Bible Reading John 10:2-5
We continue a series on the fundamental building blocks of establishing and maintaining a rock-solid relationship with God. On Ash Wednesday, we began with the brick of getting a true vision of Jesus and what he came to do. Last week, we added the brick of knowing God personally. Today we add the brick of careful listening. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, and through parables, he reminds us that we are not to listen to the Pharisees but to Jesus. He says,
A shepherd comes through the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice and come to him; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. He walks ahead of them; and they follow him, for they recognize his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run from him, for they don’t recognize his voice.” (TLB)
Message Established in Listening John 10:10-17
There is an old story – probably many stories - about a dog that got loose on the football field. They tried calling it – but so many people were calling to it from so many different directions that it became confused and didn’t know where to run – as a result they began to try chasing it and the real adventure began. Sometimes, life can get like that. We are uncertain about our situation, but everyone else around us (often with limited knowledge) thinks they know exactly what we should do. As one TV character put it, “I’ve been so inundated with everyone’s opinions on how I should feel and what I should do, I haven’t been able to actually process it myself.” (Ellie Bishop on NCIS 13:10 “Blood Brothers”) But if we can distinguish God’s voice, he will help us process our life in a way that leads to a path that we can take with confidence.
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.
They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one
shepherd. (John 10:16 (NIV))
Someone said that the common perception is that if you talk to God you are spiritual, but if God talks to you, then something is wrong with you. These people think God doesn’t speak (any longer) because we don’t hear him. But the reading makes it clear, if we are going to remain established in the love of God, like in any relationship, we must listen; and listening implies that God is speaking, and his people know his voice. Maybe some have just forgotten how to listen.
After the Ash Wednesday service some of us went out to a restaurant. While there, someone received a video call. The technology made it reasonably easy to see – and wave -- to sense the caller’s presence, but the background din of the room made it impossible to hear any conversation.
Similarly, we may know God is here, but there is often too much “noise” in our life that drowns him out. I’m using “noise” in the technical “communication theory” sense of the word. Noise is ANYTHING within or in between the sender and receiver that interferes with the accuracy of the fullness of the message.
It can be static, the temperature of the room. If you are uncomfortably hot or cold it can interfere with your ability to listen well. I remember a story of Phineas Bresee, before he founded the Nazarene church, as Methodist preacher in the early 1900s in Iowa, he was preaching to a congregation that had huddled around the heating stove in the back of the room. It was 20 below outside and when he gave the altar call, no one left the stove… People are of different generations and grew up if different regions and words do not always mean the same thing to each of us and that can create confusion. Hunger or tiredness of the speaker (or listener) can distract from presenting or receiving the words well. Pain can also be a barrier. I know that if I hit my thumb with a sledge hammer, I may hear what others say, but for a minute or so, it isn’t really going to sink in. Whatever we are experiencing in life -- not just in the moment of the communication -- but everything we bring with us from the weeks past or weeks ahead (or longer) on either side or anything in the environment in-between during the communication can distract, interfere, even block effective communication. We know this because we often joke about it – or sometimes it isn’t a joke – about the “selective hearing” of another. Though it may not really be a “selection, a choice of the hearer”.
When it comes to God, the main “noise” is pressing, or even negative life situations, our lack of time, our amount of stress -- and that he isn’t physically in the room with us in the same way Jesus was in the room with his disciples, or on the mountain with them, or in the boat with them; and his voice isn’t usually – though there are exceptions, as audible as my voice is for you right now. The challenge is for us to, as much as possible, set aside what is within us, and remove what is between us, enabling us to better tune in to what he is trying to say to us.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may
have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 (NIV) Also see vv 11-12)
And tuning in is important because Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.” (and the hired hand isn’t much better, running away at the threat of the wolf -- who then is free to attack and scatter the flock). Listening to the wrong voices may well rob us of that eternal life, that quality of life that Jesus came to give us.
Jesus is the good shepherd. In those days in the Middle East, when a lamb is born, the shepherd would take the lamb, a carry it around his neck on his shoulders and walk around with it for several days. The lamb would become comfortable, trust, and know his shepherd’s voice above all others, respond any time he calls and to follow as he leads to a quality-filled abundant life. So how do we learn to recognize his voice?
Listening to the right voice * Set aside distractions…
As I’ve already said, we first need to try to set aside distractions… It is easier said than done. One of our Faith We Sing hymns summons us to get away and find the quiet center (that spiritual place within ourselves), to create room in our life by clearing ourselves from the crowded, cluttered, chaos in which we tend to live. It isn’t just the heavy stresses and distractions and pains, it can be simple distractions as well. When encouraging quiet in a youth group years ago, one answered that he was never without sound. Sometimes our quiet time during prayer feels more like corporate awkwardness rather than comfortable meditation. I recently saw a TV episode in which we are told a rattled witness about “had a stroke” because the agents had to confiscate her phone. A doctor later explained she had nomophobia - an anxiety that results from having no mobile phone access -- and which he characterized as a “sad reflection on our inability to disconnect”. (NCIS 13:5 “Lockdown”). We can’t connect well if all the other lines of our life are always open. It isn’t that there isn’t an intersect with our spiritual life and the rest of life -- but sometimes the only way to re-focus and channel our energy for life is to get away from life’s preoccupations for a time. Jesus escaped to mountains and gardens on a regular basis, and it allowed him to live most fully with others. Of course, even when we try, things as simple as the days’ to-do-list could keep popping into our mind -- and it keeps coming back because we fear we are going to forget by the time the quiet devotional time ends. Dr. Shaver recommends when we get away, we do so with a paper and pen – then those types of distractions can then be written down, freeing us from the worry of remembering and we can then concentrate on what we are trying to do.
Also, some things that keep popping up in our head we may view as a distraction -- but it may also be that it keeps coming back because God is pointing to that area of life as an area of life he wants us to look at and do differently.
Listening to the right voice * The Bible
Having set aside distractions the best we can, the primary way to listen for God is through the Bible. Through it we hear God speaking to his people, through it we see the Son of God living among people. The more you know the heart of the Bible, the more you know God’s love letter to the world, the more you will understand what he wants to say to your life today.
Just be careful of proof texting -- The Pharisees had become experts in lifting verses out or their culture and context and constructing a religion that no longer spoke God’s message. Also be careful of treating the Bible like a magic 8 ball. Although God has and can use any method, letting the Bible fall open and randomly pointing to a verse out of context to give you direction for the day or for life is not how it is meant to be used.
Step back and look at the big picture of the Bible, and you will discover that the more you get into God’s word, the more God’s word will get into you and you will sense more and more how it relevantly applies to your life right now in 2019.
Listening to the right voice * Mature examples
I have talked about getting away alone – but that isn’t the only way we hear God’s voice. The Shepherd has a flock, not a solitary sheep. Surrounding ourselves with and picking the brain and heart of people who are mature in the faith and admirable examples of humanity as it is supposed to be can greatly assist us in discovering what God may be telling us, (that includes those trustworthy authors and leaders who can share the faith through books, blogs, and other multi-media). As Jesus’ good shepherd-ly example demonstrated for the disciples who God was and what he was about and how to live a full life -- so mature Christians become examples for each other and those who are newer to the faith. Remember that as we mature, we are becoming examples too -- which should also give us pause to consider how we are living our lives, about being intentional about our growth, for as Paul told the younger Titus, “in everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8 (NIV))
Listening to the right voice * Gut checks and prompts
Another way God speaks to us is through what is commonly called the “still, small voice”. One of my old Sunday School teachers called it a “fuzz buster” -- which was a fad that goes way back, when it was popular for people to buy radar detectors so they would know if a police car was in the area and so they could slow down and not get caught speeding. I don’t know if that is very good of an analogy for the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t send the Spirit to us so the Spirit can help us “not get caught”. But if we are sensitive and open to him, when we are about to do something inadvisable, like a fuzz buster he will help us feel it in our gut, or in our head -- and we will still have a choice, but we will be warned to not take this opportunity that in the long run may rob, kill, or destroy the fullness of our life.
While Paul was on a missionary trip, the Spirit kept them from going to Asia, assumingly for their best interest, and the best interest of the Gospel. But as we have said in recent weeks, Jesus is more proactive, not just about avoiding evil and potential problems, but also about doing good -- So the Spirit moves Paul to change plans and go to Macedonia, where he meets Lydia (the Bible doesn’t say but probably an answer to her prayers) and the mission team founded one of Paul’s favorite churches in Philippi. (See Acts 16:6,10; 11:12)
There are times that people or activities might come to our minds -- and we might stop to reach out to that person, send a check to someone, do an activity that we may not have otherwise thought to do. And after the fact, we may not hear, or we may find out that our acting on those “hunches” provided just what that person needed at just the right time.
Listening to the right voice * Circumstances
The least reliable indicator is that God speaks through circumstances. Luke doesn’t explain whether the Spirit’s prevention of the Asian trip was the Spirit nudging Paul or a set of circumstances (what some people call “closed doors”) that kept Paul from traveling that direction, and “open doors” that created his success in Philippi. The challenge is understanding whether circumstances are God saying “no” or the power of evil trying to hinder us from completing God’s will. We often interpret “circumstantial open doors” as God clearing the way to make it “easy”; and “circumstantial closed doors” as God laying obstacles that make it “hard”. If that was true, and Jesus relied primarily on this method, he would have considered the cross a closed door and he would have missed the ultimate good he came to give to us. And then where would we be?
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…
I know my sheep and my sheep know me… The reason my Father loves me is that
I lay down my life--only to take it up again.” (John 10:11,14b,17 (NIV))
Instead, Jesus proclaims he is the Good Shepherd who came to know and be known by his people, and who will lay down his life for them so that they will know voice and find real life -- if we will only listen. If we want to know the voice of God, we have to spend time with God. And the more we spend time with Him, the more we’ll be able to recognize his voice when He speaks to us.
This Lenten season we are offering two opportunities to help do this. They are both described in your bulletin. One is simply to give you space and time to meditate and pray. It is built around lunch time so if you are working nearby you can drop in for as short or as long a time as you would like between 11 am and 1 pm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We’ll have the heat on, soft music playing and candles lit. You can pray, read your Bible, read hymn lyrics -- whatever you’d like. And if you like, you could even combine it with the other opportunity so long as you don’t disturb others who have come to meditate…
The other, like the first, has no formal set of rules, but we encourage you to pair off with a spouse or friend (to encourage following through on your intention of doing it), and choose with that partner a track (which is listed in the bulletin and E-Digest) – the sermon track which leads to next week’s sermon, a second track which generally follows the recommended texts for holy week (which we called the Lenten track), or together with your partner you can create a track of your own choosing. We encourage you to read the text, then share with your friend what the Spirit might be drawing your attention to as you read it and why you think he might be pointing it out to you.
But however, or wherever we do it -- spend time with God and you’ll know the voice of God, and if you know the voice of God, you’ll be able to faithfully follow where he leads you.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, Mark Twain humorously reminded us that most of us are bothered by Bible passages we don’t understand, but he was more troubled by the passages he did understand. Meaning our greatest concern is to learn more, and to be able to follow through in the truth you teach us that we do understand. And the more we learn, the more we will begin to understand your Spirit’s fine tuning of daily opportunities and decisions. The more you grow us, the more we’ll be able to tune in to you, and the more we will grow again -- kind of like a snow ball effect that builds on itself, growing and learning, learning and growing… increasingly building our lives to maturity. So help us be persistent in seeking you and remaining open and obedient to faithfully following your leading voice. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 128 (vv 1,2,3) He Leadeth Me...
Closing Blessing Now go to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ., who deserves all the glory, both now and forever! Amen.