COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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WITH AUTHORITY

When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. [Matthew 7:28-29 (NABRE)]

water liliesWhen Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astounded at his teaching because, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, He taught with “authority.” When the people wondered at Jesus’ authority, they weren’t referring to His ability to speak confidently and persuasively. The Greek word translated as “authority” was exousia which meant power or right; the people wondered at Jesus’ authorization to say the things He said. Rather than teach on their own authority, most rabbis taught on the authority of earlier sages. The Moody Bible Commentary depicts them as virtual “walking footnotes” who merely cited famous teachers and repeated what had been said before by others.

While it’s usually translated as “Verily” or “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus often began His teaching with the words, “Amen, I say to you.” Meaning “truly” or “certainly,” the word “amen” was used at the end of a prayer to confirm its words. It also was said when affirming a pledge; saying “amen” at the end of an oath made the vow valid and binding. By saying, “amen” before He spoke, Jesus was guaranteeing the truth of His words: His distinctive power and right. In effect, Jesus was announcing, “I say this to you indisputably, unequivocally, and with the fullest authority.”

A perfect example of Jesus’ claim of authority is found in His lesson about building on a solid foundation (written about yesterday). His simile echoed one used by many Jewish rabbis but with one very important difference. In the rabbis’ version, the solid foundation was to be the Torah; in Jesus’ version, the unshakable foundation was His word! His audience must have been shocked by those words; it’s no wonder they marveled at the authority He claimed.

When we look at the authority with which Jesus taught and acted, we can see why the priests, teachers and elders felt their position threatened. When they demanded to know by whose authority Jesus acted and spoke, they weren’t interested in an answer; they just wanted to trick Him into saying something that would label Him as an eccentric fanatic or a blasphemer. Like a true rabbi, Jesus answered their question with one of His own and asked where John the Baptist got his authority. Instead of backing Jesus into a corner, He’d backed them into one. If they said John had no authority, the people would be angry and, if they said John’s authority was from God, they’d have to answer for not believing and supporting the Baptizer. When they refused to answer, so did Jesus.

It had been a long dry spell for the people of Palestine; before John, the last time God spoke was through the prophet Malachi more than 400 years earlier. When Jesus spoke, the people were again hearing the Word of God! The difference was that John and the other prophets knew they were mere messengers; the words they spoke were not their own. When Jesus spoke, he wasn’t God’s messenger; He was God’s Son. Jesus didn’t just have authority; He was the incarnate Authority of God!

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. [John 5:24 (NABRE)]

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SINKING

Everyone who hears my teaching and applies it to his life can be compared to a wise man who built his house on an unshakable foundation. When the rains fell and the flood came, with fierce winds beating upon his house, it stood firm because of its strong foundation. [Matthew 7:24-15 (TPT)]

Mt. Hayden - Grand CanyonWhile summer is hurricane season here in Florida, early spring is “sinkhole season.” For most property owners, a sinkhole is little more than a headache but, for some, it means the loss of their homes and possibly their lives. Seven weeks ago, two families north of here lost their homes and belongings as the earth collapsed beneath them, leaving a chasm at least 40-feet wide and 60-feet long. Back in 2013, a man went to sleep and literally disappeared as he, his bed and then his entire bedroom vanished into the earth; his body was never recovered.

Here in the “Sunshine State,” our homes are built on limestone that dissolves easily in rainwater; as a result, the underground becomes honeycombed with cavities. Sometimes, a cavity becomes too big to support its ceiling and collapses, leaving a gaping hole at the surface. Too much or too little water can trigger these sinkholes. Although cavities filled with rainwater can support their ceiling, when drought causes them to empty out, they can’t. On the other hand, in a heavy rain, the sudden flood of groundwater rushing into a cavity combined with the weight of pooled water on the surface also can lead to the ground’s collapse.

When purchasing our house of poured concrete, I knew it was hurricane resistant but I never gave any thought to the strength of the ground beneath it. Many of us build our lives in much the same way. Attention is given to looking good on the surface but our lives are not built on God’s bedrock. Instead of a drought or torrential rains jeopardizing our stability, it’s things like job loss, illness, miscarriage, divorce, addiction, mental illness, teenage rebellion, betrayal, depression, boredom, and loss that threaten our weak foundation.

As a carpenter, Jesus knew all about the building of houses when He spoke about foundations at the end of His Sermon on the Mount. Two houses experience the same challenges but only the house built on rock can endure life’s storms. In case his listeners didn’t understand His point, Jesus clearly explained it: a life built upon His teaching was built on a foundation of bedrock and wouldn’t fail.

Since most sinkholes occur in the central part of our state and only a few small ones have occurred near us, I’m not worried about them. Nevertheless, we do look for signs of trouble such as leaks or structural cracks in our floors or walls. Sinkholes can be prevented if geotechnical experts are called in time and the necessary repairs or remediation are done. Those houses I mentioned didn’t have to disappear into an abyss and neither do our lives. Lives built on shaky foundations can be saved. The salvage expert to be consulted is Jesus who will shore up our lives with His living word. Moreover, unlike that man who disappeared into the ground, nobody can fall so far into the abyss that Jesus can’t lift them out. Let us all build our lives on the bedrock of Jesus Christ!

But everyone who hears my teaching and does not apply it to his life can be compared to a foolish man who built his house on sand. When it rained and rained and the flood came, with wind and waves beating upon his house, it collapsed and was swept away. [Matthew 7:26-27 (TPT)]

Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. [Psalm 18:31 (TPT)]

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UNARTICULATED PRAYERS

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. [Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)]

peony - field bindweedI couldn’t tell if my vague sense of unrest was because something was missing or there was something I needed to do. I couldn’t articulate it but I knew it was there and, as the days went by, the sense of disquiet continued. I simply asked God to reveal whatever was troubling me; perplexed, I didn’t know what else to pray. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did!

A week later, when I was asked to serve on the church board, I realized my unrest was because I needed to step out of my comfort zone and do something more to grow both as a Christian and a writer. I finally understood Paul’s words that the Holy Spirit will express our prayers for us when we don’t have the words. When the pastor asked me to pray about the offer, he didn’t know that I’d been praying about it for a week without knowing I was. In fact, the board position was the answer to my unarticuated prayers!

Last fall, a young musician in Kentucky felt a longing to deepen his faith through music. While looking for music ministry positions in his home state, he found an opening not far from the Florida town where he frequently performs on weekends. He certainly didn’t ask God to lead him to a new church that meets in a park in southwest Florida but that’s where the Spirit led him. Now he’s leading worship at our church. Was that coincidence or did the Holy Spirit speak for him? His new position answered his unspoken prayers (as well as our spoken ones for a worship leader).

Several years ago, my friend Lynn moved to a town where she knew no one. Away from family, with two active toddlers, and a husband whose business kept him away for weeks on end, she was overwhelmed by motherhood’s demands. While talking to a friend 1,000 miles away about her loneliness and need for a break, the phone call was cut short by a knock at the door. Standing there was the answer to Lynn’s unuttered prayers: a girl who lived nearby and was seeking a mother’s helper/babysitting job!

As it turned out, Lynn was the answer to this girl’s unvoiced prayers, as well. The teen’s mother was gone and she lived with her father and four brothers in a house heavy with testosterone. Sports reigned supreme there and no one talked about things important to teen-age girls or could help her with make-up, hair, or fashion. That, however, was right up Lynn’s alley and she was the perfect surrogate “aunt” to guide the girl through adolescence; Lynn even taught her how to cook and sew. I doubt this teen had prayed about finding a refuge from sports central any more than Lynn had prayed for someone who offered companionship and purpose along with babysitting. Yet, God heard their prayers!

We often are in the dark when it comes to our needs and how to pray but those unarticulated prayers may be the best ones. The Holy Spirit utters wordless prayers on our behalf and intercedes for us according to God’s will. Even when we don’t know what or how to pray, we can remain confident that God will arrange circumstances to work out beautifully in a way that we’d never imagine. He has a wonderful way of knowing what it is we need long before we do!

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. [John Bunyan]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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IT’S JUST BEGINNING

We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed. But when that happens, God will have a house for us. It will not be a house made by human hands; instead, it will be a home in heaven that will last forever. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (NCV)]

butterweedI can’t understand why a young mother lies on her deathbed when an elderly Alzheimer’s victim whose mind is long gone remains in this world. I will never comprehend why one person suffers a debilitating disease for years and another person breezes through life with nary an ache or pain. I wonder how a young family can be wiped out in a car accident when the drunk driver who caused the crash survives without a scratch. I will never grasp why some people are in such despair that they take their lives while others bravely fight to take each breath. I don’t know why one child is born with multiple birth defects when his sibling is the picture of perfect health or why one child is abused and another one is cherished. Life often seems incredibly unfair!

How can we make sense of the wicked prospering while the godly suffer let alone understand random shootings or terrorist attacks? How can we make sense of a world that makes absolutely no sense? It’s not fair and yet we can’t even cry “foul!” There was nothing fair about Jesus suffering and dying for our sins!

The answer to my query is that, because mankind sinned, we live in a broken world: a world that is not as God meant it to be. That’s not a very satisfying answer but, if we truly believe that God is good and that it is He (rather than some cosmic roulette wheel) who is sovereign over the world, we must trust Him. There are divine reasons for all that passes through His hands and those reasons are not ours to know. It is God who is the treasure and not the various blessings He bestows on any of us in this life. The trials endured by us or others do not permit us to put God on trial.

While the here-and-now makes little sense to me, there is one thing I do understand: our trials are short-lived but the blessings of the godly are eternal! Whatever happens in this world is just a small part of the rest of our lives. We’re merely in the preface of the best book ever written or viewing the trailer for the greatest movie ever produced. We’re seeing only a rehearsal of the finest ballet ever danced and have heard just the prelude to the most beautiful symphony ever composed. We’re in the lobby of the grandest hotel ever built and have tasted but a bite of an appetizer in the most delicious feast ever prepared. We’re barely out of the driveway on an extraordinary never-ending journey. Let us take comfort in knowing the best is yet to come!

Life would be void, senseless and of no portent if our existence here for 70 years or more were to end as we draw our last physical breath. Our life on earth is but a drop of a moment in the ocean of time. To dis-acknowledge God would be to admit the futility, the hopelessness of existence. It would be to place reliance merely upon flesh, the physical body and the physical structure of man … It would be to deny the presence and existence of a soul. [Lionel Luckhoo]

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.” The One who was sitting on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” [Revelation 21:3-5 (NCV)]

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WHY THIRTY?

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry. [Luke 3:23a (NLT)]

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. [Romans 5:6 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailWe know little about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood. Born in Bethlehem, He was circumcised and given His name eight days later. Forty days after His birth, Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with the command to consecrate every firstborn male to God. Sometime after that, He received gifts from the Magi, His family fled to Egypt, and they returned to Nazareth after Herod died. That’s all we know of His childhood until He was twelve and the precocious youngster stayed behind in Jerusalem to discuss spiritual matters with the teachers there. After Mary and Joseph found Him in the Temple courts, He dutifully returned home to Nazareth with them. Although we know that Jesus learned Joseph’s construction trade and that he started his ministry around thirty, we know nothing of the years between twelve and thirty except that He was obedient to His parents and “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and all the people.” [Luke 2:52]

Why did Jesus wait until he was thirty to begin His ministry? Wouldn’t He be in a rush to bring salvation to the world? Although we know Mary and at least six other siblings were alive during Jesus’ ministry, the last reference to Joseph is when Jesus was twelve. With no mention of Joseph at the wedding in Cana, scholars assume that he was dead by that time. It’s clear that Mary was a widow by the crucifixion because Jesus entrusted her care to the Apostle John. Mary’s widowhood might be one reason for the ministry delay. As the eldest son, Jesus had family duties and couldn’t leave the family until His brothers were old enough (and skilled enough) to support the large family.

Before the Messiah could arrive, a forerunner was necessary. Jesus couldn’t begin His ministry until John the Baptist had prophesied His arrival. About six months older than Jesus, John was in his mid-twenties when he became a prophet and time was needed for his message to become known. Thirty also was considered the age when men reached their full maturity. Moreover, the frankincense given to Jesus as a baby signified His priesthood and it was at thirty that scribes were admitted to office and men could become priests.

Perhaps the main reason for waiting until He was thirty is simply that Jesus needed to mature. Paul tells us that, “Even though He was God’s Son, He learned obedience from the things He suffered.” [Hebrews 5:8] We know Jesus suffered on Calvary but, in those thirty years spent growing up, He suffered the other things we mortals inevitably do: loss, injury, illness, rejection, and pain. Boys aren’t born with qualities like self-discipline, patience, perseverance, or courage; those qualities are developed. Jesus may have been God but the boy Jesus had to become a man.

Perhaps waiting until He was thirty was simply so that Jesus, like the rest of us, would learn to appreciate God’s timing. While God’s time schedule often is not the schedule we’d choose, He’s always right on time. Jesus may have been God but, like the rest of us, He had to wait patiently for God’s perfect timing.

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. … Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. [Hebrews 2:14a,17 (NLT)]

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