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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SPEAK

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. [Mark 16:15 (ESV)]

zebra longwing butterflyMy latest exercise in learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus was both easy and difficult: I was to speak to one person about God, even if all I said was, “God is good” or “God loves you.” Since I write about God five days a week, said “God bless you!” to a friend, and talked about God with my pastor, I figured I was done, except I knew I wasn’t.

As with every abundance exercise I’ve been given, I wondered how this task led to an abundant life. When I took notice of God’s incredible creation in the first exercise, I joined the Psalmist in praise, thanksgiving, and worship. The second exercise entailed both acknowledgement of my sin and forgiveness, the third and fourth required me to encourage others and to be kind while expecting nothing in return. With last week’s assignment of sacrifice and this one of speaking about God, a common thread began to emerge: abiding in the Lord. Since we can’t abide in Him without being obedient to Him, each exercise involved obedience to His word. Both the Old and New Testaments tell us that obedience brings blessings—both to us and to others. The abundant life Jesus gives us is only realized when we truly are obedient to Him: when we abide in Him and He is us.

Obedience often means stepping out of our comfort zone and this exercise took me out of mine. Although talking about God with other believers and writing about Him in my blog fulfilled the letter of the assignment, it didn’t fulfill its spirit. Blessing someone when they sneeze or adding, ”God’s peace and joy,” to an email may be a start but they’re not the end of our Christian witness. Even though we’re called to proclaim the gospel to the world, many of us are hesitant to do that and our reticence is what prevents us from enjoying the richness of our faith. “To be a soul winner is the happiest thing in this world. And with every soul you bring to Jesus Christ, you seem to get a new heaven here upon earth,” are the words of evangelist Charles Spurgeon. His words tell us that he knew what it was to experience the abundant life in Christ; it’s “heaven here upon earth!”

It is our commitment to Jesus that brings His blessings and true commitment requires obedience, even when that means stepping forward in witness. We are blessed by God when we bless the lives of others and I can’t think of a better way to bless someone than to share the gospel message of God’s love and forgiveness. Obedience—abiding in Jesus and He in us—is the key to an abundant life of blessings.

It is the greatest pleasure of living to win souls to Christ. [Dwight L. Moody]

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. [Deuteronomy 28:1-2 (ESV)]

But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” [Luke 11:28 (ESV)]

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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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NEVER A STRANGER

Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! [Hebrews 13:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly weedThe story has been told of a shoemaker who dreamt that Jesus would come to his shop the following day. His dream was so realistic that he washed his shop windows and dusted every shelf in preparation for his holy guest. The man patiently waited at his bench for the Lord to arrive but the only person to come through his door that morning was an old man seeking shelter from the icy winter rain. When the cobbler looked down at the man’s wet feet, he saw toes poking out of his beat-up shoes. Selecting a new pair of shoes, the shoemaker sat the old man down, dried off his feet, gave him a fresh pair of socks, and fitted him with the new shoes. When the rain stopped, the old man went on his way.

Just about lunchtime, a shabbily dressed woman came into the store and asked if she could stay just long enough to get warm. When the cobbler opened up his lunch box, he saw the woman hungrily eyeing his sandwiches. “I’m not really hungry,” he said as he offered her his lunch. After the woman had eaten, warmed up, and departed, the shoemaker continued to wait for Jesus but no one else came through the door. As the disheartened man closed up shop that evening, he heard a child crying. Looking down, he saw a small boy huddled in the doorway. The tearful child explained that he’d gotten hopelessly lost while running errands. He knew his address but he didn’t know how to get there. Although the cobbler wanted to get home for dinner, he wiped the youngster’s eyes and nose, took his hand, and escorted him home.

After returning the boy to his family, the disappointed man turned back toward his shop and said a silent prayer of despair. “Lord, I was so sure you’d come—so sure that I’d see your face at my door! Where were you?” It was then that He heard a gentle voice tell him, “Shoemaker, lift up your heart. I was right there at your door three times today. You clothed me, fed me, and comforted me! Don’t you know that when you did those things to my children, you did them to me?”

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia, is a set of instructions for monastic living that has served as a guidebook to Christian discipleship for 1,500 years. Benedict opened chapter 53 with this statement, “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’” Just as Benedict directed the monks to see Christ in their guests, so we must see Christ in the people we encounter. Like the cobbler’s visitors, that person may look like an expense, interruption, or inconvenience; nevertheless, he is Christ. Our fictional cobbler welcomed three strangers at his door and received Christ as his guest. While becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others isn’t always easy, that’s what we’re called to do. Let us serve the Lord with gladness!

I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus. [Mother Teresa]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (NLT)]

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SECRET KINDNESS

deptford pink flowersDo nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (RSV)]

While we usually think of charity as giving to the poor, Biblical charity means love or agape: absolute love of God and universal good will to men. Not limited to gifts of money or goods, charity is any act of kindness or generosity to others. Perhaps Paul gave us the best definition of charity in his words to the Philippians—charity starts with caring for others more than we care for ourselves!

My next exercise in learning how to live an abundant life was one of charity, with the additional element of anonymity; I was to secretly do something kind and not get caught! This seemed better suited for another century when people left May baskets on doorstep. Nowadays, with surveillance cameras at every doorway and corner, it’s difficult to do anything without getting caught (and possibly shot)!

While I’d like to think we all regularly do kind things, we usually don’t keep our actions secret. “Kindness is the law of Christ’s kingdom,” said preacher Matthew Henry and our motivation for any kindness should be our desire for God’s approval rather than man’s. Nevertheless, we rarely make anonymous donations to charities and we often point out favors we’ve done so they don’t go unacknowledged! When Jesus said to keep the left hand from knowing what the right has done, he was telling us to keep our giving a secret. [Matthew 6:1-4] This exercise of doing a secret kindness, albeit a small one, was a way to understand what He meant. As Matthew Henry explained, “Do it because it is a good work, not because it will give thee a good name.” Giving, whether of money, goods, or good turns, is not a spectator sport.

I wondered how this exercise in anonymous kindness would lead to better experiencing the abundant life promised by Jesus until I remembered Jesus’ words found in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” The blessings given to us from God are far greater than any we could possibly give and yet it appears from His words that our blessings depend on the generosity of our spirit. Jesus, however, never promises those blessings will come back in kind. Leaving someone a May basket doesn’t mean we’ll get a basket on our doorstep and writing a check to a charity doesn’t mean we’ll get a larger check in tomorrow’s mail. Nevertheless, Jesus promises that we’ll get back more than we give. When we freely give of our love, joy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and grace while expecting neither recognition nor acknowledgement, God will refill our stockpile until it overflows. That is abundance!

If you want love and abundance in your life, give it away. [Mark Twain]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24-25 (RSV)]

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