“Hearing His Voice”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It doesn’t make much sense to preach a sermon about preaching a sermon, so consider this a brief break from our series on the liturgy. But there are some things that can be said about preaching in general, and they actually fit nicely with our text from John 10. Preaching is sort of a strange thing to do. It seems like a relic of a long-past age, an age of philosophers and prophets, not the age of iPods and YouTube. When I think about it, it seems a little presumptuous to have this captive audience to which I am supposed to speak authoritatively! If I did not have a call from God through you, ratified at my ordination, I would have no right to say “Thus sayeth the Lord.” But, to those whom Jesus sends, He promises, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16, ESV). Whenever I allow myself to think about what I’m actually doing when I get up here, it nearly scares me to silence. Who am I that I should speak the Word of God to you? That you should listen to the sound of my voice, or follow me where I say you should go? But that’s exactly the point. Do not follow me. Or, do not follow me except as I follow Christ. You are the sheep of whom I have been given care, but I am not, finally, your shepherd. Jesus Christ alone is your Good Shepherd, as He is mine. Listen to the sound of my voice only because it is Christ who has put me here to speak His Word. Do not follow or listen to anyone except if they follow or speak the words of Christ. This pulpit is not mine. I cannot say whatever I want. I am only the gatekeeper, and my vocation is to let Christ and only Christ speak. He must increase, but I must decrease.
The question is, how do you know if my voice, or any number of other voices, matches the voice of the Good Shepherd? You cannot know the voice of Jesus merely by feel. There are those who will dress as shepherds, carry shepherds’ credentials, and speak like shepherds, who are nonetheless thieves and robbers who come only to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:8, 10). They are strangers to the true people of God, and they should remain that way. Our parents tell us not to talk to strangers but, even more, we should not listen to strangers. Strangers, false shepherds, will always tell you what you want to hear. They will smooth your ruffled feathers and stroke your ego. They will give you to eat from the sickly sweet fruit of flattery and to drink from the lukewarm water of feeling good and being nice. But this food is the opposite of the abundant life given by the Good Shepherd. It leads only to death. God places gatekeepers in the midst of His sheep in order to keep these false shepherds from coming in and carrying off sheep for the wolves to eat. They are all around you with their smiling faces and their scratching words for itching ears. You have heard them promising that by following their vaguely defined god, you will be blessed materially and financially. You have heard them promising that if only you believe enough, all your troubles will be over. You have heard them speaking of equality and tolerance as if those were the watchwords of the Kingdom of God. You have heard them making nice with every form of false teaching so that no one is offended. You have heard them marketing Jesus Christ like He was a product on the shelves of Wal-Mart, offering the “best” and the “newest” and the “most authentic” in order to fill the chairs of their “worship centers” with warm bodies.
But you have heard the false shepherds inside yourself as well. They say, do not listen to the sound Word of God; accumulate for yourself teachers to suit your own passions; turn away from the truth and wander around in the fragrant garden of myths offered by the world (2 Timothy 4:3-4). You have heard them inside yourself: they say, the Gospel is not enough; we need fireworks and spectacle to attract people. We need something that connects with (post-) modern people, as if they were of some different race than the sinners of all times and all places. And the false shepherds inside you say, do not go to the Lord’s House to hear His Word and eat and drink His Body and His Blood. You’ve got better, more exciting things to do. In all these lies bodies and souls are stolen, killed, and destroyed. The sheep pen begins to look narrow and boring, and the sheep start to hear other voices. It becomes hard to distinguish between the voices of false shepherds leading the sheep to the wolves and the voice of the Savior who lays down His life rather than lose a single sheep.
How can you and I, sheep branded with the mark of the Good Shepherd, hear and follow His voice alone? Only by being in the places where He has promised to be, where He speaks consistently and persistently and patiently of His love for the sheep. And unlike the voices of those other and false shepherds, the comforting voice of the Good Shepherd is found without a doubt only where His pure Word is preached and His Sacraments administered according to His institution. His preached Word, His sacramental Word, His written Word: if you do not return to these places where the Shepherd speaks, how will you know if what you are hearing is His voice, or the voice of an imposter? You can hear the word “Gospel” tossed around today in all sorts of settings, but the pure Gospel is only this: Jesus Christ died to save you from your sin and your death and to make you His own. If the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins ever includes anything-anything–you have to do, it is not the Gospel. But it will also not be the full Christian Gospel unless the Law is preached in its full severity. The Law of God is not something you can keep. We’re good Lutherans; we know that. But how many congregations, including Lutheran ones, have exchanged the full Law for do-it-yourself instructions and sermon series on tithing or how to be a better parent? The Law of God always condemns sinners. It kills sinners, because it makes them despair of anything good within themselves. If someone preaches good ideas and life advice and you begin to feel good about how well you’re doing, that’s not the full Law of God, and it certainly is not the Gospel of Christ. That is the universal human temptation to water down the Law and make it palatable for our weak stomachs.
The Law in John 10 is this: you are all too willing to walk away from the voice of the Shepherd and listen to any number of voices outside the sheep pen. Your old nature, inherited from Adam, is far more excited by talk of NCAA basketball championships (good game, wasn’t it?), NASCAR, fishing trips, and the price of wheat than it is by the voice of Jesus Christ in this place, and His pure and free gifts. So is mine. Calling us sheep is a promotion. In truth, it is not so much the growling wolves outside the pen that we have to worry about, but the wolves we hide under our nicely groomed and wooly coats.
And there is only one way to escape the wolves within and without, and that is to listen to the voice of the Shepherd who became a sheep, a Lamb to be slaughtered. He was fed to the wolves that hide in our skin, to the wolves of my sin and my doubt; the wolves of your apathy and your weakness. The Gospel in John 10 is this: the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His dirty, smelly, ignorant sheep to save them from the damning voices of false shepherds. He is the door, and He will allow no thief and no robber to snatch a single sheep from His sheep pen. He calls you by your name. He leads you in to His House, where He gives you rest for your bodies and souls, and feeds you to make you strong. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” He says (John 18:37, ESV). You know His voice; you have heard it spoken from this pulpit for over a hundred years. But here’s the thing about the gatekeepers whom the Good Shepherd places over His sheep: some of them turn out to be robbers and thieves. Some of them, having themselves listened to the voices of false shepherds, steal and kill and destroy. The words and actions of such gatekeepers are false to the will of the Shepherd, and they are painful and divisive. In this world, pain and divisiveness are inevitable. But-and here’s the point-even in spite of such gatekeepers, the Good Shepherd still speaks to you. You are still here, and He feeds you even if the gatekeeper is wicked. His forgiveness is still good even if His servants are not. The gatekeepers will fail at times-and I am no exception-but Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, never fails, never lies, never ceases to seek and save His lost sheep.
Beloved fellow sheep of the Shepherd, this sheep pen may seem narrow because of our limited minds, but it opens up into a broad, green pasture beyond imagination. You have entered this place by the wounds of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25, ESV). As you come in and go out, your Good Shepherd will not fail to lead you to the good pasture. He is your shepherd; you shall not want for any good thing. He makes you lie down in green pastures and He leads you by waters that bring you refreshment and rest. Come in and find pasture; Christ feeds you His own Body and Blood, in which abundant life is found. Come in and find pasture, the pure and free Word that forgives your sins. Come in, and then go out. Because there are sheep who are not of this sheep pen, and they are being devoured by wolves. He wants them also. He says, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16, ESV). You come in to this place and you find your rest, and then you go out to do the work God has given you. But you never go alone: He goes with you and before you. The more you hear His voice, the more you will know it. And where He leads, you will follow. Until you come finally through death into the fullness of the new life, and go out no longer among wolves. He has come that you might have life, and, in Him, you have it abundantly.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/08/08