Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I frequently meet with people over at the newer Whidbey Coffee location on Pioneer Way. It is a beautiful spot looking out at the water. I had a nice visit with Pastor Drew from Living Word there just before Easter. I hung out there with our preschool students last month when they went there for their transportation field trip. I meet with church members there quite often as well. In fact, I just did this past week.
But it occurred to me as I came back to church after this most recent visit that even though this coffee shop has a great view and great coffee and a great atmosphere, it isn’t actually a very good place to visit with people. The acoustics are terrible. It is always full of people, people who keep talking louder and louder in order to be heard over the others who are there. There are baristas constantly yelling out orders. Last week a barista kept calling out that someone’s breakfast burrito was done – over and over and over!
All those voices. All those voices threatening to distract me from my visit. All those voices, making it necessary to focus, to focus on the one voice you are there to listen to. Isn’t that how our lives are? Isn’t that how our world is – full of a cacophony of voices all competing for our attention? Who will we listen to? Whose voice will we focus on?
In our gospel reading for today Jesus our Good Shepherd tells us that his sheep listen to his voice.
Some people came up to Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus responded to them saying, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus went on to say, “The works that I have done in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice.”
Why can they not hear Jesus’ voice? What other voices could be drowning out his? The setting for this interaction might give us a clue. It takes place not on a beautiful spring day like we’re enjoying today. It takes place in winter. It takes place as the Jewish people were celebrating the Festival of Dedication, better known to us as Hanukkah. During Hanukkah, the Jewish people celebrate the rededication of the temple after it had been desecrated by the conquering Seleucids, who erected an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs on it as the ultimate insult to the Jewish people. The Seleucids had been driven out by a Jewish savior named Judas Maccabees, who used tactics which earned him the nickname “Judas the Hammer.” (Think of a Jewish version of Chuck Norris.) After the Seleucids were driven out, they only had one day’s worth of oil to light the menorah to rededicate the temple, but it miraculously lasted for eight days. The Jewish people have been celebrating this victory, and this miracle, ever since.
We often think as Hanukkah as a nice, pleasant winter festival, which, as it is celebrated alongside Christmas by American Jews today, it pretty much is. But in Jesus’ time it was a politically charged holiday. In Jesus’ time, the Jews had their temple back, but there were Roman soldiers patrolling the perimeter just outside, bringing back bad national memories. Jerusalem was once again occupied by a foreign power. And so, as Hanukkah songs rang out celebrating the Jewish savior who sent the Seleucids home with their tails between their legs, there were voices calling for a new revolution against this new enemy, the Romans. Among those voices were calls for another Judas Maccabees, a new Jewish savior, a new Jewish Messiah who would lead them in this fight.
Some thought that Jesus might be this new Judas Maccabees-type savior, but Jesus had made it clear that he had bigger fish to fry. Jesus was coming to conquer much bigger enemies. He was coming to conquer sin. He was coming to conquer death. He was coming to establish a different kind of kingdom. His words and his works testified to this over and over again.
Why couldn’t these people hear that? Could it be that these politically charged voices were distracting them from listening to him? Could it be that the fever pitch of conversation about current events was preventing them from hearing his voice and believing in him?
Or could it be that their own voices, their own expectations about what the Messiah would be and do, were getting in the way of hearing his voice?
Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe the Hanukkah holiday just meant they were all super busy and preoccupied with to-do lists. Maybe they were too busy with their daily lives to really listen to Jesus.
“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep,” Jesus said to them. “My sheep listen to my voice.”
Whatever those other voices may have been, they were preventing people from hearing his voice. They were getting in the way of hearing and believing that Jesus is the true Good Shepherd they’d all been waiting for, whether they realized it or not. They couldn’t hear that he was the Good Shepherd who would lead his sheep beside still waters to restore their souls, that he was the Good Shepherd who would walk with his sheep through the darkest valleys, that he was the Good Shepherd who would guide his sheep to the springs of the waters of life.
There were people who saw what Jesus was doing and heard what Jesus was saying, but they didn’t believe any of this about him. Just before our gospel reading for today they said Jesus had a demon, and just after our reading they try to stone him to death. And they didn’t believe, Jesus said, because they weren’t hearing his voice.
Are you? What voices might be getting in the way for you?
I worry sometimes that our political climate is occupying way too much space in people’s heads today. We have fear-mongering from both the left and the right, broadcast 24 hours a day on either MSNBC or Fox News – take your pick. We have demagoguery on both the left and the right that has people constantly in crisis mode and at each other’s throats. It isn’t that there aren’t important issues to engage in – there are! – but sometimes the cacophony of voices around us get in the way of the voice we need to listen to the most.
Or maybe that isn’t it for you at all. Maybe for you it is busy-ness that distracts you from the voice of your Good Shepherd. Maybe it is fever pitch of your daily life, maybe it’s your own voice and the anxieties you have about being enough and doing enough and having enough that get in the way.
Or maybe it is a more modern problem. We live in a time with more communication and entertainment options than at any time in human history. Talk about a cacophony of voices! We are becoming increasingly acclimated to being constantly entertained and constantly in communication with everyone except the people who are right in front of us. We are increasingly distracted people. How can this not impact our ability to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd?
With all these voices, with all this noise going on in our world and in our lives, we need to be intentional about listening to the one voice that matters most. We need to cultivate habits of worship and Bible study and prayer. We need to pay close and regular attention to the Word. Martin Luther, in preaching on this very gospel text, said that the first step towards unbelief is losing one’s appetite for the Word. We can never let our heads get so full of other voices that we lose our appetite for what our Good Shepherd has to say to us.
And just listen to what he has to say to you today. Just listen to what this shepherd has to say to you, his sheep:
Our Lord Jesus promises to use the rod and staff of his Word to comfort you. He promises that his goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and that you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Our Lord Jesus promises to see you through the great ordeal of this life. He has already conquered the biggest enemies you face, and one day he will wipe away every last tear from your eyes.
Our Lord Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one. When you see and hear Jesus, you see and hear God. And so there is no suspense as to how God sees you. God loves you and forgives you. He has washed you clean through the blood of the Lamb. He gives you eternal life so you will never perish, so that you can be in his kingdom forever. No one will ever snatch you out of his hands.
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says.
There are so very many voices competing for our attention and driving us to distraction. My prayer for all of you, today and always, is that here in this place all those other voices would be quieted, so that you can hear the voice that matters most.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church