24 December 2011

The Real Christmas Story

I think way too many times we look at the Christmas story and it’s just way too squeaky clean. There are so many songs that have been written about the birth of Christ, and they sound serene, angelic like everything was so perfect. I wonder if it was always told as we know it. I think we get most of the facts straight, but the truth was that before our very eyes, lost in the basic facts about this story are two people – two human beings – caught in the same chapter of God stepping in to human history. And it just wasn’t that easy.

Click here to read Luke 1:59-56, So Mary has this incredible, life-changing experience and there’s someone that she really has to share this with…Her fiancĂ©. And I figure Mary thought about this situation in one of two ways: she was pretty idealistic meaning, if God was doing this miraculous thing then Joseph is going to be just as excited as I am that God chose us! After all, it is the Savior – the Messiah that we’ve heard about our whole lives.

Or the other place she might have come to, after the hair on her arm quit standing up, was that she had to tell Joseph the details of a supernatural difficult story, and she was nervous because she didn’t know how he might react.

So imagine with me as Mary goes up to Joseph, and she she says: “Joseph, I’ve got something I have to tell you. I’m pregnant. But the good news is I haven’t been with anybody. As a matter of fact, it’s the messiah. An angel told me. And now I’m pregnant with Him."

And Joseph is like: “Wow, that’s awesome.” And gives a thumbs up.

Do you really think that’s how this scene went down?

They’re engaged. Here’s Joseph this guy, most likely in his early twenty's, who the Bible says was a really good guy. He’s engaged to Mary. He’s totally in love with her. He’s ready to spend the rest of his life with her, and he’s just counting the days when she would be his.

And for Joseph, the words that came from her mouth shook him to the core. “Joseph, I’m pregnant.”

It was as though someone had just punched him off guard in his gut. When those things happen when you’re in love, you’re almost in a rage of hurt. I’m sure that a billion thought processes were happening at once. His life was coming to a halt and the questions in rapid fire started happening, sometimes overlapping each other: who? Why? When? Why? Who?

And Mary tries her best to relate the story to him: “An angel….the Messiah….”

And Joseph is livid: “This is the best you could do? An immaculate conception. I can’t believe you did this to me! How could you? And then lie to me with this ridiculous story!”

Joseph storms out. He goes back to his old bedroom. He feels betrayed, rejected. Can you get a sense of the depth of emotion in him? He has his face buried into his pillow. He pounds the bed and cries all night long. He is torn apart by images in his head of who this person might be that would have taken what was his.

Mary is at her home crying. Her stomach cramping because she’s violently cried. Her lungs are burning. Her eyes are raw from wiping the tears.

She wants so badly to believe that this was a blessing and she wants to hold on and follow God. But, now, is it going to cost her the man that she loves? Is she going to lose him entirely?

Joseph is heartbroken, but still very much in love. I can imagine him coming back and knocking on her door and telling Mary: “I want to know the truth. You tell me why and how this happened.”

Mary tells him the same story. Joseph storms out leaving Mary falling to her knees crying in the doorway.

Joseph comes back time and time again. Maybe a 100 times. He can’t come to terms with this. Sometimes he shows up at 2 in the morning. He’s unsatisfied in what he’s being told.

Think about this: Isn’t this the way that two teenagers in love really looks?

I can imagine one more time Joseph shows up at Mary’s house, and he’s a little more collected. And he says: “I just need to know who and why, and that’s it. I’ll never ask you again.”

Mary completely and visibly worn by the whole matter and the toll it’s taken on her says: “I’ve already told you. Just like I told you a hundred other times.” And Joseph leaves. He’s contemplated a lot of ways to handle this. He knows he’s got to do something. He weighs all his options. In fact, a very clear option in that day was stoning the woman to death – the penalty for adultery. He had that option to consider.

Maybe it was love that made Joseph say: “No matter what she’s done to me, I still love her. I’m going to break it off in secret, and we’re just going to part ways. That’s it. That’s how I’m going to handle it.” (Matthew 1:19)

It must’ve been a big enough deal to God. The situation had to be pretty serious. Mary was praying every night: “God, just make him see. Make him believe. Do whatever it requires for him to see past the confusion and the hurt and pain and know that this is real.

And God responded. It was such a big deal that God went to the trouble to send an angel to Joseph. Click here to read Matthew 1:20-24
Joseph goes to bed that night and God rocks His world. Joseph is so relieved. It’s like this incredible weight was lifted off of him. You could see it in his eyes: “She didn’t go out on me after all. She was telling the truth!”

I can imagine Joseph pulling on his clothes. He’s excited, but nervous as well. The thought had to have crossed his mind: “She was honest the whole time, and I didn’t believe her! What if she doesn’t take me back!”

Joseph runs to Mary’s house, knocks on the door, and when Mary opens the door, Joseph says: “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you. Will you take me back? Can we do this thing? I want to raise this child with you.”

Grace and forgiveness happened in that moment. God showed His faithfulness to Mary. He answered her prayer.

But for the rest of that pregnancy, they had to endure the looks, the whispers, and the criticisms of people in that town.

Nazareth, a little no-nothing town. Nothing good had ever come out of it. And people knew it. They weren’t going anywhere. All they knew was drama and gossip. In little towns, everyone knows everyone’s business. They smile to your face and turn the knife when you turn your back. You know those kinds of people?

Mary would go to the market and endure the stares of people who would talk behind her back and call her names.

How difficult was it to go out of the house? How many friends abandoned her? How many people talked about how great a guy Joseph was and how pitiful he was going through with the marriage despite the fact that she’d had an affair on him?

Click here to read Luke 2:1-7
Mary has come full term and Caesar has made a decree for people to register who they are and where they are from because he’s planning on taxing the Jewish people.So Joseph loads up Mary who’s about to give birth at any time, and makes about an 85 mile trip through mountainous terrain back to Bethlehem.

When he gets there, the city is filled to the max. It’s full of Jewish people who’ve come home. It’s full of Roman officials who have taken available spaces to do the census.

They have family there, but apparently those places are full as well. There were places to stay in town – not like 4 star hotels. They were more like shelters. I can imagine that Joseph went in, looked at all of these families huddled together, while Mary had this urgency that she was going to be giving birth any time now, and they at least needed a private place.

Joseph looks everywhere, and then decides to bring Mary into a stable.

It’s most likely that this was a place that people who were staying in the inn placed the animals they were traveling with. It wasn’t this nice little nativity scene that we like to put in front of houses. It wasn’t a nice, clean covered place with angels playing harps. Animals didn’t bow down and sleep because the Savior was there. The straw in the manger wasn’t perfect laid out and clean.

It was a damp cave which brought it’s own aroma. But the truth is that in that place there was manure. There were noisy animals, bleating sheep. Animals who didn’t like each other.

I can guess that this is not how Mary planned out this thing. She was second-guessing God’s choice: “Was God really sure about this? I’m so sorry God! I know this isn’t what You wanted for your Son.”

Joseph was just as mortified. Here’s his wife that was in a stable. He tries to scoop up some droppings to make the air tolerable.

And in that night air, in the midst of the stink, the noise, and the mess, the Savior stepped in to the world. And when Mary saw Him, He didn’t come out saying: “I’m the Savior.” He didn’t say “Thanks for your help, I’ll be on my way now.” His lungs expanded with the foul, damp stable air and He cried. And Mary did what any mother would do, she wrapped Him up so that His limbs wouldn’t dangle in their weakness; so His fingernails wouldn’t scratch His face.

Two kids. Alone, with this child.

The Savior of the world comes in about as quiet of an entrance as you can have. He looks weak. His wrapped like any other child, and he’s got two young parents who’re meant to care for Him.

We’ve cleaned up the story and made it less powerful than what it really was. We’ve civilized it. We’ve even over-spiritualized it.

God put the Savior of the world into the most precarious position that He could. And there’s a lesson in that for us today.

When those two looked at that Child, they may not have really seen the Savior, but there’s no doubt that that’s who He was. They did the only thing that they could do at that moment.

They received Him. They received faith. They received hope that they would be saved by Him.

23 October 2011

A Boat Sailing in the Wrong Direction

I have been spending a lot of time in what many consider a children's story in the old testament, Jonah. If you ask any child about Jonah, they can tell you the story of how Jonah was told by God to do something and Jonah ran away instead. And any child's most memorable part of the story is how Jonah was swallowed by a whale! In fact, for may adults this is the end of our knowledge of Jonah as well. We might be able to talk about what God told Jonah to do (go and preach against Ninevah), we may even see the symbolism between Jonah's three days in the whale and Christ's three days in the grave. But, as we see past the obvious and really dive into this text we will see there is so much more than a children's story.

So let's dive in...

Click here to read Jonah 1:1-3 Jonah is known by many as the "reluctant prophet" but his name actually means dove or peaceful one. His dad, Amittai, means "truth." So we are introduced to Jonah, the peaceful one, son of truth and he is told to go to Ninevah and preach. This seems like a simple request.  After all Jonah is a prophet of God and prophets speak to the people as God commands. So what's the big deal? Ninivah was the capital of Assyria and Ninevah, during this time, was absolutely Israels worst enemy. Israel hated Ninevah.

So what made Ninevah so hated by Israel and every other country during this time? Whenever it was rumored that the Assyrians would be attacking a city, all of the people in that town would just commit suicide.  Why? Because they would rather die by their own hand than experience the brutality the Assyrians would bring.

When the Assyrians would take over a city. They would kill almost all people, then the surviving women they would rape before they would kill them. Then they would take the husbands, who were prisoners of war, outside the city and they would skin them alive. Then, once they were skinned, they would actually bury them in the desert’s sand up to their necks. You can imagine the pain they would be in. Then, they would take their tongues and they would pull their tongues out, and they would drive a stake through their tongue so they would go crazy as they were dying of thirst in the middle of the desert.

Then once they were dead, they would behead them, and they would take the heads of all of the prisoners of war, and they would make a pyramid of heads outside their city to say to the rest of the world, “This is a city that we conquered.”

Now that we know this about Ninevah, lets put these first few verses into context. Jonah 1:1-3 "The word of the Lord came to "the peaceful one, son of truth." Go to Ninevah, the city you hate and preach against it." When we understand more about the situation Jonah was facing it's easier to understand why he didn't want to go.

Whenever God comes to us and calls us out of our comfort zone remember there will always be a boat going in the opposite direction. It can be an old friend that comes up and says to you "lets go back to the old times, lets do what we used to do..." God told Jonah to go East to Ninevah and instead he got on a boat heading West to Tarshish 2500 miles away. Ninevah was on the far east end of the Mediterranean Sea and Tarshish was through the Straits of Gibraltar near where modern day Cadiz, Spain is located.

Whenever you get on that boat sailing in the wrong direction God may send a storm to get your attention. And this is exactly what happened to Jonah. Jonah finally realizes, “It’s my fault.” Some of you are going to recognize that right now. You are going to think, “what I was doing was own my private rebellion and it wasn’t hurting anybody.” Don’t kid yourself. If it hadn’t hurt somebody yet, it’s going to tomorrow. Jonah realizes, “This is my fault. I’m hurting all these innocent people by my disobedience to God.” Remember, delayed obedience is still disobedience.

The sailors do the unthinkable, they throw Jonah into the sea. Then, something unbelievably bad in our human mind happens to Jonah. If you know the story, he got swallowed up by a big fish. People say, “Jonah and the whale”. It was not a whale. Original text says it was a fish. It was big, it was nasty, and he was in it for three days.

What seems to be the worse possible situation for Jonah and what would appear to be Jonah’s worst nightmare come true, was exactly what he needed. They throw Jonah overboard and the raging sea grew calm. v16: "At this, the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and they made vows to him."

v17: "Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."

Do you see that? The Lord provided the fish. What Jonah would see as the worst possible scenario is something God provided. You may be facing what you would consider to be your worse nightmare and God may say, “now do I have your attention?” I am not going to tell you that everything bad that happens is God causing it in your life, because I don’t believe that is true, but I do believe with everything in me that there are times where God may cause, or God may allow, what we would consider is our worst nightmare so that He can fully get our attention.

The Word of the Lord will come to you, and you have a choice: obey or disobey.

01 October 2011

Do You Know His Voice?

John 10:27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

Did you know that sheep require more consistent attention and care than any other class of livestock? Sheep do not have sense of direction, so they are easily turned around and become confused and lost (sound familiar?). If they fall down they can't get up on their own and once they fall down if they are left too long, they will die. They are a very needy group of animals and the shepherd knows that sheep cannot be left alone for any extended period of time. Without the presence of a shepherd sheep will become anxious, they will panic, and many times they will cluelessly wander off. Nothing quiets and reassures sheep like the presence of their shepherd calling them by name.

Read John 10:1-6 . This scripture describes a morning shepherding scene. A shepherd enters through a gate into a walled enclosure which has several different flocks in one sheep pen overnight. The enclosure, with stone walls, is guarded at night by a doorkeeper to prevent thieves and carnivores from entering. Often several shepherds used a single “fold” and took turns guarding the entrance or they had one person hired to watch the flocks overnight. Mingling the animals was no problem since each flock responded readily to its own shepherd’s voice. The shepherd had a right to enter the sheep pen because he was the master. The watchman would open the gate, and the shepherd would come in to call his own sheep (which would follow their shepherd’s voice and walk away from the other sheep). The gate is the main entrance.

Jesus explained that anyone who tried to get in any other way besides going through the
gate would be a thief—that person would be up to no good. Shepherds knew their sheep well and gave them names. As sheep hear the sound of their owner’s familiar voice, they go to him, and they follow him out to pasture. The sheep know their master’s voice because he spends so much time with them. Through his presence, sheep become familiar with their shepherd, they recognize him, and they feel safe with his leadership. Wherever he leads they will go because the sheep know the shepherd is worth following. His consistent presence and guidance strengthens the bond between the sheep and the shepherd.

There is no substitute for the presence of our Good Shepherd. Fear and insecurity are quickly dispelled and hope abounds by the presence of our great Good Shepherd. But do you know the Shepherds voice? When he calls you how do you recognize his voice? That recognition comes from training ourselves to hear him when he calls. Sometimes we think we are listening to the right voice when all along it was really a distraction from the Truth.

Listening to the right voice is the key to reaching our destination. There are many voices competing for our attention. These voices may even be disguised. Even if the voices are disguised there is no hiding the fact that these voices are attempting to distract us from the one true voice that guides us on the straight and narrow path. The voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is the only voice we should train our ears and heart to hear. The only way to learn His voice is to spend time with Him reading the Bible and in prayer. The more we know God and the more we understand His presence around us, the more we will recognize when He is the one guiding us.

In our busy lives it is hard not to hear many distracting voices. So, even in the noise we must train ourselves to do more than hear the Shepherd’s voice. We must listen to the voice of truth. We must be prepared to run from the voice of strangers.

24 September 2011

A Table Before My Enemies

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

We have finally made it to the last two verses of this psalm. We have been talking about the sheep/shepherd relationship and trying to gain a better understanding of it. Remember, Jesus said in John 10:27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." He calls us his sheep, not an eagle or some other majestic/ferocious animal, but a sheep. Let me remind you of some sheep facts in case you forgot from our opening blog on this subject.

1. Sheep are considered the dumbest animal on the planet.
2. They have no upper teeth.
3. They will stay in one spot and eat everything around them until nothing but dirt is left.
4. They have no sense of direction. No matter how long they are there, they can't find their way home without help.
5. If they fall over they can’t get back up without the shepherd.
6. They are sheared for health, comfort and coolness.
7. Their tales are docked for cleanliness. Yep for that very reason, poo will get matted in their tales and cause infections and other nasty stuff.

Yep, he called us His sheep and then said "follow me." We will talk about those life changing two words later, but right now lets dive right in and finish learning about the sheep/shepherd relationship from the "Shepherd of Israel" King David.

David starts verse 5 by saying "you prepare a table before my enemies." I used to think this passage had something to do with food, but when you really look at it, it doesn’t make much sense in a psalm about sheep and shepherds to talk about a table of food. That was until the day I discovered David is not talking about food, but he is really writing about snakes.

In mountainous regions, a “table” describes a flat section of land. And before entering a new “table,” a good shepherd inspects the ground for holes, the holes are potential hiding places for poisonous brown snakes. When the shepherd finds the holes, the first thing he will do is to collapse the holes with his rod, filling them in with dirt. After he fills the hole with dirt, the shepherd then pours thick oil in each snake hole. The purpose of the oil is a just-in-case measure. If the snake happens to work his way out, the snake will be coated by the oil and unable to attack the sheep with a poisonous bite. The snakes are not very large, but as the sheep puts its nose down in the grass as it grazes, the snakes bite the soft fleshy parts of the nose and mouth causing severe illness and the potential death. Any good shepherd doesn't want the reputation of his sheep dying because he didn't properly prepare the table.

When preparing the table, a good shepherd also locates and removes other things, such as weeds, that will cause the sheep to get sick and die. An interesting thing to note about this whole process is while the shepherd is preparing the table, the sheep haven't even entered yet. They are waiting outside the table area for the shepherd. What are they waiting for? They are waiting for the shepherd to anoint them. The oil the shepherd poured into the snake holes is used to “anoint” the sheep's nose and mouth making the surface too slippery to bite.

Here, now, where it would appear the sheep are in a sublime setting on the high meadows; where there are clear running springs; where the forage is fresh and tender; where there is the intimate close contact with the shepherd; suddenly we find a ‘fly in the ointment,’ so to speak".

The fly is literal. Because it is summertime, insects are plentiful both in number and kind. Some of the insects, such as the "nasal fly" are so bad that they can cause the death of the sheep. The flies enter the sheep’s nasal passage and lay eggs.

The result is severe respiratory inflammation and infection. The sheep become inconsolable, kicking wildly, butting their heads against rocks and trees, and running into the heavy brush. The effects can be devastating.

Other insects also bother the sheep and cause them to stop eating. Thus they lose weight and energy. Ewes stop giving milk and the lambs die of starvation. Insect infestation is a terrible torment for the sheep; but, it’s a fact of life.

However, there is relief to be had.

The good shepherd quickly recognizes the symptoms and does something about it. In Bible times, the shepherd would pour a mixture of olive oil, sulphur, and tar on the sheep’s head. In more modern times linseed oil, sulphur, and tar have been used. Apparently, the odor of this anointing oil doesn’t bother the sheep but it does keep the insects away. It doesn’t take long for the sheep to appreciate the anointing and be grateful for it.

Insect infestation in sheep is representative of uninvited devilish torments, persecutions, and afflictions in humans.

The anointing is the continued presence and filling of the Holy Spirit Who comforts and consoles us. It is important to note that when a person receives the gift of God’s salvation, by grace through faith, he or she also receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

But, the "anointing" of the Holy Spirit is continuing, based on need. When Satan torments a Christian, the anointing of the Holy Spirit is available. However, the Christian must "hold still" and let the anointing take place.

If a sheep in torment runs wildly, stomping, kicking, and butting his head against the rocks the shepherd can’t do much for him. But, if the sheep will stop and let the shepherd do the anointing, then relief will come. It’s the same with Christians. We must yield to the Good Shepherd and let Him anoint us with the "Balm of Gilead." He will pour out the Holy Spirit on us and we will be comforted..

There were other reasons for the anointing with oil. A disease called "scabies" was also treated with the oil-sulphur-tar mixture. Scabies affected sheep’s heads. It was (or is) transmitted from sheep to sheep as they affectionately rub heads together. Scabies, to me, represents the harm that can come to us because of our associations.

"Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." ( 2 Cor. 6:17).

When we try to have one foot in the "Kingdom" of Heaven and one foot in the world, we will be afflicted by the diseases and maladies of the world (physical, spiritual, and emotional).

Here again, it is the anointing of the Holy Spirit that protects us from wrong associations. "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" ( Galatians 5:16).

Still another cause for "anointing" sheep’s heads with oil (or in this case grease) is to reduce the damage of rams butting heads during mating season. The grease literally causes the sheep to glance off each others’ head and avoid the shock of a head-on collision. To his amusement, the sheep would glance off each other’s head and look bewildered and confused then stroll off in peace.

In our lives, as believers, this anointing is the calming and convicting work of the Holy Spirit. When we become strong willed and self sufficient, butting our heads against each other and against "brick walls," the Holy Spirit can intercede to help us see the futility of our own self-willed attitudes and actions.

No wonder, the sheep concludes, "My cup of blessings runs over."

Next we are going to examine those two words that have been life altering for so many "follow me."

18 September 2011


Verse 4b "Your Rod and Your Staff They Comfort Me"

We are almost finished examining the sheep/shepherd relationship from the eyes of the Shepherd of Israel (King David) and Psalm 23. Understanding this relationship will help us to better understand what Jesus is saying in John 10:27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." "Follow Me", two life changing words that will cost you everything. We will dive into those two words later, but first we need to know more about why Jesus compares us to sheep and why He is the "Good Shepherd".

When a shepherd is out in the fields with his flock, he carries very little with him. Today’s shepherds will carry a rifle, a staff and a small knapsack. In the Middle East the shepherd carried only a rod and a staff.

The rod is kinda like a club. The shepherd learns from childhood how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defense for himself and his sheep. He uses it to drive off predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars or stray dogs. In the brush it is used to beat away snakes.

But it is also used for discipline. If a sheep wanders away or approaches poisonous weeds, or gets too close to some danger, the rod is thrown to send it back to the flock.

The staff, on the other hand, is a long, slender stick, often with a crook or hook on one end. The shepherd will use the staff to guide sheep along a new path or through a gate. He doesn’t beat the sheep. He just nudges them along. At times, the staff may be used to get a sheep out of trouble, to pull it from the water or to free it from thorns.

The rod is the shepherd’s weapon of power, authority, defense, and it is a continuous comfort. Similarly, God’s word can be seen as our rod. It implies authority and it carries with it convicting power and undeniable impact. God’s word protects us. The Bible is an extension of His mind and revealed will for our lives. The Bible clears up confusion and keeps us out of chaos. It also protects us with its comforting encouragement, wise proclamations, and its timeless precepts and principles. The Word of God also acts as a rod of protection by keeping us from sin and danger. The rod of God is His word, and His word is sharper than any two edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).

Sometimes, when a shepherd is caring for his sheep he will stop each sheep with his outstretched rod as the sheep comes into the corral. He opens the fleece with the rod and runs his skillful hands over the sheep’s body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see that all is well. The shepherd is searching every detail. This process is both comforting and frightening for the sheep. Think about what is meant in Psalms 139:23-24 – “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

No one really likes to be searched or investigated. Being investigated carries the implication that you are hiding something or you have done something wrong. However, if there is nothing to hide, any person should welcome an investigation. Special Ops candidates in the military are thoroughly investigated before they can be approved and move on to the next level. They are serious about their job and their missions. They will do whatever it takes to advance to the next task. They know that a background check and an investigation of their life are crucial to their approval.

As believers in Christ, we must also welcome the Good Shepherd’s investigation of our life. If we are to grow in our relationship with Him (and each other); we must allow God to search every corner, every nook, and every closet of our heart. He reveals every hidden thing so that we would not be hindered or kept from advancing in our life with Him. We must submit and subject ourselves daily to the search and seizure of the Good Shepherd. After all, there is really no way that any of us can ever pull the wool over His eyes.

To those of us who are God’s sheep, the authority, power, might and guidance of the Lord are indeed a comfort. "Your rod and Your staff they comfort me."

The shepherd’s tools are used to guide and correct the path of the sheep— much in the same way God has to oftentimes guide, and occasionally correct, our path. "My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves..." (Proverbs 3:11). The shepherd will also stop a sheep as it enters the fold for the night with an outstretched rod, parting the wool with the rod and often times running his hands through so he can feel for any irregularities.

God’s word is very direct and hides nothing from those seeking the truth.

Next we will talk about the "table He prepares for us before our enemies." I'll give you a hint, it has absolutely nothing to do with food.

05 September 2011

The Valley of Death

As we continue to talk about Psalm 23 and study the sheep/shepherd relationship, we come to the part of the psalm everyone can quote:

Verse 4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;

Even as a kid I was familiar with this portion of the psalm even though my family didn't attend church. The way I came to know this verse was through old westerns. After watching my favorite Saturday morning cartoons until noon, it was time for the Lone Ranger, the Duke and many other great westerns. After the star of the western caught the bad guy there would be a trial and if the bad guy was sentenced to death you knew he was to be hung. The next scenes would show the bad guy walking towards the gallows. The bad guy would have the sheriff on one side of him and the deputy on the other side with a preacher leading the way reading this portion of the psalm. So my only exposure was through these scenes, and it wouldn't be until much later in life that I would begin to understand what it was saying.

We have a vision in urban America of what sheep herding/farming looks like. We see flat green pastures or gentle rolling hills but that is not the way it was in David's time. If the sheep herders were in a flat area or valley there typically wasn't any food for the sheep. So the shepherds led their flock up the side of mountains to flat areas called tables. These tables provided fresh food for the sheep.

After the area was depleted of its value for the sheep, the shepherd would lead the flock further up the mountain. The terrain would be treacherous, loose rocks, steep climbs, and one slip could mean certain death for the sheep. So the shepherd would carefully plan every single step he took, being certain that where he stepped the flock could follow. Walking in the footsteps of the shepherd kept the sheep calm, they would not fear, they trusted the shepherd completely. So the shepherd couldn't be too far ahead of the sheep or they would lose sight of him and not know where to step. Not knowing where to step in this situation was a death sentence for the sheep.

The sheep during these travels would not take their eyes off of the shepherd. They would watch every step he took to make certain they stepped exactly where the shepherd was leading them. Not deviating to the left, the right, and they would never be in front of the shepherd but putting there feet exactly in the foot prints of the shepherd. Where ever he would lead they would follow.

What would life be like for us if we followed the footsteps of the Good Shepherd exactly where he stepped not deviating to the left, the right, or ever being in front of him? Where would he lead us? How far could we go? How high could we climb? Or is this what we are fearful of? We fear that he would lead us somewhere we don't want to go and before we realize it we are outside of our comfort zone and so high up the mountain we have left everything we know behind. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:61-62

What would the ministry of the church in America look like if shepherds of the flock planned every step with the flock in mind? What if these shepherds kept their eyes on the footsteps of the Good Shepherd never deviating to the left, to the right, and never being in front but actually following? Shepherds should never be so far in front of the flock that the flock can't see where to safely step next. Because if sheep are fearful they will freeze and not move even though they know the shepherd may be around the corner they need to see where he steps.

What would the ministry of the church in America look like if the flock actually followed the shepherd without bickering and in-fighting? What if we actually trusted the Lord and followed the leadership he has placed over us? I firmly believe that God did not get up today and look at your church and say "how did he become pastor there?" "Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." Psalm 139:16

More to come...

04 September 2011

He restores my soul...

In John 10 Jesus is talking to the Pharisees (the Pharisees were the religious snobs of the day) and he says to them in verse 27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me". Those two words "follow me" radically changed the lives of those who answered the call. But, Jesus never let anyone make the decision to follow him without them knowing there is a cost and to count that cost. Before we get into the cost of following Jesus and those two words "follow me" we need to finish talking about the first part of this verse where Jesus calls us "his sheep".

Let's continue our study of Psalm 23 as we learn more about the sheep/shepherd relationship. We know David, who is the author of this psalm, was a shepherd (also known as the "Shepherd of Israel") and he understood his position in the flock.

So, let's dive in...

Verse 3a "He restores my soul."

There is a shepherd’s term called a "cast" sheep. This is a sheep that has turned over on its back and can’t get back up again. It happens frequently. And when it happens, all the sheep can do is lie on its back, with its feet flaying frantically in the air. Sometimes it will bleat, but usually it will just kick.

If the shepherd doesn’t arrive within a short time, the sheep will die. That’s one of the reasons why a shepherd is always looking over its flock, counting them to see if they are all on their feet. If one is missing, he thinks, "One of my sheep is cast and I’ve got to find it." This is the thought behind the parable of the 99 sheep and the one that went astray.

Many times a shepherd will search for hours for a single sheep, only to find it on its back, lying helpless. He will turn the sheep over on its side, rub its legs to restore circulation, then lift it to its feet. After a while the sheep will stumble and stagger, and then eventually walk steadily and surely.

That’s probably what David had in mind when he said, "He restores my soul" because that’s how our Lord treats us. We stumble and fall, we become so helpless. And yet our shepherd is patient and tender and helpful in getting us back on our feet.

I read the gospels and see the tenderness that Jesus showed toward sinners. I see how he restored Peter’s heart after his denial. And I understand that Jesus also restores my soul.

Verse 3b "He Leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake."

If sheep are left to themselves, they will continue to graze the same hills until they turn to a desert waste. They will gnaw the grass to the very ground until even the roots are damaged. They need a shepherd who will lead them to good grazing area.

We are a lot like sheep. As humans, we prefer to follow our own fancies and turn to our own ways. "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way." (Isaiah 53:6).

And so we need a shepherd who can lead us in paths of righteousness, and our Lord does just that. Notice that our shepherd is not a driver but a leader. He doesn’t stand behind us with a stick, saying, "Go on, and do that." No, he goes ahead and leads the way for us. "For to this you were called, because Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps." (1 Peter 2:21).

More to come...

03 September 2011

Follow Me...

John 10:27 Jesus said "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

I am going to spend time over the next few weeks talking about this verse, particularly paying close attention to the last two words of this verse "follow me".

But, before we look at the last two, lets look at the first two "My sheep." We know Jesus said he is "the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11) and calls us "His sheep." What does this mean? Why does he call us sheep? Moreover, why does he compare us to sheep? If Christ is going to compare us to something why not an animal that is majestic like an eagle or strong like a bear?

Let me share a few sheep facts with you:

1. Sheep are considered the dumbest animal on the planet.
2. They have no upper teeth.
3. They will stay in one spot and eat everything around them until nothing but dirt is left.
4. They have no sense of direction. No matter how long they are there, they can't find their way home without help.
5. If they fall over they can’t get back up without the shepherd.
6. They are sheared for health, comfort and coolness.
7. Their tales are docked for cleanliness. Yep for that very reason, poo will get matted in their tales and cause infections and other nasty stuff.

Now you can see why I would want to be compared to anything but a sheep.

I want to look at the shepherd/sheep relationship to see what we can learn, there has to be something more to it that I'm not seeing. But, where to look? I don't know any sheep farmers in urban America to ask and I felt that I couldn't trust the Internet for the information I was looking for. I turned to the only source I knew I could trust fully, God's Holy Word. But, who was a shepherd in scripture that I could look to for an understanding of the shepherd/sheep relationship? King David... remember, before he was king he was tending sheep for his father when Samuel came to see Jesse (David's father). Samuel was led to Jesse by God and Samuel was to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. This is where we first meet David as a young boy, tending sheep. David was himself a shepherd and he come to be known as the "Shepherd King" of Israel. But he saw Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel, as his shepherd. Later in his life David will paint for us one of the most vivid pictures of the shepherd/sheep relationship in Psalm 23.

Psalm 23
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Verse 1 "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want..."

David speaks in this psalm as if he was one of the flock, one of the sheep. And it is as though he literally boasted aloud, "Look who my shepherd is -- my owner -- my manager! The Lord is!" David knew knew from firsthand experience that the lot of any particular sheep depends on the type of man who owns it. Under one man, sheep might struggle, starve and suffer endless hardships. But under another shepherd, they might flourish and thrive contentedly. So he says with pride that “The Lord is my shepherd.” The shepherd is the provider and protector of his flock. The sheep are helpless without him.

As a sheep in Christ’s care, David was confident that he would lack nothing. He knew that the Lord would supply his every need.

Verse 2 "He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,"

It’s not easy to get a sheep to lie down (it's not easy to get me to lie down either!). A strange thing about sheep is that they will refuse to lie down unless four requirements are met. (1) They must be free from all fear. (2) There must be no tension between members of the flock. (3) They must not be aggravated with flies or parasites. (4) And they must be free from hunger.

If a sheep is hungry he won't rest, if he won't rest he won't eat, if he won't eat he is cranky and easily agitated and fights with the other sheep causing tension in the flock. If he fights with the other sheep he won't eat, if he won't eat, he won't sleep. An interesting note about sheep fighting in the flock... they will only fight when the shepherd is not around!

There is a delicate balance between love and firmness, knowing what's best for the sheep even if the sheep do not like it. The shepherd, at times, will do things that are for the good of the whole flock and not just on sheep. We may find ourselves doing something we particularly don't want to do or being somewhere we don't want to be. When we find ourselves in one of these situations we don't like it because we want everything to be about us, it is our nature as man. But we know in Psalm 139:16 "Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." Every encounter we have is a God ordained moment in time and we need to be about Kingdom business.

More to come...
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