Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Good Shepherd

May 2, 2004

How many of you have "days" that caused you to dream about being a three year old again?  Back in those days, if your feelings were bruised or your knee skinned, there was usually a safe person, and you could crawl on their lap and find comfort.  At three, you didn't have to worry about your ego or sexual undercurrents. You could just snuggle in and find some moments of sanctuary and healing.  That is... if you could find that safe person.

The problem for most of us is we are not three years old any more.  There is not a safe or available lap to sit on.  Finding sanctuary and love in another person is not as easy as it used to be.

Jesus came to show us that we could find healing in God and eventually with God's people.  We came because people have always had trouble trusting the goodness of God...and no wonder with His people.  Eve wondered if there was something better than "the good" that God gave.  So she committed the first sin by looking for something better than God's goodness, which she had started to doubt thanks to Satan.  That essentially is what sin is:  looking at God and saying, "You're not enough, I'm going to find some way to make my life work better without you."  It is not trusting God's goodness.

So Jesus came, in part, to show us that God really is that good, gracious, kind, and big hearted.  He can be trusted.  He told us, "God so loved the world..." By giving His Son and allowing the Trinity, that perfect community of oneness, to be disconnected, broken was made for us to come in.  Not so we could become divine, but so we could sit on a safe lap, and live in a joy filled family, and find purpose and power and peace...real life.  And once again experience the goodness of God.

Jesus lived so that we could see that God's goodness could be trusted.  Not everyone saw it, but if they didn't, it was because they chose not to.

Read John 9-10.

The overall purpose of John's gospel is to show us who Jesus is and what His life means.  John's strategy uses two approaches.  He reports important signs and miracles that point to Jesus' identity, and he records extended stories Jesus told that help us understand the signs.  Jesus' stories in John are not parables!

John records seven "I Am" sayings with signs and stories.  Grammatically the "I Am" phrase reminds us of the root word in Jehovah.  It is the name of God coming from the burning bush.  Jesus, by reporting Himself to be the "I Am" in seven different ways, gives us a broader picture of God's love (bread, light, living water).  Each concept adds to our picture of God's goodness.  Each instance shows why we can trust God's goodness and kindness.

This story of the Good Shepherd ties in with the healing of the blind man and his excommunication from the synagogue.  Nearly all of the first generation of Christians were Jewish.  As they followed Jesus, they continued to be a part of the synagogue, although they became less welcome as time went by.  After A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed, the old line Jews blamed the Christians for the disaster.  At this point Christians were formally disbarred from the synagogue.

The first readers of John's gospel, many of them Jewish, would've identified with the healed blind man.  In many ways, his story was their story.  Jesus had opened their eyes like the blind man's, and for that they were forced to leave the life they had known.

John reminds them that they will be OK because Jesus is "The Good Shepherd."  Of course this is not the first time the "I Am" Jehovah is described as a shepherd.  Everyone knows Psalm 23.  Then later in the prophecies God (as shepherd) shows up again.

In 586 BC Babylon defeated Judah.  They deported most of the nation.  During that time the prophet Ezekiel was with the displaced people and God spoke through him, ripping to shreds the leaders of Israel as horrible "shepherds" who had neglected the flock by allowing wild beasts to come in and decimate the nation.

Then God said through Ezekiel that He Himself would be their shepherd.  He said, "I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.  I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak..I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd (Ezekiel 34)."

This must've puzzled them a bit, since David had been dead, by that time, for around 500 years.  They soon came to see the other promises of a Messiah (the anointed one) as having some of the qualities of King David.   He would be of the family of David and like David in several aspects.

Now Jesus, born in the city of David and from the line of David announces, "I Am (Jehovah) The Good Shepherd."  Anyone familiar with Ezekiel would recognize the claim of God Himself being the shepherd His people had always needed.

Of course Jesus made it clear that He would be the Good Shepherd for many nations beyond Israel (John 10: 16).  The prophecy would have a broader fulfillment.

Because Jesus was "The Good Shepherd," His ministry would be unique.  His love would motivate Him to serve and even sacrifice Himself for the sheep.  This is how big hearted God is.  When the real shepherd shows up, the hired hands can go home.  But Jesus also claimed that not only would He die for the sheep, but that His death would not be a disaster for the flock (as it normally would); instead His self-giving would meet their deepest need because He would defeat death by taking up His life again.  The wolf could not keep Him dead!

Someday they are going to put what is left of you in a grave.  But that is OK because Jesus has been there already and made it spiritually "spring loaded!"

At this claim, Jesus' enemies and religious leaders suggested He was a devilish ego maniac.  Jesus had backed them into a corner.  They could not ignore Him, they had to make a decision.  He was either demonized or divine.

This accusation troubled the crowd.  Jesus did not rant and rave like an insane or demonized person.  Neither did His miracles or teaching appearance to be ego driven.  The impact He had on people who followed Him was not mind numbing, cult-like submission.  Think of the Apostle Paul who was obsessed with destroying Christians, and after Jesus touched His heart, became a great advocate for Jesus without threatening to take anyone's life.  A great sanity overcame him after he met Jesus.  Besides all this, when had a demon ever healed a blind man?

Jesus enemies tried to have a "show down."  The occasion was the annual feast of Dedication (Hanukkah).  This was the last of the feasts added to the Jewish year.  The reason it came about was because the king of Syria, Antiochus, and Epiphanies (BC 175-164) wanted to eradicate the Jews by turning them into a Hellenistic culture.

Greeks despised the ritual of circumcision, loved pork, and were "agnostic" worshipers of many gods.  When the majority of Jews resisted the cultural transformation, 80,000 were killed and about that many sold into slavery.  It became a crime to circumcise babies, and mothers who did were crucified with their babies hung around their necks.  The temple courts were turned into brothels and a sow was slaughtered on the altar in honor of Zeus!

At this time the Maccabeus rose up against the Syrian king and in an epic battle where they were far out numbered, the Jews defeated the Syrians and cleansed the temple.  They even enjoyed a short period of independence.  The Jews in Jesus day were looking for another Maccabeus- another King David to rid the land of the Roman armies.  On the holiday honoring their last moments of freedom they cornered Jesus and said, "how long will you keep us guessing?"

Jesus' miracles meet a need, they didn't create a magician's following...they were unique.  His teachings were authoritative, but He had never enlisted an army.  They wanted Jesus to tell them plainly, "Are you the Messiah (meaning 'the one that we want')?"

Jesus' reply let them know that they would have to decide based on the evidence He had already provided.  They must reexamine His miracles and listen to His teaching.  If evidence Jesus had already provided was not enough to keep their minds open- they were struggling with a hard heart, a heart filled with itself, with no room for God.

Those, however who had seen enough and come to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, they would find perfect sanctuary.  Not even Satan could get at them while in the care of Jesus.  They would enjoy the healing, nourishing, guiding presence of the Good Shepherd.

Of course that is not to say, if at any point they stopped believing in the goodness of God, that if they started to think that they could make life work better for themselves without the influence of Jesus, that they were trapped there.  Nothing outside them could harm them, but their freedom was never amputated.  That is not an operation that is performed when you are baptized.  If you ever want to get off the lap of God and find your own way again, the door is open.

Jesus never forces anyone to believe against their will, but you must believe to be saved.  The devil can never force anyone to disbelieve against their will.  You must be disbelieving to be lost.  Jesus' offer is free from any restrains, from the first to the last.

Jesus will never be a threatening, overbearing love in your life.  But He will be the Good Shepherd.  The prophet said, "We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6)."  Like sheep we are prone to wander, but the shepherd will come after us.  Like sheep, our instinct is to scatter and get confused in a crisis, but the shepherd will calm us down and bring us back together.  Like sheep, we are helpless against predators, but the shepherd will guard us and keep us safe.  No predator can harm us!

It might be easier as a three year old to lean on Jesus shoulder or sit on His lap to ask Him to hold you. But we all need that healing embrace and the strength of His arms to protect us.  Jesus' life is God's way of showing us how much He wants to do that for you.

God really is "that Good" and kind and big hearted and wonderful- Jesus gave His life to prove it.

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