Monday, May 16, 2011

Shepherd for LIFE!

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:  he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:  thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:  and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  Psalms 23:1 - 6 (KJV) 

1Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.  But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.  And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him:  for they know his voice.  And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.  This parable spake Jesus unto them:  but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.  Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.  All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers:  but the sheep did not hear them.  I am the door:  by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.  The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy:  I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.  John 10:1 - 10 (KJV)

From the Old Testament Psalms through the New Testament’s Gospels, the LORD as our shepherd brings up images of welcoming pastoral settings and comfort.  We like those passages and images.  Many of us can quote the 23rd Psalm, and who hasn’t heard of the “Good Shepherd”.

There was a young preacher, quite “full of himself”, who was conducting the children’s sermon.  He told the children about sheep, that sheep weren't very smart and needed lots of guidance.  He said that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed.  He pointed to all the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?"  It should have been an easy answer for the children; he wanted them to see that a pastor is a shepherd for the church’s sheep.  But there was nothing but silence for a few seconds.  Then a young visitor said, "Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd."  The young preacher, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, Well, then, who am I?  The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, I guess you must be a sheep dog.

Shepherd and sheep – the metaphor for God and His people is well known.  In an almost “tacked-on” conclusion to today’s texts, Jesus holds forth the one thought that ought to create in us that thirst for further explanation.  He says:

I am come that they might have life,                                                            
                          and that they might have it more abundantly.

What does it mean to have “life” – abundant life?

What’s the best life you can imagine?
For many people in our culture the best life amounts to what they’d have after winning the lottery, or the Poker World Series, or American Idol, or Dancing  With the Stars.  If you set your sights a little closer to earth, it might be graduating and getting that dream job, house and family.  If you’re an athlete, win the Super Bowl!  At times it may just be surviving the parenting years.

Unfortunately the post-success track record for the big-time winners is less attractive than all the hype.  There are so many riches-to-rags-to-drop-out stories, that the sparkling American Dream, carrot dangling before the eyes, loses some of its promised gleam.

We, who are less than the rich, powerful and adored stand-outs of society, are described as ordinary, or common.  Few change ranks where this is concerned.  Kate Middleton did; she won the prize a few weeks ago, moving from commoner to royalty.  She was an ordinary, but beautiful girl; today she is the Princess, Duchess of Cambridge.

But that is the exception…by far!  For 99.9999% of the population, life is much different than the “best life” when you describe it in terms of material, financial or physical abundance.  We do lead an ordinary or common life.

When Jesus referred to “his sheep” – all those sheep for which he came – and for which he chose to bring abundant life – his eye was not on having us all fitted for General’s uniforms, or palaces with Rolls Royces.  God must’ve had something different in mind; it must have been something far more “common” if it was going to encompass what the ordinary person like you and me would be able to experience and enjoy.

That common factor is not to be found “without” (as in riches) but rather within.  The abundant life is to be experienced within a relationship with God himself.  Kate may have become a princess of Britain’s United Kingdom last month, but each person on earth may be a prince or princess of the Heavenly Kingdom.  Therein we find the abundant life Jesus came to confer upon his flock.

Let’s unpack what it’s like to live into this reality of being heaven’s royalty.

Knowing & Being Known
To know someone is more than knowing about that person; it is to share intimacy of all that we are.  God gave marriage for the purpose of beginning to understand what it is like to experience genuine relationship with God.  This is the essence of what we call love.

This is falsely presented in our culture (by the world) as winning, romance or capturing the dream of your heart.  Abundant life has nothing to do with the pathway to greed portrayed as glitz, glamour, power and materialism seen on TV and Hollywood.  In our text Jesus called that the voice of strangers.  Real sheep know the real shepherd’s voice…and follow the shepherd, not an imposter.

Jesus, the True Shepherd warned:
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.                Luke 12:15 (KJV)

To know God through Jesus Christ and be known by Him is part of being heaven’s royalty – living the abundant life.  Then also…

Counting and Being Counted
To “count” means that your life is not insignificant.  There is a lot of talk in our culture about relevance – about counting for something.  A life, ultimately, is meaningful intrinsically; we count because God created us, and did so in His own image.  Our existence, standing alone, proclaims we are relevant; we count!  

Again, the world would shout in opposition to that.  The world would say you don’t count unless you’re powerful or rich or manifestly talented.  Two weeks ago our president informed us that one of the world’s richest, most powerful and influential men died.  Since then we’ve seen the information flow overwhelm the news media.

One picture that captured my attention was of the obsessed terrorist viewing his own image on the TV screen.  The sad picture here is of a man who, underneath the powerful façade, had to keep checking to see if it was all a dream….he had to know that he was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  He needed to know if he was still on top…if he counted.  A very rich business developer once said he didn’t care about money; it was just the way the world kept score as to who is “on top”.

The True Shepherd told us that “counting for something” is not measured by what you have, but by what you are able to give away in His name:

For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.     Mark 9:41 (KJV)

The abundant life is opposite of “being on top”.  Counting is all about serving from the bottom – from the dust.  Even the Bible word for “servant” has its etymology in the word “dust”.  Being counted means you serve, not have.  In God’s Kingdom things are upside-down from the kingdoms of the world.

35And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.    Mark 9:35 (KJV)

Knowing and being known, Counting and being counted, and then…

Alive and being a Life-Bringer
Knowing God and counting for something mean your life is on a track that is in line with the life of God.  In a sense it is only when you respond to the inner call, the voca, or vocation – “calling” – doing that kind of thing with passion to which you sense God has spoken to you.  It is “being” – with excellence in the name of God.
Some people call this “finding your niche”.  In vocational ministry clergy often describe it as serving because we cannot do anything else and have peace.  Why do dogs run?  Why do bees seek flowers?  Why does the wind blow?  These are alive with the purpose for which God created them.

In our text Jesus said that his sheep know his voice – his calling – and they follow him.  Sheep may be dumb, but they will run from a strange voice; they know their shepherd.  Jesus said, in essence, if you’re mine, you’ll follow me.
So…what is it like to be alive, and a life-bringer?

If we continue out the sheep metaphor it goes this way:
Sheep follow a shepherd.  Our shepherd is Jesus, and we become his disciples.
Sheep flock together and stay peaceable with each other.  Our Shepherd is the Prince of Peace, and desires his following sheep to be people of peace.
Sheep have more sheep….to be a life-bringer is to see lambs born!

We are created for knowing God, serving to be counted and living the twice-born abundant life of Christ that will multiply as we share the Good News.

The abundant life is within our reach if only we will drink deeply of living water, fill our hearts with love, and create of our lives a masterpiece of knowing Him and being known by Him – of counting for Him and being counted by Him – of living and bringing the life of the Gospel to others.

Harry de Leyer was late to the auction on that snowy day in 1956, and all of the good horses had already been sold.  The few that remained were old and spent and had been bought by a company that would salvage them.

Harry, the riding master at a girls’ school in New York, was about to leave when one of these horses—an uncared-for, gray gelding with ugly-looking wounds on its legs—caught his eye.  The animal still bore the marks that had been made by a heavy work harness, evidence to the hard life he had led.  But something about him captured Harry’s attention, so he offered $80 for him.

It was snowing when Harry’s children saw the horse for the first time, and because of the coat of snow on the horse’s back, the children named him “Snowman.”  Harry took good care of the horse, which turned out to be a gentle and reliable friend—a horse the girls liked to ride because he was steady and didn’t startle like some of the others.  In fact, Snowman made such rapid improvement that a neighbor purchased him for twice what Harry had originally paid.

But Snowman kept disappearing from the neighbor’s pasture—sometimes ending up in adjoining potato fields, other times back at Harry’s.  It appeared that the horse must have jumped over the fences between the properties, but that seemed impossible—Harry had never seen Snowman jump over anything much higher than a fallen log.  But eventually, the neighbor’s patience came to an end, and he insisted Harry take back the horse.

For years, Harry’s great dream had been to produce a champion jumping horse.  He’d had moderate success in the past, but in order to compete at the highest levels, he knew he would have to buy a pedigreed horse that had been specifically bred to jump.  And that kind of pedigree would cost far more than he could afford.
Snowman was already getting old—he was eight when Harry had purchased him—and he had been badly treated.  But, apparently, Snowman wanted to jump, so Harry decided to see what the horse could do.
What Harry saw made him think that maybe his horse had a chance to compete.

In 1958, Harry entered Snowman in his first competition.  Snowman stood among the beautifully bred, champion horses, looking very much out of place.  Other horse breeders called Snowman a “flea-bitten gray.”
But a wonderful, unbelievable thing happened that day.  Snowman won!

Harry continued to enter Snowman in other competitions, and Snowman continued to win.  Audiences cheered every time Snowman won an event.  He became a symbol of how extraordinary an ordinary horse could be.  He appeared on television. Stories and books were written about him.

As Snowman continued to win, one buyer offered $100,000 for the old plow horse, but Harry would not sell.  In 1958 and 1959, Snowman was named “Horse of the Year.”  Eventually, the gray gelding—who had once been marked for sale to a low bidder—was inducted into the show jumping Hall of Fame.

Snowman was created to jump.  That was his calling – that was how he responded to the voice of the Shepherd who created and loved him.  As a plow horse he was only counted for $80.  As an abundant life jumper he was priceless!

Your abundant life in Christ is also priceless…so priceless it took the blood of Jesus Christ to provide it.  You cannot purchase it under any conditions and for any price.  It is grace; God did it for you.  The only thing God wants in return is for you to respond to the calling to live-into that life of grace and love.

That calling is the little voice you hear sometimes when you’re thinking very deeply, or when you’re grieving over a loss, or a best friend has betrayed you.  It’s that hurt you feel when you’re alone; the forsakenness you feel when someone should have supported you, but joined in with the crowd.  It’s that nagging embarrassment you feel when you did something you know you shouldn’t have.  That’s God calling!

Do you hear the voice of the Shepherd?
Do you know Him?
Are you counting for something more than American Idol or Lottery wishes?  Are you getting, or giving away?
Are you really alive….or are you checking the DVR to see if you’re still on top of the world’s heap?

The Shepherd created you for LIFE!  Step into His grace and go live it!

Father, the call of the majestic King of Heaven is laid before us in the call to a life of true abundance.  Help us to respond to the sound of Shepherd Jesus
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

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