The Way Up is Down
Ping Pong Champ
I was quite the ping pong player when I was in high school. I was really good. I held many tournaments in my garage, most of which I won. You would have been impressed with my ping pong prowess. I certainly was.
And that’s why I signed up for the big Ping Pong Tournament for incoming freshman during my first week of college. I thought the least I could do was put my skill on display to impress everyone.
I got beat 21-8 in the first round.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”
On a more significant note, this Thursday, October 31st, will be the 502nd anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation. 502 years ago, an obscure German theology professor and former monk, wanted to talk about some concerns he had with the Roman Church, to which he belonged.
And so, he did what was often done, he wrote his concerns down on paper and nailed them to the church door for folks to read. It was sort of a modern-day bulletin board.
And boy did people read it! In fact, some folks took Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the local printing press and printed many copies for others to read as well. What should’ve been an ordinary exchange of ideas ended up turning much of the world upside down. Sort of like Facebook.
Among Luther’s concerns was this question: How can a person be made right with God?
He wanted to know how a sinful person could be made righteous before a holy God. Was the answer good works? That is, if you did enough good works, could you earn your way into heaven? Or was it something else? Luther wanted to discuss it.
That’s the very question Jesus addresses in our Scripture: How can we be right with God, or put in a right relationship with God?
A Tale of Two Men
Two men went to the temple to pray: One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisees were well known for their “strong commitment” to keeping God’s Law. They were experts in the Law and very disciplined in how they lived.
Tax collectors on the other hand, were considered traitors by the Jews. They worked for the Roman government. That, and their “excessive profits,” created a lot of hostility between them and most of the Jewish population.
Therefore, Jesus tells his audience, many of whom would’ve been Pharisees, a parable.
Luke even tells us why Jesus told it. Take a look at verse 9…
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for their showy piety. He accused them of hypocrisy - doing all the right things on the outside but having the wrong motivation on the inside. According to Jesus, they didn’t obey out of a desire to glorify God but to look good to others.
Both men go the temple to pray. But that’s where the similarity ends. What did the Pharisee say in his prayer?
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
He addresses God, and then makes the prayer all about himself. Four times he says, “I.” I do this. I do that. Just look God at all I do.
No humility. Just self-exaltation (like a certain freshman ping pong player). No dependence on God, just self.
In my Sunday School class we’ve just started working through the Beatitudes, which are in the first 12 verses of The Sermon on the Mount. The first three Beatitudes focus on this issue of our posture or attitude before God. Read what Jesus says in these verses…
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
The poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek, all focus on acknowledging our spiritual poverty before God. Why? So that we’ll fully depend on God’s grace, and not ourselves.
The Pharisee showed God his spiritual resume. It was all about him - his holiness, his efforts, and how glad he was that he wasn’t like those “sinners” out there. There was no sign of grieving over his own spiritual poverty which brings humility of spirit and complete dependence upon God.
You’re not likely to cry out for mercy and grace when you’re so full of yourself. Jesus hammered this point home to the Pharisees, and all his listeners, again, and again, and again.
Some of our youth are going through confirmation right now and will be confirmed in a couple of weeks. And one of the theological ideas they’re learning about is grace. Every confirmand learns that grace is, God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing.
Those who are spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it are called blessed by Jesus. They are the ones who understand their need of God’s unearned and undeserved favor and blessing. It wouldn’t even occur to them to try to show God how good they are.
The Sinner’s Prayer
We find that very attitude in the heart of the tax collector. There was no pretense that he was righteous. He knew himself. He knew the God he addressed in prayer. Even his physical posture showed remorse before God. Look what the text says…
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast…
This is the posture and attitude of true repentance in the Old Testament. Jesus knew his hearers would know that. And then the tax collector cried out with what we might call the original “sinners’ prayer.” He prayed, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
This is the prayer of a person who is spiritually broken, heart-broken over it, and humbled by it.
It’s at that point Jesus says these important words…
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What a role-reversal! The Pharisees in his audience must have been fuming. Others must’ve been confused. Still others must’ve been celebrating, because they saw themselves in the tax collector.
All About Jesus
Martin Luther wanted to know how a person could be justified, that is, how a person could be made right with God (brought into a right relationship with God). Jesus knew, even as he told this parable, that he came to save sinners. He knew the Cross awaited him, but also his Resurrection.
On this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb we cry out to God by placing our faith in Jesus. By depending on and trusting in his work on our behalf, and not our own righteousness. When we do, we too will be made right with God.
Jesus tells us the way up, is down. That those who are spiritually broken and mourn over their sin are blessed. That those who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s all about the attitude of your heart. It’s about being God-dependent and not self-dependent. But more than that, to be right with God requires we cry out to God in faith - for his mercy and grace offered to us through his Son. And when we do, then we can know that 1 John 1:9 will be true of us…
9 If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Just as God did with the tax collector.
And what’s true of the tax collector can be true of each one of us as well. If you’ve never cried out to God before, then he’s calling you to do so, to reach out to him in faith, to put your trust in Jesus Christ. And to do so today.
And if you already have, then he’s calling you to remember to walk by that same faith, each and every day.
Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy. Amen.
Next Sunday morning, our new pastor, Phillip Short and his wife Giova, will be here. Pastor Phillip will be preaching. On our side of the equation, we’re all wondering things like…
I can tell you the answer to the last question: He’s an SEC man… he went to Auburn. So, some of you will like him right away, while others will have to warm up to him. But seriously, from our end of things, we’re wondering how will Southside change under new leadership.
However, can you imagine how he’s feeling? There’s only one of him, and lots of us. He must be wondering,
Well let me tell you what I know from having met with Pastor Phillip several times. We’re going to love him. He’s relational, friendly, and warm. His love for Jesus is clear. His love for the church is very evident. He knows we’ve been praying for him as a congregation for almost 40 days now.
He’s heard all about the great ministry to our church family and the blessing our church family has been to our community throughout outreach. And I’ll tell you what, he’s excited to be coming to Southside where he’ll not only be our shepherd, but also a partner with us.
In fact, that’s what ministry is: A partnership between us, our pastor, and most importantly, our Lord.
Paul and the Philippians
That’s how the Apostle Paul felt about the Philippians. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was a prisoner in Rome. His crime? Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul had a deep love for the Philippian church, which is clear when you read the letter.
Let me give you a little background on this relationship. According to Acts 16:9, during Paul’s second missionary journey, he received a vision from “a man of Macedonia.” The verse goes on to say that the man in the vision begged the Apostle to “come to Macedonia and help us.”
Paul took that as a word from God, and so he and his team traveled to Philippi in Macedonia (which is present-day Greece) where they proclaimed the gospel to Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and others. And by God’s grace, many people came to faith in Christ and the Philippian church was born. Paul loved these folks very much.
The Letter to the Philippians was written about 10-12 years after that missionary journey in which Paul helped establish the church. He wrote to them because, as mentioned, he was now in prison. Therefore, he obviously couldn’t visit them. He couldn’t text them, or email them, or skype with them; but he did everything else possible. He wrote letters to them. He received reports about how they were doing. He received and sent messengers like Epaphroditus, whom we learn about in Philippians 2.
And most importantly, he prayed for them.
In chapter one, Paul shared the kinds of things he prayed for regarding the Philippians. His love and appreciation for them comes through loud and clear.
Let’s look at Philippians 1:3-6 again,
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul’s joy shines through his words, especially when we remember he was in prison as he wrote them. Paul’s circumstances were far from ideal, so why was he so joyful? Well, the context of his prayer gives us the key to understanding his joy. Paul tells them that when he prays for them, every time he prays for them, he thanks God for them. And his gratitude to God, and for them, fills him with joy.
And so, a natural follow-up question would be: why was he so grateful?
Partners in the Gospel
The first reason is because of the Philippians’ partnership in the ministry of the gospel – from the first day to Paul’s present day. Now, to be sure, that included their financial support of his ministry, but that’s not what he’s talking about here.
While Paul was literally in chains for the gospel, Philippians 1:14 tells us the Philippians were out proclaiming the gospel in his absence. They weren’t waiting for the pastor (in this case, the apostle) to get back so he could do it. Then, in verses 18-19, Paul says he’s able to rejoice because he knows they’re praying for him and that God would bless him because of that.
Can you imagine the blessing that knowledge would bring to the Apostle? That in his absence, they were praying for him. That in his absence, they were preaching and teaching and contending for the gospel.
Now fast-forward two thousand years. Can you just imagine how blessed Pastor Philip is to know that even before his new church family has met him, they’ve been interceding in prayer on his behalf? And let me tell you this, Pastor Phillip knows this church family is blessed with intercessors, and teachers, and disciple-makers, and servants, and those who reach out to those in need, and so much more.
He knows because I’ve told him. He knows because our Staff Parish has told him. He knows because Southside’s reputation for such things is known throughout the Florida Conference. True story.
Pastor Phillip is excited to become a partner with us in these gospel ministries – both inside and outside our church family.
Paul was blessed because he knew the Philippians and the kind of church they were. Pastor Phillip has heard all about Southside and is excited to partner with us.
God Finishes What He Starts
The second reason for Paul’s joyful prayers was his confidence that the Philippians would continue to grow in their faith. Let’s look at verse 6,
6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
The good work Paul has in mind here is their salvation and growth in grace. When the Bible talks about salvation, it’s not only talking about “getting saved” in the past tense. It’s also talking about what God is doing in and through us here and now, in addition to what God promises for the future.
But make no mistake, God is doing something special in the lives of his children in the present. He’s molding and shaping us into the very likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ. And Paul rejoiced that the good work God had begun in them when he saved them from their sin would continue as they partnered with him in the ministry of that very same gospel.
So too, in our own church family, God has reached down and rescued each of us who have called on the name of Christ. And he continues to mold and shape us into the likeness of Christ. Not only that, but God has graced us with many partners in Gospel ministry over the years. Most recently, we’ve been very blessed indeed to be in gospel-partnership with Pastor Bruce for 13 years.
A New Season, A New Partnership
And now, God’s bringing a new gospel-partner into our fellowship. And like Paul, we can rejoice that God, who began a good work in us 71 years ago when Southside began, will carry that good work on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
God will finish what he’s started in our church family. In his goodness and grace, God’s bringing us another faithful shepherd to lead us in that gospel-partnership.
Therefore, I can’t think of a better way to finish this message and prepare for Pastor Philip and his wife, Giova, than to come to the altar to pray for them, and us, and our new partnership in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fear of Public Speaking
During one of his standup routines, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld said,
According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. This means to the average person… if you go to a funeral… you’d rather be in the casket… than doing the eulogy.
I can relate. I spent the first half of my life petrified at the thought of having to speak in front of other people. I’m not absolutely sure where the fear came from, but I have a suspicion.
When I was in 5th grade, my family moved from Georgia to Florida. So, I was a brand-new student in a school where I didn’t know anyone. To make matters worse, the school year had already begun, so I couldn’t fly under the radar screen and sneak in. I had to go through the whole, “Class, this is Dale. Let’s make him feel welcome,” routine. We all know how famous 5th graders are for their hospitality to new kids at school.
So, I was the new kid, starting a new school, after the year had already begun.
Here’s the thing: I’m not sure how long it was into the school year, but I remember having to dress up like George Washington to give a biographical report to my new “friends.” I wore a white wig and a ridiculous looking woman’s coat that I think was supposed to look like a revolutionary war coat, to make this presentation. You can just imagine how gracious and supportive a room full of 5th graders was.
I can’t remember in detail the horror I must’ve experienced, but whenever I’ve wondered where my stage-fright came from, I’ve always traced it back to that experience. From that day on, I avoided every opportunity to ever speak in front of a group of people.
Arguing with God
Therefore, you can appreciate how unhappy I was when God started calling me to ordained ministry.
I remember arguing with God as I mowed my parents’ front yard, not too long after I graduated from college. It was a genuine argument. I reminded God about the whole public speaking thing. I told God he must have confused me with someone named Dale Tedler, who was probably a fantastic public speaker.
But, as is usually the case, God got his way, which reminds me of the old saying,
God doesn’t call the gifted, he gifts the called.
The truth is, there’s no one you’ve ever read about in Christian history, or in biblical history, who was just so extraordinary, that God was compelled to call them into service. Instead, God calls ordinary people like you and me, and then he gives us the gifts we need to serve him.
Such is the case with the Apostle Peter.
I know Peter is familiar to most of us, but just as a refresher, here’s a little reminder. Peter was one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. He wasn’t a preacher, or a teacher, or a general, or a politician - he was a fisherman.
Peter’s given name was Simon, but our Scripture this morning tells us this,
Jesus looked at him [Peter] and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
Cephas is an Aramaic word that’s translated “Petros” in Greek… which means “stone” or “rock.”
Peter: Pros and Cons
You see, Jesus knew something about Peter that Peter probably would have never guessed. Jesus knew Peter would become a pillar in the building of the first-century church. In fact, the first twelve chapters of the Book of Acts focus on Peter’s ministry in establishing the expansion of the early church.
Now, to be sure, Peter had some leadership qualities. And yet, the very qualities that make up our strengths can also make up our weaknesses, can’t they?
For example, Peter had a brash personality. Scripture often shows him answering Jesus on behalf of all the disciples. He was the one who drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. He seemed to always be the, “bull in the china shop.” The upside to Peter’s personality was that he was loyal and courageous. The downside was that he didn’t always engage his brain before he acted or spoke.
You remember when Jesus told the disciples they would all turn away from him, Peter was quick to say it wouldn’t be him. Matthew 26:31-33 tell us,
31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
And we know Peter would, in fact, deny knowing Jesus three times.
But God, in his grace, takes flawed, sinful, and ordinary people like you, and me, and Peter, and does extraordinary things with them. The Lord took Peter in his weakness and forgave him. Then, at Pentecost, he poured out his Spirit upon Peter and all those who had turned away from him.
And what was the result? Peter and the others went from cowardly lambs to courageous lions for Christ. They turned the Roman Empire upside-down with the Gospel.
Peter went from a fisherman to an evangelist, an apostle, and a leader of the early church. He went from being rash to being rock solid, from one who disowned Christ when confronted by others to one who gave himself completely for Christ, even unto death.
Through the power of God’s Spirit, Peter willingly took the job of shepherd. When Jesus restored Peter after his denials, Jesus told Peter to “feed and take care of his sheep.” And that’ exactly what Peter did to the end of his life. And, to reiterate, the first part of the Book of Acts is a record of Peter keeping his promise.
Lessons from Peter
Well, what do we learn from Peter’s call and ministry?
We’re reminded vividly, that God takes the weak things of this world and does supernatural and amazing things with them. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31,
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (Emphasis mine)
Peter could boast in the Lord for what God had done in and through him. Peter was a weak thing, a foolish thing, a lowly thing. And it was this same Peter who God used in a mighty way for his Kingdom. The Bible is filled with many stories of those the world considered weak, and foolish, and lowly. And yet, those are the very people God called and used.
The Apostle Paul was feeling very weak when he asked God to take away his thorn-in-the-flesh, which was some sort of physical difficulty he had struggled with for a long time. And Christ himself responded to Paul by basically saying, “no.” But, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, Christ added these comforting words,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
When God uses the weak, foolish, and lowly people of this world – the ordinary people of this world – to do extraordinary things, guess who gets the glory? It’s God who gets the glory because it’s God who does the work in and through those same faithful, yet ordinary, people he calls to serve him.
How About You?
So how about you? Is there something you feel God’s been calling you to do, but maybe you’ve been afraid to do? Maybe like I did, you’ve been arguing with God, telling him he’s got the wrong person? Maybe you feel a little too ordinary, a little too weak and lowly.
If that describes you, I would ask you to hear those words once more that were spoken to the Apostle Paul. I repeat them to myself on a weekly basis. Christ said,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
And when you remind yourself of the sufficiency of God’s grace in your life - that his grace is enough for you - then you can respond the way Paul did in the very same verse. Paul declared,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Trust in God to give you the gifts you need for what he’s calling you to do. And since I’m sharing old sayings with you, let me share one more,
God wants your availability, not your ability.
Let God take care of the ability part. He’s calling you and me to make ourselves available to what he wants to do in us and through us. Thanks be to God.
The Primacy of Prayer and Scripture
Surely, for a life of growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing can take the place of reading God’s Word and spending time in original, heartfelt prayer. Let me go on record as having said that right at the beginning. And I believe that with all my heart.
But following closely, at least for me, are the prayers, reflections, sermons, hymns, meditations, journals, and letters of saints who have walked oft and closely with the Lord…those who were saturated in his Word and who practiced his presence each day – all day – in every sphere of their lives. Such people minister to my soul in deep and profound ways.
Therefore, I unapologetically sponge off of others during my devotional time each morning and evening. This doesn’t mean I don’t read Scripture for myself. I do. And this doesn’t mean I don’t lift to the Lord my own prayers. I do that as well. But I have found that my Scripture-reading and prayer life is greatly blessed and enhanced by reading the God-centered, Scripture-directed thoughts, reflections, meditations, and prayers of others.
Launching Off Points
My prayer and thought-life are expanded well beyond my personal limitations when I read such devotional resources. In fact, I often find myself stopping in mid-sentence of someone else’s prayer… so I may lift up my own prayer to the Lord. So too, sometimes when I read a verse or two of Scripture in a meditation, I can’t help but pause and pray that text back to God. Such is how the Holy Spirit uses these resources in my life.
It would be the height of arrogance and folly not to take advantage of other pilgrims of the Way – wiser and godlier saints, the fellowship of the burning heart – those who have gone before us as well as those who travel with us today. I have been immeasurably edified by the Holy Spirit through their written testimonies of God’s power and grace.
For example, if I hadn’t used other devotional resources this morning, I would have missed out on the following…
“…Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“…Jesus Christ said, ‘When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what they right hand doeth.’ O God, grant that what I give may be given without self-congratulation, and without thought of praise or reward.”
“…Jesus Christ said, ‘What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ O God, give me grace so to live this day that, whatever else I lose, I may not lose my soul.”
“…Every morning I vow to love thee more fervently, to serve thee more sincerely, to be more devoted in my life, to be wholly thine; Yet I soon stumble, backslide, and have to soon confess my weakness, misery and sin. But I bless thee that the finished work of Jesus needs no addition from my doings, that his oblation is sufficient satisfaction for my sins.”
Beyond My Own Self-Interests
These thoughts have lifted my soul and led me to think and pray about quite a few things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought and prayed about. Such resources help move me from the tunnel-vision of my own limited, self-centered short-sightedness. They help me stay away from an exclusively "laundry-list prayer life" (i.e., a superficial “give-me-this-and-give-me-that” prayer list).
The last thing I would mention is that using such resources keeps my devotional time fresh. Without such tools, my prayer life could quickly grow stale, rote, and lifeless. But in and through his Word and prayer, as well as these other resources, God draws me closer to himself and enables me to become more like the man God created, redeemed, and called me to be. And that’s worth everything.
On that note, I wrote a "prayer journal" of my own that you may find helpful to you in your own prayer life. You can learn more about it and purchase it by clicking here. You can also see a few examples of what you'll find in the prayer journal by clicking here.
Memorizing Psalm 23
The summer between my 10th and 11th grade year of high school, I took a 3-week trip out west with eight friends and three teachers. For three weeks we hiked up and down mountains, camped in tents, and fished for food. It was great.
Only one night during those three weeks, on the way from one site to another, did we stay in a motel. One of the reasons why I’ll never forget that night is because it was that night a friend helped me memorize the 23rd Psalm. I had a Sunday School teacher who had memorized it and I had always admired him for that. It inspired me to do the same.
So, with our motel Gideon’s Bible, over the course of a couple of hours, my friend helped me memorize Psalm 23. I’ve remembered it ever since.
The Comforting Power of Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is one of the most widely recognized Scriptures in all the Bible, right up there with John 3:16.
I’ve read it to the older members of my church who are homebound. I’ve read it to our folks who’ve been in the hospital or in hospice care. And, of course, we often read it together at funeral services.
It’s very familiar to many of us and can be a great source of comfort when we need it most. In fact, I would encourage you to take the time to memorize Psalm 23. It’s such a blessing to place God’s Word deep in our hearts and minds so we can recall it during tough times.
Written By A Shepherd
Psalm 23 was written by a shepherd, a shepherd who was also the son of a shepherd. King David was often called the “Shepherd of Israel.” He certainly knew what he was talking about as he referred to shepherds and sheep.
I think it’s important to remember that shepherds were the lowest of the low in the social circles of their day. That fact ought to amaze us because it was to shepherds that the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus. And it was a lowly shepherd boy who was chosen by God to be King over Israel. God doesn’t look at people the way we often do.
It’s also fascinating that God chose the metaphor of “shepherd” to describe himself in his relationship with us.
So, what was the job description of a shepherd?
A shepherd would actually live with his sheep 24 hours a day with unwavering devotion, day and night, both in fair weather and bad, to nurture, guide, and protect his sheep. The shepherd would assume full responsibility for the needs and safety of his flock, even risking his own life for their protection. (Holman OT Commentary)
Isn’t it awesome that the King of the universe, the Creator of all there is, chose to call himself a shepherd? But David points out that the Lord isn’t just a shepherd, or even the shepherd, but he’s my shepherd. He’s your shepherd. He’s our shepherd.
How precious and comforting those words must’ve been for the people of Israel, generations later, as those appointed to “shepherd” them, betrayed them.
Take in these words from Ezekiel 34:7-10,
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. (Emphasis mine)
God takes this very seriously. That’s why Jesus picked up this theme about bad shepherds when he said in John 10:8, 10,
All [shepherds] who ever came before me were thieves and robbers…
The thief [false shepherd] comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
Our Good Shepherd
Therefore, in light of those bad, untrustworthy, and false shepherds who were stealing from God’s people and leading them astray, here’s what God said in Ezekiel 34:11-12, 14-16a,
1 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, (Emphasis mine)
That sounds like Psalm 23 in action, doesn’t it? That sounds like the ministry of Jesus in action, doesn’t it?
Jesus emphasized this role of a good shepherd when he said he came so the sheep “could have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that he lays down his life for the sheep.
Isn’t that the kind of shepherd you want watching over you, leading and guiding you, protecting you, caring for you?
The Shepherd We Need and Want
The good shepherd leaves 99 of his sheep that are safe and secure so he can go out and find the one sheep that’s lost and in danger. And then he celebrates once he’s finds it. Don’t you want that kind of shepherd?
Our Good Shepherd meets our physical needs. Verse 1 says, we will lack nothing. Our Good Shepherd meets our emotional needs – Verse 2 says, “he leads me beside quiet waters.” Our Good Shepherd meets our spiritual needs – Verse 3 says, “he refreshes my soul.” Our Good Shepherd meets all our needs, our needs for living each day, our deepest needs. Verse 3 says, he guides us along right paths (v. 3). Even when we walk through the darkest valleys of our lives, we don’t need to fear because he has promised to be with us during those times (v. 4).
And best of all, God promises his sheep that our relationship with our Good Shepherd is not temporary, but eternal.
Verse 6 says,
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Isn’t that the kind of Shepherd you want guiding you, feeding you, protecting you, seeking you, sacrificing for you, knowing you, and healing you as you travel through this life? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want to call upon when you’re too scared and too panicked to lie down and rest in green pastures?
Isn’t that the Shepherd you want leading you down the right paths of life, giving you his living water when you’re thirsty? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want protecting you as you travel, as Amazing Grace puts it, “through the many dangers, toils, and snares” of this world? And isn’t that the Shepherd you want at the end of your life, as you prepare to cross the waters of death?
David reminds us that that Shepherd is not just a shepherd, or just the shepherd, but he’s your Shepherd. And Jesus reminds us that he is that Shepherd, the Good Shepherd.
Hebrews 13:20-21 puts it this way,
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (emphasis mine)
This very same Good Shepherd (great Shepherd) can be your Good Shepherd if you’ll answer the call of his voice to trust and follow him, wherever he leads you.
Freedom in Christ
Galatians 5:1 - It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Memorial Day is a special day in the life of our country, a day in which we remember those who died while serving in our armed forces. We can’t imagine all we the freedoms we now enjoy because of the ultimate sacrifice so many made on our behalf.
The sacrament of Holy Communion celebrates freedom of a different kind, one more significant, for no sacrifice was as great and all-encompassing as Christ’s atoning death for us.
I love celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion, because in it, we get a beautiful picture of the Gospel.
We enjoy precious freedoms as Americans because of the sacrifices of men and women through the centuries. And we have precious freedom as Christians because of the work of Christ. And in Galatians 5:1, Paul highlights that freedom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Emphasis mine)
Freed to be Free
The freedom Paul’s talking about is our freedom from the burden or oppression of legalism, which Paul calls “slavery.” You see, it’s not the Law that Paul says is bad. When we understand God’s Law correctly, it’s good, even beautiful. That’s because God’s Law…
But the way it was being used by the Legalists in Paul’s day was enslaving the Christians in Galatia. It was like a giant weight lying on top of a person, crushing them bit by bit by bit. And because of this oppressive legalism, the Galatian Christians could not enjoy their freedom in Christ. They couldn’t enjoy being liberated from their sin because they couldn’t keep the Law well enough for the Legalists.
Instead of flourishing and appreciating their new life in Christ, they were suffocating under the weight of the Law, wrongly understood, and the condemnation of sin that came from that false teaching.
They were in a bad way.
And so, Paul wrote to them and declared from the rooftop: Enough! The Law of God should never be used as an enslaving and oppressive weapon!
Furthermore, in addition to the wonderful things the Law does for us, that I listed above, it does something more.
It leads us to Christ. Like a school teacher, the Law teaches us, it shows us our need, it leads us to Christ, and Christ leads us to freedom. That’s why Paul said “it’s for freedom that Christ set us free. That sounds like he’s being redundant, but he’s saying something very important here.
He’s saying, “Christ didn’t set you free so you could remain a slave to sin. He didn’t set you free so you could become a legalist.” Through his work on the Cross, he set you free to become all you were created and called to be in Christ. Therefore, Paul wrote, “Don’t go back to a life of slavery to sin or legalism.
It’s that wonderful, freeing work of Christ on the Cross that we celebrate in Holy Communion.
So, what does that freeing work look like? I want to point out how the Cross frees us in our past, present, and future.
Freed from Our Past
First of all, the Cross of Christ frees us from our past. Here’s what I mean: We no longer need to live under the penalty of sin. We’ve been liberated from the condemnation our sin deserves.
Romans 8:1 says,
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
And that’s true because the work of Jesus paid for, atoned for, our sinful and fallen condition. God no longer counts our sin against us. We no longer have to walk through life like poor Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress did, with a giant bag of guilt and condemnation and sin weighing him down.
And so, when we read the liturgy for Holy Communion, and then receive the Bread and Cup, we ought do so with hearts full of gratitude for Christ’s work on the Cross.
Freed for Our Present
Second, the Cross of Christ frees us for our present. Just as Jesus freed us from the penalty of sin, his Cross also frees from the power of sin in our present.
Now, this doesn’t mean sin no longer has any power over us at all. It still has the power to influence our lives. Unfortunately, we’re not free from temptation. That’s still alive and all-to-well. However, we’re now free from the dominion of sin. In other words, before we were in Christ, we couldn’t help but sin. We had no real power to resist it. But now, because of the work of Jesus, that dominion of sin in our lives has been defeated. We’ve been freed from it.
Not only that, but when we receive the Bread and Cup, we’re actually meeting with our Lord at his Table, in the present. Through his Holy Spirit we’re filled with his grace. That’s why John Wesley called Communion a “means of grace.” It’s a way in which we put ourselves in the way of God’s grace. You see, Holy Communion is a time when we’re strengthened by God’s Spirit and grace to live the life he’s called us to live.
Furthermore, Holy Communion reminds us we’re in this together. It’s not an expression of a Lone Ranger faith. Instead, we gather with all our brothers and sisters in our church family as well the Great Cloud of Witnesses of Hebrews 12.
Thus, in and through Holy Communion we remember the freedom we have from God to become all he created and called us to be, in the present, and in community.
Freed in the Future
Finally, the work of Jesus on the Cross, which includes his resurrection, reminds us that one day we’ll be free from the presence of sin in our lives. Holy Communion helps us to remember forward. It reminds us of a future where our Lord will dine with us at the Heavenly Banquet. The precious meal of the Bread and Cup is a foretaste of the Great Banquet that awaits us.
No longer will we be entangled with sin at all. It will be once and for all done away with. And as we move from this life to the life-to-come, we’ll live in the unveiled presence of our loving Savior. But we don’t have to wait for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom because we’re living in it right here and right now. That’s why Paul could write, “don’t let yourselves be burdened any longer by a yoke of slavery.
Therefore, because of the love and work of Jesus for you…
And the good news we declare during Holy Communion becomes good news for you when you trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, when you repent of your sin and leave your sin at the altar, and when you go in his grace to live in joyful obedience for his glory.
Threats to Peace, Joy, and Contentment
When do you find yourself struggling most with being discontent? When are you more likely to experience restlessness and anxiety? What’s usually happening in your life when you’re least likely to have joy?
Each one of us struggles with these things at different times throughout our lives. There are perhaps a variety of reasons for this, but very often, the threat to our peace, joy, and contentment can be found in one of these four areas of our lives…
These four areas very often chip away at our peace, joy, and contentment. Can you relate to that?
In our Scripture, Jesus points us to a new way of seeing that can make all the difference in our lives. This change in our perspective can help us find, and hold onto, the peace, joy, and contentment God desires for us.
The Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:1-12 comes at the beginning of what’s called, The Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5-7. I love The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve studied it many times at the church I serve. However, as much as I love studying it, that’s exactly how much I don’t like studying it.
That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some truth behind it. The Sermon is very convicting. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches in those three chapters. John Stott once said that the most charitable thing you could say about a person who says, they try to live according to The Sermon on the Mount, is that they’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “the preacher isn’t preaching… he’s meddling.” That’s the kind of sermon, The Sermon on the Mount is.
Therefore, it’s interesting that some of the most beautiful words in Scripture, the Beatitudes, make up the first 12 verses of that kind of sermon. But it’s important to understand that they do because the Beatitudes are the foundation for everything else we read in The Sermon.
Very often, when we think of the Christian life, we think of behavior, of how we act. And yet, in this sermon on the Christian life, Jesus begins by focusing on the character of the Christian, of what’s happening on the inside of a person. He’s saying, “This is what every Christian’s character should be.” If you want to behave or act in a Christian way, according to Jesus, you must have the character he describes in these verses.
You see, the change Jesus calls us to, happens from the inside out.
So, here are the eight virtues, or character traits, Jesus gives us in these verses…
The virtues Jesus lists here give us a picture or portrait of what every Christian is called to look like. It’s not a buffet table where we can pick and choose the ones like and pass on the ones we don’t.
To be honest, I used to think that. I thought these were like spiritual gifts. We don’t all have the same spiritual gifts, and that’s a good thing because the body of Christ needs the variety of gifts – like a body needs feet, hands, noses, ears, and so on.
But the Beatitudes, and the Fruit of the Spirit, are in an entirely different category. Just as each of us is called to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, So too is each of us called to be poor in spirit, mourn over sin, be meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, pursue mercy, purity of heart, peace, and to stand for our faith, even under the threat of persecution. It’s a group package. It’s a cumulative portrait of what each of us who follow Christ ought to look like.
Now, what word comes before each virtue? “Blessed.” Each virtue or character has a particular blessing that goes with it. And it’s important to understand the blessing isn’t something we do. It’s something given to us by God. And Christ says we receive those blessings when those virtues describe us. It’s from those blessings we begin to receive the inner satisfaction of peace, joy, and contentment.
It’s also vital to understand that these blessings don’t depend on outward circumstances, or the people in our lives, or the stuff we own, or what people think of us. We often use the word “blessed” or “blessing” to describe something that happens to us – something related to our circumstances; like a good report from the doctor, a promotion at work, a safe trip. And, to be sure, God blesses us in those ways and it’s right to see God’s hand of blessing in those circumstances.
However, that’s not what Jesus is saying here. The blessing he’s talking about doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. Paul knew what Jesus had in mind. He said in Philippians 4:12-13,
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Paul’s outward circumstances weren’t dictating his inward peace, joy, and contentment. He found them in Christ alone.
God’s Eternal Perspective
So, here’s the big idea: Jesus is giving us a new way of seeing. It’s not what we would’ve naturally come up with on our own. It’s only as we see all of life the way God does – what we might call an eternal perspective – that we’re able to have this inner peace, joy, and contentment, regardless of our circumstances.
But don’t you find yourself, more often than you would like, thinking and living like Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh? We can become really negative, really quickly, can’t we? And that’s often because we’re not enjoying God’s blessings that come from cultivating these virtues, because we’re looking at life through only a temporal perspective.
Thus, we say things like,
You can fill in the blank with whatever you want, but those things will never bring the blessing Jesus is talking about. The blessing he’s talking about doesn’t depend on your outward circumstances. The Apostle Paul knew it’s our perspective on our circumstances that will shape us most, and not just the circumstances.
This isn’t Stoicism that says, just adjust your attitude and then you can handle any situation you face. Instead, God is at the center of an eternal perspective. Trusting in God and depending upon his grace in every circumstance is what brings the blessing. It’s loving what he loves, desiring what he desires, obeying him always, seeking to align your will with his. This is what brings the blessing Jesus is talking about.
The World’s Temporal Perspective
But this isn’t the perspective of the world, is it? How might the Beatitudes sound if they were written today. I came across the following that attempted to answer that question.
You get the idea. But when we compare those to the eight characteristics Jesus gave us, they don’t exactly match up, do they?
That’s because Jesus turned the thinking of the world upside down.
A New Way of Seeing
Instead, we must look to God’s inspired Word, the Bible. That’s where we hear the authoritative voice of Jesus saying things like, “blessed are…
But those aren’t virtues we’d naturally seek to pursue and cultivate, are they?
We need God’s grace to change our hearts. We need a new way of seeing – a different perspective. God’s perspective. This new way of seeing comes only when we have a new heart, and we receive that new heart only when we trust in Christ alone as our Savior and Lord. We need his Word to direct us and his grace to enable us to see in this new way and cultivate the character of Christ in our lives.
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