‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me’
‘You are not who you think you are’
Imagine. All your life you have been brought up by a man and a woman you know as your parents. From your parents you get your identity, who you are. It’s really important…
Then at the age of sixty – my age! You discover, through a DNA test, that you are not who you think you are.
In fact, the man that you thought was your father, with all his weaknesses, turns out not to have been your father at all and the dark secret of your mother’s past is revealed to the world. The assumptions on which you have based your life turn out to be false.
It must have been truly shocking for our Archbishop to receive this news about his father a few weeks ago. Archbishop Justin is a bit of a hero of mine – as we have a lot in common – although he would not know me from a bar of soap: We both have slightly murky childhoods and teenage years, alcoholic parents, the blessing of a good education and time in the City. Of course, he was called earlier than me into Christian ministry – I am a curate and he is the Archbishop of Canterbury. But, now it turns out that we have one further thing in common – I was adopted and, as my adoptive mother used to say to me, ‘at least when you are adopted, you know you don’t know who your father was, but there are lots of people out there who think they know…’
If this shock had happened to us, would we have handled it as well as he did?
By thinking of how he must have felt, how we would feel in similar circumstances (maybe anger and disappointment) we can have some idea of how the Jews felt when Jesus said the words to them that we have just heard read: ‘You are not my sheep’.
Throughout the Old Testament, from Abraham onwards, God had continually reassured the Israelites that they were God’s elect, the chosen ones. Chosen above all the races of the world, chosen to be a blessing to the world, not because they were wonderful, in fact, not because of any merit on their behalf at all, but only because God loved them. God had decided to choose them above all peoples.
But Jesus is saying, ‘you Jews are not necessarily God’s chosen ones anymore’, you cannot count on that privilege, just because you are sons and daughters of Abraham’.
But who is Jesus to make this astonishing claim?
As if recognising the unspoken criticism, Jesus says the miracles that he does should be evidence enough that he has God’s authority. And, with God’s authority, he tells them that being a son or daughter of Abraham was no longer any guarantee that they were God’s chosen ones. Indeed, the whole definition of the chosen, the elect, was now completely different.
The elect, God’s chosen ones, were (and are now) those who hear Jesus’s voice and who follow him.
But is that you?
Is that me?
How can we be confident that we are one of his sheep?
Jesus says – his sheep ‘hear his voice and follow him’.
Firstly, his sheep hear his voice. So what does it mean to hear Jesus’s voice?
Some people hear an audible voice.
One man, David, who I met a few years ago at a conference in Oxford, had studied Islamic law in Cairo and served as an imam in a mosque. While he was in the mosque fulfilling his duties, he heard Jesus’s voice audibly calling his name, calling him to be his follower. As a result he became a Christian, at huge personal risk, and total isolation from his family.
So some hear an audible voice, but others do not. I have not had the blessing of an experience like that. I hear his voice as more of a thought which comes at an oblique angle to my current stream of my thoughts, often challenging me with a piece of scripture.
It’s not the same as my conscience, which might say rather weakly to me ‘should I really do this?’ It’s more like another voice altogether at odds with where I am emotionally at the time.
For example, I was walking around the villages with my two dogs a few days ago. So, three of us wearing dog collars! I was chuntering to myself, about a challenging problem that we are facing in the church and some difficult people, and I felt the Lord say to me ‘by this people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.’
I felt corrected. So I said to the Lord (in the silence of my thoughts) as I walked: ‘Ok, if you are really doing something in this parish, show me, by getting me to share the story of how I came to faith with someone, before the end of this walk.’ I turned round the corner and started chatting with someone who doesn’t come regularly to church, but who, in the course of the conversation, asked me, how I became a Christian. Extraordinary!
So some people hear an audible voice, some experience His voice as an oblique thought. But many people hear God’s voice, while they are reading the Bible or hearing the Bible preached.
This happens to me a lot, as well, it’s as if I think ‘that’s me that passage is talking about’ it’s as if the force of what is being said hits me in the chest or stomach.
It’s even the case with Bible stories. When our youngest, Marina, was two, we were living in Japan, and I was running the Tokyo office of my law firm, I used to read her at bedtime this book, on which we are basing our All Age Worship at the moment – ‘Stories Jesus Told’ by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. Every night, I would ask Marina which story she wanted to hear and she would invariably reply ‘The Rich Farmer, Daddy’. And every evening I thought, ‘that’s me’ that this story is about. It was like a punch in the stomach…every time. And its through that ‘this is me feeling’ in which Jesus speaks.
And its not just a specific sense of conviction through which Jesus speaks. Sometimes people say to me ‘whenever I go to church, I cry’ and that’s why they don’t come to church, because they are embarrassed! They may not realise it, but tears are a sign that they are hearing Jesus’s voice. They are experiencing consciousness of His presence. When He is present, we often have an emotional reaction.
There is, perhaps, a sense of coming home, after a long journey.
There was the time, when I was 17 and at school and a speaker called Revd. Paul Oestericher came to speak to us in chapel. I can’t remember exactly what he preached about, but I remember very well my emotional reaction. I found it totally thrilling. I remember walking round the school for over an hour later, on a huge high.
I now recognise that this was an experience of the Holy Spirit, of encountering the Risen Jesus, but I did not know it at the time. I did not know that this was something to tell someone about – the chaplain or someone. Although, wonderfully, I was able to tell Oestericher and thank him, in particular, years later when I met him at Theological College.
So some people hear him speak through audible words, some through oblique thoughts, some through a specific conviction that a Biblical passage or preaching is ‘about me’, some through an emotional reaction to worship.
Now if you are thinking: ‘No’, ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’. ‘None of these apply to me’. You may be asking, what does it mean, if I simply don’t hear his voice? What can I do?
Well, a starting point is to start reading the Bible, as you will not hear him through one of the most common means of hearing him – reading the Bible, if you don’t actually read it!
But, most importantly it may mean that you have an obstacle between you and God and that some repentance is necessary for something that you have said, thought or done, during the course of your life.
So a starting point is to ask God ‘what is the obstacle?’.
And something will probably come into your mind. Don’t just dismiss it -out of your head, don’t just say ‘well that wasn’t my fault’ or ‘I was justified in doing that’. Repent of it; ask for God’s forgiveness and ask him to speak to you.
When we have opened up the channels of communication to Him, then we can get into the second half of what he requires, which is to obey him. But we cannot even know what he wants us to do, if we don’t read the Bible regularly.
And we have to be cautious because it’s not just him who puts thoughts into our head, the other side does as well. So how do we distinguish between one and the other? By knowing God’s character, through getting to know Jesus, what he cares about and what he could not care less about. We can only get to know Jesus’s character, by reading the Bible, and reading it regularly.
Read it with a commentary. The Bible in One Year is a really good one you can read it on your smart phone (find the App) or look on the web (bibleinoneyear.org) I Pad or PC. But there are many others, including even those in print – if you like that sort of thing…
By reading the Bible, we get to know Christ. So when the thought comes into our head ‘I would like to rob that bank’, we know that it is not him who is speaking, its the enemy.
As we get to know Jesus, we get to love him and this means that we want to follow him, we want to do what he says. And very importantly, as we pray in response to his voice, he gets to know us.
We become his sheep, he knows us and we follow him, so that we can say with the Archbishop of Canterbury who, after all the information about his paternity was revealed in the last week or so, said ‘Nothing has changed: My identity is in Jesus Christ’.