Whose Voice?

May 07 2017


Today is historically the Sunday when we celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The image of Jesus as shepherd was an especially effective image for the first century since shepherds were so prevalent at the time of Jesus. While that was one reason for the use, there are two others: one, the nature of sheep makes them a good candidate for an analogy of “followers;” and two, Jesus as Good Shepherd was also used as an image for the lambs that were slain in sacrifice and the issue of Jesus being a sacrifice for us came directly from the analogy of the “lamb that was slain.”

Why are sheep such a good analogy for Christians? First, Sheep have a strong instinct to follow the leader. When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows, even if it is not a good decision. For example, if the lead sheep jumps over a cliff, the others are likely to follow. Even from birth, lambs are conditioned to follow the older members of the flock.

While we would not like to acknowledge that we make decisions in the same ways that sheep do, the fact is that many people do make decisions in exactly the same way that sheep do. Why? Because many people are followers. They simply allow other people to lead them around blindly, never questioning what the leader says, does, or expects them to do, but simply believing that the leader knows more than they do. Blindly following, even to their own deaths. Our studies of cult behavior tell us this.

Instead of thinking on their own, there are still people who want to be told what to do and how to live. The voice they will follow, sadly, will not be their own, but the voice of a leader, no matter how immoral, unethical or incorrect the advice or direction may seem. In their heads, the leader is always right and takes on an aura of being a god.

While I am not suggesting that we should question everything that leaders or persons in positions of authority ask us to do, I am suggesting that when it comes to faith, we have not only a right, but an obligation, to question. Growth does not occur by blindly following what someone else says. Growth occurs by questioning, by thinking about our faith, by analyzing, and by asking God to help us find the truth of our personal spirituality.

Sheep are very social animals. Animal behaviorists have pointed out that sheep require the presence of at least 4 or 5 sheep which, when grazing, maintain a visual link to each other. Sheep are gregarious. They will stay together in a group when grazing. A sheep will become agitated if it is separated from the group. It is banding together in large groups that protects sheep from predators because predators will go after the outliers in the flock.

Isn’t that true for Christianity? We flock together in different denominations because we want to have fellowship, we want to be social, we want to share, and we want to grow in our faith. Yet many of us are aware that if we went to a different church, even if it were a UCC church we would not experience the same feelings that we do when we come here. Similarly, if we were to go to another denomination, we would feel like aliens in a strange land. We flock together because it helps us build our faith and our fellowship, and it provides mutual support and aid when we need it.

We acknowledge that flocks are different. There is even a strain of sheep that can become leaders in the moment of crisis. These sheep exist in Iceland and are actually known as leadersheep. They are highly intelligent animals that have the ability and instinct to lead a flock home during difficult conditions. They have an exceptional ability to sense danger. There are many stories in Iceland of leadersheep saving many lives during the fall roundups when blizzards threaten shepherds and flocks alike.

And so it is with many congregations of flocks of believers. Every once in a while, one flock, or one sheep emerges as the leader to challenge old traditions, to save people from themselves, to help people relate in a new way to the shepherd or to other sheep.

There are certainly many analogies that we can draw, but for us, as Christians, one of the analogies regarding our relationship with Jesus is that we look to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the leader, the example for us to follow. However, that doesn’t mean that because we always did something in a certain way, that we need to continue to do it in that way.

“There is an ancient story of a sentry standing day after day at his post with no apparent reason for his being there. One day a passerby asked him why he was standing in that particular place. ‘I don’t know,’ the sentry replied, ‘I’m just following orders.’ The passerby then went to the captain of the guard and asked him why the sentry was posted in that place. ‘I don’t know,’ the captain replied, ‘we’re just following orders.’ This prompted the captain of the guard to pose the question to higher authority. ‘Why do we post a sentry at that particular spot?’ he asked the king. But the king didn’t know. So he summoned his wise men and asked them the question. That answer came back that one hundred years before, Catherine the Great had planted a rosebush and had ordered a sentry placed there to protect it. The rosebush had been dead for eighty years, but the sentry still stood guard.” (Preaching Well, #0627)

Once a generation passes, incidents that happened in that generation become distorted as others from succeeding generations attempt to explain or relay the history.

We are 21 centuries removed from the time of Christ. We have what others have written for us. We have what we know are errors in those writings and we have come to know that we have biases in those writings. For us, the question becomes if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to acknowledge the faith that we have developed over our years of struggle and thought, what does the image of Jesus as shepherd mean for us? To say that we will blindly follow simply because others tell us to is not faith. Faith is something that we must develop within our hearts and our souls. It is personal; it defines our lives; and it ought to lead us to the truth of our relationships with others and our relationship with God. We can certainly carry the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in our hearts, but we cannot do that in the 21st century by blindly following and we cannot do it without asking what it means. When each of us can answer that question in our hearts and the use that answer as a guideline for our lives, we will have arrived at a new point in our faith journeys, and that point may be far-removed from where we began the journey.

It can only be resolved if each of us, independently and in cooperation and fellowship with other Christians, can honestly determine what voice we hear speaking to us – what resonates within us as the truth for this day and age. While other religions and beliefs may not concur with us, God really is still speaking in the 21st century, and that is the voice we can all follow with confidence if we honestly try to determine what is being said. Amen.