Knowing the Voice of the Shepherd

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 10:1-10, which has already been read.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Are you good at recognizing voices? My first boss, Ralph Korn, was exceptionally good at it. Someone he hadn’t seen for twenty years or so could call him and he’d know immediately who it was. God certainly knew what he was doing when he gave Ralph that gift. Even as Ralph’s eyesight was failing as a result of multiple sclerosis, he would still recognize most everyone when they came into the feed store as soon as they said, “Hello.”

Since that time, I’ve discovered that recognizing voices is a skill that can be learned and practiced. The trick is to really focus on that voice and listen for distinguishing traits. The more you hear that voice and the closer you listen, the more distinct and recognizable that voice is to your ear.

In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. He has just healed the man born blind and they are seething at Jesus’ implication that they are spiritually blind; so blind, in fact, they are completely oblivious to their condition. Now, in essence, Jesus accuses them of spiritual deafness as well.

Jesus begins “truly, truly, I say to you,” a phrase He often uses to emphasize that He is about to teach a very important spiritual lesson. Then He paints a word picture to drive the point home, using a figure of speech called paroimia, literally translated “a veiled saying.” A saying that uses a concrete image to convey a spiritual truth. As with a parable, the meaning is not always obvious to outsiders.  

The image Jesus pictures is of sheep that are kept in a stone-walled, open-air pen. Only the shepherd has access through the one gate to the sheep. Anyone finding another way into the pen is up to no good. He is a robber and a thief.

The watchman protecting the gate opens it only for the shepherd. The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice as he calls each of them by name and leads them out. They follow because they know his voice. But they do not follow a stranger. They fear strangers and flee from them because they do not recognize their voice.

As Jesus speaks, we might expect His Jewish audience to understand at least some of His figurative language. Much of it is used throughout the Old Testament. The sheep are God’s chosen people. The strangers and thieves are those who would harm them. The shepherd is the Messiah sent by God to care for the flock. But the Pharisees don’t fully understand the implication of Jesus’ words. Maybe they really don’t catch on, or perhaps they won’t follow it because they don’t believe in Jesus and aren’t ready to conclude that they themselves are among the strangers. Obviously, they don’t recognize Jesus’ voice as their Shepherd.

Seeing that they do not understand, Jesus patiently starts again with a slightly different twist and a more direct application. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He emphasizes, “I am the door of the sheep.” Jesus is not only the shepherd and caretaker of the sheep, He is the only way to reach the sheep and the only way for the sheep to go for nourishment.

Many “strangers” came prior to Jesus, and many more will come after, each trying to reach His sheep. But the false prophets and false christs do not come by the way of Jesus. They do not find Christ in the Scriptures and point Him out as the way of salvation. They are thieves and robbers who come to steal, kill, and destroy. But Jesus comes so that the sheep might have life to the full.

Jesus first addresses these words to the Pharisees, who regard themselves as the spiritual shepherds of God’s people. They are very serious and knowledgeable about their religion. They are deeply committed to living by God’s will—as they understand it. That’s important for us to remember. It’s very rare that a false teacher, one of the thieves and robbers, sets out to lead anyone astray. Especially as they begin, they are generally very serious about their faith and truly wish to do what is right. No one, or at least hardly anyone, intentionally decides to be a heretic. They have good intentions. But as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Blinded to the truth by their own arrogance and self-righteousness, tone deaf to the Good Shepherd’s voice, the Pharisees are simply misled by the lies of Satan, the world, or their own sinful flesh.

These men who claim to be spiritual leaders of God’s people hear from Jesus what it really means and what it takes to be His undershepherds. The only way to enter God’s flock, either as a shepherd or a sheep, is through the gate. And Jesus says that He is that gate. Only those who approach God and His people through Jesus will enter the safety of His flock. Others are dangerous intruders.

Jesus makes an astonishing claim: He is not just one gate among many gates—He is the Gate. He is not just one way among many ways that lead to eternal life—He is the only Way. He is not just one truth among many truths—He is the Truth. Jesus is not just a source of life—He is Life itself, Life to the full, Life in abundance. Jesus makes claims to uniqueness and exclusivity and sovereignty that offends many—even still today, perhaps especially in our day in which “tolerance” and “diversity” is touted as the primary virtue.

In effect, this is what He is saying to the Pharisees: “If you want to belong to God, if you want to lead God’s people, you have to do it through Me. If you do enter God’s flock through faith in Me, you will be well taken care of. I have life in its fullness for you. If you try to lead God’s people without accepting and obeying Me, you will only hurt and deprive God’s flock. And, you will lose your salvation too. What will you be—a true shepherd of the sheep or a thief and a robber? What will you do? Will you be one of My sheep who hear My voice and have abundant life, or will you listen to the other voices who will lead you to death and destruction?”

Many in every age, including our own, present themselves as God’s representatives and spokespersons, as leaders of His people. Here Jesus gives us a reliable gauge by which to evaluate them. True shepherds lead others to God and His flock through Jesus. They know and trust in Jesus as their Savior. And they invite and encourage others to find their way to God through Him. No one who ignores or denies Jesus can be trusted or followed.

There are a lot of other voices out there in the world today. Voices who would lead you away from the safety and comfort of family, friends, and fellow Christians. Voices dangling the prospect of greener pastures in order to lead you away from the safety of the sheep pen, away from the relationships established by God and before God, even away from the Good Shepherd Himself. Voices who promise freedom, excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, but will ultimately lead to bondage, pain, and destruction for you, perhaps even to some of the innocent bystanders whom you love and who love and care about you.

So, how do you keep away from those voices? You keep listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Listen long enough and close enough to the Good Shepherd and you will know His voice whenever and wherever He calls. You will not be fooled by false prophets, you will flee every stranger’s voice, for you will know that it sounds not like the Good Shepherd who promises you full and abundant life, but rather a thief and robber who comes to steal and kill and destroy.

Throughout the years of my ministry, I have given the new students beginning catechism class a set of 380 flashcards with questions and answers drawn from Luther’s Small Catechism that we will use to study and review each week. I tell them they will be able to answer most of these questions if they just learn their memory work on the six chief parts of the catechism. I also tell them that at the end of their final year, I will narrow that set of questions and answers down to thirty that they must know in order to be confirmed.

Why do I do that? Well, it’s certainly not to make my job easier. It would be a lot easier to just go along with the flow of modern education that seems to dismiss any memory work of any sort rather than having to constantly keep encouraging the students (and their parents) to keep up with the memory work.

And it’s not because I think that the catechumens just need more to do. No, I think most of these young men and women are already overcommitted and overwhelmed with school work and extra-curricular activities. No, it’s because I don’t want those lambs entrusted to my care to go out into the world without being reasonably certain they are able to distinguish between the Good Shepherd’s voice and the other voices competing for their heart, mind, and soul.  To not properly prepare them would be irresponsible and derelict in my duty to them.

But as I’ve thought about it—perhaps I have been irresponsible and derelict in my duty anyway. For I’ve not emphasized these teachings for the whole flock. I must teach these things to all of you as well. Why? Because learning and growing in faith and knowledge of Christ is not just for the lambs; it’s for Christ’s sheep of all ages. So that all His sheep might recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Toward that end, I’d like to share a few of the questions and answers that are most helpful as a firm foundation for distinguishing truth from error. And if any of you would like a copy of the flashcards to work on yourself just let me know after the service. I would be more than willing to accommodate you. J    

1)  “What is the source of all Christian doctrine?” (The Bible).

There are voices who say that Christian doctrine is derived merely from human opinion, there is no absolute truth, but truth is relative or determined by the situation. Even some of the voices who say that doctrine is determined by the Bible insist it still must be subject to human reasoning for proper interpretation. Other voices say that doctrines can be declared by sacred tradition, the decrees of councils or popes. And still others rely on their own feelings to verify the truth.

Following the voice of our Good Shepherd, we teach that the Bible is the sole source of all Christian doctrine. When it comes to interpretation, Scripture interprets Scripture; that is, the more clear passages of the Bible are used in their proper context to clarify and help us understand the less clear passages.

2)  “What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel?” (The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior.)

There is much confusion about Law and Gospel in the Church today. This is very dangerous to the Christian faith. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the only means for a correct understanding of Scripture. In fact, without this knowledge, Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

Some of the competing voices misrepresent Christ as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and turn the Gospel into a doctrine of works. Many voices fail to preach the Law in its full sternness, or the Gospel in its full sweetness, as they mingle the two together. Other voices teach that the Law is to be used as a club or a carrot-and-stick rather than as Scriptures clearly teaches—as a curb, mirror, or guide. Still other voices dispense the Gospel too cheaply, by failing to preach repentance, consciously overlooking sin, or dismissing the great price Christ paid for our redemption—His holy and precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

This potential misunderstanding is solved when we reflect that there are in the Scriptures two entirely different doctrines—the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law shows us what we must do to be saved; the Gospel shows what God has done for our salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. The Law is partly known by nature; the Gospel is unknown to natural man but must be revealed by God in His Word. The Law condemns; the Gospel sets us free. The Law tells us what we must do, but it doesn’t help us keep its commands; whereas the Gospel calls for faith and then gives us the faith it demands.

3)  “Who is a worthy communicant?” (He or she that has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”)

In this day, many voices clamor for tolerance, few seem concerned about who is actually a worthy communicant. A church body like ours that still maintains the ancient practice of closed communion is labeled as narrow-minded, too strict, perhaps, even arrogant. But properly understood this teaching is seen to be most loving and caring for individual souls.

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, God sets out the standards for those who propose to attend Holy Communion. Briefly, God expects that the prospective participant knows what is involved in Holy Communion according to Scripture and that he or she examine himself or herself spiritually. God takes Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sins seriously. God indicates that unless a person honestly examines himself, he eats and drinks judgment upon himself. God will not tolerate anyone taking lightly or wrongly His Sacrament, even in ignorance.

When a Lutheran pastor declines to give Holy Communion to a person unknown to him, he is not acting as a judge of that person’s faith. Quite the contrary! The Lutheran pastor is deeply impressed by what Holy Communion is. It is his sincere desire that all receive it in faith and for their blessing.

The protecting of the unknowing person is a loving act. We do not exclude people from the sacrament, but require they first be instructed by the pastor in what this sacrament is, what God offers here, and what God expects of us, so that we can be confident they are taking it for their benefit and not to their judgment.

4)  “What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to Christ?” (He has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.)

There are many voices out there telling you what you must do to be saved. Some point you to good works: do enough of them and they will outweigh your sins. Some try to turn your faith into a work. They tell you that yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you have to decide to accept Christ as your personal Savior. Other voices say you must belong to the right church. But those are only the voices of thieves and robbers. If you listen to them, they can steal your soul and lead you away from the flock. Don’t listen to them! God, in His grace, has given you a much better way—listen to the Good Shepherd and what He says in His Word.

The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to make sinners into saints. Through Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates saving faith and calls you to be a child of God. As you continue studying and hearing God’s Word, the Spirit enlightens you and helps you mature in faith. Through daily repentance and remembrance of your baptism you are sanctified, being made holy. In the Lord’s Supper, you receive forgiveness and your faith is strengthened. Though the progress is often imperceptible, the Holy Spirit works through these means to conform you to the image of Christ and bring you to eternal life in God’s   kingdom.     

5) “Do you hope to be saved? Why?” (Yes, because Jesus lived a perfect life and died in my place for my sin.)

This is the most important question of all. It sums up all the other questions. There is only one way to heaven and Jesus is the gate. Whoever enters through Him will be saved. Jesus has come that you may have life, and have it to the full. You are saved only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the perfect life that you could not, and who died on the cross for your sins, and who rose victoriously from the grave. You are saved by the Good Shepherd. Listen to His voice, which reassures you again and again: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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