Download or listen to the Fourth Sunday of Easter: “My Sheep Hear My Voice”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know much about sheep. What I do know, or think I know, I know second- or third-hand at best. For example, I hear that, at least in some parts of the world, the shepherds would put all their sheep together in one sheepfold for the night. Then, in the morning, each shepherd would come and call his sheep, and only his sheep would come because they knew his voice. They trusted their shepherd to lead them to green pastures and still waters, and to make them lie down in safety. Jesus says the same thing is true of His sheep, His followers. He says that He will come and call them each by name, they will hear Him, and He will lead them out. His sheep will listen to His voice, and they will know it because He speaks to them over and over again. They will not listen to strangers, and they certainly will not follow anyone who comes along saying, “Follow me.” Instead, they will flee from those strangers. Jesus says this is true of real sheep and of His followers.
But I wonder, did no sheep ever come out of the fold when another shepherd called? Is it true that no follower of Christ ever listened to the voice of a stranger, but that His sheep always flee the voice of false shepherds? St. Paul warns St. Timothy, that shepherd, pastor, of the people in Ephesus, he warns him of exactly this phenomenon. He writes: A time will come when people will not put up with sound teaching, correct doctrine. They will not put up with sound teaching, but they will heap up for themselves many teachers, according to their own desires, teachers who will scratch their itching ears; who will tell them what they want to hear. They will turn the ear away from the Truth, who is Jesus Christ, and will turn their ears toward myths, legends, mere stories. Why? Because myths and legends allow you to adjust them at will. They’re true insofar as you believe them. You can take them or leave them; they are simply the interpretations of men. Myths and legends won’t make you uncomfortable, or offend you, or say anything you don’t want to hear. How did Paul know that this time would come? Because it has always been this way, since the beginning of time. Ever since Eve listened to the voice of the serpent, and Adam listened to the voice of his wife, and none of them listened to the voice of God. From that point on, all people prefer myths and legends, which we can adjust to our preferences and desires. So do we choose our congregations by what is taught? By whether the pure Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is proclaimed as the forgiveness of your sins? By whether the sacraments of Christ are celebrated according to His Word and given out for your forgiveness? No; but because we like the people or the music or the preacher; we grew up here, or we just feel comfortable there. And after a while, we can’t tell the difference between Truth and myth, even if we wanted to. Aren’t all churches the same? Don’t we all believe in the same Jesus? The answer is no. The fact is, we are very good at constructing myths and legends about Jesus. But the Truth is the Truth, whether you like it or not, and many people will not like it. In fact, no one likes it. They kill it. They—you—crucified the Truth. We all like sheep had gone astray from our Shepherd. As sinners, you, like me,would rather listen to the voice of many teachers who tell us how good and nice we are, than the the voice of the Teacher, who tells us that we have to die to be His sheep.
And you have died. You have died as sheep in the hand of the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for His sheep. The Shepherd who became the sacrificial Lamb, to bear in His own body your sins and the sins of the whole world, so that you would die to sin and live to righteousness. You, straying sheep, are healed by His wounds. His Holy Spirit has returned you to your true Pastor, your true Bishop, Jesus Christ, the only one to whom you must listen. But how can you know that you are hearing the true voice of the one Good Shepherd, and not the voice of the stranger, who sneaks in by some other way, to steal, murder, and destroy? How can you know that I am acting as a good gate-keeper, opening only for Jesus, and for no thief and robber? How did the Church of the Book of Acts know that they were still hearing the voice of Jesus, even after He had ascended into heaven? Because they were devoted, their whole life, the core and heart of their existence, to the doctrine of the Apostles. Notice it is not simply “the Apostles,” but “the doctrine of the Apostles.” The Apostles are but men, but their doctrine is the doctrine of Christ. And those in whom the Holy Spirit created faith by the proclamation of that doctrine were made part of the fellowship of the Apostles, which was the fellowship of the Father and the Son. Those who were members of that fellowship shared in the fellowship of the breaking of the bread, which was Christ’s body. And those who gathered around Christ preached, eaten and drunk, prayed prayers that the Father promised to answer, because they were prayed in Jesus’ Name. And these members of the Body of Christ cared for each of the other members. They made sure that the needs of every member were cared for, both physically and spiritually (Acts 2:42-48). This is what the Body of Christ looks like, and this is how the sheep have always learned to know the Shepherd’s voice.
Have you ever answered a phone call, and the person on the other end said, “Hi, it’s me.” And for whatever reason, you said, “Who?” Maybe it was an old friend or a distant relative, to whom you hadn’t spoken in a long time. The same thing can happen if we do not hear Jesus speak as often as possible. If we do not hear His Word every Lord’s Day; if we do not gather around the Apostolic doctrine with the other members of the Body of Christ in the Divine Service and at corporate Bible study. If we never hear Christ speak through His prophets and apostles in the Scriptures. We may forget what His voice sounds like, and then we make easy prey for thieves and robbers, false teachers, and our own sinful flesh. But our Good Shepherd has not left us alone to fend off the wolves by ourselves. He says, “It’s Me, in My Word proclaimed by the called and ordained gatekeepers of the Church. It’s Me, in Holy Baptism, when I claim you as one of My sheep. It’s Me, in the Holy Absolution, when I forgive your sins. It’s Me, when I feed you with the pure pasturage of My body and blood. It’s Me; let there be no doubt.” We, in this Church, have been given great and precious guides to help us hear the voice of Christ. In the Confessions of the Church, including the Small Catechism, which, like a sheepdog, guide us to the Shepherd in the Scriptures. In the liturgy, which has been shaped and formed and handed down to us over centuries, as it proclaims to us Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In the Word and Sacraments, which the grace of God has allowed to remain pure among us. These are our fences, our guides, our keepers, and our blessings are significant. All of these, our Lord has granted to us, so that we will hear only His voice, only His Word, live by His life alone. So that when our Good Shepherd finally comes and calls out all His sheep, from every nation; when He comes and speaks and says, “Wake up. It’s Me,” we will know without any doubt who it is. And He will call us each by name, lead us out, and go before us into the abundant life of the new creation, as He has already gone before us through death and into life.
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, 5/14/11