“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10v11-13)
I took this photo four years ago. It was at the start of the 100 year commoration of the First World War and a ceramic red poppy was placed in the moat area around the Tower of London to represent each life lost during that conflict. A truly poignant pictorial representation of all the lives lost.
On the day I attended, the approximate count of poppies placed was somewhere in the region of 800,000 with more to be added. Can you imagine it? Eight hundred thousand people dead? Each one with parents, siblings, spouse and friends, all left to grieve their violent passing. A terrible tragedy affecting millions upon millions of people. (Even worse, the war to end all wars did not do as predicted with 45 wars more wars since that time).
So what has all of this to do with Jesus as the good shepherd?
Well, the Christian belief is that Jesus has won a battle that makes people free from the shackles of death, decay and darkness. Long before young men and women were cut down in the prime of life, Jesus came to earth to die and be resurrected, determined that the wolf should not have the final victory over humanity. Hence, Jesus’ response to the dying thief on the cross who petitions him to show favour after he dies. Jesus’ reply answers the ageless question of what exists after death:
“Truly I tell you: today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v47)
‘Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”‘ (John 10v7-10)
I love the imagery being used here by Jesus – ‘I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.’
In the 1st Century, Jesus’ listeners would have been all too aware of the dangers facing sheep. Corralled into their pen for the night, the sheep would be dependant on the shepherd to sit in the gateway and ensure no animal or person came in to steal them. Hence, Jesus words: ‘whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.’
But what of his statement that ‘All who have come before me are thieves and robbers?’ Well, by occupation, Jesus was a carpenter not a shepherd so he is describing the spiritual role he is about to fulfil as carer for those who will place their faith in him. People who believe that in death they will pass through a cross-shaped gate to be with him for eternity. Which begs the question: what is it that the people are being saved from?
Jesus says:“All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them…(and) the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy (but) I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
In short, thieves and robbers bring nothing to the table. They exist to steal and destroy and do this by distracting people away from Jesus who provides the opportunity for eternal life to all. At the time, Jesus was often speaking against religious leaders who opposed his message though today it could just as likely be an institutional practice or system that reduces humanity to anything less than their full spiritual potential Today, praise God that the full potential of God lives within you as you trust Jesus for the route ahead.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6v34)
Is it just me or does Jesus’s advice seem completely sensible yet hard to put into practice? Yes, we all know that stress is a killer. It’s rather like those moments in Western movies where the travellers are circled by hungry vultures who are ready to drop on the next person who succumbs to death and falls from their horse. But is Jesus asking the impossible in instructing us to not worry about the problems of life?
Clearly, the enormity of things we will encounter in our lifetime does seem quite daunting. Indeed, if all these calamaties came on us at once, the burden would be too great to undertake. And yet, human experience tells us that most big problems do not arrive in one overwhelming strike – but rather in a drip feed of one issue after another over months and years.
In the passage, Jesus’ words sound a clarion call across the ages. A warning for all people to keep perspective when problems come upon them. Not that each should shirk from their responsibility to respond to bad situations but rather not allow these concerns to alter the way they think about the world by seeing it as a place of curse rather than God’s blessing.
This week, thank God for His provision. For the wisdom, strength and discernment given to you though God’s Holy Spirit. And, having peace with God, resolve not to worry but steadfastly hold on and trust the Divine Creator for all that lies ahead.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6v31-33)I wonder how you understand the instruction to seek and make God’s Kingdom your priority? In the verses above, it seems that the encoragement to seek God’s will is done in order that benefits might follow – food, drink, clothes, security – but is this a fair rendering of the scripture?
Our own human experience is that a fair day’s wage follows a fair day’s work. An employer – unless very trusting – would not pay for the work until it has been done. However, that is not what the scripture is suggesting. Instead, the verse tells us that when directing heart, mind and spirit into seeking God’s Kingdom, an unexpected bi-product occurs in which human needs are met as spiritual outcomes are realised.
This seems nonsensical to us as humans because our need to control outcomes necessitates that we take control, initiate and meet our own needs. Moreover, place God’s demands second. But to do this is to superimpose a human model of sensibility onto God which can never work with a sovereign God who wills in ways as He chooses.
Today, if you are tired of trying to have your needs met using your own ingenuity and strength, why not consider handing these issues over to the Divine by seeking to address God’s needs first. There can be no promises other than that of scripture…
…your heavenly Father knows (what) you need . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6v28-30)
Following on from the Sermon on the Mount and God’s desire for us to live a worry free life, we turn our attention to the issue of God’s abundance to humanity – that is how everything that we need is available to us. Not in the prosperity gospel sort of way where we ‘name it and claim it’ but rather the idea that God’s abundance is much bigger than we can ever imagine.
Jesus addresses human worry by contrasting our experience of existence with what happens to withered grass that is one day here and the next day gone when thrown into the fire. And yet, with God even the withered grass that is burned will grow again on another day somewhere else – such is the nature of its life that physically grows, dies then grows again in another field or margin.
The point Jesus is making is that just like grass, humans are adequately prepared. Not just for life in this world where skin, hair and other materials can be fashioned to provide layers of warmth and protection but in the spiritual realm also. Because of this, we (who are made in God’s image) are also destined for spiritual realities that require clothing that will not perish, rot or tear. Spiritual clothes for a spiritual reality because God’s favour rests on us both here on earth in the present but also in the eternal realities that await in the spiritual realm.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life."(Matthew 6v25-7)
Interestingly, this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount comes just after he has addressed his listeners about :
- giving to the needy without later boasting about it so others will praise them
- seeking God’s will when praying so as to not focus on their own needs/wants
- fasting in a way that is not obvious so that only God knows about it
- investing in God’s kingdom rather than using their wealth to feather their nest
Then comes Jesus’ coup de gras in which he reminds the crowd of how God’s creatures have come to trust in His bountiful provision without fear that it might one day run out. There’s a lot more that could be said here about how much creatures are in control of their own destiny or whether they possess an ability to store up or secure food for themselves.
That said, the point being made is that in the same way creatures are provided for by God on a day to day basis, so people needn’t fear for they are abundantly more precious to the Divine being made in God’s image. Moreover, logic dictates that where food is scarce, no amount of worrying about it will ever make it appear. Such is the nature of stress that levels of worry are more likely to shorten our days than extend them.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. People need to eat and where no food is forthcoming then stress and worry are to be expected. After all, parents would be derelict in their duty if they did nothing for their starving children. But isn’t Jesus’ point that humans should not allow themselves to be reduced down to their base needs but see beyond this to the God who provides and cares? Only as we grasp this do we ourselves rise above our needs so that we can offer praise to God with thankful hearts. In this, we mature to reveal something of God’s image within us as we seek God looking for nothing in return. Be blessed
The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” (John 8v48-51)Years ago, I was invited to take part in a recruitment drive to encourage more teachers into the profession. The evening involved me being part of a working party, commenting on advertising ideas and slogans. One of them was a photographic still from The Dead Poets Society in which Robin Williams stands on the desk in front of his pupils. The comment beneath it read something like ‘ To be a great teacher is to become the greatest disturbance in the classroom!’
In many ways, Jesus fits this model of teaching perfectly in that he seldom pandered to what people thought he should be doing. This is the reason he made so many people angry because he presented a challenge to those who were orthodox, who cared little for others and viewed obedience to God in purely legalistic terms. Indeed, Jesus’ challenge to the rich man in the gospel of Mark shows that his expectations went far beyond what the enquirer was hoping.
Recently, a church minister has been labelled by some as a heretic because he dares to be different – interestingly, the same was also said of Jesus and even worse as we see in the passage above where he is referred to as being demon possessed: How hard it is to be a teacher?! Out of curiosity, I looked up the word ‘heretic’ online for its meaning and was surprised to discover that one definition of it is ‘a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.’ This sums up Jesus perfectly but unlike the ignorant, his motivation was always to love, cherish and educate.
‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”’ (Luke 23v39-43)
Actually, I’m not at all sure what this is? At first glance it looks like a graveyard and yet the ornate crosses that tower over it like skyscrapers -each vying to be tallest- seem strangely incongruous as markers for a place from which the christian soul has already departed?
Of course, in parts of the world, many Christians believe that the souls of the dead are gathered by God once a year during the celebration of All Saints Day. As a result, All Hallow’s Eve – the day and evening before – are often used by families to tidy up and paint graves to make them more presentable to God so that their deceased relative or friend has a better chance of being taken up to heaven this time round.
To my mind, the only problem with this type of thinking is that it suggests Christ’s atonement is somehow lacking as it requires the relatives of the deceased person to perform acts on their behalf to ensure that they do not remain in a state of purgotary forever- quite at odds with that which Jesus tells the dying criminal about the Kingdom of God: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”’
(It really couldn’t be any clearer).
‘The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”’ (Matthew 28v5-7)
When I look at this picture I am reminded of the two choices people face in regard to crucifixes – yes, there are thousands of crosses out there but there are basically two types:
- a cross on which the beaten, bloody body of Jesus is nailed – a reminder of the punishment he takes to pay the price of sin (however you understand that) OR
- a cross that is empty of the body, also saying the price is paid and Christ has resurrected into heaven as the first of many that will follow.
Personally, my preference is for an empty cross. Important as the reminder is of what Christ went through to secure our salvation, I am not sure that the Divine wants us to left feeling guilty or weighed down by the burden.
For me, the empty cross speaks of the provision of God who proves himself true through the destruction and rebuilding of the temple in three days – not the physical construct that took 46 years to build BUT Jesus’s body rising to new life as evidence of God acting in the situation as death is surpassed by eternal life.
“Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” John 8v12
As I write this post we are full square in the season of Advent. In fact, there’s just one more Sunday to go then Christmas Day when the final candle will be lit as Christ’s anticipated coming is realised in the birth of the God child Jesus.
Like many light festivals, Advent is full of hope as it remembers and anticipates God entry into our world. An environment fashioned by human darkness which God chooses to embrace as the Divine becomes incarnate and engages with us and our broken humanity. A dark world in which Jesus is the promise that change is just around the corner.
Of course, it took another 33 years for the full dynamics of God’s gift to be realised – but not long in terms of Millennium. The infant Jesus had to grow into the adult who would teach, argue and challenge the darkness before dying and resurrecting to eternal life to prove his words were true and his credentials and authority was from God.
This Christmas, consider the light- an infant flame whom angels bowed down to and Kings journeyed to see- not because he was a baby but rather the promised Messiah who had arrived to begin his mission of saving the world.