Growing up, my family lived about 30 minutes from a city large enough to have a Wal-Mart. We’d often make the drive over the mountain to a small town called Poteau, and these trips would almost always include a visit to Wal-mart. I may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, because after I was old enough to hear that I was born in Poteau, I asked my mom if I was born at Wal-Mart!
More often than not, when we’d go shopping, I’d get bored and go to the toy section while my mom finished up. After I got bored with that, I’d walk up and down the aisles of the store looking back and forth, trying to find her. My brother and I even had a pattern for finding her more quickly. Start with the craft section, go through women’s clothes, and then work your way back through the aisles.
We were fortunate. My mom never met a stranger, so we could often overhear her talking to someone long before we ever saw her. No matter how young or old you are, you can pick out your mother’s voice in a crowd. It was the same way in the days before caller ID on our phones. If you knew someone really well, you would recognize their voice without them ever saying their name.
Scripture talks about the exact same sort of thing in a phenomenon that would’ve been as familiar to the first people to hear these words as the “Wal-Mart phenomenon” was for me as a child. In Jesus’ time, a shepherd would walk into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep. They would recognize his voice and come to him. Much of this comes because of the familiarity of the sheep with the shepherd. They spend time together. They know each other’s mannerisms. The sheep listen for the one voice they trust.
In John 10:1-5, Jesus shares the following parable, “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
In this short parable, Jesus demonstrates that he is the way through which we enter into a relationship with God as well as the good shepherd whose voice we must listen to. He knows us by name. He leads us into good pastures. At the same time, Jesus’ voice isn’t the only voice out there. He makes that perfectly clear. There are other voices that offer us life and freedom. However, they are only interested in death and destruction. These are the thieves and bandits that Jesus talks about in this passage. Anything or anyone other than Jesus who promises a life that is true and fulfilling is being deceitful. There’s a reason that in scripture the devil is called the “deceiver.” The devil is ultimately opposed to the kind of life and security that the true shepherd offers his sheep.
We experience a world full of things that offer us security and happiness. Sometimes we feel that if we just had more money we’d be secure and happy. Sometimes we believe that if we just had more power or control over our lives, we’d have true security and happiness. There are a number of things that promise us a full life. But that’s the promise that only Jesus can fulfill. Years ago, when my daughter was just a little girl, my family and I were watching TV. After a commercial, she looked skeptically at the TV and said, “Yeah right…you’re just trying to make that toy look good to sell us stuff!”
The enemy does the same thing. He makes that which is destructive look good because he is trying to sell us on listening to and responding to another voice than that of our Good Shepherd.
The primary way we learn to hear from God is to familiarize ourselves with Scripture. The Bible is the definitive word of God and gives us something like a rosetta stone to learn the ways God speaks and the things He would never say. For instance, it is very much like God to say, “love your enemies.” It is nothing like God to say, “check out that other person’s spouse. I bet they would be a better partner for you than your own.” The more time we spend with God, reading God’s word, reading and drinking deep of the truth of Scripture, and simply listening, the easier it will be to discern the voice of our Shepherd.
Over time, you’ll notice God communicates with you in familiar patterns as well. For instance, in my life, when the Lord speaks, it often happens that he will answer my questions even as I’m asking and before I finish the question. For instance, one day I was talking to one of my friends who is a pastor. He had just learned of an elderly man in his church who had fallen and needed to be taken to the hospital. The problem was that this man and his wife didn’t have cellphones, and my friend didn’t have any contact information for them. He was worried that he couldn’t be there to support them because there are so many hospitals in Oklahoma City. I prayed and simply asked God, “what hospital is this family in?” Even before I could finish speaking the words in my mind, the word “Mercy” came to mind. My friend was able to call, and sure enough, this family was checked in at Mercy Hospital. The greater blessing came as he was able to pray with them and share that God cared enough about them to give him guidance to find them through a conversation with a friend. At the end of the day, hearing from the Lord is never about elevating or drawing attention to ourselves. Hearing from God is always about communicating the life-changing love of the Lord to those who hear His voice, and to those who are impacted through the hearing of that word.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd! He came to offer us life in abundance. As the sheep of His pasture, we are not called to be desperate, boring, or isolated people! We’re called to have a full and meaningful life, and this is the kind of life we can only receive by following the One who gave his life for us, only to be raised to eternal life!