Monday, July 23, 2012

Sheep, Shepherds and Good Ministry

Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.  The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
Psalm 23  The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 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 anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56  The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Some time ago I was physically and mentally exhausted, burned-out from ministry demands that would not let go.  I saw a pastoral counselor for several weeks.  It did not take him long to figure-out I was tired and had lost perspective on what it means to be an under-shepherd of The Shepherd; I had forgotten that I, too, was a sheep!  In the counselor’s office the conversation went something like this:
My friend the counselor:  “When was the last time you didn’t think about the sheep?”                                                                                             
Russell:  “There’s never been a time like that.”                                             
The counselor rephrased the question:  “When was the last time you were so lost in having a good time you realized that’s all you were thinking about?”                                                                                                     
Russell (after thinking a bit): “When I was playing golf with my son-in-law.” 
The counselor:  “Then you need to go play some more golf.”
                                        (Deep thoughtful pause…)
Russell:  “Can you write that on a prescription pad?”
My friend the counselor did indeed write me a prescription for golf “PRN” (as needed).  I took it home and showed it to Elizabeth.  She seemed unimpressed.  A week later it was my birthday and in the card from my bride were two gift certificates to the local golf course.  She wrote in the card….NO EXCUSES NOW!
In Mark’s Gospel account the disciples had spent some time on a road trip of healing, exorcism and proclaiming the good news.  After this period of intense engagement they were pooped!  Jesus knew he and his disciples’ needed rest.  He told them, “We need a retreat; follow me!  But the crowds followed; there was to be no denying the needs of the sick, tormented and oppressed.  Sometimes good ministry can turn into a nightmare for those who help.
God’s people are metaphorically referred to as sheep, and Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  The odd thing about this metaphor however is that God turns it around, and we are also shepherds for each other.   We are given the ministry of reconciliation, healing and caring for one another.[1]  As such, it’s a vital first step to learn that we are not to do this in our own strength, because we will burn out like a “golf-less preacher” unless we see to it that we remember we are both shepherds AND sheep.
This morning I want to share with you three vital statements to remember about being a Christian sheep and servant of sheep:

Good ministry is hard, exhausting work

Mark must have known what ministry burn-out is like; he mentioned Jesus’ withdrawals from public ministry for rest eleven times in this shortest of the Gospel accounts.
Rest is necessary, and “one-size” does NOT fit all when it comes to rest.  Elizabeth and I are opposites – she can do physical labor in the house or yard all day long and feel refreshed; but reading or math or studying for a half hour will require a two week nap! 
By contrast, if Russell does an hour’s worth of yard work he whines and whimpers for a year!  But give me a sermon or Bible study to prepare, and I’ll spend the day without eating or drinking until it’s done.  Over the course of 35 years of preaching I have found it takes me between 15 and 20 hours to prepare a 30 minute sermon.  It’s not that I’m THAT slow…I just have an aversion to “fast food” when it comes to preparing to feed God’s people. 
There is a corollary about rest and ministry:  the greater the impact of a ministry, the more important it is to balance fatigue with proper rest.  The old Baptist evangelist Vance Havner used to say, “If you don’t come apart and rest, you’ll come apart!”  Good ministry is hard, exhausting work and you need rest!  Why do you think God gave us the principle of Sabbath?

Good ministry is compassion-driven

Jesus’ ministry was compassion-driven; not all who serve as shepherds are truly good shepherds.  Jeremiah showed us this other side when he gave us the image of sheep; instead of being cared for, protected and led by true shepherds, they were being scattered by uncaring, even evil shepherds. 
Some people are not very good at shepherding.  A young mother went to the grocery store leaving her 5 children under the age of 10 in the watchful care of her husband.  The minute she left he went to the couch for a nap.  As Mom approached the house on the return trip she saw that her kids were gathered in a circle on the driveway staring at 5 baby skunks.  Not wanting to alarm or upset the skunks she drove up very slowly, put down the window and quietly whispered to the children, “Kids….I want you to do something for me….go in the house right now!”  All five children grabbed a baby skunk and obediently ran through the front door!
Good ministry is God-given, and it is exhausting.  By contrast busy-work, even in the Lord’s church, will hollow you from the inside out and leave you empty.  Many people in churches fool themselves with busy-work.  They serve on committees and take part in activities so they can be “part of the crowd” and feel good about contributing.  But their motive is selfish, and not driven from God’s Spirit within.  A shallow ministry attempt, where you’re only going through the motions, will make you just as tired, but it won’t be from spiritual drain, it will be because you’re already spiritually-empty. 
I experienced that kind of spiritual emptiness; I was worn-out from trying to do it all on my own; I was selfishly “doing good”.  When I rested perspective came back, and now I am committed to doing what God directs.  It’s still exhausting to do “good ministry” but I’d rather serve Jesus than anyone else’s expectations!

Good ministry is the start of more ministry

Have you ever noticed that good ministry is always balanced?  Ministry is for the whole person – the mind, soul and body! 
A.    Jesus taught people how to have their sins forgiven and be spiritually-connected with God – that’s care for the soul
B.     Jesus healed physical problems – that’s care for the body.
C.     Jesus engaged with everyone – that’s care for the mind.
John Wesley helped us understand this concept of “whole-person” ministry; he said there is no holiness without social holiness.  We do not do anything in the name of Christ except that we minister as Jesus Christ ministered.  Throughout the history of the church there have been specialists who claim more importance for one aspect of the Gospel than the others, but the life and ministry of Jesus Christ do not validate that. 
What was and is more validated by Jesus’ life and his short stay on earth is that when you minister to mind, body and soul people can’t get enough of what you’re doing.  And that’s why good ministry is the start of more ministry…they keep coming, and coming, and coming! 
And isn’t that the point of a flock? 
The ministry of Jesus, and all who would follow him is not easy; it’s hard, exhausting work, driven by compassion, and the more you do the more, there will be to do.
So, church, if you’re going to follow Jesus, get these basics down:
1.     Good ministry is hard, exhausting work – make sure you get appropriate rest to stay healthy.
2.     Good ministry is compassion driven – you get connected with God (and stay connected) so you will minister driven by compassion.
3.     Good ministry is the start of more ministry – take care to be balanced – teach, heal and feed others, and teach them how to minister like that in Jesus’ name.
And, as you go, doing these things and even more in His name, you will live free and set others free – and they will live free and set others free, who will set others free…..sheep, shepherds and good ministry!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:19

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