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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our risen Lord Jesus Christ.
We live in the midst of an increasingly confusing cacophony of voices, all vying for our attention, and it is increasingly difficult to know which of these voices can be trusted.
There are voices on TV news with competing claims to the truth depending on which station you’re watching. While the nation’s news used to come through the trusted voice of a single figure like Walter Cronkite, it now comes through several voices, and they are all saying very different things.
There is a vast array of voices on social media making claims to the truth. Social media companies have struggled to figure out ways to make those online conversations trustworthy by trying to weed out fake accounts and figuring out ways to verify users and by tagging some statements with context or correction.
There are voices on platforms like Tik-Tok, where quick sound-bite video clips with sometimes dangerous or destructive ideas are repeated and multiplied over and over again, warping young minds and spreading social contagions.
There are now more than 150 million podcast episodes floating around the internet, being piped into people’s ears. Talk about a cacophony of voices! And with the increasing sophistication of Chatbots and AI, it is getting more and more difficult to trust that the voices we hear even belong to real people!
Podcaster Joe Rogan recently illustrated this point by having AI generate an entire episode of his show. It perfectly mimicked his voice and the voice of his guest. They engaged in a perfectly natural sounding conversation covering various topics for almost two hours – only none of it was real! It was all AI generated. The voices were completely fake.
For the record, this is not a blanket endorsement of everything Joe Rogan says or does – but this little experiment of his was very telling of what we’re in for as this technology advances. In a world like this, which voices are we to listen to? Which voices can we trust?
There were many voices competing for people’s ears in Jesus’ time too. Even without social media and podcasts and AI, there was a confusing array of voices. There were many religious movements and leaders, all making various claims to the truth. There were different voices saying different things about Jesus, about who he was and whether people should follow him or not.
In the chapter just before our gospel reading for today is the story of a man born blind. He couldn’t see Jesus, but he could hear his voice. He listened to Jesus’ voice and trusted it. By trusting in this voice he not only had his sight restored, he was given an entirely new life as he came to believe in and worship Jesus. In stark contrast to this were the voices of the Pharisees. They didn’t want people to listen to Jesus. They wanted people to listen to them.
It is in this context that Jesus warns people about listening to the wrong voices, and invites them to listen to his voice. And by way of illustration, Jesus points to how sheep listen to the voice of their shepherd. He talks about how shepherds open the gate and call their own sheep by name, and they follow him because they know the sound of his voice.
When I was in my first congregation in Montana, we were invited out to the home of some sheep ranchers. Our oldest son was just a toddler, and we pushed him in his stroller out to the big enclosure where the sheep were. The sheep were all clustered together on the far side of the sheepfold, so we called out to them, trying to lure them closer so our son could get a better look. Well, they didn’t budge. Then the wife of the sheep rancher called out to them. They still didn’t budge. But when the rancher, the shepherd himself, called out to them, they all came running! They knew his voice. They knew the voice of their shepherd and they followed it. What Jesus was talking about two thousand years ago still happens today!
Jesus points out how sheep don’t follow the voice of strangers, because they do not know the voice of strangers. He also warns that some of those voices are dangerous. They belong to thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.
Jesus is warning us too. Jesus is warning us to be careful about what voices we are listening to. He is warning us against following those voices which only lead us into danger. He is warning us against those voices which only want to steal and kill and destroy. Because we are his sheep, we are to listen to his voice.
Jesus says he uses his voice to call his sheep by name. Jesus knows his sheep intimately! He knows them personally! He cares for each of them individually, calling them to himself.
Jesus says that those who listen to his voice come in and go out and find pasture. That is, they come into the safety of the sheepfold where they are protected, and they go out into the pasture where they are fed. It is a picture of both protection and providence, of being guarded and being nourished.
Best of all, Jesus says that those who listen to his voice will have life, and have it abundantly. He has come to give us life with God, a life with God that begins now and continues forever. How can this kind of life be anything other than abundant, overflowing with God’s goodness and mercy and love?
You have heard this voice. In your baptism this shepherd Jesus has called you by name. He knows you intimately and personally. He knows your individual quirks and failings. He knows your specific sins, and he laid down his life for all of them, taking them upon himself. He also knows your specific gifts, and he raises you to new life in him so that you might share them with the world. He forgives you and loves you and continues to call you by name.
As you follow his voice, he leads you into his sheepfold, where he protects you from all those voices which would steal or kill or destroy. He calls you into the church, into Christian community, where he can ward off those other voices which would lure you away from him. He leads you to good pasture, where he can nourish and strengthen you.
As we listen to his voice, as we trust it, he fills us with life! A truly abundant life can only come from listening to the voice of Jesus Christ. He alone can give us an abundant life full of hope and joy and peace and love. He alone leads us into the abundance of eternal life with God.
Just this last week the Wall Street Journal had an article about a poll they had conducted about happiness. Only 12% of respondents in the poll said they were truly happy, and they followed this up with further investigation to try to find out what these happy people had in common. The biggest commonality among those who said they were truly happy was that they were frequent church-goers. They didn’t just identify as Christian in some vague philosophical way. They didn’t just go to church a couple times a year. They were weekly worshippers.
Now I’m sure this 12% of people who said they were truly happy still had problems. I’m sure they still had difficulties. But even so, they said they were truly happy. (Not to quibble, but perhaps a better word for what they were describing would be joy rather than happiness.)
It isn’t hard to see the connection between their response and their regular attendance in worship. After all, it is in worship that they hear the voice of their shepherd. That’s where they join with the rest of the flock to listen to his voice. It is in worship that his voice rises above all those other voices that only seek to steal and kill and destroy. It is within the sheepfold of the Christian church that we hear the Word of God, and in so doing we hear the deepest and fullest truths about ourselves, about our world, and about God. These truths are life giving!
It is a sad correlation to see that as church attendance has been going down in our country for decades, exacerbated significantly by COVID, people are quantifiably less happy. Diseases of despair are on the rise. Deaths of despair are on the rise to such a degree that the average life span in our country is going down. Those voices that only steal life and kill true joy and destroy hope are being listened to and followed far too often, with tragic results.
Let’s not be simplistic. It isn’t that coming to worship frequently is a magic formula that inoculates us from pain and sorrow and struggle. We all know that isn’t true.
But it is true that as our shepherd calls us into this sheepfold, as we listen to his voice, he continues to call us by name. He continues to lead us to green pastures and still waters, restoring our souls. He continues to comfort us when we are in the darkest valleys. He continues to prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies. He continues to give us the promise that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And so, amidst the cacophony of other voices competing for your attention, continue to listen carefully to the voice of your shepherd. Listen to it and trust it. Listen to it and follow it. For you are one of his beloved sheep, and he has come so that you would have life, and have it abundantly.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church