My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me John 10:27
Walking on the country road in Northern Spain on a summer’s evening thirty years ago, there was a scene that might have come from a Bible story. Over to the right, beyond a concrete viaduct that carried water to farmland, a shepherd was leading his flock homeward. He carried no stick and there was no sheepdog to obey his calls, instead he called quietly from time to time and the sheep came running toward him.
The shepherd had great confidence, he seemed not to need to turn to check that the flock were following. He kept walking, happy that his sheep would hear his voice and that they would follow him.
In the Gospel reading this Good Shepherd Sunday, in the words of Saint John Chapter 10 Verse 27, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.”
If the sheep in that flock in Spain had not heard the voice of the shepherd, they would not have found their way home that evening; they would have found themselves wandering in the cold and the dark, and, when night fell there, it got very cold.
Finding the way for Christians depends on hearing Jesus’ voice and hearing his voice depends on being prepared to listen. The picture of the Good Shepherd is usually one of a shepherd who will come to find people wherever we are. Certainly, that is what Jesus does, but he also expects that they will respond, he expects people who, having heard his voice, listen to it.
God is not presented as a shepherd who walks behind people with a big stick and with dogs snapping at their heels, he is one who walks before them. Having gathered people into his flock, he expects that they will follow him. He expects that his voice will be sufficient to keep them together with the flock, that his voice will be sufficient to prevent them straying and becoming lost.
Do people hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?
‘I know them’, says Jesus. Today, shepherds in Europe do not need to know their flocks in the way they once did. The ear tags carried by lambs and sheep can instantly identify to whom an animal belongs. To steal a tagged sheep would be pointless, that tag shows its owner and without that tag it has little value for sale. In Jesus’ time, things were very different, not only were the sheep unmarked, but different flocks might graze together, shepherds joining together for company and for safety. In such circumstances, the shepherds work depended upon him knowing his own sheep.
Many Christians behave as if the Shepherd did not know them. Christian faith is pushed into a box, an hour on a Sunday morning. Yet Christians have to ask themselves what sort of God they believe in if they think that they can be one person on a Sunday and a completely different person on a Monday. What sort of God do they believe in if they think God is not aware of the whole of their personalities? People make little of themselves if they are not honest with themselves. What sort of Shepherd would Christians believe Jesus to be if they thought he was only around when it suited them?
‘I know them’, says Jesus, ‘and they follow me’.
Watching that flock on that warm Spanish evening, they passed through a piece of woodland. A group of sheep became separated from the main flock, and, as soon as they emerged from the trees, came running to rejoin the flock, the shepherd’s voice enough to bring them back.
“They follow me” is a challenge to Christians, because sometimes following of Jesus is done with slow footsteps, and, sometimes, there are moments when it doesn’t happen at all. The number of people whose commitment to following Jesus is like sheep running to rejoin the flock is fairly small; most of go along fairly slowly. Christians have to ask how they see God if they think they can follow at a speed that suits them and can stop altogether if they wish.
‘They follow me”. Who can be counted as people who really do follow him?
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”