I preached this sermon at two services at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Woodstock, Virginia, on April 26, 2015. I hope it will bless you and expand your thinking on this familiar and much-beloved passage of Scripture.
A most comforting image
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and there is probably no other scripture more comforting or more beloved than the 23rd Psalm we read today along with the Gospel reading from John 10:14:
“I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me.”
I'll bet many of you remember, as I do, a picture hanging in our Sunday School room depicting Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders, and being taught its message: that we are loved by Jesus and we are carried by that love.
I daresay most of us can recite the 23rd Psalm from memory, and have probably done so over and over when the circumstances of our lives seemed to overwhelm us—those times when we felt we were, indeed, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. When we recall those words, we know we are not alone.
The gift of being known by God
I’ve been reflecting on the power and gift of being known by God. There’s a wonderful Zulu term “Sawubona” – it means literally, “I see you,” but it goes beyond physical sight to mean “I acknowledge you.” This notion has never been more important than it is in today’s culture, where we’re so often just a number, and our hustle and bustle keeps us from taking the time to truly acknowledge those with whom we interact on a daily basis: our family, our friends, the person at the cash register, our waitress. Instead of letting them pass us by unacknowledged, how much better if we could remember the wonderful words by Rosemary Crow from her song Weave: “Now the Christ in me greets the Christ in Thee.” When we acknowledge another sheep in the fold, we are truly one in Christ!
But John’s Gospel message is about so much more than just being personally known by God. It means that with all our flaws and shortcomings, all our eccentricities, all our sins of commission and omission, we are loved and we are forgiven.
What incredibly Good News!
But how well do we know God?
But the sentence from John’s gospel doesn’t stop with the declaration, “I know my own.” It goes on to say, “And my own know me.” For me, this brought up a whole new set of questions that began to be a bit unsettling:
- How well do I know really know God?
- How can I get to know God more intimately?
- Does God still speak to us?
- Will I recognize the voice of my shepherd when he calls me to pull me safely into the fold or to be his conduit for love in the world?
- How do I distinguish my shepherd’s voice from the other voices that bombard me constantly?
We believe in a living God, with whom we may have a relationship. How else can we get to know God better if not by cultivating that relationship?
There must be connection.
There must be communication.
There must be conversation.
And that implies something that’s two-way. Most of us are pretty good at speaking to God (or perhaps at God). But I daresay we can all work on our God-listening skills.
Learning to know God's voice
Have you ever been in a crowd of people, perhaps a busy store or shopping center, when you heard the voice of your child—or perhaps the voice of your spouse or a friend—call your name? You pick it out of other noises immediately, because you know that voice.
I used to think all birds sounded alike, but after learning to identify a few birdcalls and songs, it gives me a thrill to be out for a walk and hear a familiar sound I know to be a cardinal or a Carolina wren, even without seeing it.
How wonderful to be as confident about recognizing the voice of Jesus, my shepherd, when he calls my name.
Well, I do believe God still speaks to us and that we can cultivate the ability to recognize His voice in the midst of all the other noise. Christian writings, scripture, and personal anecdotes from devout Christians are clear that God has spoken to us throughout history and still speaks.
In scripture, we find:
From Job: For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. (Job 33:14)
From Isaiah: And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
From Jeremiah: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. (Jeremiah 33:3)
From John: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)
So if God’s talking, why can’t we hear His voice?
I think we often have preconceived ideas about how God might speak to us, so we don’t recognize it when He speaks in ordinary or quiet ways. We’re waiting for God’s voice to come out of a burning bush when it’s much more likely to come from our next door neighbor…yes, even the one that gets on our nerves! We also forget to expect responses to our side of the conversation with God. Sometimes, we’re so busy talking, we forget to listen!
Once we realize there’s a two-way conversation going on, we can begin to enjoy the thrill of recognizing God’s voice as a comforter and guide in dealing with life’s challenges. We will never be alone again! I’d like to suggest a few ways God might be speaking to us.
- God speaks through Scripture. The Bible gives a great deal of guidance on the things we encounter in life, so familiarity with its teaching can result in the right verse and message coming to mind just when we need it. Hannah Whitehall Smith, in her classic The Christian’s Secret Of A Happy Life, tells us clearly to look for messages from God in scripture before anywhere else.
- God speaks through our intuition. This is a combination of our thoughts and our gut feelings. It can be thoughts and feelings that come to us during prayer, or they can come out of the blue. It takes practice to discern which things are messages from God and which are just wishful thinking (or worse, messages from the Tempter).
- God speaks through others. Sometimes this is the hardest to recognize. We should be careful not to pre-judge who God might use to deliver a message we need to hear!
- God speaks through books, letters, movies, or music. I find this happens most often when I am intentionally praying about a situation or asking for an answer to a question. Uncannily (or so it seems at the time), I’ll get a letter, read an article, watch a video, or be sent some other resource that speaks very specifically to what I’ve asked God about.
- God speaks through circumstances in our lives. Sometimes the guidance from God comes in the form of a slamming door. At other times it comes in the form of an opportunity. We should be open to the possibility that either might be a message from God.
So as we depart from church today in the comfort of knowing we are a sheep of God's own fold, a lamb of God’s own flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, we also leave knowing we are cherished, protected, and guided by the Great Shepherd. We leave knowing that we are FORGIVEN for our sins.
And what better way to express our own love and gratitude for this incredible knowledge than a renewed determination to uphold our side of the relationship by listening for His voice and responding with gratitude and obedience.
“I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me.”
Thanks be to God!
How does God speak most clearly to you? What practices or disciplines have helped you to be able to hear God's voice more often and more clearly? I'd love to learn from you if you'll share your thoughts in the comments below.