenticity. Does the way that we talk about God, or the way that we perceive God’s voice, align with the way that voice spoke through the life of Jesus Christ? Or is there a disconnect between what people claim to hear from God and what happened in the world when God lived as one of us? That’s a question worth asking of every individual, every congregation, every community of faith, every denomination, every expression of Christ’s body in the world, and to the extent that we are able to align ourselves with the way God spoke and acted in Christ – and, by the same token, to eliminate those areas where things are disconnected or disjointed – we are better able to hear and communicate and live into God’s will for us and our world.
We live each day, brothers and sisters, as those who bear the most excellent name of Christ. Let us give thanks for the gift of knowing Jesus, the one who radiates the glory of God and reveals the character of God in flesh and blood. Let us give thanks for the Holy Spirit who continues to make Jesus present to us today and every day. Finally, let us give thanks for the privilege of being part of a people to whom God is still speaking – in different fragments and fashions, to be sure, but still speaking all the same. May we hear God’s voice and seek to be Christ’s mouthpieces for this beautiful and broken world. Amen.
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.