An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Following Jesus and Hearing Voices

A sermon on John 10:22-30 by Nathan Nettleton

A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Jesus said:
“My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them the life of the world to come,
and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

It’s a funny image: sheep
Usually we don’t like being told that we are sheep
It’s not usually a compliment
A bunch of clones
Mindlessly imitating one another
Following one another this way and that
Dumb conformity
It’s what all those so-called freedom protesters
were calling those of us who followed the medical advice
and got vaccinated.
“Sheeple” they called us.

But when Jesus calls us “his sheep”, it’s different
Because he’s identifying himself as the good shepherd
Being the sheep of the good shepherd
is instantly attractive
Because the implied alternative
is being the sheep of the bad shepherds

Whether we are mindless followers
or mindful followers
we want to be followers of the good shepherd
not the bad shepherds

We’re just two weeks out from a federal election
How tempting and easy it would be
to preach some kind of comparative analysis
of the various competing bad shepherds

Easy for me, easy for you
We’d all enjoy it
We love focussing on the faults of bad shepherds
We go through their Facebook profiles
We trawl through things they once said somewhere
We find the hypocrisies, the unenlightened pasts,
the trails of arrogance, of entitlement,
of unrecognised privilege, of petty corruption
We hold them up to ridicule
We gloat
And we feel so good

We feel good about being so good
Because nothing reassures us of our own goodness
more surely than joining in
with the exposing and castigating of others
The worse we can make them look
the better we appear
We need someone to measure ourselves against
and the nastier the chosen comparison point
the closer to perfection we will seem
at least in our own eyes.
So politicians are perfect targets.

But the feel good path
the easy and tempting electoral season roast
is not the path that Jesus is calling us to take

“My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.”

Nothing there about focussing our attention
on the voices of the bad shepherds
Nothing about being fascinated by them
or gaining endless enjoyment
from studying them closely
closely enough
to expose them, ridicule them, castigate them

“My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.”

If we are to hear that voice
and learn to follow that voice
we’ll have to give our attention to that voice
not to the others
even if it’s more fun
and goes down well with a democracy sausage

But this is not a call to ignore the politicians
to turn off to the election campaign
to imagine yourself above politics
Jesus called himself the good shepherd
in a place and time
where that image meant “the true king”
It was an intensely political claim

“My sheep hear my voice.
They follow me
Not Caesar.”

But there is no messiah running in the current election
What are sheep of the good shepherd to do?
“My sheep hear my voice
Whoever I might speak through
my sheep hear my voice.”

Listen carefully for the shepherdy voice
Don’t be taken in
by those who claim to speak for him
Many will come claiming to speak in his name
Don’t fall for them

I remember last time round
there was a Baptist pastor running for the Senate
He was emailing me regularly
Asking me to urge you to vote for him
I read his policy statements
There was nothing that sounded like Jesus
More like old fashioned colonialism
A hankering after the good old days
of a strong empire
and the unquestioned reign of European values

I emailed him a question
I think it was a Jesus-y question
He wrote back
but he side-stepped the question
and just urged me to urge you
to vote for him
so that there would be “one of us” in parliament

But parliament doesn’t need more of “us”
at least not because they are “us”
Parliament does need those
who hear the voice of the good shepherd
and follow
But those who hear the voice and follow
may not be those wearing good shepherd lapel badges
and good shepherd bumper stickers
and waving good shepherd flags
They may not even know where the voice came from
They just heard a voice
a voice that rang true
and they followed it

I wonder if it possible to be a follower of Jesus
without knowing it
It seems to follow
We are called to be people of “the way”
rather than just badge wearers
or believers in an idea
Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.”
He says, “I know them”
not “They know about me”

This is one of the problems with the proposals
that our Baptist Union is discussing at the moment.
They are putting up a statement of beliefs
and saying that we are defined
by our belief in those things.
But from the very beginning of the Baptist movement
we have recognised that that is a failed project.
The early Baptists saw the Catholics and Lutherans
killing one another over their statements of belief
and concluded that that obviously wasn’t something
that helped people to follow the Prince of peace
and love their enemies.
They concluded that we would have to define ourselves
by the way we do things, not by what we say,
by our actual practice of listening to the shepherd’s voice
and following where it led.

“My sheep hear my voice and follow me”

Sometimes we may not even recognise who the voice comes from.
We just hear something that sounds true, life-giving,
and we follow.

Who hasn’t had the experience
of responding to a voice
without knowing who it came from?
To varying degrees
we all hear voices
all the time

There are voices of conscience
voices of past memories
voices of vanity or self doubt
self loathing even
voices of fear or confidence
voices that question and criticise
voices that encourage and motivate

Some of them are so loud and clear
that they are almost indistinguishable
from the voices of other people
Some of them have been carefully manufactured
and fed to us by vested interests
through calculated media targeting
so that they will echo loudly within us
Others are so subtle
that we are reluctant to call them voices
Gut feelings
Inner promptings

When the prophet Elijah stood on the mountain
and waited for the voice of the Lord
there were lots of big loud voices
an earthquake, a cyclone, a bushfire
but the voice of the good shepherd
was not in the big loud voices
The voice of the good shepherd came to him
in a whispering sound of sheer silence
and he covered his face and fell to his knees

To varying degrees
we all hear voices
all the time
Some we dismiss
Some we ignore
Some we barely notice
Some we strain our ears to hear
in the whispering sound of sheer silence
Some make our hearts leap
Some ring true
Some challenge and inspire
Some we choose to follow
perhaps without even being sure why
It just seems right

“My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.”

In the multitude of voices
how do we know
which is the voice of the good shepherd?
the voice of the risen one?

The truth is
that we can seldom know for sure
but it is something worth practicing
We’re better at it together
When we discuss what we are hearing
or feeling
and listen to one another
we are more likely to get it right
“Where two or three gather in my name
there I am in your midst”
says the risen one, the good shepherd

But even alone
we can learn from experience
and get better at recognising that voice

The voices that spark hope within you
that open your heart
and fill you with compassion
for those you previously regarded with suspicion
The voices that spark gratitude
and inspire you to open your hands
and share the gifts you have received
The voices that urge you
to tear down the walls of hostility
to resist the rush to blame and condemn
to build bridges of grace and peace
The voices that encourage you to be merciful
to others and to yourself
to know yourself and others beloved
and invited together
into the life and love of the age to come

These are the voices that are likely
to be breathed into our hearts and minds
by the good shepherd
the risen one

And as we become more experienced
at responding to that voice
and seeing good fruit result
we learn to trust our judgement
and recognise it more readily
and confidently

We also get more practiced
at recognising the other voices
the subtly poisonous voices
the voices that diminish us or others
the voices that sow seeds of suspicion and division
the voices that dehumanise others
and condemn them to hell
the voices that makes us fearful and tight-fisted
The voices that tell us
that everything good
everything that matters is under threat
and that it is someone else’s fault
The voices that make us feel hopeless
defeated, useless, dissatisfied
The demonic voices

There are those
who identify with the ‘Christian’ brand name
who wear the t-shirts and bumper stickers
proclaiming their allegiance to the good shepherd
who nevertheless appear to have become mouthpieces
for the voices of fear, suspicion, and condemnation

And there are those
who don’t wear the name
and perhaps identify with other beliefs
who nevertheless appear
in word and action
to be responding to voices
that lead into wide open spaces
of love and life and grace

If you see such people on your ballot paper
vote for them
If you meet such people
working for common causes
partner with them
If you hear such people
speaking words of grace and truth
listen to them

And give thanks
to them
and to the good shepherd
who is giving us life
whether we know it or not
the life of the age to come
the life that is nourished at this table
and wherever the life-giving voice is heard
Those who hear his voice
and follow where it leads
will embrace the life of the world to come
They are known by the shepherd
They will never perish
and no one will ever snatch them
from the safe and gracious hands
of the risen one
the good shepherd


  1. It was only when i look at the sermon that I realised that it was in poetic form – i felt the rhythm as Nathan preached but only when I saw it I knew why my heart had responded to it
    This sermon was written in the way that I write poetry – a thought lodges in my head and I am compelled to write and explore the thought – for Nathan it was “the sheep hear my voice and follow me”
    Latter came the thought that people may speak the voice of God without knowing it “- the voice that sparks hope …open your heart – the voice that sparks gratitude …open our hands – the voice that urges you to build bridges “- when you hear these voices of people that ring true “and that lead into the wide open spaces of love, life and grace” when you see such people – vote for them – when you meet such people, partner with them – and when you hear such people listen to them for the sheep hear the Shepard’s voice – they know it – and follow it Thank you Nathan for showing us “the shepherds voice”

  2. Vincent Michael Hodge

    While Nathan quite adequately speaks to ‘voices” in the sermon I prefer to focus upon a much more important “controlling metaphor” for John’s gospel text – “being turned towards”. This odd phrase denotes communication and/or communion between Father and Son. It saturates all of John’s imagery, especially that of the shepherd who is good.
    John’s prologue Chapter 1(1) opens accordingly: “..In the origin/beginning was the Word and the Word was “turned towards God” and the Word was God”.
    All through the Gospel text whenever you encounter a text about connection – vision, voice, hearing – it is always referring to two people as being ‘turned towards one another”. In the Father and Son there is complete “identity” of Will and Action. John’s only concern in his Gospel is the revelation of the Father in the Son whose shared life is itself shared with those who have faith – the encircling love of Father and Son in the community of Faith.
    To emphasise this I draw you to Genesis Chapter 2:18 where the same idea as John’s “turned towards” of 1:1 is expressed as between The Man and The Woman in the parallel Hebrew phrase of “ezer ke-negdo”. Woman is not simply a ‘helpmate’ for Man. Woman is ‘turned towards’ Man; ‘face to face’ as one in God’s image. It is not a coincidence that John’s Gospel text has so many explicit and implicit references to Genesis. It seems that the unity/communion of Man/Woman of Genesis is bordering on the same meaning and expression of John’s Father/Son of the Godhead. The image of Good Shepherd is but part of this drama for John. Note John’s use of “WOMAN” in the Wedding Story at Cana and the Commissioning of the Woman and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. Note John’s use of the “MAN” in Pilate’s pathetic act in the drama. The juxtaposition of Woman/Man in John and in Genesis is not just ‘luck”. It is surely inpsired design.
    Nathan’s sermon concentrated on the exercise of identifying positive Jesus-like voices in our lives….voices that promoted care and concern for ourselves and for others. He consciously avoided directing too much invective against the so called “bad shepherds”. His emphasis was upon the project envisaged by the Good Shepherd. Now we, as contemporary Christians, easily think of Jesus when the title of “good shepherd” is being thrown around the group. However in today’s Gospel this was not a title that others easily applied to Jesus. They were focussed more upon the coming of the Messiah.
    John in today’s Gospel text has the Good Shepherd title on the lips of Jesus in the early part of Chapter 10 @ verses 11-18. Through those verses there is the repetition of a good shepherd defined as …being someone who lays down his life for his sheep. This is the sense of “Good” that John is really on about. It is the fulfilment of the many Old Testament images of YHWH as shepherd ( Psalm 23; Ezekiel chapter 34ff; and many others).This is a signpost to the dissonance of expectations between a victorious messiah over against a suffering, even dying, shepherd. Now even at either of those two levels we are dealing with much the same environment; an environment that Nathan tried to avoid..the world of politics, who do we vote for, who can we blame.
    Certainly scapegoating is exactly NOT what John’s Gospel is about. John even avoids too much attention on the faithful flock when it comes to signposting the Father and Son as being fully alive to each other.
    Now in this, John is not just being another Nathan and avoiding scapegoating anyone. John’s message is far above all of the usual strife since the reading for today is part and parcel of John’s sole focus upon God as Father and the revelation of the Father by Jesus as Son.
    So qualifying any deisre to belittle the opposing forces of either side, let’s look at the opening few verses of the reading for today. John, as author, has signs, symbols, metaphors everywhere in his text and, above all that, he loves to repeat themes and images like waves upon the shore that incessantly beat upon the sand, recede, only to once more come rushing into shore. This is how we must read all of John’s text. The repetition appears annoyingly boring but once contextualised the poetry is commanding in its ‘perseverance’ and creates a text that is powerful.
    So in Chapter 10:22-24 John has a variety of signposts – and masterfully Nathan’s sermon anticipates imagery of a unity of God as Father, Jesus as Son and Good Shepherd and We as faithful followers/disciples/sheep well cared – those who respond to the voice of the dialogue between Father and Son. In John whenever Jesus mentions Himself as Son it is always in relationship to God as His Father. There is a complete circle of care and concern formed around Father, Son and Sheep flock. Jesus, in the text, is part of another circle that is the replacement by fulfilment of the Judean circle – God as Father, Jesus as Son – whereby the Mosaic law is replaced by the dialogue of Father/Son and the Temple is replaced by Jesus as the earthly dwelling Presence of God as Father.

    Sadly in verses 10:22-24 John has this other Judean circle around Jesus: a circle constituted by YHWH, Law and Temple, Israel/The Judeans. The crucial text here is Jesus challenge to the Judeans: ….” do not belong to my sheep..”

    It is these two circles that John is describing and contrasting. One is the fulfilment of the other but which is which..asks John. “Judgment” is the term in John’s mind here – but more of that another day – that too is a controlling theme of John’s Gospel and much too big to discuss here!

    The Judean circle that John describes in Chapter 10:22-24 is constituted by these parts of his text;
    Hanukah-Feast of re-Dedication of the Temple to YHWH (Father) over against Zeus (the supreme pagan “father figure”) as had been desecrated under Antiochus IV before the Maccabean victory reversed things back to the cult of YHWH. So in this Johannine text we have the emphasis on YHWH as a Lord and Shepherd through the Mosaic law (Torah) and Second Temple as the manifestation of that Holy Presence.
    The Feast of Hanukah had been preceded 3 months earlier by Tabernacles (Booths) which memorialised the Wandering in the Desert and YHWH’s leadership and oversight and the life in Leafy Booths/Tents/Tabernacles prior to the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem after the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land at Jericho. At the end of this part of John’s text, Jesus escapes back across to Jordan from whence he had come at the beginning of the Gospel and the crowning words of John the Baptist of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” which is a reference to the Passover Lamb of the Exodus and much more. Foreboding. Winter in Solomon’s Portico – again the First Temple in Jerusalem was constructed under King Solomon –
    John’s Chapter 10:22 text has the phrase:
    “…so the Judaeans encircled him and demanded…if you are the Anointed One (Messiah), do not hold our soul in suspense but tell us plainly/boldly/publicly…”.
    So while many people focus on that part of the Johannine text that speaks to the flock that listens to the voice; here in today’s reading John is actually focussing on those who do not listen to the voice even to the point whereby they want Jesus to tell them plainly, boldly and publicly if he is the Messiah. Their lack of hearing and their challenge to speak boldly and publicly is actually about trying to trick him into blasphemy and is not really bent on hearing the voice of the Shepherd Messiah.
    Valuing Nathan’s focus upon the positive, Jesus also in not attacking the Judeans out of spite BUT neither is Jesus particularly patting His Own Sheep on the back either – what is being emphasised are the sheep who recognise the Revelation of the Father in the Son and the sheep who refuse to give up their tradition in the face of this new revelation. It si Jesus as Law and Holy presence over agisnt Torah and temple that is in play here. Not just sheep folds in particular!
    Nowhere does Jesus mention His own authority without placing the Father pre-eminently at the Source. John’s Gospel is about THE Father known and heard and beheld in the Son. This is what all of Chapter 10 is about; as indeed it is the whole project of John’s Gospel.
    And so finally when John talks about the Sheep knowing the Voice of their good shepherd, the Greek words of the text are also those that belong to the same family as those used by Pilate in the Passion story when Pilate cried out in mockery of Jesus: “…Behold/Know/Listen to The Man; Behold/Know/Listen to Your King……”. And the Crowd retorted Crucify Him and We have no King but Caesar. Today’s Gospel from Chapter 10 is John’s preliminary account of the coming Passion in Chapters 18-20 – the shepherd who dies for his flock and those who refuse to join His flock.
    But the real climax of the story for John, while through these events, it is not about these events in themselves – from Beginning to End John is about God as Father and Jesus as Son: –
    Chapter 1: In the beginning was The Word, and the Word was ‘turned towards’ God, The Word was God. Jesus as Son ‘turned towards’ God as Father
    Chapter 21: Many other events happened but these are recorded so that you may know that Jesus is the Anointed, the Son of God and you may have faith and thence have life in His Name. Disciples in faith ‘turned towards’ Jesus as Son and thence God as Father.
    This is the Johannine context of the appearance of a Shepherd who is Good.

  3. Have just re read this sermon . Definitely a good idea to re listen or read .Much to appreciate and think about , much to take on board and appropriate .
    Many thanks

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