Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2020 || Easter 4A || John 1:1-10
I imagine Jesus looking out over the fields beyond Jerusalem and seeing shepherds moving their flocks towards the sparse patches of green in the distance. He turns to his followers and says, “You see those shepherds out there. I am the Good Shepherd.” Then he begins spinning out his metaphor, telling a story as the people watch the grazing sheep beneath the big, open sky. The shepherd goes into the fold,” Jesus continues, and “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
The sheep know the voice of the shepherd. Our Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ. Do we know his voice? We have no audio recordings of him. We’ve never heard the distinct tone and timbre and rhythm of his voice. We really have no way to make a real, audible connection with Jesus. And that fact makes me wonder: with no way of hearing Jesus’ literal voice, how do we know that voice? How do we listen to someone who lived nineteen centuries ago and who inhabited the other side of the world and who spoke a language that no longer exists?
Seems like a tall order. Seems like too many barriers to even attempt to listen. And yet, we believe it is possible to know this voice of the Good Shepherd. We call the act of listening for Jesus’ voice “discernment.” Often this word, “discernment,” is linked in the church with the process to become an ordained leader. But the word is much broader than that. Discernment happens when we inhabit an atmosphere of prayerful reflection and listen for the voice of Jesus speaking at the intersection of three other voices. These voices are the voice of scripture, the voice of our own inmost hearts, and the voice of the community. I want to talk about discernment this morning because so many of us are spending significant time at home right now, which just might give us the opportunity to cultivate an atmosphere of prayerful reflection and hear the voice of Jesus.
Let’s begin with the voice of scripture. When the Bible was written down, the culture was based on oral transmission. Today, our culture is based on images and the written word. Back then everything happened through the spoken word. So when you read the Bible, cast yourself back in time and read it aloud. Read the Gospel slowly, prayerfully, carefully, and audibly. Listen to the sound of your own voice speaking the words of Jesus:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Hear the voice of Jesus welling up from within you. Feel your mouth and tongue and breath work in concert to form those life-giving words. When you encounter a particular verse or passage that strikes you, don’t rush through the words. Sit with them. Say them aloud and hear Jesus speaking through you to you. Make those words your breath prayer. Practice making the voice of Christ the first thing that comes to your own lips in idle moments and joyful moments and fearful moments. As Paul says to the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in the words of scripture when we attend to them and attune to them and orient our lives around them.
This orientation continues with the second voice, the voice of our inmost hearts. At the outset of his own trek through the inward life, St. Augustine says, “My God, I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you.” Because we are in God and God somehow dwells within us, we can access the voice of Jesus within ourselves.
Most often, we are too distracted by external stimuli to attend to this voice. And when we manage to find grace enough to silence the outward bombardment, we still must contend with the chattering voice of our own selfish desires. This seductive voice constantly eats away at us, eroding us with whatever idols happen to be fashionable this season. But underneath the artillery and the idolatry, another voice speaks. This is the voice of Jesus speaking softly enough that we have to strain to hear. And everyone knows that when you have to strain to hear, you must be listening.
This internal voice of Jesus is the same “still, small voice” that Elijah hears on the mountain after the wind and the earthquake and the fire pass by. This is the same voice that the psalmist hears when God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The voice of Jesus speaks truth into our souls every moment of every day, and every once in a great while, we might happen to stop and hear that truth.
We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in scripture, in our inner selves, and in a third way, which balances the other two and keeps us from simply using Jesus as an excuse to confirm what we want to hear. This third voice is the voice of the community. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” says Paul, and he continues, “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” Without this conversation, this communion, with one another, we struggle to discern the voice of Jesus in our lives. God calls each one of us into God’s mission. The voice of the community cries out with the needs of the world, and the voice of our inmost hearts responds in ways that both meet these needs and bring us fully alive.
Christ’s voice in the Gospel shapes and guides the other two voices. Working together, this threefold voice of Jesus speaks to us across the barriers of time and distance and language. When these three voices – scripture, the interior self, and the community – mingle in an atmosphere of prayerful reflection, we will find ourselves open to discerning Jesus’ voice. This voice calls us his sheep out of the fold and into his mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. As we live through this time of crisis, confusion, and fear, I wonder what the threefold voice is saying to you. Listen. Listen for the Good Shepherd calling your name and speaking words of abundant life into your heart, so that you may help bring abundance into the lives of all you meet.