(Homily revised for Easter 4, 2011 by Rev. John Gishler)
Jesus is using a very simple example to explain who he is.It is called a "parable" because while the story seems to be about the relationship between sheep and shepherds, it is only using this to explain the relationship between God and people. In particular it is about the question of how do we know when God is really speaking to us. The point is that there are other voices speaking to us:
· Self – my way
Jesus refers to these other voices as "thieves and robbers". The parable is also a warning about spiritual warfare. The good news is that the wise sheep (people) will survive spiritually because they know the voice of the shepherd and can tell it from the many other voices around them.
1. The good news is that there is a shepherd
We are not alone in the dark surrounded by our human wants and fears and spiritual forces of evil. There is someone from God who has been sent to help us. Just as a shepherd makes sure his sheep have food, water, shelter and protection from physical attack; Jesus has come so that we can be spiritually nourished, guided and protected. We tend to forget this when things are going well. Often it is not until there is some kind of disaster or trouble that we begin to focus on why things go wrong. Often it is only after we have tried to help ourselves and failed that we turn to God for answers. For most of us God has to first get our attention with an impossible situation before we overcome our human stubbornness and pride, and make a decision to "come home" and listen to Jesus, the shepherd of our souls.
2. The bad news is that there really are "thieves and robbers"Who are these "thieves and robbers" Jesus is warning about? In addition to dealing with our own human foolishness and weaknesses (like sheep); Jesus is warning us that life is dangerous. We have both seen and unseen enemies. The thieves and robbers include visible false teachers who give us wrong information that can gradually steal our spiritual life from us. Think of all the people we know who have lost their faith through bad experiences with religious leaders. My wife Lucille once told me she did not really believe in evil until she saw the inner workings of the Anglican Church.
3. The really bad news is that some of these voices are invisibleBehind the false teachers there is sometimes – but not always another kind of voice. This is the unseen enemy Jesus is trying to warn us about. We can call this unseen enemy voice ‘dark angels’, demons or evil spirits to use Biblical language. Since the Enlightenment (1750-) many people have dismissed the Biblical accounts of miracles, angels, demons and spiritual warfare as medieval superstitions. In my experience this has been a huge mistake and a great tragedy for many of the people who I have prayed with for physical healing and freedom from spiritual oppression. The really bad news is that Satan can counterfeit the voice of Jesus.
4. So how do we tell the difference?The key of course is to know the voice of the real shepherd ‑ Jesus. This takes a lot of experience as Satan can appear to us as a counterfeit Jesus. Quite a few people have had experiences with a false Jesus in a vision. One felt there was something strange going on and asked him if he was the Jesus who rose from the dead, only to see this false Jesus disappear. That seems to be the test question. "Are you the Jesus that died and rose from the dead?" For most people all we hear is a voice that is either audible or inaudible. So how do we tell if it is genuine? The key is in the parable. The sheep ‑ the ones that belong to Jesus, know His voice. We know this only through experience. We gain this experience by reading our Bibles and praying. Since the Jesus who rose from the dead is the same Jesus as described in the Bible, the real Jesus is going to say things that are consistent with Scripture. If we have personally studied the Jesus of the Bible, we will have a fairly good idea of how He responded to questions and issues. There are a lot of stories of Jesus in the Bible and they cover just about every common human issue. The other test of course is consistency with our prayer life. After years of experience we just know when something is wrong with the voice. We know the real vice of Jesus. This is the difference between knowing about Jesus in your head and really knowing Jesus in your heart.
5. So ‑ whose voice are you listening to?
Many people are listening only to themselves. This is the “ït's all about me" generation. We have a tendency to make god in our own image and bow down and worship our self. This may be ok for a while but ultimately fails. We realize we need something more. The good news of Christianity is that in Jesus we have a good shepherd who will guide us and protect us in this spiritual battle against our human weaknesses other destructive voices. He offers us spiritual life. Those who have accepted this offer of new spiritual life are changed. They discover new joy and want to be in a loving community of fellowship as described in the Acts (2.42‑47) reading.
They want to be sure they know their shepherd's voice.