See Through Your Ears
April 13, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year it’s the same – on the fourth Sunday of Easter we thank God for Christ Jesus, our Good Shepherd. And this day is right in the middle of our Easter celebration. So even though the Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs are gone from the stores, making way for the coming of Mother’s Day cards, we continue to celebrate the great Feast of Easter.
Resurrected to Lead
On this day we rejoice in the Good Shepherd – Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus is surely our Judge (John 5:22; 2 Timothy 4:1), but he’s more than that. He’s also our Redeemer (Luke 2:38; Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30), our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), our Savior (Matthew 1:21; John 4:42), our King (John 18:36; 1 Timothy 6:15), our Intercessor (Hebrews 7:25), and even God himself (John 5:18, 8:41, 10:33) – but that’s not all. He’s also our Good Shepherd. But what does that mean – what follows from it?
What is it like to have Jesus as our Good Shepherd? Does that mean he’ll be our warm and cuddly teddy bear – as in some sort of Elvis Presley (1935-1977) version of this sacred, solemn and stirring day? (see “Ecce Elvis,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2000). No, what we have instead is far more demanding than that. For we read in John 10:4 that
Jesus goes before his sheep, and they follow him, for they know his voice.
Christ our Lord, then, is our leader – and we are to listen to him and follow him. And as our leader, he’s our Good Shepherd because he has been raised from the dead – and so he continues to lead. He hasn’t been shut-out by the Crucifixion. He still leads on!
And as our Good Shepherd, we who are his sheep (1 Peter 2:25), are expected to listen to him and be led by him. In fact, if no one did that, it would be hard to see how Jesus could still be our Good Shepherd! For how can a shepherd function without any sheep to care for and lead? On this day, then, we not only rejoice in Christ the Good Shepherd, but we also hear the command to listen to him and follow him. So obedient listening on our part goes along with Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s the demanding part of this day.
That Jesus is our Good Shepherd is pure gift – it’s only sweetness and light. We don’t have to twist his arm to force him to lead us and care for us – or be our Good Shepherd. No, that has already been decided beforehand – and it’s settled once and for all. But what we’ll do in response – now that’s up in the air. And in the face of that uncertainty we have this command to listen to Jesus and follow where he tells us to go. This makes his shepherding quite rigorous. Martin Luther (1483-1546) – the most eminent teacher among us [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 575] – shows how this rigor is linked to grace:
[The] effort of our entire lives should be to purge from body and soul unrighteous, unregenerate, and worldly conduct. Until death our lives should be nothing but purification. While it is true that faith instantly redeems from all legal guilt and sets free, yet evil desires remain in body and soul, as odor and disease cling to a dungeon. Faith occupies itself with purifying from these. Typical of this principle, Lazarus in the Gospel was raised from the dead by a single word (John 11:44), but afterward the shroud and napkin had to be removed [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker, 8 vols. (1988) 6:137].
An odor and disease that clings to a dungeon? Yes, indeed! And so we who have been set free by the sweetness of God’s grace must battle all of our days to purge from our lives that wretched stink of sin. That foul smell comes from our being “irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, [and] proud” (BC, p. 445). Wow!
Sweet & Rigorous
And so the sweet and the rigorous must always go together for the Christian – linking severity with kindness (Romans 11:22). This is true even though, as Luther explained, the rigorous enters into play later than the sweetness does (Luther’s Works 30:49):
Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21 [say]: “You shall not boil a kid while it is still at its mother’s milk.” My dear friend, why did God have this committed to writing? Of what importance is it to Him that no kid be slaughtered while it is still sucking milk? Because He wants to state [that we should] preach gently to the young and weak Christians. Let them enrich themselves and grow fat in the knowledge of Christ. Do not burden them with strong doctrine, for they are still too young. But later, when they grow strong, let them be slaughtered and sacrificed on the cross.
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – that great admirer of Luther – elaborates upon this delayed infusion of severity (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, 7 vols, ed. Howard & Edna Hong, 2:1215):
A certain outliving is necessary in order really to feel the need for Christianity. If it is forced on a person before that time, it makes him quite mad. There is something in a child and a youth which belongs to them so naturally that one must say that God himself has willed them to be that way. Essentially regarded, the child and the youth are only psychically qualified, neither more nor less. [But] Christianity is spirit. [So] to construe a child strictly under the qualification “spirit” is an act of cruelty, in a way is like killing him, and has never been Christianity’s intention.
Eventually we’ll have to die to ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; LW 44:95) – but this cannot happen too soon, for then it will misfire and we’ll end up in the wrong place (2 Corinthians 7:10). But it would be equally wrong – as Kierkegaard continues – to skip over the rigorous altogether, solely to avoid this catastrophe:
The reason all Christianity in Christendom has for the most part become jabbering is that it is taught to children [without rigor]. For rarely, very rarely is a child brought up very rigorously in Christianity, which nevertheless, however fanatic it may be, is far better even though it slays his childhood and youth. Christian upbringing is very often gibberish and amounts to nothing at all. After all, it is better to have suffered through all these agonies in childhood and youth by being stretched (as in torture) within the qualification of spirit, which one is not as yet, to have suffered through these agonies so that one’s childhood became sheer wretchedness – and then finally sometime in complete rapture to understand: See, now I am able to use it; now Christianity exists for me and is everything to me.
Listening to Jesus
When this rigorous Christianity finally sets in, it comes about through listening to Jesus and doing what he tells us to do. But how does that happen? How do we hear Jesus speaking to us? Does he show up one morning in our bedrooms, saying – “Hey, get up! Let’s go have a latte”? Is that how we hear his voice? The very sophisticated, longtime Duke University professor, Reynolds Price, actually thinks something like that happened to him – with Jesus literally talking to him about a life-threatening illness he was suffering through [A Whole New Life (1994) pp. 42-45].
But that can’t be, since the voice of Jesus isn’t any longer tied to actual physical sounds – having ceased being a literal voice after his Ascension into heaven. And there isn’t any reason to despair over this fact, either. For we’re not denying God’s existence by saying Jesus doesn’t have a literal voice. No, all we’re saying is that his voice has shifted into being tied directly to the sacred words of Holy Scriptures. For God has bound himself to those Scriptural words (LW 12:352) – “for apart from his word he does not wish to be understood, sought, or found through our invention or imagining” (LW 46:276; 13:386). Those words, then, are his actual voice. No wonder we call them holy. No wonder we memorize them. No wonder we risk life and limb to promulgate them.
Ears Wide Open
In 1533 Luther elaborated upon this linkage to Scriptural words:
With this parable of the shepherd and the sheep, our dear Lord Jesus Christ wants very much that we not only hear God’s Word, but also learn to hear it so exactly that we rightly distinguish it from every other word.... [So] recognizing a true Christian... involves far more than outward appearances; it’s a matter of hearing the Word.... That enables him to live out his life in full and certain hope; he eats, drinks, works, does what he is told to do, yes, will even gladly suffer whatever is laid upon him. He keeps his ears wide open for his shepherd’s voice and more and more trains himself not to judge according to what he sees and feels but solely according to the sound of the shepherd’s voice [Luther’s House Postils, 3 vols, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:74, 77].
At the heart of this analysis is the view that hearing trumps seeing – or as Luther put it so graphically – you should put your eyes in your ears! (LW 29:224; LPH 1:27; SML 4:386). That is to say, in matters relating to God, the best way to see what’s going on – as strange as this may sound – is actually to see through your ears! That’s why he also tells us to keep our ears “wide open” instead of our eyes – which we normally think are what we can keep open.
He seems to be getting at three distinct points in this strange bit of advice to us. The first is that we should trust the word of God, which we hear – over what we actually see going on around us. For all around us we see the innocent suffering and we wonder how God can be good and all-powerful if he allows these terrible things to happen. So what we see threatens to dislodge our belief in God (Matthew 13:21). But God’s Word says he is faithful – in spite of these devastating troubles that occur (Job 1:21; Romans 8:28)! And what’s more, even the good things can pull us away from God (Hosea 13:6; Matthew 13:22) – gripping us tenaciously by their many and varied earthly delights!
[So] any situation which is excellent on the whole tempts a man of faith either to immerse himself in the world, or to become idolatrous and suppose that God’s being is exhausted in some limited matter of fact. The more wonders there are, the more wonderful the daily world or any non-sacred world seems to be [Paul Weiss, The God We Seek (1964) p. 218].
So to steer clear of both the disasters and the delights, we must pay strict attention to the word of God (LW 30:106) and not to what we see – and then we’ll remain steady as we go (1 Corinthians 15:58). Like Samson of old (Judges 16:21-30) – we’ll paradoxically see best when we no longer can see at all! It’s no wonder then that Luther makes the wild claim that you must “poke out reason’s eyes” if you want to keep your faith (LHP 2:29 – note also LW 7:105, 17:76, 23:352, 33:175, 51:43, 52:196; John 9:39)!
Next Luther says we need to train our ears once they have taken over the place of our eyes. That’s probably because even after that adjustment takes place, we still can have “itching” ears that take us down many a wrong road (2 Timothy 4:3; SML 4:387). So we need to train our ears to be “regulated” by the word of the Lord (LW 17:144) – and learn to think the way Scriptures do (LW 25:261). Take for example Luke 17:3-4 which says:
Take heed;... if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive him.
On this matter we clearly haven’t taken heed because we skip over the requirement of repentance and downplay the importance of forgiving the same person repeatedly. As a result we fail to regulate our lives by this word and think in the way the Bible does on this thorny matter of forgiveness. For we distort this word and take it to mean only that we should forgive quickly so that we can drop the matter. But then we have turned a word about discipline and tough requirements into soft and self-absorbed personal therapy. And that’s not right. What we instead should do is hold back from forgiving anyone until they repent and are sorry – just as Jesus tells us to do. And this pressure on the offender is good because it helps them ‘fess up. And while we’re waiting for that to happen, we must not harbor resentments (1 Corinthians 13:5; James 1:20) but only hope for a quick turning around (2 Timothy 2:25).
Finally God’s word is better than any other word – and so we must learn to distinguish it from all others. What Scriptures have to say, then, isn’t in competition with any other words. That is to say, the Biblical message doesn’t have to prove itself to anyone (1 Corinthians 2:15). It’s high above all others from the beginning (Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Peter 1:23-25). And so we are only to follow the voice of Jesus (John 10:5) – and no one else (Exodus 20:5).
Without Personal Experiences
So believe in Jesus – even though you’ve never seen him or heard him speak to you literally. Know that in the Bible we have enough written testimony so that you may believe in him and be saved for all of eternity (John 20:31). And nothing more is needed – for the word of the Lord is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9)! We may think we need more to authenticate our faith – like intense experiences and overwhelming feelings. But not so! For as Luther taught,
feeling and faith are two different things. It is the nature of faith not to feel, to lay aside reason and close the eyes, to submit absolutely to the Word, and follow it in life and death. [So] feeling is opposed to faith and faith is opposed to feeling.... Since Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification, we cannot see it nor feel it.... Therefore we must disregard our feeling and accept only the Word, write it into our heart and cling to it, even though it seems as if my sins were not taken from me, and even though I still feel them within me.... For although we feel that sin is still in us, it is only permitted that our faith may be developed and strengthened, that in spite of all our feelings we accept the Word, and that we unite our hearts and consciences more and more in Christ (SML 2:244).
So faith comes from hearing Christ preached (Romans 10:17) – and not from intense experiences and the like. Therefore it “is the nature of faith that it feels nothing at all, but merely follows the words which it hears, and clings to them” (SML 3:194).
Taking the Word to Heart
But what if we cave into our feelings of doubt, despair and fear? What then? What if we follow that old mantra from the Summer of Love in 1967 – the year I graduated from high school – and agree, “If it feels good, do it”? How can we buck that strong urge?
Well, try taking 1 Peter 2:24 to heart – that “Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” Try that out. Listen to those words and forget the rest, that you might live righteously. Think of him suffering for you, that you might go free. And if you do, you’ll end up taking an end run around the law which calls you, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, to take the word of the Lord seriously – by laboring under the glorious burden of trying to see through your own ears! But do not despair. Let Christ carry you – through your faith in him. And only then will you be able to start seeing through your ears. Only then will you forsake all others and cling only to his word.
And then, in that faith, come to the Altar and bow down before the Lord who died to save you. Eat and drink of the bread and wine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, that you might receive Christ truly present to you – so that you might grow in grace and love. For as we teach, this sacrament “was instituted to move the heart to believe,” to aid and abet the Word which was given “to arouse this faith” (BC, p. 262)!
Be Like St. Stephen
And when you leave today, know that you have been equipped to do good works in Christ’s name (Colossians 3:17). And what shall we do? Let us follow St. Stephen in Acts 7:59-60 and ask God to have mercy on our enemies. Note that St. Stephen asks for this only after he has condemned them – including Paul! (Acts 7:51-53, 8:1). Luther’s sermon on this prayer captures its splendor:
It is the opinion of
Wow! – that’s some love. May we all love in just this way. Amen!
(printed as preached but with some changes)