(John 10: 1-5, 11-16, Psalm 23)
From the very first time my family and I saw the Disney movie UP, we were instant fans. For lots of reasons – gorgeous animation, captivating storyline. And Dug the dog. Dug is this lovable golden retriever who’s been equipped by his owner with a device around his neck that enables his barks to be converted into audible words. In other words, Dug barks and then you hear exactly what Dug is thinking. So, for instance, when Dug first meets Carl and Russell, the two lead characters, he barks excitedly and then we hear him say, “I have just met you, and I love you!” Sounds like a dog, doesn’t it?
Thing is, such a contraption may not be that far-fetched. Apparently there’s an actual device called the “Bow-Lingual Dog Bark Translator.” Here’s how it works: a small electronic transmitter is attached to your dog’s collar and activates every time it barks. A small signal is then sent to a receiver, about the size of a cell phone, that you keep in your purse or attached to your belt. The receiver takes the bark and interprets it using previously designated text patterns that reflect six mood categories: happy, sad, frustrated, needy, on-guard, or assertive. Within each mood category are any number of specific phrases that allegedly “interpret” what the dog’s bark means.
So, imagine that you walk in from a long day at work and are greeted by an excited dog. And as she barks, the transmitter on your belt lights up with, “I’m so glad to see you!” Or you’re giving your dog their monthly heartworm .Buy inderal medicine, which is never any fun, and the translator reads, “I don’t like this!”
Now it’d be great to think that such a device is foolproof, but unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case. Studies have shown that the translation doesn’t always match up with the circumstance – for instance, “Get that away from me!” when the dog’s food bowl is put out. And some of the responses seem to stretch the credibility of the concept – after all, why in the world would a dog ever need to say something like, “I’ll be contacting my attorney”?
That hasn’t stopped some folks from shelling out $120. And I gotta say, as someone who lives with three dogs, each with their own unique set of needs and challenges, the idea is tempting. How cool it’d be to break through the human-animal communication barrier and understand what thoughts are running through your dog’s mind. Who knows – maybe one day they’ll do the same thing with a cat, or a horse or an iguana. Or maybe even a sheep – although, truth be told, that one’s been done already.
Here’s what I mean: there are around 220 references in the Bible to sheep, and most of the time they’re used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. God, or Jesus, is the shepherd; and we the people are the sheep. And just as a shepherd watches over their sheep and makes sure all are accounted for and safe, so God watches over and takes care of us.
Our scriptures today are two of the most notable sheep passages. Who could ever forget the beautiful imagery in the 23rd Psalm: God as our Shepherd, providing for us green pastures and still waters to sustain us and bring us peace and contentedness. And in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus takes this shepherd/sheep imagery thing to a whole new level, painting an elaborate and somewhat confusing picture. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is standing at the gate. He calls out to his sheep and asks them to follow him – which they do, because, as scripture says, they know his voice. They know his voice.
This is in contrast, the passage says, to the thieves and strangers. Their aim is nowhere near as noble. They try to fool the sheep and lead them astray, stealing them from the care of the Good Shepherd. But this never works – because, remember, the sheep know the voice of their master – and just as importantly, they know the voice of someone who is not. So they avoid following others and always stay true to the direction the Good Shepherd provides.
Now it may sound a little far-fetched – sheep being able to delineate between different people’s voices – but it’s actually true. A number of years ago, a scientist performed a study on sheep at – and this is no joke – at the BAABraham Institute in Cambridge. Contrary to common perception, the study showed that sheep are actually among the most intelligent of animals. Along with strong memory skills and the ability to pick out a particular face in a line of pictures, sheep were found to recognize and distinguish between any number of voice patterns. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd.
So the message of Jesus’ words here is this: as we journey through life, we hear all kinds of voices; voices that call us away from the fold and the God who claims us as God’s own. But that does not stop us from focusing on the one voice that matters – the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd – and following that voice wherever it leads.
Including, as the famous Psalm notes, to greener pastures and still waters where our soul is renewed and where we can experience the depth and breadth of God’s righteousness. And there we remain, dwelling in the house of the Lord, forever.
It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it? Almost as cool as that bark translator. And everything would be all fine and dandy if it were not for one little problem: that this is not the way things work! I mean, it’s not, is it? As much as we would love to think otherwise, the hard truth is that we sheep do not always follow the Shepherd – in fact, we are much more inclined to listen to and follow all those other voices. The fact of the matter is that the wolf in this scripture makes its presence known all-too often in our lives, throwing things around us into turmoil and confusion….
The deadline was coming fast and he was in a bind. It seemed the harder he worked, the further he got behind. This wasn’t just any account, either – it was one of those that comes around once in a lifetime. Get this company’s business and he could pretty much assure that his three kids would go to the college of their choice; lose the account, and he might be looking for a new job. So there he was, working night and day, doing everything he could to please his boss and his boss’s boss, in order to make it happen. He hadn’t seen those three kids of his in days….
She had wanted to be a doctor since she was a kid – not for the money, but to satisfy a deep need inside her to help people. Whatever they would pay her would simply be icing on the cake. She graduated from high school with big plans to attend the university and go pre-med. All that changed when she got the grade on her second organic chemistry exam. She had no idea numbers could go that low. Frustrated and – for the first time in her life – disillusioned, she didn’t know what to do. She had never faced failure like this before; the grades had always come easily. And now, she was seriously considering dropping out of pre-med, perhaps even college altogether….
It had been forever since he’d talked with his father. And the crazy thing was he could hardly remember what started the rift in the first place. Isn’t that the way it always happens? Anyway, it didn’t matter now; the present was far more devastating than the past ever was. Christmases and birthdays would come and go, and even though he thought about it, he’d never get around to sending that card or making that phone call. The wounds cut long ago were still as fresh as ever. And yet he desperately longed to reunite with his old man, and make peace with the past, and introduce him to his newest grandchild….
Let me ask you something – do any of these voices sound familiar to you? Or partly familiar? They are the voices of despair and frustration. The voices of powerlessness and brokenness. They are the wolves in our midst, wreaking havoc and distracting us from the one voice that really matters. And as much as we would like to think that the flock always follows its master, the fact is that you and I tend to let the wolf get the best of us. And when that happens, we get a little hard of hearing – or, perhaps more accurately, a little “selective hearing.” We hear those other voices and are less receptive to the voice of the Shepherd. We get scared and “sell ourselves short” of who we were created to be as children of God.
So why is it, then, that the picture Jesus presents in this passage is far removed from our experience? It’s an age-old question; one we struggle with every day of our lives. And we are not alone in this, either. Not by a long shot. In fact, the struggle goes all the way back to the very beginning – to the Garden of Eden. Perfection. All right with the world, all in its place, all at peace.
Until the snake slithers in, or the wolf comes prancing around. Our human nature, which God intended for good, eventually gets the best of us – as an old seminary professor of mine loved to say, every person who has ever lived on this planet plays out with their lives that “little drama in the Garden of Eden.”
So, despite the fact that we can eat the fruit of any tree, we always seem to go for the one we’re not supposed to. Despite the easily-recognizable voice of the Good Shepherd that calls our name, we make a habit of listening to all the other voices on the periphery. And when we eat that fruit, or when we follow those other voices, we are led away from not only our God, but from all that God ever dreamed we would be.
Which means we have to do something that doesn’t come all that naturally, my friends: we have to “speak sheep.” Just as the Good Shepherd listens for our voice, we have to listen for his – a voice that comes to us in and from the community of faith. It’s here where the voice of Jesus achieves its greatest clarity and is heard loud and clear. Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, he says. Gathered to “speak sheep.”
And you know what this voice dares to say to us? It dares to proclaim hope. Hope that our current state – with the strange voices and the wolves running amuck – this state is not the way things are supposed to be; and because of that, does not need to keep being that way. As we continue on our journey of faith, as individuals and as the people of God, we work for the reconciliation of the world – not because we don’t have anything better to do, but because we hold fast to the ideal Jesus shared with his disciples, and the fervent belief that God has every intention of making it a reality.
This hope calls us to take action when others are immobilized – it’s why we pray for those who are sick when many are dying; it’s why we build houses for the homeless even though more people are taking to the streets each day; it’s why we labor to include our children and youth in the leadership of this church rather than token activities, even as more and more of the younger generation are turning away from church altogether. We have hope, even in the midst of hopelessness, because we hold fast to the coming of the kingdom of God and the renewal of this world to its Maker.
There’s another kind of hope we find woven into these verses; a deeper hope that gets to the heart of our journey with God, and it is this: despite the fact that we may from time to time follow the beckoning call of other voices, despite the wolves that frequently invade our territory, none of that changes the fact that our God never stops listening to us. Now that’s hope!
God hears our shouts of joyous celebration; God hears our cries of anguish and despair; and God hears every voice in between. And God understands. God speaks to us – if only we are willing to listen – and guides us every step of the way. When other voices grab our attention, Jesus speaks louder. When the chaos of the wolf comes crashing in, Jesus is that “solid rock” that anchors us in tumultuous times.
So unlike you and me or a Disney movie, Jesus doesn’t need an electronic transmitter to understand what you and I are saying to him. Jesus hears our voice, and he knows our needs, most of the time before we even know them ourselves. And because of that, nothing can take away the hope of a God who truly loves the flock.
So thanks be to God! Thanks for this Jesus of ours who “speaks sheep” – listening to us, hearing us, loving us.
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.