Speaking Of Life 2023 | The Voice in the Dark Greg Williams In the military they have a saying: the mark of a true chaplain is that your soldiers know your voice in the dark. You should have spent so much time with them, and they trust you so deeply, that even in the darkness and smoke of battle they know your voice. Jesus talks about this recognition in John 10:3-4 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. John 10:3-4 (ESV) We, as Jesus’ sheep, know his voice deep down. In our spirits, we can recognize his voice calling to us through the circumstances of our lives and through his word. Studies show that even in the womb a mother’s voice soothes a baby. The heartbeat relaxes and the baby responds. Sound is deeply wired into our consciousness. So, it’s no surprise that Jesus would portray his draw on our lives as the sound of his voice. The actual image used here is probably of a communal pen where the sheep were kept. The Shepherd came to the gate and called them, and they’d be drawn by his voice. These aren’t smart animals. Sheep wander off, they eat manure, they get snatched by predators. Their only hope is a protective Shepherd. Jesus describes a shepherd as one who calls and leads, not the driving, abusive person shepherds sometimes were. He calls gently, and he leads with mercy. May we be so attuned to him that we know his voice in the dark. In the difficulties of our lives, in the loud, distracted age in which we live, may we hear his voice above it all—encouraging, leading and guiding. I’m Greg Williams, speaking of life.
Psalm 23:1-6 • Acts 2:42-47 • 1 Peter 2:19-25 • John 10:1-10
The theme this week is following the Shepherd of life. Following Jesus is the way to the best life. In Acts 2, the early church experiences the miracle of fellowship as they follow the Shepherd and he unifies them. Psalm 23 describes the peace of soul that comes from trusting the Shepherd. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle encourages the young church that they are under the care of “shepherd and guardian of your souls” (v. 25). Our sermon, The Harmony of the Good Shepherd’s Voice, is based on John 10. Here Jesus describes the good Shepherd who brings us into “life abundant.”
The Harmony of the Good Shepherd’s Voice
John 10:1-10 ESV
Have the text read prior to the sermon.
If you’re of a certain age, before elementary school kids had cellphones, you likely remember your parents calling you in for supper. The world was a bit quieter and a bit safer, and kids played outside regardless of the weather. But you knew if you heard your dad’s whistle or your mom yell “Supper!”, play time was done for the day. Lots of whistles and yells could be heard in the neighborhood, but you knew which one was for you. You could even tell if you could stroll home or if you better hightail it—depending on the tone.
In the villages where Jesus did his ministry, sheep knew their shepherd’s voice so well, they came when called. At certain times of day, you could hear the calls going back and forth like suburban moms calling kids in for dinner, and the lambs would come running. There wasn’t anything magical about it—it was a highly practical, necessary part of life.
Jesus uses this everyday occurrence to make the point that we will know his voice. We will know what he sounds like and be drawn to him. That’s the emotional center of these words: Jesus is the good shepherd; we will hear him and follow.
Let’s unpack these verses a little to see what it means to be led by the good shepherd.
The first thing any commentator tells you to do with this story is look at the context immediately preceeding it. Keep in mind the chapter breaks in our modern Bibles weren’t in the original text. The book of John is one long story, Matthew is one long story—they were all one piece before chapter and verse breaks were introduced later in history. So, this section from John was attached to the verses just before, which tell about the healing of the man born blind (if you follow the lectionary, this was the reading from the Fourth Sunday in Easter Preparation season).
Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Israelite authorities. The man is then thrown out of the synagogue, which is basically like being thrown out of the center of the community. Jesus finds him and identifies himself to the man. This speech then happens just after this conversation, even though we have them separated by a chapter. The recently blind man stands in the crowd as Jesus speaks.
So, for context, we’ll read back to verse 9:35 and continue into chapter 10 a little:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (John 9:35-41 ESV)
(CHAPTER 10) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 9:35-10:3 ESV)
See how that helps make sense of the passage? Jesus addresses the Pharisees who were standing around, upset with him for breaking their rules and getting people to question them. He heals the blind man literally, and then discusses the metaphorical blindness of the hypocrites running their society. He was helping someone blind from birth—a man basically helpless in that society—and they were more worried about keeping particular laws of a particular day.
We see Jesus doing this all the way through his ministry—establishing that the Jewish leaders had lost the heart, the point of what these laws were about. He also pointed out that these laws and rituals all point to something—better said someone—himself.
The word picture he uses here is probably a communal sheep pen, where the animals were kept for the night or some part of the day. When the shepherd reported for work, he opened the door and called them out and they came to him.
A thief and robber of sheep in that society was especially disliked, because they were cutting into the center of commerce and survival. Sheep meant milk, meat and wool, and were all that stood between sustenance and starvation. This kind of theft wasn’t just taking sentimental property or someone’s second car—this cut right into the heart of survival.
Jesus uses shepherd imagery that would have been known by his audience. The Pharisees’ anger was understandable, because Jesus was probably referring specifically to a section of Ezekiel 34.
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-6 ESV)
This is a passage the Pharisees would have been familiar with, and here’s Jesus comparing them with this diatribe against the leaders of Israel centuries before. This is not a gentle comparison; he is saying they are the thieves who mislead Israel and deceive the people, leading in a wrong direction in order to keep their position of power and place in society.
What strikes me as I read this is not as much the evil of the corrupt leaders, which is apparent, nor even the lostness of the sheep, but the goodness of the Good Shepherd. As he calls himself in the verse right after our passage: “I am the good shepherd” (verse 11).
In Ezekiel, the leaders are condemned for neglecting the weak, leaving the sick, not helping the injured. They’ve allowed the sheep to scatter and left them vulnerable to wild beasts. But the Good Shepherd reaches out to the broken and the hurting and the imperfect. This is a powerful contrast. Corrupt leaders who exploit the weak and discard them, and the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to save the one, and who sometimes leaves the 1 (percent) to reach the 99.
Sheep aren’t exactly the fluffy characters from the Sunday school pictures. They have a peculiar simplemindedness, even when compared with other farm animals. If you put sheep in one area, they will graze there until the grass is gone. This tendency to overgraze requires a shepherd to move them from pasture to pasture—something they won’t do on their own. They aren’t known to be the intellectuals of the farmyard.
And that makes the good shepherd all the more “good.” A shepherd doesn’t necessarily have to be good to his sheep. He’s unobserved for much of the time, and nobody knows how he treats them; owners just want their sheep fed and watered. The goodness of the good shepherd tells us about him, about who he is.
To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (John 10:2-3 ESV)
The good shepherd doesn’t speak with an abusive voice; he doesn’t jump over the fence and scare the sheep—he approaches with gentle confidence, knowing that his sheep know his voice. Jesus comes with the drawing voice, the wooing voice, not the loud, driving spirit we hear from other voices.
Where is that drawing voice in your life today? When you’re faced with a decision or come to a crossroads, are you listening to the gentle, drawing voice that’s calling you to wholeness and life, or the aggressive voice calling you to self-glory, power, greed? Very few of our decisions are entirely that clear-cut, but listen close. What’s calling you to be more like Jesus?
Saint Augustine, one of the early church fathers, described the prayerful life as “the harmonious sounding together of all the parts.” The healing, the together-ing of all the fragments of ourselves, is what the good shepherd calls us to. We are so fragmented, especially in the loud, distracted world in which we live. Our capabilities never match our egos, our greed never matches our income, our gluttony never matches our health.
Harmony. That is the sound of the good shepherd’s voice. It’s a voice that draws you toward peace; a voice that draws you toward coherence in yourself. Contrast this with a voice that screams at you. A good example is the rise of Nazism.
“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few,” was how Hitler described his rise to power. The Nazi rally, with its screamed slogans, deafening music, and frightening torches, was anything but harmonious. Hitler was able to maneuver through sloganeering and emotional manipulation to get people to believe insanity and follow him to their end. This emotional stream-rolling of the mind and spirit is the exact opposite of the gentle voice of Christ.
The voice of the good shepherd calls out the best in us to keep going, keep loving, keep singing in a world in love with noise. The Good Shepherd knows how all the parts of us “sound together” the best. He made us.
That’s why the final verse of this passage is one of the most important in John.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Verse 10 ESV)
Does life to the full or life abundantly describe the shepherd you know? So often we associate Jesus with “being good” or “walking the straight and narrow” with some kind of joyless, over-serious life. This is the stereotype many unwittingly send out into the world about Jesus and his way of life.
Do we think of the Christian life as the abundant life? It’s not just the key to an eternal life plan or some way to curry favor with the divine, but to live as life was meant to be lived. It’s to have that “full life” that comes with living the way God intended.
Think of all the tension and strife that would leave the world if we followed God’s plan for sexual expression. Think of all the homeless people off the streets and the joy and freedom we’d have if greed didn’t always take the day in our economy. Think of all the abundance we’d have if we didn’t over-indulge. Think of the harmony of the Shepherd’s voice.
Where is he calling you today? Where is he calling you to experience his harmony in your life and to bring harmony into the world?
C.S. Lewis, who was called out of the fragmented emptiness of academic atheism, leaves us with a great quote today:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We are far too easily pleased in this world. We settle so often when we are offered abundance. But listen to that voice in you that calls you out of the noise, out of self-addiction, out of status-seeking and back-biting. Hear the voice that’s always calling us to the Good Shepherd’s harmony.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life: “The Voice in the Dark”
- Do you have a voice of someone in your life that you will always recognize? That you would know even if you hadn’t hear it for years?
- How do you think Jesus calls to you? What was your experience of him drawing you to himself?
Questions for sermon: “The Harmony of the Good Shepherd’s Voice”
Read John 10:1-10 to start
- Jesus used shepherds as an everyday metaphor for himself in this discussion. If he were here in the flesh today, what common profession might he use to describe himself? Would he describe himself as a construction worker, an IT guy, a cop? What do you think he might choose?
- Jesus describes himself as the “good” shepherd who looks after the sheep, helping those who are broken and struggling. This kind of shepherd looks for sheep that most people would have forgotten. What does that tell us about Jesus?
- Saint Augustine, one of the early church fathers, described the prayerful life as “the harmonious sounding together of all the parts.” Have you ever experienced this connection with God? What brought you there?
- Jesus talks about bringing us “life abundantly” in verse 10. Do we frame the Christian life as life abundant? Do we think of it this way?
Quote to ponder: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts do not find rest until they rest in You.”—Saint Augustine