Apr 25, 2021 homily on Psam 23 and John 10:11-18 by Pastor Galen
A Mother’s Voice
Scientific studies have shown that even before birth, babies can recognize the sound of their mother’s voice and distinguish it from other voices.
In 2003, a study conducted by Canadian and Chinese researchers found that baby’s brains are learning speech patterns and laying the groundwork for language acquisition while they are still in their mother’s womb.
To conduct the study, scientists tested 60 women in the final stages of pregnancy. All the mothers were recorded as they read a poem out loud. Then the mothers were divided into two groups. Half of the fetuses heard the recording of their own mother. The other half heard another mother, not their own.
In both cases, hearing the poem read out loud caused a change in the baby’s heart rate. The heart rate of the unborn babies who heard their own mother’s voice got faster, whereas the heart rate of those who heard a voice other than their mother’s actually slowed down!
Several years later, a study funded by the National Institute of Health found that babies in the womb actively listen to their mother’s voice during the last ten weeks of pregnancy, and that at birth they can distinguish between the sound of their mother’s native language and a foreign language!
It’s possible that unborn babies may also be able to recognize the sound of their father’s voice or other family members as well, but more research is needed on the subject. But the point is that even before they are born, babies are learning to recognize familiar voices, and can distinguish their mother’s voice from that of strangers.
The Good Shepherd
In John 10, Jesus used an image that had been used to describe God throughout the Hebrew scriptures — that of a shepherd who cares for his sheep.
Speaking about himself in contrast to the religious and political leaders of his day who had been tasked with caring for the people, but who instead used them to their own advantage, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14-15).
Earlier in John chapter 10, Jesus described a shepherd who knew his sheep so well that he called each of them by name. Jesus said, “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
In Jesus’s day, all of the sheep in a particular village would be corralled together in a village sheepfold. When a shepherd needed to separate out his sheep to take them home, or to take them out to pasture, he would call out to them to follow him. Shepherds often had little pet names for their sheep, and so they would call them by name. And amazingly, the sheep would recognize the sound of their shepherd’s voice, and would follow.
The bond between the shepherd and the sheep was undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that the sheep was completely dependent upon the shepherd for care and protection.
In using this imagery of a good shepherd who cares for his sheep, Jesus was saying that just as a shepherd knows his sheep, and just as his sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, so too Jesus knows and loves each and every one of God’s children, and wants us to learn to hear and discern his voice, and follow his leading.
They Will Listen to My Voice
A few verses later, Jesus went on to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16).
Speaking here to a predominantly Jewish audience, the “other sheep” that Jesus mentions here are most likely the “Gentiles” — another word for “the nations.” Jesus was reminding the religious leaders of his day, and us today as well, that Jesus’s love knows no limits. All are invited to become members of Christ’s flock. All are welcome to listen to his voice and respond to his calling.
Learning to Listen
How, then, do we learn to listen to and discern the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus?
Listening involves more than simply hearing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “listening to God’s voice” referred to obeying God’s commands. Listening involves actively paying attention and responding. When someone asks us to do something, it’s not enough to simply hear with our ears. Listening – truly listening – involves taking action based upon what we’ve heard.
Listening to and obeying the voice of God involves learning to trust and depend on God, like sheep depend upon their shepherd, and babies depend on their parents, and this is often easiest to learn at a very young age. Later on this morning we’re going to have a baptism. Baptisms are a wonderful time of celebration in the life of the church as we together as a congregation welcome new people into the community of faith.
In this particular case, we’re going to be baptizing young Catalina, but in reality the baptism is not just about her – it’s also about her parents, and her family, choosing together to follow God, and to raise Catalina in the Church, so that she can learn to hear and discern the voice of God, and so that someday she can make the decision for herself to follow Christ.
Today we’ll be addressing questions to her parents, inviting them to make a commitment to raise Catalina in the Christian faith. When Catalina is older, and when she’s ready to take that step for herself, we’ll invite her to come forward and “confirm” her faith, to become a “professing member” of the church, as an indication of her own personal response to God’s calling on her life.
Just as children learn from a very young age (even before birth!) to recognize and differentiate the voice of their parents, so too children can learn to listen to and hear and obey the voice of God even from a very young age.
One way that we help children and all who are young in the faith learn to recognize God’s voice is by reading God’s Word – the Bible – to them. This is why each Sunday here at church we read Scripture before the sermon – we generally read a passage from the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) and one from the Gospels or another passage from the New Testament, so that over the course of our lifetimes we’re being soaked in God’s words.
In Children’s Church/Sunday School and Vacation Bible school we invite children to memorize Scripture – a good practice for anyone of any age to do! And we encourage families and individuals to read and study Scripture on their own or together as a family throughout the week. The more we listen to, the more we hear God’s voice expressed through Scripture, the more we learn to differentiate and distinguish God’s voice from all of the other noise and chaos in our world.
But again, it’s not enough just to hear – we must also obey. As parents or grandparents, godparents, or other family members, we have a responsibility to model for the next generation what it means to listen to and obey God’s voice. Our children and grandchildren and those who are younger in the faith are watching what we do, and so often our actions speak much louder than our words! When we trust and obey what God tells us to do, it encourages others to do the same.
And by the way, for the children who are here or listening this morning, you’re not off the hook! Your younger siblings, cousins and relatives, or friends and neighbors are watching how you act as well! Each one of us, no matter our age or stage of life, can be a role model and example to those around us. Each one of us can point others towards the Good Shepherd, who loves and cares for us and invites us to follow.
The psalmist David knew what it meant to look out for and care for sheep. As the youngest member in his family, he was often tasked with looking out for his family’s flocks, and he spent countless hours in the fields, watching his father’s sheep, and composing lyrical poetry. David was quite aware of the dangers that sheep faced, who were often attacked by bears, or wolves, or lions, and he knew how much they depended on him, as their shepherd, to take care of them.
At the same time, David realized that he was sort of like one of his sheep, because he was completely and utterly dependent on God for his own care and protection. And so David composed this famous poem which we read earlier in Psalm 23, which beautifully expresses the deep affection that God has for each one of us, and the deep trust and dependence that we in turn can have for God. And so this morning I’d like to read this Psalm for us one more time, in hopes that we too might learn to listen and respond to the voice of our Good Shepherd, and that we might help others to do the same:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long (Psalm 23)