shepherd

The Suffering Servant Shepherd

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by Linda Rex

April 25, 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—There is a movement in this country of making churches and non-profits responsible for the needs of those who are in trouble or difficulty, rather than it being the responsibility of individuals, the community or taxpayers. Indeed, as followers of Christ, we are called at times to help those who are in need. However, simply assuming that people of faith will take care of such needs overlooks one of the things that is an important part of being truly human. And that is that we as human beings were designed as adults to be responsible for certain things ourselves, though we are all dependent upon God and his grace and goodness for anything we do have.

It also ignores the reality that humans are given the freedom to choose. This reality works on two levels: 1) People may choose to not be responsible for themselves or have never learned that they need to be, so need, homelessness and poverty may simply be a consequence of bad choices or it may even be a preference. In such cases, being responsible for what is theirs may not be the best way to help. 2) Giving and helping are not so much a requirement as they are a fruit of God’s grace at work in us—so giving and helping must come from God’s heart in us rather than merely being a response to an external expectation. Even Jesus, when laying down his life, did it voluntarily and freely, out of love, not just because it was his Father’s will.

This brings to mind the passage in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” It is obvious from this passage, that we cannot just talk about doing good deeds, but we must also actually help, not closing our hearts to people who are who are unable to help themselves. We want to be sensitive at all times to the move of the Spirit in us when he wants to help someone.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, the anointed One:

“All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:6 NASB)

I’m sure that none of us want to think of ourselves as being stray sheep, but in reality, this is a good description of all of us as human beings, individually and collectively. How often we wander from the fold of God’s love and seek our own path! We get ourselves lost, wounded, broken and in need of rescue. And God knew we would do this—so Jesus came.

Let’s look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus said he is the good shepherd. We notice that the good shepherd is not taking care of everyone else’s flock—but assumes responsibility for what is his. Jesus also said that he had other sheep that he was bringing to be a part of his flock, and what he was doing was meant to include them as well (John 10:11-18).

When the shepherd goes in front of his sheep and leads them to water and good pasture, that seems to be simple enough. Even though there are times when it can be difficult to find safe pasture or clean, still water, a good shepherd seems to know where to take the sheep so they can stay healthy and strong. But if the sheep are stubborn and willful, they will not follow the lead of the shepherd or obey his voice, and will end up in dangerous places, or eating or drinking what isn’t good for them. Nothing is more upsetting to a shepherd than to have to lose a sheep because it would not stay with the flock or follow the lead of the shepherd.

Oh, that we would simply remember the shepherd’s psalm is our hope!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23 NASB)

Did king David when he wrote this have any clue that one day the Messiah would stand up and say, “I am the good shepherd”? When Jesus was saying that he was the good shepherd, he was definitively saying who he was—God in human flesh, a shepherd who knew what it was like to be a sheep, who would one day be offered as a sacrificial lamb on our behalf.

The good shepherd, Jesus said, lays down his life for his sheep. Laying down his life for his sheep means the shepherd puts himself at risk for the benefit of the sheep he is responsible to care for. When the flock is in danger of harm because of wolves or lions, he goes over and beyond just the necessity of watching over them and actually lays down his life, risking himself for the safety and protection of his flock.

Jesus was talking to the leaders of his people who were more concerned about their popularity, their money and influence than they were about the sheep they were responsible for. He explained the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd. One runs away at the first sign of danger, while the good shepherd stays and lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus saw keenly his calling to shepherd his people Israel through which he would bring together all the nations of the world. He knew that doing this would cost him his life, which he voluntarily gave in obedience to his heavenly Father. Do you see that Jesus was calling these leaders to their responsibility as those who were to be properly shepherding their people?

Looking at Jesus helps us to see the wide spectrum of this topic more clearly. Not only do we understand that we each are responsible for what is ours, we are also responsible to help those who are unable to help themselves. And leaders are to be responsible for those in their care, being willing to sacrifice on their behalf, putting themselves at risk to protect and provide for them, rather than simply using them for their benefit, pleasure and profit. And, finally, in a world in which none of us do these things perfectly and there is much difficulty and suffering, we have the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide, protect and provide for us, for he laid down his life for us and rose again so we could have new life in him.

Father, thank you for always looking out for us and providing for us. Thank you for giving us your Son Jesus as our shepherd, to save and care for us, to lay down his life for us. We receive your gift of new life by your Spirit in his name. Amen.

“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. We know by this that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:16-24 NASB

Never Unseen—Embraced by Grace

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By Linda Rex

June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.

A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.

This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.

My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.

The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.

Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.

Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.

As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.

Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.

And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.

In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.

We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.

These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.

Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG

“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB

Called by Name, We Follow

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By Linda Rex

May 3, 2020, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As I recently looked at how well we as a community, a state, a nation, and a world are coping with COVID-19, I was reminded anew that all this COVID-19 data are not just numbers on somebody’s spreadsheet. They are actual people and families and businesses which are being impacted by what is happening right now. These people have names, relatives, jobs (or at least they used to), and are doing their best to deal with those concerns which weigh heavily on them in this moment—illness, death, job loss, financial stress, or being separated physically from those they love.

How we deal with the particular stresses we are facing right now individually and as a nation depends primarily, I believe, on our perspective—the lens through which we view all these events. In a culture in which there is such a strong emphasis on our ability, even our responsibility, to solve these life and death issues on our own, it is easy to understand why there are so many views regarding this whole situation. These include a sense of fear or anxiety at all the inevitabilities or possibilities and an insistence that our government resolve all these issues apart from any personal political preference or leaning.

Honestly, I’m not sure what a person does when faced with catastrophic issues such as these if they believe it is all up to us solely as human beings to solve these issues. How can we have any assurance that any of this will work out all right in the end?

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we want there to be people in our lives who know us by name and care about us enough to look after our interests, not just their own. We want to have governments who seek the best for every citizen and for the country as a whole, without taking advantage of anyone or neglecting those who cannot care for themselves. We want community leaders to take an interest in providing the basics of life for residents while at the same time providing quality of life for each person who lives there.

We ask for a world, nation, state, or community, in which each person is known by name, cared for according to their needs and preferences, and is able to pursue his or her own goals or ambitions. In this life, these are obviously not realistic expectations, yet I believe we often have these expectations even though we may never openly admit to it. It is made obvious by our response to events such as COVID-19 and all its accompanying restrictions and changes.

I believe we may be a lot wiser if we were willing to surrender these expectations to the reality that there is a profound difference between the human systems, governments, societies and culture of this world and the kingdom life described for us within the pages of the Bible. One of the flaws throughout the ages of the Christian church was its equating the kingdom of God with a particular human government or ruler. This was never meant to be the case.

What Jesus teaches us is that in his coming to us as God in human flesh, the kingdom of God came near or came among us. In his power and presence, God’s kingdom is real, tangible, and planted within our cosmos, to effectively, in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, alter our human existence both now and forever. There is an over-reaching, undergirding, cosmos-filling kingdom which supersedes and surpasses any human government or leadership. This is a spiritual kingdom which can only be entered into by faith in Jesus Christ.

This may be hard to understand and accept. To say that Jesus is the center, the only door by which we enter by faith into these tangible spiritual realities, is, for many, a way of saying that these realities are exclusive and leave people out. This is far from being true. Rather than leaving anyone out, this is the assurance that everyone is included. This means that no person needs to live life apart from the blessing of knowing and being known by the One who created, redeemed, and sustains all. No one need struggle through life and its catastrophes and troubles all alone without comfort, solace or help.

Yet we do it. We choose to believe that none of this is true and that we can get through life just fine on our own—we don’t need anyone telling us what to do, how to do it, or to rescue us when we fall. This is especially true in these parts of the world where we do not really struggle to make ends meet or to take care of the everyday necessities. Many, if not most of us, can comfortably live our lives apart from any of the spiritual realities.

This is why Jesus said that we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as little children (Matt. 18:3-4). Children tend to realize their dependency upon those who care and provide for them. We need to recognize that we are more like wandering sheep who get ourselves into dangerous situations when we don’t listen to and follow our shepherd. Sheep who know and follow their shepherd are the ones who find themselves in pastures where they have the water and food they need, and they will be tenderly cared for should they be sick or injured.

There will be struggles and suffering in life, whether we believe in Jesus or not. The difference will be that as believers we know that God knows us and calls us by name. We have come to realize that God not only knows us personally, he loves us, and he is personally interested in what is happening in our lives. He is working moment by moment for our best, even though that may mean we temporarily struggle or suffer. The psalmist writes, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 NASB, emphasis added).

Jesus knows the way of suffering, for he has walked it himself. He does not ask us to go anywhere he has not gone or will not go with us. To follow Jesus is to share both in his glory and in his suffering. But we do so in the knowledge that God knows us by name and we belong to him—we don’t go through anything in this life that he is not going through with us right now and helping us through. There is no reason any of us need face life apart from being intimately connected at the core of our being with the One who is our life, and spiritually connected with others who share our life as adopted and beloved children of God, sheep of the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.

Today, take a moment to ponder—in what way am I personally wandering about like a lost and forgotten sheep? In solitude and silence, invite God to call your name and to speak his words of love and grace to you. Consider, even if you do not sense God’s presence or words, what it means to be a sheep who hears his voice and follows. What does it mean that God knows you by name? What does it mean to be loved by God? Share with Jesus your commitment to follow him wherever he leads, from this day onward, no matter the cost.

Dear God, thank you for offering us life in Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to listen to your voice, to hear you call our name, and to know we are your very own. Enable us to know we are loved and held, cared for tenderly as a shepherd cares for his sheep. We want to follow you wherever you lead, Jesus, even if it requires suffering and struggle. Grant us the grace to do this. In your name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you can example for you to follow in His steps, ‘who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth’; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25 NASB

“But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” John 10:2-5 NASB

Poor Little Lost Lamb

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by Linda Rex

I recall a day many years ago when I was out in a small pasture on my mother-in-law’s farm, trying to find a missing lamb. One of our ewes had given birth to twins, and it was necessary for us to bottle-feed them. Their mother could not supply them enough milk.

That day on the farm, at feeding time, one of the twins was nowhere to be found. This particular twin had a fondness for the greener grass on the other side of the fence. Sure enough, it had squeezed through the fence to the other side. Sad to say, it was not in very good condition when I found it.

That particular lamb did not survive because it would not do the one thing that would have kept it safe and strong—it would not stay near its mother. It insisted on going its own way, seeking adventure outside the safety net of the pasture fence.

Often we as human beings are much like that poor little lamb. In fact, that lamb’s story brings to mind how we as humans, from the beginning, have so often declared to God we would go our own way and choose to find our own “greener grass.” We find ourselves harried by the wolves and coyotes of life, not realizing that if we stayed within our pasture, we would be safe and secure.

The good news is that God took care of that problem many years ago in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Unlike the poor little lamb that lost its way and lost its life, we have the blessing of a Savior who joined us in our humanity and brought us up into his eternal life and love, healing us of our brokenness and our need to live out on our own. Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd” who cares for his sheep.

Our good shepherd was willing to join us in our human mess, and meet us in the midst of our search for the “greener grass.” He has reconciled us with our heavenly Father and sent his Spirit to be with us. He draws us to himself, calling to us to leave our frantic search for something more and to be content in the life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. When we fall or suffer or struggle, when we make a wrong turn or wander off too far, he is faithful to bring us back home. We need only believe, to trust in his love and faithfulness, to trust in our loving, good shepherd, Jesus Christ.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” Ezekiel 34:11