April 25, 2010 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
By the Rev. Ken Kesselus
(RCL) Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
It’s an old, familiar image, but a powerful one that for nearly a century has illustrated what was once a new, amazing reality. The Radio Corporation of America, or “RCA,” created a lasting logo: the figure of a dog sitting before a Victrola record player, staring in wonder at the speaker. The caption told it all: “He hears his master’s voice.” Obviously, this classic advertisement relied on the common knowledge of dogs and their relationship with owners. Whenever an owner calls a dog, the animal will begin to wag its tail and squirm and jump in eager anticipation of being petted or scratched or fed or taken outside.
Jesus used a similar reality in trying to explain to his disciples his love for them and his relationship with them. In today’s gospel reading we experienced a glimpse of Jesus reflecting on his ministry by using the imagery of a shepherd. He characterized who and what he was for them – and who he is for us.
To Jesus and the people of his day, tending sheep was a familiar activity that meant many things. The shepherd led the sheep to good pasturage, looked after the strays, exercised responsibility for protecting the sheep, served as midwife for the birthing of lambs, and paid special attention to the little lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. The shepherd knew each of his sheep and valued the life of every one. The shepherd was deeply devoted to his flock.
In referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus gives us a way to more fully appreciate his ministry. In our gospel today, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
If we can see ourselves as sheep of a Godly flock, we can better understand our relationship to Jesus – a savior whom we can imagine as a good, caring, dependable shepherd.
Jesus was almost certainly playing on an image much more ancient than that of RCA’s Victrola. We recited it in our psalm today – a hymn of confidence offered by one who knew the great joy that "we are his people and the sheep of his pasture." Jesus cares for us as surely as did a good shepherd of his day. In the same ways, he leads us to all that truly sustains life at its deepest level. His example calls us into question when we stray from his way like lost sheep, and his gracious forgiveness saves us when we turn back to God. His love protects us and heals us. He serves as a midwife for our new spiritual births, and he leads us into transformations from the ways of the world to the way of God. He pays special attention to the poorest and most vulnerable, the least and lost among us.
Our task might be considered something like emulating the RCA dog. We do well by learning to recognize our master’s voice so we can hear his word and follow him. We hear the resonance of Jesus’ voice in worship, in the regular reading of scripture, and in our own private prayer time. We hear the resonance of his voice in the loving example of saintly Christians and in the cry of the weak – the poor and sick and needy of our world. All this enables us to identify the voice of Jesus when he calls to us.
One of the great dangers for us is in not recognizing Jesus in our lives, like sheep not hearing the voice of the shepherd. It is very easy for us to fail to discern his will because we can’t separate his voice from the many others clamoring for our attention. Such is the nature of this complex and difficult twenty-first century world, full of potential distractions. Everywhere we go, there are voices calling out – voices that say “buy this” or “do this” or “say this” or “go this direction” or “act this way” or “don’t tend to that need.” There are voices competing with one another, vying for our attention, seeking to gain control of our lives in big and little ways.
So, we Christians must keep our ears tuned to the voice of Jesus, our good shepherd, calling out in the midst of those other voices. Of course, the danger is that if we do not know how to recognize his voice, there is no way for us to walk through life under the protection of his love and care. The good news is that we can experience joy and happiness if we recognize the voice of Jesus as we make the journey through life.
When we act confidently in the presence and reassuring voice of Jesus, it becomes easier to follow the way of our Lord, easier to love our enemies, easier to offer forgiveness to one who has hurt us, easier to turn the other cheek, easier to bear witness to Jesus. It will be easier to follow Jesus at work, home, school, and at leisure because we will be acting confidently, reassured by the presence of the one whose voice we recognize.
The Jesus whose lordship we proclaim this day is truly our good shepherd whose presence is constantly with us, his flock. The challenge for each of us is to learn to listen for his voice, putting forward the time and effort to clearly recognize his voice when he calls to us.
As we continue our journey through this season of Easter, let us dedicate ourselves to the task of reading Jesus’ word in Holy Scripture, worshipping regularly, saying our daily prayers and devotions, and looking throughout our daily lives for his calling to act as servants of Christ, reaching out in love and care and concern for all his children. In this way, we who hear our master’s voice will heed it, and in doing so will witness to others the very values of God.
— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.