Green Pastures, Quiet Waters

Psalm 23:2, John 10:4 – May 7, 2017

John 14 Good Shepherd, stained glass

“Green Pastures, Quiet Waters”

If I mention images of sheep and green pastures, what comes to your mind, on that video screen in your head? For some people, it might be something on the Nature channel on cable television, with verdant, green grass and gently rolling hills, dotted with fluffy white sheep. For others, it’s a painting at an art museum, with lush green meadows under brilliant blue skies. Again, dotted with sheep feeding on that green grass.

In Psalm 23, our psalm writer is King David. He is writing about his youth as a shepherd for his father’s sheep, long before he ever became king. That time as a shepherd must have been vivid in his mind, because David’s poetic description of sheep and shepherd remains one of the most striking, beloved, and relatable passages in the Bible, in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament.

Here is another way of saying the first verse of Psalm 23: Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.

Wait, that makes me a sheep, and sheep are not particularly intelligent. Now, I am okay with that. As I have said in the past, this is a common analogy in the Bible. The nation of Israel is referred to as sheep several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Different biblical writers refer to people who believe in God as sheep. Several times in the Gospels—as in our Gospel passage from John 10, today—Jesus talks about Himself as Shepherd, and His followers as sheep.

I figure God must know a few things about people, being the Creator of the Universe, and all. Since God uses this common analogy of sheep and shepherd so many times in the Bible, and since sheep have been known to be stubborn and timid and sometimes even foolish, I guess I might have a few things in common with sheep. Maybe you do, too.

Sheep need stuff. They need grass, water, nurture, and protection against enemies. They depend on their Shepherd to provide all of these things for them. But, what if there is no Shepherd? What if there is no one to provide all of this good stuff for us—I mean, for sheep?

Sometimes bible study leaders and bible teachers have their students do an exercise. They write a reverse psalm. That is, writing the reverse of what the verses say. One of the bible commentators I read used this process. She said, “I’ve been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, ‘Why do it this way?’ But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.” [1]

I’m going to read just the first few verses of Psalm 23, written in reverse. It was written by a then-15 year old named Anna Thompson.

“I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd./I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty/and no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares./I am scared of evil, because I am alone.”  [2]

This is truly a hopeless example of our life without God! What would happen to a few little sheep, huddling in the wilderness or the desert, with no one to guide them, take care of them, or to shepherd them? I don’t think they would last very long. Some predator might come along and have some lamb and mutton for dinner. That’s what probably would happen. This is a far cry from the green pastures and the quiet waters the psalm describes for us, and quite different from the Good Shepherd who supplies our wants and needs.

Jesus takes this image of sheep and a Shepherd from Psalm 23, and enlarges on it.

Notice what is not mentioned in either Psalm 23 or John 10. Is there any mention of the sheep needing all the stuff we see on television? I must have this new outfit or latest electronic gadget or trendy pair of shoes. I absolutely need to be healthy, beautiful, entertained, wealthy and successful. No, neither of these bible readings have anything of the kind.

Psalm 23 has a basic set of wants that “the shepherd provides for his sheep. That list includes food, drink, tranquility, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death, a sense of being surrounded by the grace of the Lord, and a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. An ever-rising mountain of material possessions is not on the list.” [3]

.           Let’s think about the reverse psalm again. I have no shepherd. I am caught in the desert. I am thirsty. I am lost. I am all alone.

Doesn’t that hit you right in the gut? Hopeless, helpless, life without God. Where are You, God? I’m all alone out here, and I am lost and scared!

One of my favorite commentators is Carolyn Brown, a Christian educator who’s worked with children for decades. She writes about the Bible and our worship being filled with metaphors. We try to help children understand them “when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later [when they are older].  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors. [Doctor and educator] Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure and held onto it ‘for keeps.’” [4]

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Shepherd of Psalm 23, or the Good Shepherd of John 10. The Shepherd helps the sheep to feel safe, to feel protected and full, able to rest and feel content. Not to feel hungry, thirsty, frightened, lost and alone.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus adds something to the picture of the Good Shepherd that is not in the 23rd Psalm. Jesus talks about the sheep knowing the Shepherd’s voice. That means whether sheep are in green pastures or brown ones, in the desert or high in the hills, the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and call. As Jesus said, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In Palestine, in the mid 1930’s, a village near Haifa had some internal conflict. The occupying British soldiers confiscated all the villagers’ animals and put them in a central pen, mixing them all up. The animals’ owners were permitted to redeem their animals, if they could identify them. An orphan shepherd boy whose only possessions were six sheep and goats came to the officer in charge, and asked for his animals. The officer ridiculed the idea that the shepherd boy could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the hundreds of animals in the pen. The shepherd boy had his pipe and gave his own “call”—his unique call for his animals. “His own” separated from all the others and trotted out around him. [5]

The sheep know the Shepherd. They follow the Good Shepherd’s voice, and willingly go with Him to green pastures, and by the quiet waters. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and He will be with us in green pastures as well as desert places, by quiet waters as well as in thirsty times. And, Jesus will walk with us through those dark and scary valleys of the shadow, too.

Even when we walk though the valley of the shadow more than we like, praise God, our Good Shepherd will always be there beside us, to help, nourish, protect and nurture us.

Yes, I am a sheep. I freely admit that.

I know if the Good Shepherd is my Shepherd, surely His goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

[1] http://bethquick.blogspot.de/2011/05/lectionary-notes-for-fourth-sunday-of.html

[2] Psalm 23: “I Have No Shepherd” https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/05/psalm-23-i-have-no-shepherd.html

[3] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-fourth-sunday-of-easter-may-11-2014.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[5] Bishop, Eric F. F., Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 297-98. Quoted by Kenneth E. Bailey in The Good Shepherd, 42.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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One Who Brings Peace

“One Who Brings Peace”

Micah 5-5 He will be our peace

Micah 5:5 – December 20, 2015

Peace. Peace is the subject today. Today we light the Advent candle of peace. Here, inside the church, it seems like peace is a realize-able actuality. But—not on the outside. Not out in the cold, cruel world. Peace, peace, is the cry! Here in the 21st century, we have wars and the rumors of war. Fighting, skirmishes, various attacks of various kinds. Will anyone hear our cry for peace? Will anyone—anywhere—heed our cry?

In biblical times, there was always some tribe or country beating up on another tribe or country. Always somebody marching off to war. To enlarge territory, or to gain political advantage, or to right some wrong. So seldom did the nation of Israel have true peace! Much of this book of the prophet Micah deals with war, conflict and fighting. Except for right here.

Our Gospel reading from Luke tells of the pregnant Virgin Mary going to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who prophecies that Mary has within her the baby Jesus, the Son of God. Usually, the Scripture readings are chosen with great care. Chosen with an eye to common themes. So, what is in common, here? The prophecy of a strong leader to come, from our Old Testament text, and the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, from our Gospel reading.

Here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent. We have had Advent for a long time. Since the last week of November. I can just hear the children saying, “When is Christmas finally going to get here?” Some schools have already gotten out for the winter holidays. I know some local churches are featuring a Christmas cantata today, or a Christmas pageant in worship.

Yet here we all are. The last Sunday of Advent. Isn’t Christmas here yet? Isn’t it time for angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the Baby in a manger? Can’t we hurry things along?

As we look at the prophecy in Micah, we can see that the prophet is certainly not thinking about warm and fuzzy Christmas carols. Not about the lion lying down with the lamb, about God reaching down and bringing peace on earth, good will towards all people. Or, is he? What is Micah saying in our reading today?

Yes, a strong leader will rise up. Who do you think Micah’s contemporaries thought the prophet was talking about? I was fascinated to read in one commentary that most people would connect this strong leader to King David. But, wait! David had been dead for two hundred years, by the time that Micah wrote his prophecy. How could the Jewish people think “David” when they heard prophetic words like this?

Because—because of the prophecy of David’s prophet Nathan from 2 Samuel 7. A direct descendant of David would be king. God had promised King David that exact thing. So, who else could this strong leader be but a direct descendant of the great King David?

All well and good! Except, it gets more complicated, fast. Micah mentions “out of you [Bethlehem] will come one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Now, I can understand a strong leader. A ruler, a mighty King. A descendant of King David. I can even understand the prophecy of a baby, from Luke, chapter one. The descendant of David needs to be born. Elizabeth prophecying and praising God that the mother of the Messiah to come was coming to see her. Okay, I’ve got that.

I am so indebted to John C. Holbert’s article on this Scripture reading. [1] I was aware of some of this material from the book of Micah, but by no means all. And never in so much depth!

Micah’s prophecy foretells a strong leader, yes. A descendant of David is presumed. (Micah doesn’t specifically say so.) Adding two and two and two together, from the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, people have ascertained that this prophecy also refers to the Messiah. And then—Micah adds the part about the ruler “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” This part definitely needs more explanation.

These phrases are a challenge to translate from Hebrew. The best that anyone can figure is that there are several meanings for these words. “Origins” can also be translated “coming forth” of old! Dr. Holbert says that God put this word ‘olam, or “ancient times,” “into human minds in such a way that they may know a bit of what has happened in the past, and a tiny portion of what may come, but just enough to teach them that they in fact know precious little about either past or future in the end. There the word appears to mean something like a very long time or deep in the past and far into the future, not quite eternity but as much as any puny human mind may conceive.”

Talk about not being able to understand Scripture. These couple of phrases blow me away. I feel small when I read this. Really young, like a preschooler. I realize I do not know very much about God or about the Bible, at all. Period. God surely can flatten me, humble me with a phrase from the prophet Micah.

But, wait! There is more! Let’s unpack this reading, further.

Holbert continues: “Who then does Micah have in mind? This is no simple heir of David; here is someone primordial, someone from the most ancient of times yet also uniquely prepared to act decisively in the present.” In other words, Micah is talking about Someone more than human. Looking forward to the future, talking about Someone who not only is the promised Messiah to come, the promised descendant of David, but also looking back to the far distant past. To the beginning of time, even beyond the beginning.

Then, in Micah 5:3, the prophet brings up the image of a woman in labor. What is our Gospel reading from Luke for today? It’s about two pregnant women. Elizabeth prophecying about the Child Mary is carrying. The Child is the Lord. The Son of God. The next verse, Micah 5:4 speaks of the promised one who will be a shepherd. Just like King David! A powerful and godly shepherd who keeps the flock safely; “and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” Again, this is Messiah language, and more!

Who is this Messiah, anyway? Descendant of David, check. Born in Bethlehem, which is David’s ancestral home. Check. But, Micah says from ancient of days? Luke calls Him the Son of God? The Lord God Almighty?

This great Shepherd will not only be concerned with the flock of Israel, but also the flock of the entire world. And—this is the most important part to me, right now. This strong leader, this Shepherd will be our peace.

This Messiah will not just be peaceful for Israel’s sake. No! Our Messiah, our Christ, from ancient of days, will act peacefully for the safety and well-being of the whole world!

Do you hear the Good News from the prophet Micah today? This Messiah was not going to act in the way that so many other Middle Eastern potentates did. Or, for that matter, like any other earthly ruler ever has. Instead, we are told in our Scripture passage today that He will feed His flock. The Messiah’s flock will have the opportunity of living secure, safe, and peacefully under Messiah’s mighty protection. I thank God that I am one of the worldwide flock.

God extends that opportunity to everyone, so that we all can have the security and care of the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the Babe of Bethlehem, the ruling King. Praise God for God’s wonderful gift of protection and care.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Who-Is-This-Peaceful-One-John-C-Holbert-12-11-2015

(Many thanks and much appreciation to Dr. Holbert! Wonderful article on Micah.)

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Jesus Sends Us Forth!

John 17:11-19 – May 17, 2015

Sent into the world - John 17-18

“Jesus Sends Us Forth!”

Most everyone I know like to receive packages. Have you ever received something extremely fragile in the U.S. mail, or from Federal Express or UPS? Can you just visualize the package? Unpacking something like this is a multi-step process! Opening the box, taking out the protective foam pellets, unwrapping the layers of encasing bubble wrap, taking off the newspaper cushioning the fragile piece. And, then—there it is. Finally, unwrapped.

We didn’t want to allow the fragile piece of glassware—or pottery—to get chipped or broken. Heavens, no! So, we take extra-special care. We wrap it, protect it, and swathe it, even immobilize it, in order to make extra sure that it’s safe and won’t get hurt or broken.

Except—as we consider our gospel passage today, we aren’t talking about fragile glassware or delicate pottery. Here, our Lord Jesus is praying to His Heavenly Father about the disciples. Asking some things for them, specifically.

Let’s set the scene. It’s a familiar scene. The Upper Room, after the Passover dinner with His disciples. Jesus has just finished His last words to His friends, and now in John 17, He prays. It’s an intimate time, with Jesus addressing God His Father in the most intimate way.

God sent His Son into the world—special delivery. Into a battered, fallen, sinful, hate-filled world. Did you know that? Did you realize that? From time to time we may say that, in an Affirmation of Faith, or some such statement of belief. I try to make it a central point in my sermons, when the Scripture passage mentions it.

Yes! Jesus, the Son, was sent into the world in order to proclaim the gospel, as well as to give everyone a picture, an actual physical representation of God in heaven. Here, on earth. One of the names of Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

Question: when God sent Jesus into the world—special delivery, what was the situation?

Where was He sent, in the first place, according to the Christmas narrative in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2? We remember! Jesus—the eternal Son, laid down all of His heavenly Godly-ness, all of His awesome power and might, and was born as a helpless infant to an unmarried girl. In an occupied state, from a marginalized people. Here on this earth in amongst fallen, messy, dirty people who often make mistakes. Lose their tempers. Are unkind and rude—and even worse—to others. Where sin and disease and unemployment and accidents happen, on a regular basis. Imagine that!

God the Heavenly Father could have wrapped the man Jesus securely in bubble wrap. Or, in case Jesus even moved, God could have made sure He was packed in protective foam pellets, so Jesus wouldn’t get injured or harmed. But—that sounds silly! Maybe that idea works for shipping fragile items or glasswear, but not for people!

Let’s take a closer look at verse 18 of this intimate prayer. Jesus says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” So—Jesus is talking about sending the disciples out into the world. Do you get the picture? The past three years were a training program. An internship, if you will, to get the disciples prepared for ministry.

Being sent out. Getting down to the business of letting others know about God. The disciples are getting ready to be launched into the world. In order to proclaim the gospel, the Good News, as well as to give everyone a picture, a representation of God in heaven. Here, on earth.

Wait a second, Jesus. That’s scary!

The thought of the disciples going forth, being sent out. Who knows where they might end up? Here on this earth in amongst fallen, messy, dirty people who often make mistakes. Lose their tempers. Are unkind and rude—and even worse—to others. Where sin and disease and unemployment and accidents happen, on a regular basis. Imagine that!

These words in this intimate prayer to God are words that entrust the future to God. These words do not leave the disciples as orphans (as Jesus said), nor do they set the disciples adrift, completely on their own. These words do prepare the disciples for His departure, and for their work and lives in ministry after His death and resurrection.

In short, Jesus is asking God to take care of His friends, after He leaves. How caring! How considerate! How awesome! But, Jesus did not ask for God to pack the disciples in protective foam pellets or encase them in bubble wrap.

In preparing this message, one of the resources I used is one I occasionally turn to. An online website where clergy discuss the lectionary passages of the week. In one of the discussions on this gospel passage, a pastor from North Dakota gave the following reflection and then, illustration.

“The thing that strikes me this year about this text – this prayer – is that Jesus prays for protection. He doesn’t pray for removal – removal from the world – removal from evil. It seems to me that we are expected to be in the world (not of it) and with that comes dealing with sin and evil. And Jesus prays for protection. I also think there is a difference between protection and shielding.

“Here in North Dakota (not in May, mind you!) an image that works for me is that we dress our kids in snowsuits and hats and mittens and boots and then we send them out into the cold. We don’t just hide out in the house with the nice warm furnace and hot chocolate and we don’t shield our children from the weather. We protect them, yes, but, still, they are sent out into the wind and cold. I think God is like that with us as well. God doesn’t help us to hide from the world and all its ‘stuff.’ God gives us what we need as protection … the Word, faith, a conscience … you get the idea.”

You get the idea—God protected our Lord Jesus while Jesus was here on the earth, even though I’m sure Jesus and His friends had to put up with being itinerant and homeless all the time they were traveling around Israel, with all the accompanying discomforts and getting dirty and sometimes going hungry. God protected the disciples, the followers of Jesus—and they were still sent out into the wind and the cold. Into the world where sin and disease and unemployment and accidents happen, on a regular basis.

The part of this passage that hits home the most, for me, is that Jesus prays for His friends. Not only the disciples, but we can also see His prayer broadened to include all those who follow Him. That includes you and me! Us. All those who receive Jesus’ good news, His Gospel of the revelation of God.

Just as Jesus prays for us in this prayer in John 17, so we share in this mission. We, too, are being sent! We, too, have the awesome direction from our Lord Jesus to go forth, let others know about God. We are launched into the world. In order to proclaim the gospel, the Good News, as well as to give everyone a picture, a representation of God in heaven. Here, on earth.

The best part is that Jesus has prayed for us, already! He has covered us with prayer, with protection, so that we are suited up to go out into the world. Just as we don’t shield our children from the weather; we protect them, yes, but, still, they are sent out into the wind and the weather and cold. I think God is like that with us as well.

We are sent out into the world, to spread the Good News about Jesus. God is right by our sides, too. God gives us what we need, too. We can have that assurance. For sure, and certain. Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)