22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." 25 Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. 30 The Father and I are one."
Though this little anecdote would perhaps be more appropriate to Mother’s Day, I will go ahead and begin with it anyway. One of my mother’s favorite stories about my childhood involves the two of us, me still a very young child, walking out of the local King Sooper’s. As we were preparing to walk through the parking lot, in that way of small children who put their entire trust in their parents, I reached up and grabbed her hand just as she was reaching down to grab mine. Upon our hands finding one another, I am purported to have said to my mother that her hand always felt so familiar, and though I cannot really get back into the head of the younger version of me, I will venture a guess that was I was articulating was not familiarity in the sense that I had gone around holding a bunch of unfamiliar hands and had finally found something, or someone, a little kinesthetically closer to home. I was not so promiscuous with my hand holding as a young boy. Rather what I was getting at, I think, was that in that maternal touch, I knew I was safe, that I would be protected and cared for. That the love of my parents was never distance, but was indeed a reality much nearer, much more familiar, than anything else in the world. Such are the tender moments that make up a life between parent and child, at least in the best of circumstances.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus in what some have come to call the good shepherd discourse. Just to situate ourselves a bit, we are no longer in the post resurrection portions of the Gospel. Instead, this Sunday is dedicated to theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and so we have gone back in John’s Gospel to earlier scene. At this point, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, battling it out with the religious authorities, those whom John’s Gospel refers to as “the Jews.” Now, just to be clear, when John uses this term, “the Jews,” he is by no means speaking of the whole of the Jewish people, then he would have had to include Jesus and the disciples, after all. Rather, he is talking about very specific subset of the Jewish people, those who were the religious and social elites of Jesus’ time, think about Jesus hanging out at a seminary. And so we pick up this speech, sermon, this declaration of divine intention, we pick this up as these religious authorities are provoked and ask Jesus to just plainly tell them what he is about. And what is so interesting about this query from the religious leaders is that it brings up this question of familiarity and distance. Because these leaders have heard Jesus speak of his unique oneness with the Father; they have heard of his mighty deeds of power. They have seen him heal the lame and cure the blind, and in so doing, they have heard him explain that he does this because he is indeed one with the Father. They have even responded in anger to these claims, trying to stone him for blasphemy as they will again do at the end of this exchange. So the question becomes this: how is it that they claim to have not heard him speak? How is it that what they have seen does somehow open up onto that glorious space we call faith? How, we ask, is that they hear the voice of this Jesus, but are unable to recognize that they know it?
What these religious elite embody, then, is that reality of distance from God that we call sin, but what is so interesting is that this distance is entirely one-sided, because here Jesus is. He is right in front of them, as near and as loving as a mother sticking out her hand to walk her child safely across a supermarket parking lot. Or as he has previously said, as near to them as a shepherd who genuinely cares for his sheep. This God who wants to be known to them as their shepherd, as the one who will remain when trouble arises, when life disappoints or when danger looms, this God stands right in their very midst, and yet, they are unable to see him. Unable to hear the deep resonance of the familiar in his voice; unable to touch his outreached hands, unable to see themselves as the very sheep for whom Jesus has come to care. This distance, this is the tragedy that we call sin.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me,” but we must not despair for that very distance of sin is that which Jesus has come to bridge. And now, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, this voice is impressed upon us with its nearness. In an incredible intimacy that we can scarcely articulate, you are known by this Jesus. Your pride and your fear, your hope and regret, the voices that vie for your allegiance, these are all known to this Christ, and he has come to lead you into a brighter life and a more firm hope. He holds you in the warm familiarity of his hand, and in the strength of his love, nothing will ever separate from this grasp. Not sorrow, not doubt, not despair, not senseless and nihilistic violence. Not those competing voices that tell us we are not yet people of worth, or those voices that would have us believe we must rid ourselves of every threat in order to be secure, or those voices that would wish to keep us distanced from God, asking if we have yet done enough to earn God’s love. None of it will take from your Savior’s grasp. Oh yes, these things are bound to come, none of us escapes the random and the painful, but even in our perishing, we will not be without the voice of this familiar one. For that voice that calls to us, that is the same voice that cried out “it is finished.” Those hands that hold us, those are the same hands that will be pierced through, that will experience, yes literally, first-hand, all that we have to offer in terms of human violence, unbelief and fear. So you may trust when this one tells you that he has come to be your Shepherd. Believe me, he means it.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus. In this and every day, hear the gentle and familiar voice of your Savior. Hear his kindness and passion for you. Hear the certainty that nothing can snatch you out of his steady and strong embrace. His care for you as near and familiar as a parent walking her child across the parking lot. And in that strong and steady embrace, know that you are called to live out of this love. You are secured in Christ and may therefore enter the insecure world with new confidence. You may enter it to love your neighbors in a previously unthought fullness. You may indeed follow your shepherd into those places where fear, hunger and darkness reside. These things will not separate you from him, and thus we may begin to again love our neighbors, for they are no threat to our own well-being. We may pray with those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, for Christ is there already. We may beg mercy and forgiveness for those who think themselves beyond this loving Shepherd’s embrace. We may provide food for the hunger, hope for the desperate. For in all these things and in all these ways, we hear the Shepherd’s voice saying: “I love you; you are mine.” In Jesus’ name, amen.