Friday, February 27, 2009

Psalms 23 - Part V

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. Psalms 23:1-6 (NKJV)


Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;

The Valley of the Shadow of Death Redux

One of the funniest, most intense, amazing and revealing stories in the Gospels is when the Good Shepherd leads His sheep through the valley of the shadow of death—not literally, but certainly in principle.

23 Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. 24 And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the
boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. 25 Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" 26 But He said to them, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?" Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 So the men marveled, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" Matthew 8:23-27

The Boat is Like the Church

Jesus’ sheep found out that they were safe in the care of their shepherd even in the valley of the shadow of death. They had followed Him into the boat that night and suddenly a storm hit. Doesn’t that sound familiar? I have heard many people say things like, “My life used to be easy, but when I decided to follow Jesus, all hell broke loose.” Just like that night long ago, His present day sheep follow Jesus into the boat of the Church, (the vehicle designed by God to take us to the proverbial other side) and everyone outside seems to be safely on shore while we go through many fierce storms.

Waking the Shepherd

In the midst of a horrifying storm that night, on the brink of disaster, as the shadow of death had been cast over them, His sheep became gripped with fear and finally woke the shepherd. I’ll bet if they had a cell phone they would have called the Coast Guard first. It is a sad testimony how bad life has to get before many sheep wake the Good Shepherd. People are quick to blame God for their misfortune, shrugging their shoulders and glibly asserting that He works in mysterious ways, but never spend much energy crying out for Him to save them.

The importance of the raw energy of desperation aimed at waking Jesus like the disciples did that evening has much biblical precedence. Remember the following stories that show our need to appeal to the Good Shepherd in a gutsy, robust and consistent way:

  1. Blind Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52)
  2. The parable of the woman with the unjust judge. (Luke 18: 1-8)
  3. The woman with the issue of blood. (Matthew 9: 19-22)
  4. The Syro-Phoenician woman. (Mark 7: 26-30)

Sheep Are Not Very Smart

Next, Jesus wakes up and banishes the storm like a shepherd chasing off a predator. Imagine the disciples as sheep, not understanding the intelligence, power, authority or the strength of a competent human shepherd. Jesus is as high above His disciples as Heaven is above earth, drawing his power from a source that these men cannot even grasp. They are bleating like confused and terrified lambs facing a lion and Jesus uses the power of his heavenly influence to silence the storm—it is a power his sheep do not yet comprehend.

Eternal truth: No sheep of the Good Shepherd ever needs to fear evil.

But here’s the rub… Jesus criticizes their fear. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me. He doesn’t comfort and coddle their fears; He confronts their fear and identifies their pitiful lack of faith as an unacceptable but correctable flaw. He is introducing them to a new reality that goes beyond human power to the realm of Divine authority. This is the invasion of the kingdoms of this world by the Kingdom of our God. Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The
kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!" Revelation 11:15

For You Are With Me

The aspect of Jesus being present but asleep is what adds almost a comedic aspect to this story and gives the sense of a Divine set-up. First of all, why go to a sleeping preacher for help with a boating problem in the first place? At least a few of the disciples were fishermen by trade and Jesus as a rabbi/carpenter would really add nothing to their technical ability to navigate the storm. But still they cried out, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” When all else fails, pray.

I have been amazed in my ministry as a pastor how some people cling to self-sufficiency and resist asking for help even though they are not in the least bit equipped to handle the storms of life. In some cases a person may be entrusted with a brand new ministry assignment and then resent accountability and input as if it is interference by the covering leadership. Only this desperate life-threatening storm, suddenly and violently blowing up and catching the disciples off guard penetrated their pride and terrified them enough to wake Jesus. But God was proving that nobody in Jesus boat ever needs to be afraid.

And, even as Jesus was asleep in the boat, now we must accept His silent presence by faith and trust His ability to save us from life's storms. Consider the following Scriptures showing Jesus present power and presence:

  1. All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20
  2. "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20
  3. "I will never leave you nor forsake you." Hebrews 13:5
  4. "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. John 14:23
  5. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Hebrews 13:8
  6. "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever-- John 14:16
  7. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. John 14:18

Monday, February 23, 2009

Psalms 23 - Part IV

Next verse says, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalms 23:2b

The various paths of life have been contemplated by philosophers, theologians and poets throughout history and our universal desire to feel like we are traveling on a road that makes sense and has purpose is an important element to living with satisfaction. On the other hand, feeling lost, stuck or dissatisfied in life brings heartsickness and regret—these are the bitter pills swallowed when we realize how much time has been wasted walking down a wrong road.

In Dante Alighieri’s famous 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, the opening tells of a Christian man who, in the middle of his life, realizes that he has strayed from the good path:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante sounds like a sheep that has lost his shepherd.

He goes on to vividly describe the awful feelings of both terror and bitterness at the memory of finding himself in this place, and admits that he does not remember how he got there because he was slumbering when he abandoned the true way. He says that being lost in that place was as bitter as death.

This is an excellent description of the feeling of disorientation and almost dizzying groping for direction when life turns out badly. The flow of modern culture, peer pressure, personal preference, bad decisions, familial expectations and the path of least resistance can combine to create a tyranny of gravity that brings us downstream in life and dumps many of us into Dante’s forest. That’s why no decision is always a bad decision and courage is mandatory for a child of God.

“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

If you feel lost and alone today, cry out to the Good Shepherd. He will wash your wounds, quiet your confusion, give you fresh hope and set your feet on a beautiful, sunlit path:

I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me, And heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, And established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth--Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will trust in the LORD. Psalms 40:1-3

The Shepherd leads His sheep in paths of righteousness ‘for His name’s sake.’ The great purpose of God is bigger than any one of us. It is ‘for His name’s sake’ that He actively watches over His Word to perform it. It is in God’s personal interest to safely lead His sheep because He has invested His Son’s life in ensuring the success of His plan. When you adopt God’s purpose you inherit the full resources of Heaven and all of the promises of God become your arsenal for success.

He is literally more committed to your success than you are because His name, His reputation and His success is the top priority, the most valuable substance and the highest authority in the universe. It is Almighty God’s central purpose to make a name on earth for His Son, Jesus Christ.

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

There is no greater purpose, no greater cause and no greater reward promised to the children of men than to those who follow the Good Shepherd. When we follow the Good Shepherd, we look beyond the confines of this life into eternity itself and we join God the Father’s sworn purpose.

Further down, in the opening lines of the Inferno, while still in the forest Dante follows a dark valley to a mountain foot and then looks up and can see the sun shining far away up on the mountaintop. Just the sight of the sunlight begins to immediately quiet his fears.

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." John 8:12

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, will lead you in the paths of righteousness if you put your life in His hands. But remember, it is not primarily for the personal fame or aggrandizement of any sheep that Jesus promises paths of righteousness; it is for His name’s sake.

God bless you, I wish you the best. I want only good things for God’s entire household; however God did not’t send Jesus primarily for our personal gain. He came for His own name’s sake. And, the sooner a child of God can come to terms and their ego can live with that, it is a wonderful liberating place to dwell.

Also important to our perspective is the fact that a shepherd is not of the same mind as his sheep. The shepherd, in fact, is a different species and has his own higher agenda than his sheep. The main responsibility of sheep is to learn to trust the shepherd whether they understand his agenda or not.

The Good Shepherd’s agenda, by the way, is destroying His enemies and so exalting His name. When we accept this, it is infinitely liberating because we realize that life is not all about self. Life lived for self is slavery in the despotic kingdom of Me. It’s all about my self esteem: the greatness I can attain, the fame I can gain, the wealth I can amass, the power I can garner, the comfort I can pad myself with—it is the kingdom of Me.

The pressure is great in the kingdom of Me because each person only has several decades at the most to reach the top of the mountain and after that, it is all down hill. In the kingdom of Me I have to measure myself by everyone around me to know if I am doing well or not. When I am following the Good Shepherd, He leads me in paths of righteousness that He has chosen for me and He rewards me for my simple obedience even more than my self-glorifying sacrifice or my relative success in comparison to others.

When it is about Jesus, I live as His servant—I love Him, follow Him, I get to work for His good and for the good of His kingdom all the days of my life. And it doesn’t matter where He asks me to serve. I’ll serve with all vigilance, and I’ll serve with a heart of gusto, praise and joy.

Why? Because it’s for His name’s sake and I am but His humble servant. This is a purpose bigger than me! Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). As I follow the Good Shepherd, I become part of the inner circle of eternity—and there is no higher thing to desire in all the universe.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Psalms 23 - Part III

The first part of Psalms 23, verse three says, “He restores my soul”

Compare with Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

In Psalms 23:3 the word restores, in the original language, means “movement back to the point of departure.”[1] The Good Shepherd restores your soul back to a place of rest in the confidence of being loved, protected, forgiven and eternally secure. He cleanses your conscience, quiets your fears, accepts you, blesses you, encourages you and gives you His righteousness as a free gift. He lifts off your heavy burdens and gives you rest from the pressure of self sufficiency. He brings your soul back into peaceful fellowship with God.

There are a lot of people who need rest for their souls. Someone might be in the midstream of life; problems seem insurmountable, relationships unfulfilling, hope is dim, life is either hard or just not fun, your friends are boring, the economy is scary or you’re stuck in some no-win job. This soul-stress can happen to you if you’re a student, young adult, grown-up or ancient of days... it doesn’t matter. Many in our world today labor and are exceedingly burdened with their own problems, the problems of their children, the problems of the world.

Even keeping track of our political landscape and reading the newspapers can be gut-wrenching. For example, we’re recently told that if we do not pass a trillion dollar Federal spending plan (of money we don’t have) we are facing a national catastrophe. The stock market melts down, jobless rates soar, the new president blames every problem on his predecessor and the opposition party screams bloody murder.

And so we march on and continue to labor and bear the heavy burden of our own lives and feel the pressure of the world around us. So many people walk around with a great heaviness upon them, and yet the promise offered is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will restore your soul. You will find rest for your soul.

Jesus can do this because He rules eternity (Matthew 28:18) which gives Him the power to protect His own (Luke 10:19). He is able to supernaturally provide peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7), to quiet your storm (Matthew 8:23-27), to heal, bless, cleanse and purify your heart. He can break the chains that bind you and break you out of jail (Acts 16: 25-26). He is the Good Shepherd. “The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Therefore, no matter what happens on planet earth—with your children, your job, your career, your marriage or with the world around you—the Good Shepherd is able to restore your soul. If you are tired of the pain and burden of life: come to Jesus today.

There is a famous evangelist and TV preacher named James Robison who, in his book entitled Thank God, I’m Free, tells a story about a time in his life that, even while he preached the gospel, there was evil and lust in his heart. He describes a feeling of having a claw in his brain and a deep unhappiness in his soul. Through a trusted friend he finally submitted himself, reluctantly, to a man who prayed and rebuked the devil. Robison said he felt no immediate change so he politely thanked the man and showed him the door. Three days later, however, he woke up in the morning with his soul completely restored and the glory of God filling his heart. He restores my soul.

One quick sidebar: The way that many Christians veer off course and end up with battered souls in the first place is from neglecting the commandment to love. Some people start out strong in the faith and receive the free gift of God’s love but never purposely invest love back into others. Because of this, their love-tank is not refilled and they end up empty of love. Failure to consistently put any heartfelt effort into loving God, their spouse, parents, children, neighbors, or the poor and needy, results in an unhappy existence, devoid of the true riches of Christianity. This is a great paradox: Christians who do not sow love into others but expect to reap love from life. These are people who do not feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the fatherless or even put effort into prayer and worship. They are loveless. And, loveless people will eventually seek cheap substitute pleasures from the flesh unless they come to their senses and yield to the Good Shepherd.

How to have your soul restored:
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30

The instruction is to Come, Take, and Learn:

  • Come – Bring all of your cares and burdens to Jesus with the confident expectation that He has the power to give you rest. Jesus represents absolute security and has absolute power. He is: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Nothing can penetrate the safety of His resting place—this is a promise of God’s Word and therefore, absolute truth.

    Psalms 91 speaks of abiding in the secret place of the Most High and says: “though a thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked” (Psalms 91:7-8). Come to Jesus and He will give you rest.

  • Take – Taking Jesus’ yoke is allowing His burden to be your burden. It is to love what He loves and hate what He hates. It is to involve yourself in His business and to leave the worry of your business to His care. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world--the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”1 John 2:15-17

  • Learn – I’ve heard preachers say that one way to look at this passage is through the idea of a two-yoke team of oxen pulling together, the younger learning from the elder. Jesus, the elder, offers to personally yoke Himself together with His student. Be forewarned, however, that this is humble work. “I am gentle and lowly in heart” In other words, the one you are yoked with is not by nature a party animal or a trouble maker. You cannot race ahead of Him or follow some other path of your own choosing. He values peace over contention, humility over prowess. He is extremely strong, very consistent, loving and protective. If you take His yoke and learn from Him, He will restore your soul. His yoke is easy and His burden is light because He does all the hard work and it is His good pleasure to share the victory with you. Learn from Jesus—adopt His values, care about what He cares about and love what He loves and you will find rest for your soul.

If your soul is restored you can dream, think clearly, love, keep promises, plan, hope and see God in the fabric of life. Your heart is not eaten up with anger, fear, anxiety, lust or inappropriate ambitions. If your soul is restored you can believe, and "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes." Mark 9:23

Friday, February 6, 2009

Psalms 23 - Part II

"The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His names’ sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Continuing from last week, the next part of Psalms 23, verse 2 says, “He leads me beside the still waters.”

Compare with:

Matthew 13:1-3, “On the same day, Jesus went out of this house and sat by the sea. Great multitudes came and were gathered together to Him so that He got into a boat and sat, and the whole multitude stood on the shores. And He spoke many things to them in parables.”

In the first installment we saw that Jesus made His sheep to lie down in green pastures and now the Good Shepherd (John 10), literally leads them beside the still waters. If the waters were at all rough or choppy that day, the sound of the surf and the wind combined with the rocking of His boat would have made it impossible for Jesus to ‘speak many things in parables’ to this great multitude of people gathered on the shore. The water must have been very still. In doing this He was fulfilling a prophecy from one thousand years before, revealing Himself as the Lord and Shepherd of David’s Psalm 23. He leads me beside the still waters.

It is amazing that being by the water makes people feel better. Whether it is the ocean, a lake, river, pond, pool, stream or even a water-feature in the back yard, we are universally drawn to water. As a younger person I frequently visited the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, famous for dense forests and beautiful cold mountain lakes. I have vivid memories of the calming and therapeutic effect on my soul of standing beside the still waters of Long Lake.

There’s also something about being able to hear the voice of God when you’re by the water. If you’re a land lubber like me, just walking along a beach or waterfront starts your mind thinking God-ward thoughts right away. It just happens automatically. Matthew 13 says Jesus simply sat by the sea and the people gathered to Him. He then launched out a short way from the shore and spoke from the boat.

I think there is an interesting correlation in this story to Genesis chapter one, verse two, when the Spirit of God is moving across the face of the water and God begins to speak creation into existence. It also ties to the time when Jesus walks (or moves) across the face of the water in the dark of night. In Genesis chapter one, this is the beginning of God speaking the creation of the heavens and the earth into being and here is Jesus sitting in a boat (on the face of the water), speaking new life to broken humanity.

The greater lesson for us is that Jesus wants to lead His present day sheep beside the still waters as well. There is an openness of mind and heart that comes to your soul when you gather yourself peacefully with the other sheep in a place designed for you to drink deeply of the waters of life.

“And He spoke many things and many parables” When they were gathered in that peaceful place, Jesus entertained them with interesting stories and deep life lessons about God. They were led beside the still waters by the Good Shepherd Himself; it was a place designed to refresh their souls like sheep drinking fresh water from a crystal clear lake. The sheep of His fold, gathered safely around the Good Shepherd, and He taught them many things and many parables, quenching the thirst of their hearts with the water of His words.

Another story in the Gospel tells of a time when people were so uplifted and inspired by Jesus words that one woman was completely beside herself: “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" But He said, "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" Luke 11:27-28. Imagine—her heart was simply overflowing with love for the Good Shepherd!

If the Lord is your Shepherd and you will allow Him to, He will lead you beside the still waters and speak many wonderful things to your soul. If you will join His sheepfold (aka the Church) He will lead you beside the still waters. He will quench your thirst and give you freely of the water of life.

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is not looking to give you a life of such burden and busyness that you do not know if you are coming or going. As a matter of fact, He always knows when His sheep need a good refreshing drink. Christian life is not just about rules and responsibilities; it is, much more, about drinking the waters of life; having ones soul restored by the Good Shepherd.