My Sheep Know My Voice
By Jan Austin Antonsson
Jan's Journal, The Glory Road
A Kingdom Highway
June 13, 1998
Sunday morning, 9:14 A.M. Lenny just left for Sunday School class at the Baptist Church, and here I sit. I've been going over to the Church of Christ with my aunt and cousins, but I'm not going anywhere this morning. I woke up this morning with a backache, which has been getting steadily worse for several days. Even the Motrin hasn't helped, but that's not the reason I'm staying home. I realize it would be a passable excuse, at least in my family. We were raised to believe that it was our duty to be in church every time the doors were open, unless we were sick. I was sick a whole lot as a child. As a young adult when I realized I just couldn't do this church thing anymore, I was sick every Sunday morning during the days when I was trying to tell myself I still went to church. It took me 30 more years of walking with the Divine Counselor to realize that I didn't have to get sick to say, "No." I can just say "No." But that was in California, and this is Missouri under the nose of the family watchdogs. Inquiring minds want to know, "Why didn't you go to church today, Jan?" I'm too honest for my own good. I might blurt out, "Because I can't stand it anymore! What has church to do with God?" That would be hurtful to them, but is that the real reason? I asked the Lord if He cared if I stayed home this morning. His quick reply was, "No, but do you care?" There was an entire sermon in that answer. He has been working on my people pleasing tendencies the past year, showing me how much I modify my behavior to avoid having other people think badly of me.
To cap it off, I was talking to my aunt this week and she remarked about her grandson, who is currently engaged in an affair, "Well, he knows that none of us approve of it." Now mind you, this is a grown man, who is divorced, and the woman is single and available, but without knowing any of their intentions toward each other, his grandmother appears to have judged, tried and condemned both of them. I felt so sad, because I realized that they think their disapproval will change the behavior they don't approve of, but that never works. In my own case, it only drove me away. I've been away from here for 30 years. If they knew all the things I did in the interim, they wouldn't have approved of much of it either, but what I felt was that they wouldn't approve of me. You know, "Love the sinner, hate the sin?" Well, that's tough to pull off. These folks would swear that they love this young man, and that's why they don't want him to sleep with someone outside of wedlock, but it's more than that. It always is. There is the fear of hell lurking in the shadows somewhere, or at least, the fear that he is making them look bad in front of their church friends.
In my case, I am not afraid of hell - other than the one we walk through on this earth, but still I have allowed myself to be conformed to their expectations while I'm here. That's totally unreasonable and unacceptable to me. Lenny was sitting at the computer for a minute before leaving for Sunday School, and I plopped down in the chair across from him and said, "I need psychiatric help, 5 Cents." When he asked why, I told him, "There's a war going on in my soul about whether I SHOULD go to church even though I can't stand the thought." He looked at me and said, "You've got to take a stand right now, and draw the line. Go, if the Lord says go, and stay if He says stay." OK, that's swell advice and I do appreciate the support, but what do I tell them? The watchdogs, the gatekeepers, who want to know what I did with my time and why? I used to think that if I explained myself sufficiently, and reasonably, others would understand, and if they didn't exactly approve of it, at least they would accept me. That has never proven to be true before, and it certainly won't be now. If God has not opened their eyes to see that the church organization, the meeting together in the building every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, has little or nothing to do with spirituality, with the kingdom of heaven, and with communion with the Lord, then how could I possibly explain it?
I find the church worship service there to be surface ritual, which touches the mind, but rarely the spirit. Were it not for the preacher, who is born again and patiently feeds them spiritual truth one eyedropper full at a time, I would not be able to bear the service at all, for to me, it is mind numbing sameness, each and every Sunday; and woe unto anyone who tries to change the routine of opening song, opening prayer, song, song, communion, sermon, invitation song, closing song and closing prayer. One Sunday recently, after the sermon, one of the elders got up and resigned. Another elder came up and gave a beautiful prayer thanking God for this man's service, and asking God to bless the congregation in their "appointed rounds." I waited to see if it could be the closing prayer - sure sounded like one to me, but no! They had to have the closing song and then, the closing prayer. T-r-a-d-i-t-i-o-n! I suppose to do otherwise would have had the cranky old things griping and complaining.
But all that notwithstanding, this has little to do with me. When we came here to Neosho on our sabbatical from real estate, Lenny's assignment from the Lord was to minister to the men in the Baptist Church Sunday School class. My assignment is what it always has been - to write. God did not send me to the Baptist Church, nor to the Church of Christ, for that matter. I love my family who attend there, and I pray for their deliverance from legalism. I got the picture this morning of attending a wake or a visitation at the funeral home when someone dies. When I go to church with them, I feel I'm there to pray for the mourners and offer them comfort by my presence. I feel so sad for them. My heart aches for their bereft condition. As I was trying to beat myself up and make myself go to church this morning, I noticed that my back was hurting more and more, but I refuse to use it as an excuse not to go. I wouldn't be breaking up rocks there, you know, just sitting in a pew, and my back wouldn't hurt worse than it does as I sit here at the computer and write. Then, I thought, "I wonder how many times my cousins have had to beat themselves up to be there every single time the door is open?" I wonder what damage they have done to their inner child by this suppression of creative energy? It seems like spiritual child abuse to me.
All morning through this inner turmoil, I heard, "My sheep know my voice." This beautiful picture is recorded in John 10:3-5: "The watchman 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." (Jn. 10:3-5). Jesus continued the thought, by saying, "I am the good shepherd: I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd." (Jn. 10: 14-16).
If this verse is contemplated by church members at all, there may be a few who thank that perhaps those "other sheep" might be well meaning folks who stumbled into the kingdom by accident after having discovered God in non-traditional ways, or perhaps some more liberal ones might even concede that this means that others who are not members of their church may get into heaven by the skin of their teeth. This morning, I received the awareness, that the sheep who know the Lord's voice are, in fact, the elect. They have had a revelation of who God is in them, and where He is leading them, and they have followed hard after the shepherd in spite of public opinion and/or persecution. They are the sheep that know Him and follow Him. The "other sheep" not of this fold, include those who have professed Christ, but whose soul's are still controlled by the world, the flesh, and the church, rather than by the Spirit of God. That's a pretty shocking thought, but you know, churches are full of cranky old things (See End note "A" for journal of same name), who will tell you exactly how you need, must, and should live your lives. Do they ask God about this? Why should they? They know the right answer, because they are doing what they were told to do, and you should do it too.
In his book, Coming Out of Darkness, (available free upon request, see End note "B"), Gary Sigler observes that only the strong can go to church, for only they have the energy to obey the rules, by main strength and exertion. The rest of us are either too weak or too honest to pull it off. When Paul talks about "the flesh" most Christians are no doubt, thinking about sex, if they're honest about it. Well, aren't they? Isn't sex sin the worst thing about the flesh according to the church? My aunt seems to think so, especially when it's her grandson engaging in it. But, listen to the text here, "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." (Rom. 8:5-8). What is Paul talking about here? We'd best know what he means, because whatever it is, it causes death.
We know from the book of Genesis, that death first came upon creation when Adam chose law over grace, and works over life. When he partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he brought spiritual death upon us all. (Gen. 2:16; Rom. 5:12-14). Notice that there were good works on that tree, as well as evil deeds! We tend to forget that. Most Christians are horrified to think that seemingly good things like going to church, taking communion, giving to the poor, ministering to the sick, are still fruit of that tree if they are entered into because of law, rather than because one is led by the Spirit of God. In the flesh, Paul says, dwells no good thing. (Rom. 7:18, KJ). Jesus taught, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." (Jn. 6:63) This is the same thought that Paul expressed when he said that God "has qualified us to be ministers of the new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life." (II Cor. 3:6, RSV).
In other words, going to church for the sake of obeying the commandments of men does not bring life, and if it's done after the flesh, it produces death. In fact, Paul goes further and says that whoever takes the communion cup "unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." (I Cor. 11:27). The result of this action is that the communicant who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks "damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep." (I Cor. 11:29-30). This is serious business, and cause for concern to think that taking communion in an unworthy manner will cause death. Why? Because if it's after the flesh, if it's mindless ritual, if it's just done to keep the commandments and pay one's fire insurance, it is worthless at best, and fatal at worst. So how am I to know which is which? The answer is very simple. To him who has eyes to see and ears to hear, let him see and hear, "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (Rom. 8:14). The very next verse is so interesting, because the Apostle continues, "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to FALL BACK INTO FEAR, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (Rom. 8:15-17). Now think with me a moment. Do you know any Christians who go to church every time the doors are open, give of their means, take communion, and observe the other Christian rituals and obligation, and yet live in fear? Fear of thieves, fear of murderers, fear of cancer or heart attacks, fear of poverty, fear of death, destruction, and hell fire for themselves and their children and grandchildren, and well, why go on? You name it and they're afraid of it? Paul says in the verse quoted above that if we are led by the Spirit of God, we are sons of God. In the very next statement, he tells us what this means to us in our lives. We did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, he says, but the Spirit of sonship. If God is my daddy, which is what the word "Abba" means in Hebrew, then why should I live in fear? Think of that, dear ones; God has delivered us bondage to the fear of death which has plagued mankind since Adam ate of the bitter fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! (Heb. 2:14). That alone is worth the price of the ticket!
Can this good news be possible, considering fear is more rampant on the planet than ever before, fanned by the flames of media hype and advertisers who would grow rich on our terror? If God be for us, who can be against us, the Apostle proclaims, (Rom 8:31). "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?" (Vs. 31-33). Because of this glorious truth that God is our daddy, who does not condemn us, but stands up for us against all odds, Paul says that nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ! Neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness nor peril, nor sword shall separate us from the love of Christ. He ends this heart swelling section by exulting, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:37-39).
Now, on the downside of these marvelous, soul stirring verses - Paul did NOT say that nothing bad would ever happen to us. The media in sundry ways and divers manners tells us that bad things happen to good people everyday. So what does Paul mean? I believe his message is that none of these horrific events can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The sweet singer of Israel said it very well when he assured us, that even if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil. Why? Our God goes with us. (Ps. 23:4). In the presence of our enemies, God is with us. (23:5). Even if we flee from the presence of God, and find ourselves in hell, He will be there with us. (Ps. 139:7-8). When I was newly birthed in the Spirit, I took these verses to mean that nothing bad would ever happen to me or mine, but as I grew and understood more of God's ways, I began to understand that the only life we have which is real is spiritual life. It alone will remain completely untouched by the ravages of sin. Our physical world is but a shadow of things to come. When you read about the heroes of faith in Hebrews, Chapter 11, you can certainly see that though they had faith; they believed in the promises; they trusted God; nevertheless, they did not reach the promised land of peace and light, where death and sorrow never come.
Death is the last enemy to fall before the victorious army led by the one on the white horse who is called "Faithful and True," who comes forth in righteousness to make war, and who will be victorious even over death. His "eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems: and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which He is called is 'The Word of God.' And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron;......On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords." (Rev. 19:11-16). We all await the day when the kingdom of heaven is manifested on the earth, when all sorrow and sadness, sickness and death, disappointment and fear will flee away from the glorious presence of the one who sits on the throne. Until then, we trust God for our lives, our possessions, such as they are, our daily bread and shelter, our children and our grandchildren, and our reputation - what people say about us.
Our communion with the Lamb is day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. In Him, we live and move and have our being. He calls us and we listen and follow Him because we know His voice, and we trust him to lead us in green pastures beside the still water of life. With his rod and his staff, He comforts us. As David said, "He has prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies... 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 forever." (Ps. 23:5-6). It is important to remember that we are house of the Lord! (I Cor. 6:19; II Cor. 6:16; 5:1; I Pet. 2:5). The kingdom dwells within us. (Lk. 17:21). I have been in the Spirit, in the temple of the Lord, this Sunday morning. There, lifted up within the cloud of witnesses which surround me, (Heb. 12:1) I worship Him and fall on my face before Him, for He alone can take away my sins and my guilt and my fear and my fleshly longings, and turn them into something wonderful for His name. I rejoice that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (II. Cor. 3:17-18). Amen.
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 S. Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
A. "Law, Grace, and Cranky Old Things"
The Glory Road
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Last edited on 11/07/08.