Don’t Rush to Easter Just Yet
A Maundy Thursday Reflection
John 12:20-23 - 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
His Time Had Not Yet Come
Throughout the whole of John’s Gospel, which represents the whole of the public ministry of Jesus, our Lord says over and over again, things like, “my time has not yet come.” Or John himself, as he narrates his Gospel, reports that crowds were not able to capture Jesus because his time “had not yet come.”
Therefore, in our Scripture, we learn that Greeks (probably God-fearers, but Gentiles nonetheless) came looking for Jesus. They wanted to see him.
The fact that these non-Jews came to see the Lord gives us a glimpse of the scope of why Jesus came. His death would not be for the atonement of Jews only, but for Gentiles as well. Clearly this is what John wanted us to understand.
His Hour Had Come
Several years ago, I watched the movie, “The Gospel of John,” which captured this scene beautifully. When Jesus was told that Greeks desired to see him, the actor poignantly portrayed Jesus responding in a somber and reflective manner. Of course, his acting decision was speculative, but some speculations are closer than others. I believe his expressions would have been very close to how Jesus must have responded when he realized, “his hour had come.”
Jesus’ words of response in John 12 seem fitting in light of his experience later at Gethsemane, found in Matthew 26:26-44.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
I sometimes think we suffer the consequences of an “over-familiarity” of a text in Scripture. We are so used to hearing or reading it that it can lose its powerful punch. We often fast forward through the details to get to the “good parts,” which usually means the parts we like or make us feel comfortable. This scene from Gethsemane is an example of what I am talking about.
Perhaps we think to ourselves, “since Jesus knew he was going to be raised from the dead on the third day, his journey to the Cross was not that big a deal for him. Afterall, he’s God incarnate, and he knows how the story ends.
Yet you cannot read this text from Matthew’s Gospel and come away with that perspective. Reread it and take in the significance of these verses again,
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (emphasis mine)
Man of Sorrow
He wanted his friends with him, praying for him. He was sorrowful. Overwhelmed. Troubled. He was sweating drops of blood. This was no walk in the park.
And then, moving through the story, Matthew tells us that our Lord fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”
“May this cup be taken from me.”
Let’s not move too quickly past that part of the verse. Let’s absorb it for a moment.
In 29 years of ministry, I have cried only a small handful of times while preaching a sermon. Two or three incidents were during funerals, as you can imagine. But the time that was not related to a funeral was when I preached from this verse. Why? It is hard to know for sure, but I think it was how this moment in the life of our Lord really hit me, perhaps for the first time.
Would the mocking, beatings, betrayal, nails, and all the rest be painful, even devastating? Absolutely! I do not want to minimize any of that. I am sure it must have been excruciating in ways that none of us will ever really comprehend, despite all the medical reports describing it.
But to have the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom Jesus had had an eternity of inseparable, uninterrupted, joyful, intimate union and fellowship, now “turning his back” on his Son, must have eclipsed any of the physical pain Jesus was experiencing.
For Jesus to bear the filth of our disgusting and overwhelming sin, fallenness, and brokenness must have been truly overwhelming to the One who knew no sin, yet became sin for us.
The realization of all he was going to face must have led our Lord to feel and experience all that Matthew reported to us and more. In the quiet of the garden, who wouldn’t have cried out for another way to complete the mission? Was Jesus really going to have to endure the agony of the Cross and all that went with it? There was no other way. And ultimately Jesus knew this was his Father’s will, as his prayerful response indicated. By God’s grace, our Lord was faithful to his Father, to his mission, and to us.
Our Lord will be arrested tonight.
He will be crucified tomorrow.
Let’s not rush to Easter just yet.
God with Us
46 “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me--
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)
That is how Mary responded a few days after she learned she would miraculously become pregnant and give birth to the Savior of the world.
But her impulse was to be troubled and perplexed by her encounter with an angel. In Luke 1:28 we read,
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
How would you respond to an angelic visitation? Terrified? Bewildered? Break into a cold sweat? Faint? I think Mary being “troubled about the angel’s words and wondering about this divine greeting” is pretty rational and normal.
The angel clearly recognized this and quickly added,
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.
The angel then proceeded to tell her the following…
Oh, and this will all happen by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. And this baby you will carry for nine months and give birth to… he will be the Son of God.
Mary’s Immediate Reply
Well, we heard Mary’s response after a few days of reflection. But what was her immediate reply to this startling announcement? She said,
I am the Lord’s servant,” “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Humility. Submission. Faith. Obedience.
Out of the millennia of human history and all the billions of people who have ever lived, God chose this young girl to be the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. And even at her young age and compromised situation (she was an unmarried virgin after all), she was able to say,
I am the Lord’s servant,” “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
How About You?
Would you be able to answer in the same way? If an angel appeared to you and said you would be part of something that was, humanly speaking, impossible – and would likely cost you your reputation and possibly your life – would you be able to say,
I am the Lord’s servant,” “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Yet the truth is, Mary’s experience is not hers alone. One author put it this way,
For although her role is in one way unique, in that she alone physically nurtures and brings into the world the body and person of Jesus Christ, in another way Mary is the archetype of every Christian soul, and the whole church. (Malcolm Guite)
God desires each of us to answer his call in our lives with Mary’s words,
I am the Lord’s servant,” “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Now, we will not be called to bear the Lord Jesus, but each of us is called to “treasure his words and the gift of his Spirit in our hearts and… in our daily lives.” (Malcolm Guite)
In this way Mary is our example and encouragement, especially during this Advent season, when we prepare for the arrival of our Savior.
The secret to Mary’s success as well as ours, can be found in the words of the angel, for they are just as true for us as they were for Mary.
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28)
Think about that… “The Lord is with you.”
Do you believe that? In the deepest places in your heart, mind, and soul, do you really believe that? What difference would it make in your life if you really, truly believed that God was with you? That, like Mary, you were highly favored?
I reflected on that question and brainstormed a few answers that blessed me. Knowing God is with me gives me…
What would you add to that list? Each of those words and ideas could be sermon unto itself, couldn’t it? What would you add?
When I visit a hospital or hospice room, one of the things I always pray for is for God to be present in that person’s life at that moment. In truth, I am really reminding them that God is already present – fully present – right there, right then, and he has promised to never leave them nor forsake them.
But that is not a comforting word for hospital and hospice rooms only. That is a truth which should impact every single day of each of our lives.
The angel tells Mary she is highly “favored.” The Greek word for “favored” is “charis,” from which we get our word “grace.” Mary was an ordinary girl, whom God favored in a unique and spectacular way.
God Is with You Too
Yet that same favor – that same grace – is offered to each of us. It is available for the taking. Beloved, the good news is that God would not have you walk through the journey of this life alone.
God is with you. During the most turbulent times of your life, God is with you. During the most mundane and boring times in your life, God is with you. When you feel you are at your lowest, God is with you. When you feel most in despair, God is with you. When you are sick and struggling physically, God is with you. When you have lost a loved one and do not know how to face the future, God is with you. When you are confused and do not know which way to turn, God is with you. You too are highly favored by God.
In Matthew 1:23 we read these words,
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s many promises made hundreds of years before his arrival. God is the God who makes and keeps all his promises. And one of those promises is Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was on his deathbed being comforted by those who knew and loved him. And before he died, he “gathered his strength” one last time and “cried out, ‘The best of all, God is with us!’” He died soon after. (Kenneth Collins)
None of us need to wait until our deathbeds to be comforted or strengthened by the truth that God is with us. It can and should be a living reality for each us.
Yet for that good news to impact our lives we must believe it is true. We must place our trust in God and the good news of his Son. We must give our very lives to God and this precious gospel-truth.
A Year with Jesus
This coming new year, which cannot get here fast enough, I am going to provide a weekly biblical title or description of Jesus, accompanied by some Scripture and a question or two for reflection.
It is not homework. Instead, think of it as an opportunity for you to spend time with the God who is with you and to learn more about the Savior he sent into to the world for you.
The reality is, through God’s Holy Spirit, our Lord Jesus Christ is with us each and every day. And I think spending a year reflecting on the many facets of the person and work of Jesus will do us all much and lasting good.
Joy of Every Longing Heart
Charles Wesley wrote these beautiful words,
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28)
Thanks be to God.
Four Hundred Years
Four hundred long years had passed since Israel last heard from a prophet – from God himself. Four hundred years of silence. But now, there was one who spoke from the wilderness. His purpose? To declare the arrival of God’s promised one, the Messiah – the one who would rescue God’s people.
How warmly welcomed that good news must have been, especially since Israel was under Roman rule. To finally be delivered from that oppression must have been the best news. The prophet John’s calling was to prepare the way for this mighty Deliverer by announcing his arrival. It was Jesus himself, just a few verses later (Mark 1:15), who would declare that his new Kingdom was now at hand. But how would a person become a citizen of this Kingdom? By repenting and believing God’s good news. God’s gracious and providential hope was still available after such a long time had passed. God never forgot his promises.
And yet the good news of God’s Kingdom was not welcomed as good news. God’s Deliverer was not embraced as such. We know from the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus, that he and the Kingdom he ushered in were not what the people of his day had in mind. Jesus didn’t fit the expectations many had for the Messiah. He didn’t seem to say and do what the people had hoped he would say and do.
Still, he was God’s providential hope for his people. Their only hope. Israel needed to be rescued from something far greater than Rome. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was willing and able to save his people once-and-for-all. But not many of his people were willing to be saved on his terms. Their hopes and dreams took the shape of temporal desire – to understandably be out from under the thumb of Roman rule. They allowed the good to become the enemy of the best.
What are your expectations of Jesus? Are your hopes temporal only? Or, are your hopes filtered through an eternal perspective?
Advent is the liturgical time of year in which we more fully and formally remember that we live between the two appearances of our Lord, Jesus Christ. His first arrival, which we celebrate during the season of Advent and Christmas, ushered in God’s Kingdom – his rule and reign in our lives. Our focus during this time of year helps us better reflect upon who Jesus is and why he came. It also gives us space to think about how we ought to live in light of his appearance.
However, just as we are called to live responsively to his first advent, we must also live expectantly toward his second. That is the time, as C.S. Lewis put it, “when the author walks on to the stage [and] the play is over.” Lewis adds,
“That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not.”
Are you prepared for the coming of Jesus? How can you better prepare for that Day? Looking at and learning from his first advent informs how we are called and commanded to live in preparation for his second one. More than that, it is only as we repent of our sin and believe his gospel – the good news of his Kingdom – that we can enter the fullness of life he offers.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Make sure to worship with us in person or online. Pastor Phillip will help us better understand our need for a Savior.
Questions for Reflection
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.
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.
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