It’s the Festival of Dedication. Jesus is at the Temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by people. They say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” The question wearied Jesus. He responds, “I have told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe.”
What were His works – the signs, as John calls them in his gospel that prove that He is the Messiah? Thus far in his ministry he had done the following: turned water into wine at a wedding, driven out money changers in that very Temple, calling it His Father’s House, healed an official’s son who was on his death bed, gave healthy legs to an invalid who had begged for 38 years, fed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, walked on water, and healed a man born blind. All of these signs took place in public settings.
What had Jesus already said plainly about Himself and His identity as the Messiah? John the Baptist called Him the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. When the woman at the well told him that she was expecting a Messiah to come, He responded, “I who speak to you am He.”
Jesus constantly identifies Himself with the Father, saying, “I and the Father are one.” He says “I am the bread of life,” and “I am the light of the world.” He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And right before today’s passage, Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
Jesus has spoken plainly and has performed signs and wonders, yet the people do not believe. This is true now as well. There are many reasons people don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah. This morning we’ll stick with the reason Jesus gives in our text. He says to the people who don’t believe that they do not belong to His sheep. They are unable to recognize the voice of the shepherd. His sheep, however, do hear his voice and follow Him.
What does Jesus’ voice sound like? How do we recognize Jesus’ voice among the siren songs of the world? Jesus’ voice is recognized in two main categories. One can be called “Law” and the other can be called “Grace.” Jesus is the voice of God. He says plainly today, “I and the Father are one.” If we want to know God, then all we have to do is hear Jesus’ voice. All through His ministry, Jesus articulates God’s Law or God’s demand on our lives. God had already expressed his will for his people through the 10 commandments. You shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not steal. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder. You shall not covet.
Jesus says that He has not come to abolish God’s Law but to fulfill it. In many ways Jesus heightens the moral, ethical demand of God’s Law. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says that if you have lusted after a woman in your heart, you have already committed adultery. You are as guilty of breaking God’s law as if you had actually committed adultery. He also says if you are really angry at someone, you are guilty of murder. Again, you are as guilty of breaking God’s law as if you had actually murdered someone.
Jesus equates the intention or motivation of the heart with the act. No one has a pure heart. Jesus says that out of one’s heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, and pride. He is listing the commandments and saying that out of our hearts we break the Law of God.
The purpose of the Law is both to show us how life is best lived, and to show us that we are either unable or unwilling to follow God’s law. We are unable to obey his law because He demands perfection – Jesus says, “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are unwilling to obey God’s law because we are sinners, we are bound up in our own pride and believe we know what is best for us. Either way, “all we like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way,” as the prophet Isaiah says.
So to hear Jesus’ voice is to first recognize our guilt and sin. Willie Stark, the Governor in Robert Penn Warren’s, “All the King’s Men” is known for his bribery and blackmail to get his way. One of his staff works full time to dig up dirt on his enemies. Even when someone looks squeaky clean from the outside, don’t believe it. Willie says, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” When challenged on his low view of human nature, Willie responds, “Boy, I went to a Presbyterian Sunday School back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And – he grinned suddenly – I have found it very valuable.”
What Jesus’ sheep find very valuable is the honest assessment of themselves. Those who do not belong to His sheep find that their pride rejects Jesus’ leveling description of the human heart. They find him to be a stumbling block and an offense. They would rather kill Jesus than listen to his piercing assessment of sin and need.
But those who belong to his sheep and hear his voice find a kind of sweet relief in being recognized for who and what we are. It’s like going to the doctor and getting an accurate diagnosis of your illness. At least you know what you are dealing with. And this Good Shepherd also happens to be the Great Physician. For if the voice of the Law is the wound, then the Voice of Grace is the healing salve.
What does the Shepherd’s voice of grace sound like? How are we to recognize it? “Come unto me all that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “This is a true saying and worthy of all to be believed, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Perhaps you will recognize these words from scripture as the “Comfortable Words,” the words the minister uses after the absolution. The voice of grace is always and without exception the voice of comfort.
Grace always expresses itself in love. I have a friend in prison who has just found out that he has a brain tumor and is being moved to another facility. He shared what he said in his final words at the chapel at his first prison.
“I remember my first day at church. I stood up and said my name, state, and unit. Then I witnessed my first good bye. It was very powerful. There is this love in the congregation. The next day as i was walking around the compound, I started writing my goodbye in my head. I’ve changed it several times since. It gave me hope.”
“I didn’t start really reading the Bible until coming to prison. I am horrible at memorizing scripture and knowing the books. I do have a favorite. John 13:34 – basically Jesus says that he has a new commandment, that he loves everyone and you must love everyone too. When I came to church after reading this I sat between two guys, looked at them and said to myself I don’t even know you and the guy on the other side I don’t like. Its like Jesus said I love all vegetables and you have to too. Here I am sitting between Brussels sprouts and broccoli. It was hard.”
“A few weeks ago I had a horrible experience. I had a seizure, a brain operation and then they told me I had brain cancer. But for some reason I feel great. My time since I have returned has been perhaps the best span I have had since being here. When I was in the hospital, I was not able to reach out to my family. No one knew what was going on. I was alone but I never felt alone. God was always with me. Before all this, people would say that I was a private person, keeping to myself. Since I got back all I want to do is to be around people. My fellow vegetables – I like you a lot more.”
God’s command to love others came naturally for my friend after he experienced the grace of God when he was weary and heavy laden in the hospital. Grace was his final word to his fellow vegetables.
The clearest act of grace is God’s act of love for us. The Good Shepherd switched roles and became the Lamb that was slain. On his way from the diaper to the shroud, Jesus passed through the cross for the sin of the world. The ancient poet Virgil once asked, “what region of the earth is not full of our calamities?” The Law’s answer is “no region.” And Grace’s answer is “no region for which Christ did not die.” And this morning, that especially includes Boston, Massachusetts. Yes, “all we like sheep have gone astray, each of us our own way, but the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.”
On the cross, when the iniquity of us all was laid upon Him, Jesus spoke 7 final words from the cross. Every word that passed through his parched lips was a word of grace. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” he said to his murderers. To the thief on the cross next to Him, he said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus speaks the voice of law and he speaks the voice of grace. Literally, the voice of grace is his last word.
Grace is the last word. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible, the primary means by which we hear and recognize the Shepherd’s voice. Do you know what the very last verse is? “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”