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Easter 04 2004

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| Jesus is Ovine LingualJohn 10:22-30   |   5/2/2004If you want to translate your dog’s bark into English, you need the new digital device called the Bow-Lingual. No devices needed, however, as the sheep of God’s pasture, to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. And fortunately for us, the Shepherd understands sheep language.Bow wow.

That’s dogspeak for “Wassup?”

Thanks to a new technology that translates dog barks into English, you can now understand what Rover is telling you whenhe woofs something otherwise unintelligible.

The technology is called Bow-Lingual. And it works only for dogs.

Not cats. Not to expect miracles or anything.

Humans have always been fascinated with the possibility of communication with animals. On screen we’ve been subjected to characters ranging from Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle, to Mr. Ed, to Tarzan and Rex Harrison crooning, “If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages, think of all the things we could discuss …”

Bow-Lingual is a Japanese-designed electronic device that enables you to know (sort of) what your dog is trying to tell you with his incessant yapping.

Here’s how it works: You put an electronic transmitter on your dog’s collar that activates every time he barks, sending a signal to a receiver that you either wear around your neck or keep close by. The receiver interprets each bark into previously designed text patterns within six different “mood” categories: Happy, Sad, Frustrated, Needy, On Guard and Assertive. When the delivery person rings your doorbell, you should be able to tell whether your dog is sensing “bad karma,” saying “Careful whom you mess with,” or happily proclaiming “You know what I like.” Canine cacophony as unintelligible noise is now a thing of the past.

The Bow-Lingual also counts and interprets the number of times your dog barks while you’re out — useful, perhaps, as a way of making sure he’s not making unauthorized long-distance phone calls in your absence.

Users report mixed results with the device. Often the translation doesn’t match up with the circumstance surrounding the bark and, if you really get down to it, who needs a $120 translator to tell whether your dog is happy, sad or angry? Some of the text responses also seem to stretch the credibility of the device to its limit. After all, do dogs really think things like “I’ll be contacting my attorney”?

Cats, maybe — not to belabor a point — but not dogs.

Still, there’s something intriguing about the possibility of human-animal communication — particularly when we consider the fact that human behavior often seems to mimic behavior observed in the animal kingdom.

Notice that when Jesus speaks of his people, one of the metaphors he uses for them is “sheep.” In his day, sheep were the staple livestock of the culture and were as common around town as dogs are around the family home today. Shepherds, however, clearly understood the communication style of the sheep in their care without the aid of any Ovine Lingual device. It was merely a matter of knowing the language and the nature of the herd. Consider these facts about sheep (and people) that every shepherd knows:

Sheep are gregarious. In other words, sheep will always band together and pretty much stay together when grazing or moving around. It’s not because they like each other, although they are social animals, but because they find security in numbers. “Get one to go and they’ll all go” is a principle that all shepherds know and follow.

In the sheep herd, separation from the flock causes extreme stress. Sheep communicate that through high-pitched bleating. In humans it’s communicated through the high-pitched cries of loneliness, addiction and depression. Jesus’ miracles and works of healing were evidence that he was bringing all the lost and hurting sheep — both Jews and Gentiles — under his care.

When Jesus was asked by those around him whether he was the Messiah (10:24), it was a question of belonging and of security. The Messiah was to be the one who would bring the whole “flock” of Israel together and provide protection and victory against the Roman oppressors. Jesus reinterprets their tradition, however, and reminds them that theirs is not an exclusive flock, but rather that there are “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:16) who he longs to bring in as well — even the Gentiles, like the Roman soldiers who were currently walking the streets. It was a call to expand the flock — to bring more and more people under the protection, grace and love of the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ statement is a cautionary word to those who think they who know and who do not comprise the “sheep” of the flock of God. Don’t be thinking that our “brand” is the only brand. The Shepherd knows the sheep and it sounds like Jesus is saying that we might be surprised to discover just how many variations and breeds there are in the flock we call the church.

In a culture like ours, where rugged individualism is a high value, the idea of “flocking” or being “herded” isn’t too appealing. We’d prefer to see ourselves as individuals of worth, but not necessarily valued because of our connection to the community. It is closer to the truth to understand that, like sheep, we are social animals who need each other, need to belong, and we herd instinctively.

We can’t make it on our own — or at least not as well as we can make it when we’re aligned with a flock of others to provide comfort and security and a Shepherd to watch over our well-being. We need others and we need Christ. That’s the whole reason for the church — a real expression of what it means to be connected and protected in Christ.

Still having trouble with the whole sheep/human connection? Well, consider this important second fact that shepherds know:

Sheep are intelligent. This flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught about sheep. And, in some respects, they are ovine idiots. They eat too much, right down to the root. They’ll drink contaminated water. When they fall, they often can’t get up without some shepherd assistance. And the herding thing — they tend to follow aimlessly and blindly and with no apparent destination in mind.

But this is only part of the story. Contrary to conventional wisdom that sheep are stupid animals, sheep rank just below the pig and on par with cattle in the IQ milieu of farm animals. A study at the Babraham (Baaa-braham?) Institute in Cambridge, England, showed that sheep have remarkable memories, being able to pick out a particular face in a line of pictures, if that face is associated with a food reward. Some of the sheep in the study could remember up to 50 images for as long as two years. This is a sign of higher intelligence, according to Dr. Keith Kendrick, one of the authors of the study.

Sheep also have keen hearing, which makes it possible for them to discern the voice of their shepherd from among many others, and they will always move toward the person they perceive to be a friend, particularly if that friend feeds the sheep.

Sheep aren’t as dumb as we think. Unless. Unless — they’re scared.

Dr. Kendrick believes that the sheep’s reputation for stupidity comes from the fact that sheep are afraid of just about everything. He says, “Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behavior.” Fear causes a flock to disintegrate, and when sheep are driven apart they are most vulnerable to predators.

Jesus’ call for others to follow him was a literal way of leading people out of danger. Jesus understood that it was his voice — God’s voice, God’s authority — to which his “sheep” would come running, no matter how far they had strayed. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (10:27 NIV).

Thus it is the Shepherd who is ovine lingual — he understands the language of the flock. It is the sheep who need to be “Shepherd-lingual,” knowing the voice of the Shepherd. The people who responded to his message and witnessed his miracles of healing, love and grace knew that it was only through Jesus that they would be spiritually fed and their lives be made at peace, both in the present age and in the one to come. It was his voice that promised, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).

Yet, sometimes the problem is not that we, the sheep of his pasture, do not recognize the voice of the Shepherd. Rather, we recognize it and refuse to listen. Or we listen selectively.

We have no problem listening when the voice of the Shepherd is offering comfort and reassurance. F. Dean Leuking reminds of this when he says, “When it comes to speaking one sentence to someone hanging onto life by a thread in a hospital emergency room at 3 a.m., ‘I am the good shepherd ... who lays down his life for the sheep’ is unsurpassed. The Good Shepherd himself makes that word work. He did indeed lay down his life for the world, of his own accord, and has received power from his Father to take it again.”

That, we can listen to.

But when the Shepherd calls us to follow him, sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, or self-denial, or obedience, or self-sacrifice, or unconditional love — then the sheep don’t hear so well. We’re scared, and when we’re scared, like sheep, we do stupid things. We take a wrong turn, we make ill-advised decisions, we become self-destructive.

And sometimes, we’ll even forsake the Shepherd and turn instead to a bogus Beastmaster, who — surprise — turns out to be a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

In a world that’s increasingly more scattered and scared, our task as Christ’s Church is to be truly “ovine lingual” — to constantly and compassionately translate and transmit the voice of the Good Shepherd to all those who are lost, hurting, and alone.

It’s also about following Jesus’ example and welcoming everyone into the fold.

Even we sheep should be able to understand that.

Participation Pointers:

• For background, revisit W. Phillip Keller’s classic work, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm.

• Find a clip from any one of numerous movie sources, Beastmaster, Dr. Doolittle, Tarzan, et al., and use as an introduction to the sermonic material.


“Animal communication: Bioacoustics researcher finds sheep may vocalize stress by altering timbre.”, October 21, 2003.

Cobb, Richard. “An introduction to sheep behavior.” Illini SheepNet, Retrieved December 1, 2003.

Leuking, Dean F. “Shepherding (John 10:22-30),” The Christian Century, April 9,1997, 361.

Mossberg, Walter S. “Woof, Woof … Is this thing on?” The Mossberg Solution, July 23,2003.

“Sheep smarts.”, November 7, 2001.


Commentary One of the most significant differences between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels is the amount of time that Jesus spends in Jerusalem. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem — the fateful Passover pilgrimage that ends in his crucifixion. In the gospel of John, by contrast, the bulk of the narrative takes place in Jerusalem. Jesus makes several trips to the Holy City (usually for a religious festival) and is shown in each of these instances engaging in lengthy discourses with Jewish interlocutors in the temple. It is during such a visit that the exchange found in John 10:22-30 occurs.

We are told that Jesus, apparently already in Jerusalem, is present in the temple on the Festival of the Dedication, or Hanukkah (10:22). This festival was celebrated annually in December to commemorate the recapture and rededication of the temple during the Maccabean revolt (164 B.C.). Although in modern times Hanukkah has lost much of its political significance, in antiquity it was associated with the desire for Jewish independence.

We are told that Jesus is “walking around” in Solomon’s portico, a covered walkway on the eastern side of the temple mount (10:23); rather than implying an aimless wandering, the verb used here probably is meant to suggest that Jesus has adopted the posture of a teacher or philosopher (Greek peripaein, as in the “Peripatetic” philosophers). Accordingly, a crowd gathers around him, and they ask him whether he will continue to keep them in suspense or finally reveal if he is the Messiah (10:24).

Jesus responds in adversarial fashion, and in doing so remains consistent with the tone of much of his interaction with his fellow Jews at these major festivals (e.g., 7:14-8:59, a lengthy and polemical exchange at the Festival of Booths). Apparently referring to this history of bitter conversations, Jesus replies to their request for him to speak plainly by suggesting that what he had previously said to them and done in their presence should be a sufficient witness for them (10:25; the theme of “witnesses” to Jesus that should lead to belief can also be found in 5:31-40).

In a bit of a perplexing turn, Jesus continues his remarks by asserting that the failure to believe in him on the part of those gathered around him in the temple is to be attributed to the fact that they are not among his “sheep” who follow him and to whom he will give irrevocable eternal life (10:26-30). These remarks echo the famous metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd that is found just prior to the current passage (10:1-16).

The difficulty of 10:25-28 comes in the juxtaposition of the expectation that those who hear Jesus and see his works should believe (10:25) with the claim that those same people in fact cannot believe because they are not of Jesus’ flock (10:26-30). This tension between a call to belief and a seemingly deterministic outlook runs throughout the entire gospel (e.g.,1:9-13; 3:16-21; 12:37-50). This apparent contradiction has long troubled interpreters of the Fourth Gospel, but at the end of the day it must simply be conceded that the evangelist felt it necessary to affirm both the sovereignty of God and the necessity for each person to believe in Jesus.

In the context of the gospel as a whole, it is important to recognize 10:22-30 as one in a series of episodes centered on major Jewish observances and festivals in chapters 5-10. In 5:1-47, Jesus defends his healing of a lame man on the Jewish Sabbath; 6:1-71 represents a discourse on Passover; in 7:1-9:41 we find Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles; and finally in 10:22-30 Jesus is in the temple for the Festival of the Dedication.

This arrangement suggests intentionality on the part of the author. The theme that seems to tie each together is the way in which Jesus replaces the festival or observance with his own person. For instance, in 6:1-57, an extended homily on the theme of Passover, Jesus offers his own body and blood for “the life of the world;” in the Festival of Tabernacles episode (7:1-9:41), Jesus is presented as the source of “water” and “light,” both key images of the festival. Thus it comes as no surprise that at the Festival of the Dedication, in which Jewish political liberation was such a key theme, Jesus is asked to disclose whether he is the Messiah, the one whom many hoped would lead the Jews to political independence. Although Jesus turns out to be a different sort of Messiah from the one that many expected, 10:22-30 nevertheless remains as yet another example in which the significance of a festival is refocused onto the person of Jesus.

A final word must be said about the question of Jesus and “the Jews” in the gospel of John. In light of the history of the church’s sometimes despicable treatment of the Jewish people, it is unsettling for contemporary Christians to read the Fourth Gospel’s repeated portrayal of the stubbornness and hostility of “the Jews” (e.g., 5:18; 7:1; 8:48-59; 18:12). Some scholars have attempted to soften the impact of these references. For instance, it has been argued that the Greek word translated “Jews” (
Ioudaioi) should be understood as referring to a particular group of ruling Jews from Jerusalem and thus should be translated “Judeans” to avoid confusion with the whole Jewish people. However, most arguments in this vein have met with mixed reviews.

It is probably more helpful to remember that at the time the gospel of John was written, the followers of Jesus were for the most part a sect of Judaism rather than a different religion. The group for whom this gospel was written quite clearly felt alienated from their fellow Jews because of their confession of Jesus as Messiah, and they may even have been asked to leave their synagogues because of it (see 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2). The polemical edge of the Fourth Gospel was probably thus born in the context of an in-house conflict between Jewish groups divided by the identity and significance of Jesus. However, once Christianity emerged as a distinct religion over Judaism, the harsh portrayal of “the Jews” in the gospel of John, divorced from the context in which it was written, proved dangerously liable to misinterpretation. It is thus the task of every exegete to recognize the gap between the original Jewish recipients of this text and the independent religious tradition that included it in its canon.


Animating Illustrations If you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep. Talk to the Shepherd.

—Sign in a church parking lot.


Many years ago, children in schools in America learned to know the voice of Walter Damrosch. He taught thousands of boys and girls to know and love music. Classes stopped at a certain hour, the school radio was switched on, and then his familiar voice was heard: “Good morning, my dear children.” They then enjoyed a half-hour of beautiful music, and he would tell them the meaning and the message within the music ….

One day Mr. Damrosch was asked by the headmaster of a school to come and talk to the boys and girls. He sat on the platform and the children fidgeted, for he was an old man, and they knew that old men very often make long speeches. The headmaster let him introduce himself.

Mr. Damrosch stood up and smiled, but no one knew him. Then he said, “Good morning, my dear children,” and immediately the whole room was in an uproar. The children clapped and cheered.

Mr. Damrosch said, “And why do you cheer? You do not know me.”

“Yes we do, we know your voice.”

—“And they shall hear my voice,” Wicket Gate Magazine, June 5, 2002,


A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of the dust cloud toward him. The driver, a young man in a Broni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and YSL tie leaned out the window and asked the shepherd, “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?”

The shepherd looks at the man, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, “Sure.”

The young man parks his car, whips out his notebook and connects it to a cell phone, then he surfs to a NASA page on the Internet where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system, scans the area, and opens up a database and Excel spreadsheets with complex formulas. He sends an e-mail on his Blackberry and, after a few minutes, receives a response. Finally, he prints out a 150-page report on his hi-tech, miniaturized printer, then turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.”

“That is correct, take one of the sheep,” says the shepherd. He watches as the young man selects one of the animals and bundles it into his car.

Then the shepherd says: “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my sheep back?”

“Okay, why not,” answers the young man.

“Clearly, you are a consultant,” says the shepherd.

“That’s correct,” says the young man, “but how did you guess that?”

“No guessing required,” answers the shepherd. “You turned up here although nobody called you. You want to get paid for the answer to a question I already knew, and you don’t know anything about my business. Now give me back my dog!”


Not everyone is convinced that sheep are intelligent.

Consider the runaway sheep, writes Don Everts in The Smell of Sin. Confused, short-sighted, blind to wolves and cliffs and jagged rocks, the runaway sheep dumbly fumbles his way around. If he trips and falls on his side, he could just lie there and die. He would never figure out why the field has suddenly gone sideways. He has no capacity, in and of himself, to regain his equilibrium.

While still upright, he follows his nose. And his nose doesn’t know much. The lone sheep is a picture of cluelessness, which is why “sheep without a shepherd” was a common metaphor for helplessness in the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark says that Jesus was sad, for “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34).

We’ve all had times in which panic sets in. It’s that shaky feeling of having no idea where we are or which way is up. We just want everything to make sense — for the wildly spinning room to just stop, for the sun to rise again.

“Sheep need a shepherd,” writes Everts. “We always will.”


Animal psychic Amelia Kinkade leads workshops on communicating with animals. A reporter sat in on a recent seminar in Happy Valley, California:

Every living being emits its feelings and ideas like radio waves, Kinkade told the group. But humans are too self-absorbed to receive these messages from animals.

“We are the problem, not them,” she said.

Margie Poston, 59, of Shasta Lake brought her dog Willow Sweet Pea. She’s been worried about the 1-year-old black-and-white border collie, who cowers when her name is called and hides under the bed for days at a time.

After listening to the dog and tossing some ideas around, the group agreed that Willow was disturbed by violent acts and even a death that had taken place in the house before Poston ever moved in.

“She’s terrified” of spirits, Kinkade told Poston. “But now we know. It can all be fixed and can all be cured.”

“It never entered my mind that it was a spirit,” Poston replied. “Now that you say it, it just makes so much sense to me” ….

A former professional jazz dancer and actress, Kinkade — who is the niece of Golden Girls star Rue McClanahan — runs a private practice in Southern California, where she’s counseled everything from gorillas and elephants to house cats.

People need to forget personal needs for this communication to work, she said.

“Your love is so strong that you can put your own thoughts and feelings aside in order to receive what they want to tell us,” she said.

—Alex Breitler, “Truth about cats and dogs,” Record Searchlight, November 16, 2003,

Many pastors — shepherds of their flocks — turn to their congregations for support, because being in leadership can be lonely. Sometimes, under the stress of the moment, ministers turn to those they are leading for comfort and relief. When this happens, warns T.D. Jakes in Ministries Today (September-October 2002), pastors lose their leadership edge and ministry effectiveness.

Jakes believes that pastors should worry less about having a friend in their congregations, and more about whether their congregation has a leader. Friendship itself can be overrated. As Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”


A majority of U.S. adults (61 percent) consider gambling to be “morally acceptable,” according to a Barna Research Group poll.

A majority also said cohabitation (60 percent) and enjoying sexual fantasies about someone (59 percent) are morally all right. Forty-five percent said abortion is morallyacceptable, while 42 percent said adultery is okay.

Are we hearing the Shepherd’s voice?


God has made thee to love him, and not to understand him.



We get our moral bearings by looking at God. We must begin with God. We are right when, and only when, we stand in a right position relative to God, and we are wrong so far and so long as we stand in any other position.

—A.W. Tozer.


Children's Sermon Put on a police officer’s hat, and ask the children to imagine that you are directing traffic at an intersection. Blow a whistle and put up your hand; ask the children to tell you what you are directing them to do. Stop! Then blow the whistle again and motion for them to proceed, and ask them to tell you what message you are sending with that signal. Go! Ask the children if a police officer has to explain to every driver, using words, whether he wants them to stop or go. Point out that drivers understand what the police officer is asking them to do, even without words. Let the children know that Jesus directs us, like a police officer, or like a shepherd; he says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Explain that Jesus does not have to use words to guide his sheep, but instead he can send them signals that they understand — like a police officer blowing a whistle. Ask the children to think of themselves as Jesus’ sheep, and invite them to tell you what message Jesus is sending when he feeds the hungry … welcomes children … forgives his enemies … heals the sick. Encourage the children to follow Jesus in all that they do, and to pay attention to the signals he sends, so that they will all be safe and secure forever.


Worship Resources Invocation

Guardian Shepherd,

With your hand you have guided us,

With your arm you have gathered us.

Now may your voice speak to our minds and hearts,

That we may become not only your sheep, but your faithful people,

Trusting your love, that you will not everleave us.


Music Links

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want
Jesus, Shepherd of Our Souls

Shepherd of My Heart
Shepherd of My Soul
Like a Shepherd

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