*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, May 6, 2012.
Floyd Choat heard the voice of God. Or at least he believed he heard the voice of God. Floyd described the voice: "He talked to me in plain, old-fashioned English to where I could understand him and he could understand me. It was just about like any man's voice; soft gentle, not hassling, but very easy to hear." Want to know what "God" said to Floyd? According to Floyd, God said to him, "Lay down between the tombstones of your two sons until I tell you to get up." So, Floyd followed the voice's directions and made his bed among the dead!
Every few days Floyd would bathe himself with a sponge. His wife would come out to the cemetery ever so often and bring him fresh clothes. Relatives dropped off food and water daily, as if this kind of behavior was normal activity for the family. Not everyone thought Floyd was playing with a full deck. The phone at the Somervell County Sheriff's Department was ringing off the hook. People were concerned about Floyd's strange behavior. But, the deputy told the concerned citizens that Floyd was within his legal rights. You see, his plot was already bought!
Needless to say, Floyd received a visit from the State Department of Mental Health. After a long interview with a case worker, the conclusion was Floyd was indeed...sane. Floyd told an interviewer about hearing God's voice, "God does strange things on occasion to get people's attention." And with no pun intended Floyd concluded, "As far as comfort, God didn't say life would be a bed of roses did he?" True. Life isn't a bed of roses. But, did Floyd really hear God's voice? Or could it have been his own voice he heard? Who can say? Whatever the case, wouldn't we like to hear God's voice with the clarity of ol' Floyd?
In our scripture text from the Gospel of John Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice. And they follow me." We are his sheep aren't we? Then, shouldn't we hear his voice? Maybe we'd better listen to this story. It is wintertime. Soon Death's cold finger will tap Jesus on the shoulder. But, now he walks on the warm side of the temple in Solomon's Colonnade. The people want Jesus to tell them in no uncertain terms if he is the Messiah or not. Jesus says he has already told them and done many wondrous works, but they don't believe. The reason they don't believe is because they are not his sheep. Unlike his disciples, they don't hear his voice. Jesus' sheep hear his voice and follow. In ancient Palestine, and even today, the shepherd treated his sheep like we do our dogs. The shepherd would give a name to each of his sheep and call them by name. The sheep were able to recognize their master's voice when he trilled his tongue and called out to them by name to follow him. So, Jesus said, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."
The sheep of Jesus' flock hear his voice and follow. Sounds simple enough. But, wait a minute. People who claim to hear voices may find themselves strange bedfellows with Floyd Choat or Joan of Arc. It's a little different for us to say we hear Jesus' voice than it was for those first disciples. In those days the voice of Jesus had a body to go with it! To hear voices that come from somewhere other than a living human being is a bit strange, to say the least. But, if the Good Shepherd lives and we are Jesus' sheep, metaphorically speaking, then in some way we should be able to hear Christ's voice and follow, as crazy as that may sound.
The truth is we all hear voices. Different kinds of voices. Some of those voices come from vocal chords which vibrate our ear drums and are translated by our brain into meaningful words, phrases, sentences, ideas, and concepts. We hear these voices whisper, yell, laugh, cry, plead, and question. In a metaphorical sense we hear other voices. We hear nature's voice. The shout of the roaring sea. The laughter of leaves. The whisper of a gentle breeze. Some voices can be heard without vibrations of human vocal chords. The voice of silence. The voice of truth. The voice of freedom. The voice of peace. We hear the voice of silence in stillness and solitude. We can hear the voice of truth by reading a novel. We can hear the voice of freedom cry out in the face of the captive. We can hear the voice of peace in our hearts. We recognize these voices when we hear them, see them, or feel them.
We all hear voices. The problem is there are so many voices that claim our attention, that call us to follow. Our lives chatter with a cacophony of voices. Voices call out to us from the books located between the tabloids and tic tacs at the supermarket, from a blaring TV, from our stereos and CD players, or from the computer while surfing the internet. These voices speak with authority and can be very enticing. A book on a shelf whispers as you pass, "Pssssst. Excuse me, lady. If you really wanna improve your relationship, read me. I've got some quick, easy answers." The voice from the television blares out, "Hey, buddy, if you want a woman like this on your arm, go buy a six-pack of this brewskie." A CD calls out to a teenager, "You're a real nerd if you don't listen to this music, dude." The computer screen speaks, "I can offer you the world at your fingertips." Voices come at us right and left.
Other voices call out to us from all around us, pulling us in this and that direction. The voices of our culture call us to follow their lead. The voices of movie stars, sports figures, pop psychologists, exercise gurus, fashion models, MTV rock stars, talk show hosts, and commercial advertisers call out to us. They are the gods of our age. They want to shape and mold us into their image. Their voices tell us what to do, what is right and wrong, what is in and out, how we should think, how we should dress, what we should eat, what we should buy, how to be secure, how to succeed, how to solve our problems and moral dilemmas, how to find meaning in life. And who of us does not, at one time or another, follow these voices?
I recently read a Mental Health Foundation article about people hearing voices, particularly voices of people who are not there. Mental Health professionals have usually categorized such experiences as hallucinations and a symptom of mental illness. This article suggested that may not always be the case. Research has shown that it is common for recently bereaved persons to hear the voice of their loved one who had died. The writer of the article said, “There are many different ways to hear voices. Voices can be experienced in the head, from outside the head or even in the body. It may be one voice or many voices.” It is noted that in many cases these are symptoms of mental illness.
But, a new approach is emerging that calls for listening to these voices and getting to know them better. The article goes on to say:
The new approach helps the voice hearer to make space for the voices, to listen but not to necessarily obey, to engage, but in their own time and space -essentially to learn how to control them within their own explanatory framework. This acceptance of the voices is crucial to growth and resolution. Voice hearers who have learnt these techniques can now say, "I hear voices, they are part of me and I am glad they are".
There are many voices that clamor for our attention. Our own minds are crammed with voices. If particular buttons are pushed inside us, we may hear some of those voices repeat their message, like a phone answering machine. We all hear these inner voices. Psychologists refer to them as the "old tapes" from our past. They are negative messages we received from parents, family members, friends, teachers, painful experiences, hurtful memories. Sometimes these inner voices play over and over again. And these old voices can affect how we live in the present. If someone could push the buttons on our inner tape player, what old voices might we hear? "You won't amount to much." "How could you be so stupid?" "Can't you do anything right." "Girls can't do that kind of work." "Boys don't cry." "Stop acting like such a baby." "You see, you just can't trust people." These voices speak from our subconscious. The negative messages of our past are recorded on the cells of our mind and played back when triggered by certain people, situations, or events. We don't have be Floyd Choat to hear voices. We all hear voices. They call us to follow.
Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice and they follow." There is one voice which the Christian is called to hear and follow. The voice of God. There are many who have heard God's voice and followed. The scriptures tell us many such people. And they may have appeared as kooky as ol' Floyd. Noah heard a voice that told him to build a giant ark on dry land. Moses heard a voice call out to him from a flaming shrub. While lying on a mat in the temple young Samuel heard a voice calling him and mistook it for the priest. A voice told Jeremiah to go get his underwear and hide it in a rock, then to go find it again. I could tell countless stories of those who claimed to have heard God's voice through Christ. Teresa of Avila. Francis of Assisi. John Hus. Menno Simons. Conrad Grebel. Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of them, in their own unique ways, heard the voice of God in Christ calling them to follow. And your ears would grow sore if I spoke of all the common people of faith, like you and I, who claim to hear the voice of God in Christ. Now, the voice is probably not audible, but nevertheless we recognize the voice of the Living Christ.
We recognize the voice of Christ even in its many and varied tones. The voice of Christ speaks to us from the Word written, read, studied, and proclaimed. The Book is opened. The reader reads from the text. It is interpreted, illuminated, and made relevant for our day. The people lean forward listening for the voice that speaks beyond and beneath the human words. From within small rooms with chalk boards and watercolor pictures of Jesus, teachers open their leatherback book and share from an ancient text and a living, contemporary voice is heard. We hear the voice of Christ in hymn and song, in ritual, in bread and cup, in the stories of saints, in the words and deeds of the gathered and scattered community of Christ. We may even hear the voice of Christ in the stranger, the poor, the powerless, the suffering, the forsaken. Christ's voice may at times even speak to us through our culture.
How can we tell if the voice we hear is truly Christ's voice? Modern technology has invented a way to make a visual graph of the human voice. It looks like a squiggly line on a screen. This voice graph can tell when a voice is being disguised or if someone is attempting to imitate somebody else's voice. Graphs of two or more recorded voices can be compared to one another to see if they are the same voices or not. The graphs can be superimposed over one another and immediately you can see if they match, even if the voices sound similar, even if the voices speak in a different language. In a real sense, we have a graph of Jesus' voice. It is recorded in the scripture in his teachings, actions, life, death, resurrection. Using this graph of Christ's voice Christians working together can lay the different voices we hear over the graph of Christ's voice to discern whether or not a particular voice is a true echo of the voice of Christ. Through varied vocal chords the voice of the Good Shepherd still speaks to us. We recognize the voice and follow.
Some of us more vintage adults may remember the old RCA Victor logo. It pictured a black and white spotted dog sitting next to an old Victrola record player, the kind that was wound up with a crank and had a bell horn to conduct the sound. The dog is tilting its head listening to the voice coming from the horn. On the record is the voice of his master. The record may be old and scratchy. The voice may be accompanied by hisses and pops. The owner's words may not be the exact words the dog is used to hearing. And to be truthful, the recording is not the actual voice of the dog's master. But, we get the RCA slogan: "He hears his Master's voice."
The voice of Christ calls out to us from Scripture across two thousand years of time, from different cultures and languages, through varied translations of ancient texts. The voice speaks in a different language and words. The voice of Christ speaks to us through the scratchy voices of preachers and teachers and common folk. It speaks through the pops and hisses, the clamor of voices in our culture. And still, we hear the Master's voice. Jesus' sheep hear their master's voice and follow.
We have heard the voice of God in Christ. And we're still sane. We may be more sane than if we didn't hear Christ's voice amid the clamor of voices which call us to follow who knows where. We still hear the Master's voice and seek to follow. Long ago Anabaptist Michael Sattler put this truth into words for the followers of the Good Shepherd to hear:
When Christ with his true teaching cameAnd gathered up his flock so fair
He taught them all to follow him
And patiently his cross to bear
He said, You my disciples true
Must watch and be alert each day
Love nothing more upon this earth
Than me and all my words alway.
Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."