Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, Matthew 25, John 10, Ephesians 1-2
We have been on a journey of recounting the life stories of characters in the bible. We have studied the first family, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Joshua. Now we have arrived to the character of Christ the King, Our Good Shepherd. As we reflect on Jesus’ lifestory we are pursuing an understanding specifically of his role as King of a Kingdom, the Good Shepherd of his people. Since it’s Christ the King Sunday we might ask ourselves, Who is this King we seek? Who is this Shepherd of people? Let’s dig deeper.
In the beginning when we think about the history of Christ Jesus, we must begin at the beginning! In the beginning of all time and space, God had a plan. The beauty of creation was marred by humanities need for independence from the Creator. Creation was given the ability to choose. A great gift bestowed upon humanity with a great responsibility! The gift of choice was exampled by Eve and Adam then Cain. With each opportunity to make a decision comes the equal opportunity to make a mistake. It is so disheartening when we come to realize that life is full of decisions with just as many opportunities to make mistakes.
I can only imagine what life was like in the early stages of development when Eve and Adam became aware of the consequences of their choices and decisions. Adam was given a lot of practice early on by naming the animals. So many decisions. So many choices. Then Eve steps into the picture. She has not been trained yet in her decision-making process. Her first opportunity to make a godly decision was met with evil opposition. The evil one brought temptation into the garden, and good decision-making became a difficult challenge ever since. Eve and Adam gave way to bad decision-making, yet, God would rescue them from their choices.
Later Eve will give birth to two sons who find themselves in a competitive relationship that would lead to jealousy. Cain would bring a meager gift for God, while Abel would bring his best gift. Cain will make a dastardly (chicken-hearted) decision to take his brother’s life into his own hands, and Abel’s blood would be spilled. Cain made a life altering decision by his own hands. There can be great suffering when we make poor choices, and even greater suffering when we make dastardly (spineless) decisions. From the very beginning of time and space God knew we would need a shepherd to search us out when we make a dastardly (cowardly) decision, to seek for us when we are lost, to rescue us from the choices of our own making, and to gather us from the lands from which we have been banished.
Old prophecies have been spoke about this Good Shepherd who would come to the people and rescue them. From the outset of creation history came the promise of restoration and our need for a good shepherd. God loved us so much that in our very DNA is the opportunity to make both good and poor choices. We have the opportunity to choose life or take matters into our own hands. When ancient peoples looked for God, they found a God who would rescue them from their own poor choices and make a way when there seemed to be no way. And, God promised them that one day there would come a shepherd who would make it easier to make good choices. Noah hoped for a better day when better choices would become a new lifestyle (No wonder he was so disturbed by his sons’ behavior).
Abraham looked for a day when the shepherd would bring a new way of living that would rescue the people from sin and death. We could go on down the lineage of Israel’s leaders and hear the many hopes and dreams for a shepherd who would rescue them from their poor decisions. Poor choices lead us down pathways that separate us from God. Sometimes we go willingly, and other times we regret our decision the moment it is conceived. There are times in our lives when we have made those poor choices and dastardly deeds, then we wonder if we will ever recover from the mess we’ve made of our lives. Sometimes we are thrown into those places by poor choices of others, and we have reaped the consequences of our family members’, friends’, and colleagues’ poor decisions.
Jesus entered into time and space by the act of the Incarnation. He fulfilled all of the Law of the Covenant through circumcision on the 8th day, and traveled to Jerusalem with his family on pilgrimage to the holy city where he sat in the temple courts discussing theology. There came a day when God the Father did indeed send his only Son into the world to become one of us. One who is given the opportunity to make both good and poor choices. He would grow up to fulfill the Covenant Law, and be obedient to the requirements of the code of conduct set down by God the Father Almighty. He made good decisions. Ah! But there was that one time when he scared his parents by going missing! When he had the chance to make excuses for himself or accuse his parents, he simply replied, Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house. And, he continued to revere and honor his parents throughout the days of his life until the moment he died. He thought of his mother’s well-being even with his last breath.
Jesus emerged on the scene in Israel following the will of his Father through the act of personal baptism for the repentance of sin and a three-year ministry culminating in his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Jesus would be submissive to John the Baptist’s preaching and teaching on the Kingdom of God by laying down his life to be baptized with water, a symbol of repentance, even when he remained his whole life without sin (Mk 1). Jesus got angry and cleaned out the Temple Courts, yet he did not sin. Jesus was frustrated with the religious people, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes, but did not sin. Jesus critiqued the ill-intensions of the mind when he called out the lust in a person’s heart is the beginning of sin not the actual act itself. Stop. Drop. Roll. When Jesus faced opposition in his own hometown by being threatened with his own death by stoning, he stopped what he was doing. He dropped out of the way, and he rolled out of town in a hurry. Rather than making poor choices, Jesus was able to self-regulate his behavior. He stopped, dropped, and rolled to safety.
Jesus was faced with accusations, beatings, suffering, crucifixion, and death. Yet he took the pain and wounds upon himself without resorting to bad decision-making. He did not kill, maim, hurt or injure a living being but remained faithful to the Law of the Covenant. Heart. Head. Hands. Habits. His heart was in the right place. His head was screwed on right. His hands were kept in check. He self-regulated his habits and monitored his behavior for holiness. All the bad decision-making in the world can’t take away God’s design for us to be restored to perfect health and wholeness. Restoration is the very reason why God came to live among us. God rescues us from ourselves. When we finally figure out that God’s design all along has been to rescue us from the danger we impose on ourselves from the choices we make, then we discover the truth about who God is. All our shameful deeds can’t hold a candle to the love found in our rescuing shepherd Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ death gave birth to new life in a resurrected body that would be the first from all humanity to overcome poor decision-making to set us right with the Father. To be sure Jesus would visit his disciples and awaken them to new possibilities of redemption from wrongheadedness (bad judgment, naive).
During my recent accident in Serbia, I had a picture flash before in my mind during the fall. I had a vision of an angel putting a pillow on the ground where my head would hit the concrete and a coffin that would hold my body. In that moment I believed that I was going to die. I talked to God about everything in the split second it took to hit the ground. I remember asking God to help me figure a way out of my situation so I wouldn’t die, and I heard the words stop, drop, and roll! You can just imagine my confusion as those are the instructions to escape from fire not instruction for falling. But I did just that – I pulled myself upright to reposition my body for the fall, I attempted to drop more vertical than horizontal, and I rolled to the left to help ease the momentum and force of my fall. God spoke to me some months later that when we find ourselves in trouble we must stop what we are doing, drop to our knees in prayer, and roll out of harm’s way. Sometimes trouble is thrust upon us by others, or the result of unforeseen circumstances. It is in the times that we struggle most with being wounded and weak that we need a good shepherd to strengthen and encourage us.
The Ascension of Jesus to heavenly places, the unseen reality just beyond our senses, is the key to our Good Shepherd’s empowerment to aid us in our victory over sin and death. Jesus has been seated in a place of authority and power. Ephesians helps us to discern the fullness of God’s power fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1-2). Jesus has been raised from death, and he is seated in power at the right hand of God. Jesus is far above all other rule, authority, power including angels, and any other power that might become created in the future. God has put everything under Christ’s Lordship on earth and in the Church. Jesus died and now lives eternally to reign the Kingdom of God. Jesus became the One who would rise to power over the choices of the nations and her peoples. He now lives in heavenly places to watch over the flock of God’s people. Jesus became the Shepherd of his Sheep with a vision of hope, love, joy, and peace.
We celebrate the Ascension of Jesus as he is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty in heavenly places, governing and judging the decisions of the people of this earth. Because Jesus rules with all dominion, power, and authority, we can come to Jesus when we have made mistakes and receive mercy, forgiveness, and grace for our poor choices. Our poor choices can be blotted out and erased, washed away forever by God’s unending love. We only have to choose!
Choosing good is a full-time job. We each are faced with a million and one decisions daily. Most of those decisions are so rote that we manage our lives without much of a thought or care. But several times during the day we are faced with major decisions that can redirect our lives. How we dress, how we eat, how we drive, and whether we wash our hands can have a lasting impact on our health and well-being. There is a technique used among the sociologists, psychologists, counselors, and pastoral leaders called Cognitive Behavior Therapy to promote better decision-making among people. But we as Christians know that all the boot strap mentality won’t get you anywhere without a little help from Jesus.
Jesus is ruling in all power and authority in unseen places so that we can get a victory over ourselves. Jesus illustrated this point with the Apostle Paul! Don’t miss this transformational moment when Paul is knocked off his feet and forced to face how his decisions had shaped who he had become. What a horrible reality to wake up to… destroying the very people that you were meant to love. Paul lives in the wilderness for three years before he could regain his right mind –the mind of Christ, yet even then the leaders of the church were hesitant to let this man back into any sort of decision-making ability.
Jesus invites us into thinking rightly. Take an inventory of Peter’s life choices. When we witness Peter’s choices at Jesus’ death, we discover he just couldn’t help himself but deny who he was and who Jesus was. In short, he lied repeatedly about his relationship with Jesus (God). Wow! Those are some pretty bad decisions and poor choices of words. Can I get an amen!? Yet, when Jesus spends time visiting with the disciples after the resurrection, we can witness Jesus inviting Peter to correct his poor choices on the beach over a meal of fresh grilled fish. For every time Peter made the choice by saying I don’t know the man, Peter was invited to affirm his love for Jesus by replying Yes, I love you, Lord. Jesus’ hospitality toward Peter is to invite and provide hospitality – even a meal. Peter has only to say Yes! Restoration from poor decision-making begins with a Yes!
Spirit of Jesus has been sent to the Church for our strengthening and nourishment. The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is the solution to our decision-making drama. From the very beginning of time humanity struggled with good decision-making. Jesus has sent his own spirit to live within every believer to help us in our struggles. The Spirit of Jesus has been given to us to provide a way for each one of us to find a way out of our predicaments. The Holy Spirit empowers us to confess, repent, turn, and go a different direction in our lives.
Jesus reigns over both the seen and unseen realities we live in. His Kingdom is in full session as he trumps over his enemies, and rides victoriously to the consummation of the new heaven and the new earth. It seems to me that when we think about Jesus in these days, we tend to take away his vibrant authority and his dynamic power to change our decision-making process. We minimize his role. We live our lives as though Jesus is impotent, and we are powerless to change. The simple response to our condition is to surrender. Bow the Knee. Recognizing that Jesus is our King gives us victory over ourselves. As we gain victory over ourselves, we win the war between the choices of good and evil. The Kingdom of God is bound by the war between good and evil choices that we may have victory over if we are willing. We can experience a landslide victory over poor choices and reprehensible deeds if we will honor the authority of Jesus. Submitting to the good that is available for us in Jesus Christ is the key to new life.
John Wesley required of his disciples that they do good and do no harm as well as to following the ordinances of prayer, scripture, worship, communion, and fasting. These are the core values of the faith we live. Yet we cannot live this faith without the One who makes us faithful. It is the longing of every heart to find hope, love, joy, and peace in life. Every heart knows the challenges of living in this world as we each have made our share of poor choices. The good news is that Jesus is our good shepherd. He is our leader, the One who can deliver us from the harm that we do to ourselves.
Ezekiel explains this situation to us in our text today. Bad decisions are part of our selfish DNA, but that is not what God intends for his people. Ezekiel clearly points out that self-centeredness destroys the nation and her people. Leaders who care only for themselves ruin communities by satisfying their own desires and thus destroying the fabric of the community. Scripture calls these leaders “false prophets” but we don’t use that language anymore. What we can glean every clearly from the text is that the selfish leader of the community will create suffering for the people. They feed and clothe themselves. They do not feed the flock. They run when trouble comes. They think only of themselves. Scripture uses the language of “good shepherd” but we really don’t use that phrase anymore either. However, we can glean from the text that the good shepherd is out searching and seeking, protecting and leading, binding and caring, strengthening and feeding the flock.
Just because the sheep have experienced a “bad leader” doesn’t mean they can be “let off the hook” so to speak. God expects the sheep to continue to be good and do good even when their role model for leadership is corrupted by poor decision-making. In this passage even the “false sheep” who live selfishly will be called to account and judged by the good shepherd. Enriching only one’s self at the expense of other sheep weakens the community.
The good shepherd will seek out to aid and rescue the sheep who are sickly, diseased, broken, scattered, and lost. Our good shepherd will lead us by still waters, refresh our souls, and ensure that we lack nothing (Ps. 23). And, the good sheep will feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned (Mt. 25.31-46). The good sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow his leadership (Jn. 10). Our good shepherd will care for us when we hide our pain, fall apart, and become distressed. When we are in danger, our good shepherd teaches us to flee from isolation and huddle together in community for safety. Our good shepherd encourages us to develop self-awareness of morality (good thinking) and community ethical (good behavior) decision-making.
The long and short of the matter is that we have a good shepherd who loves us so much that He died for us to be successful in life and in our everyday decision-making. Our job is to become good sheep who listen to the voice of the shepherd who leads, guides, and directs each one of us individually in our personal lives and collectively in community. When we listen to his voice, we discover the hope, love, joy, and peace of the already and not yet visible Kingdom of God breaking into our ordinary everyday lives. The moment we choose with our head, heart, hands and habits to become holy, God is there to make those life altering decisions with us! We just have to humble ourselves like the Apostle Peter, saying, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!
Our Good Shepherd, I give thanks for your humble service in caring for your sheep. You are always seeking, saving, rescuing, protecting, and caring for your people. Help me to choose today to lay down my decision-making process that is based in my own way of thinking to take up new decision-making strategies that begin by listening closely to your voice and following you. And, when I forget, I ask that you rescue me from danger and pursue me when I am hiding from the truth. May the choice to love you always be my first decision. Amen.