Images of shepherds and shepherd kings are deeply biblical and in some ways we know what it is about. But there is always more to hear and to listen for. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (RCL John 10:22-30) Being in relationship with the risen Christ is very closely related to what and who we listen to and to how we listen. Because listening is part of how we know and are known and therefore who we will follow.
By listening I mean what do we attend to, who and what do we allow to inform us and shape our views and concerns and values? Whose voice is in our ear? Not just on Sundays. What family voices and messages shape us? A parent who told us how loved we were, or a parental figure who constantly criticised us and told us we were useless? What other remembered voices along life’s way – teachers, supervisors in the work place, friends, peers, strangers with whom we had a chance conversation? What about fictional characters – the inhabitants of the Twilight world or the landscape of the Hobbits, or the Greek myths? What about political leaders or characters from history? What about the media and the way in which certain populations are represented as troublesome or threatening or incredibly attractive and desirable? Even the imaginary neat families as per the advertising industry?
Why is this important? Because what we listen to, who we listen to, strongly and often stealthily influences our thoughts and values. And if you have had a lot of negative or destructive voices then the good news is that it only takes a few positive helpful voices to help you on the way. So if we want to be people of the Way, sheep of the flock of the great Shepherd King, then we know that we need to listen attentively to our Shepherd. And listening to Jesus often means questioning the voices in our head! But that is easier said than done.
Many of you will have been told that the Latin word for obedience is that which means to listen. So listening, hearing, obeying and following are all interwoven and part of the relationship we have with Jesus the Christ. But in truth most of us struggle to listen to Jesus and then to be confident that what we think he might be saying is what he actually is saying to us. It is part of the difficulty of having a relationship with Spirit rather than flesh.
It is worth noting that the Anglican Church, since Hooker in the late 16th century, says there are three sources of wisdom – Holy Scripture, the tradition (the reflections and reasoning of people of faith before us mainly in written form but also art, oral story etc), and human reason which certainly includes science and reflection on personal experience. So let us explore just these three aspects of listening.
Firstly, listening to Scripture. For many of us the first and most reliable way in which we listen to the voice of Jesus is through Scripture. Jesus was after all flesh at one stage and his physical words have been remembered by the early faithful for our benefit. For those of us in western wealthy nations there is no shortage of bibles and so you would think there was no shortage of opportunity to hear what Jesus says through Scripture and yet probably in no earlier time has there so much dispute and debate about what Scripture means – in general and in particular passages. This is good and exciting but also potentially confusing and distracting, especially when we are seeking very specific advice about some matter in our life. I want to say that Scripture is holy, ancient and has been read by many others before us – that is Scripture has a tradition of scholarship and understanding. Therefore Scripture is to be approached reverentially and rigorously. Why do we think we can just open a book that in parts was written many thousands of years ago and understand it like today’s news feed!!? That is neither reverential nor intelligent! Yes, there are some portions of Scripture, especially some of Jesus’ parables and short sayings that do speak to us fairly directly without any clever interpretation. But there are large portions of the bible which really do need scholarly wrestling with. Now not everyone needs to be a theologian in an academic sense but maybe we should all be theologians in the sense of faith – those who speak about theos or God. Listening to sermons, attending bible studies, following good reputable scripture notes, and reading popular but intelligent books on theological matters, all help us to listen more clearly to the voice of Jesus in Scripture.
Secondly we are encouraged to listen for the voice of Jesus in the tradition – the written tradition of the saints and scholars, and the liturgy and conventions of the church. This is harder still than studying Scripture in many ways for there is even more room for human fallibility! Part of this challenge is to listen for Jesus in the Body of Christ, the church, the gathered people of God as we collectively seek to understand the voice of Jesus in our time and our place. Now this is maybe the most confusing place of all to listen because there are so many contested claims. But we are called to be the people of God, not just the private citizens of God, so we do need to grapple with listening for the voice of Jesus in his church.
And thirdly we are invited to listen to and through our own experience and reflections, or reasoning, which includes bringing our subjective experience into the conversation and “secular” wisdom from science and philosophy. Really this means that no area of human knowledge and reflection need or should be left outside our listening for and to the voice of Jesus the Christ, the fully realised human and divine one. We can bend our ear to the earth and listen for the voice of Jesus in the munching of earthworms and rumblings of rocks. We can be open to the communication of the Christ in sunsets and sonnets. We can listen for the cosmic murmuring of the Word through whom all was created in the observations of astronomers, quantum physicists and dream analysts.
And of course we listen for Jesus in our prayers. Now for many of us much of the time prayer is more about us talking at God – thanking God, praising God, complaining to God, asking for stuff – for us and for those for whom we are concerned. All of which is part of healthy relationship. But we do also need to cultivate a prayer life that has times of silence, of simply sitting with God, wasting time, waiting, being available and attentive.
Which leads us to the tricky subject of discernment. When we have thoughts and feelings about what we think Jesus might be saying to us, how do we check out that it comes from God and not elsewhere – our ego, our fantasies, other less well intended spirits? And it is very important to practice discernment as often the promptings of the heart seem at first ridiculous or counter to what we think we want. Our hearts often murmur disquiet, anxiety, yearning for what we think to be wrong or unattainable. The whisperings of our hearts can keep us awake at night or in the middle of the day take us by surprise.
The first question is I think “Does this sound like something Jesus would say?” And how do you answer that? Well, is there anywhere is Scripture that says something similar? Have other people of faith experienced something like this? Ignation spirituality suggests a simple exercise for individuals listening for Jesus’ advice and guidance in their life. Take the decision to be made and make four columns: the benefits of taking the course of action; the costs of taking it; the benefits of not taking it; and the costs of not taking the course of action. And pray with the lists. It often helps one option begin to emerge as clearly stronger than the others.
There are other practical traditions of discerning or interrogating ideas we think might come from God. For many having a spiritual director is an important relationship. Someone who listens with you for the movement of the spirit. And maybe the most important question – will this lead to life? Even life in a strange new direction or an unlikely place.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” So we are to listen for the voice of Jesus. Listening so that we might hear and follow is at the core of faith; it is where passive belief becomes personal faith. It is often not easy or obvious. But it is a yearning for the voice of Jesus that helps keep our hearts receptive and our minds open. It is listening for the voice that keeps us from complacency and mere religious observance and draws us deeper into that place in our hearts where we commune with God.
The voice of the risen Jesus brings love, wisdom and hope. His words bring life. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.
You may wish to read another blog on this text.