Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 20:17-35
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God.

Paul never shrank from doing the work God called him to do, even when it was difficult work. I suppose in some ways God didnít give him much choice. After all, he was called in the most unusual fashion, with a vision that was beyond description and beyond rejection. Can you say ďNoĒ to God when He comes to you in such an intense and real way?

In todayís passage, Paul told the elders of Ephesus that despite his love for them and for the work he was doing among them, he had to go to Jerusalem. This was not going to be a pleasure trip: the Spirit was clear that Paul would face imprisonment and afflictions. He wasnít concerned. He knew that everything he experienced was under the control of God.

We often talk about Paulís arrogance, if thatís the right word for it, but Paul was really a very humble and obedient man. He says, ďBut I hold not my life of any account as dear unto myself, so that I may accomplish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.Ē His flesh didnít matter to him; the ministry did. If scourging or martyrdom would spread the Gospel of Christ and glorify God, then he was willing to go through it.

Though he knew he did not have a choice but to go to Jerusalem, Paul was concerned for the people of Ephesus. He knew he would never see them again, and he knew that their future would be full of similar difficulties. Paul was talking to the leaders of the Ephesian church, those who had been given the responsibility to take care of the flock. They were the shepherds, Godís helpers. But the duty of those leaders was to be the voice of Christ, to speak His Word to the people and to keep them safe from those who would come to twist the scriptures to their benefit.

The Church was bought by a heavy price: the blood of Jesus Christ, Godís Son. He took the life of His people very seriously. He is concerned that they stay on the right path, that they live as He has called them to live. If we think about the history of Godís people, we can see that it isnít as easy to live according to Godís Word as it seems. After all, generations of people have come before us. It only took a few generations for the people to turn away from God and follow the ways of the world. Though there were faithful judges and kings to shepherd the people, their sons often turned to other gods. It took catastrophic events to cause the people to return to Him. And then theyíd be faithful for a generation or two, quickly forgetting all that Heíd done for them.

We might think that as we live under the grace of God that we will be more faithful than those previous generations, but we face the same temptations. We can be led astray by the expectations of the world and the ways of people who have selfish or self-righteous ambitions. The fierce wolves about which Paul warned the Ephesian elders were men who would try to twist the Gospel and lead people astray.

Paul may have been talking to a specific group of men, but it is a warning for every generation. It does not take long for a false gospel to sound right, especially when it tickles the ears of those listening. We can see examples of this in the church today. Leaders get rich selling a gospel that is far from the one Jesus taught. Some churches ignore the reality that we are sinners in need of a Savior and teach that God came so that we might have everything we want. Others put the emphasis on the works of man. Many of these leaders seek fame or a following and will do whatever is necessary to get it. They create division in the church to ensure that they will keep their position and power. This is no different than the leaders in Jesusí day that killed him for their own sake.

But the leaders of Godís church are meant to be like Paul: humble, obedient and unafraid. He spoke the truth with passion, despite the reality that it would get him killed. Are any of us willing to do the same? Are we willing to tell those wolves that they are wrong? Are we willing to go against the expectations of the world and do Godís will over menís? As leaders of todayís church, we have to be shepherds that protect the flock from the wolves. We have to be Christ-like, doing His work as God intends.

In todayís scriptures we have an image of God as the Good Shepherd, a comforting image for most people. Though we do not know what it is like to be a shepherd, we do know that the shepherd loves his sheep so much that he takes care of their every need. He protects them from danger, ensures that they are fed and leads them to the best food. We see those images in the Psalm for today, along with some other aspects of the life of sheep and shepherds. Sometimes we do not consider the importance of those other things, since water, food and shelter are so vital to our existence.

Yet, the Good Shepherd provides all the needs of his sheep. He makes the sheep lie down. How many of us could use someone to tell us to go to rest, especially when we get ourselves caught up in so many activities? He leads the sheep beside still waters. Our hectic lives are often chaotic like the churning waters of a fast running river. We need someone who will make us slow down, walk carefully along a better path, a safer path. He leads the sheep in right paths; He helps us to make the right decisions, to do the right things according to His Word. The most comforting thing about this Psalm is the reminder that God is with us. He is with the sheep.

Thatís the key message for this week: God is present among His people, His sheep. He is there doing miraculous things, and yet He is doing them in ordinary ways with ordinary people. And He calls us to do the same among His people. We are tempted to offer so many activities that we are constantly busy, but perhaps we should be encouraging one another to practice a Sabbath rest. We are tempted to go our own way, but we are called to follow a very narrow path. We are called to be Godís presence among the people and in the world, and to do so demands a faithfulness that is extraordinary. We cannot go our own way.

In todayís lesson, Jesus was in the temple for the Festival of Dedication. This was the Jewish festival we now know as Hanukkah. It was different then; it was newóa remembrance of an event that had happened just two hundred years prior to Jesus. It was a memorial of a miraculous event in the days of the Maccabees. The temple had been profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes as he tried to make the entire world worship and live as the Greeks. All Jewish practice was suspended for a time; no circumcision or Torah reading was allowed. But Judas Maccabeus refused to stand aside and allow his faith to be destroyed. After three years, the Maccabees took over the temple and restored it to the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the temple had been desecrated. Antiochus Ephiphanes had slaughtered a pig on the altar and poured urine over the furnishings. The building had been left to ruin because the priests could not continue their work. So, when Judas Maccabeus took control of the temple, the first thing that needed to be done was for the building to be rededicated to the Lord God. Unfortunately, there was no oil for the lamp, except a small portion that would light only one of the seven cups in the lampstand for a day. It would take eight days for new oil to be produced. They lit the one candle and it stayed lit for eight days, a sign to the people that God was with them. They realized that Godís holiness far exceeded the filth of creation.

Judas Maccabeus refused to allow the world to desecrate what God had given to His people. He took it back and it was restored to Godís glory. We need to do the same when those wolves who are dressed as shepherds try to desecrate Godís Church in our day. We need to reject those who would have us live according to their ways.

Jesus who is the Lamb and the Good Shepherd was at the Temple for the Feast of Dedication. The people wanted to know: are you who we think you are? ďHow long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly.Ē They, like all of us, wanted it spelled out in easy to understand language that fits their expectation. Jesus was the Messiah, but they couldnít see it because they were looking for someone to do it their way. They couldnít understand how the Messiah could really accomplish anything if He failed to live. They didnít understand that Godís work was not to conform to the world, but to overcome the world. Suffering and death donít fit when we are looking for prosperity and success.

Jesus was concerned about life, true life. We might want this life to be filled with the fulfillment of all our wishes and dreams; we want to be satisfied. But thatís not why Jesus came. He didnít come to make life easy or to give in to all our whims. He didnít come to make our foolishness acceptable to God. He came to restore us to Him, to overcome sin and death and to provide us with a new life. That life is meant to be lived under the care of God, following His path, doing His work. That means giving up the world. That means being a sheep, but not the kind of sheep that follows every voice. His voice is the only one that will lead us down the right path.

His voice is hard to hear in the cacophony of noises that we hear every day. Every generation faces it, but I think it might be even harder for us. We canít go to the market without being inundated with temptations. We even carry it with us, on our phones and tablets. We are entertained on television and in movies that make everything acceptable. Faith is ridiculed as something that is a way for people to blind themselves to the reality of life. God is a myth. Jesus is just another prophet or teacher. The Church is filled with hypocrites and sinners.

Of course, they are right about that last one, but what we donít see is that God embraces those who hear His voice and He gives them forgiveness and life. Yes, we fail, but Jesus died so that we might be forgiven. Yes, we wander away, chasing after our own wishes and dreams, but Jesus the Good Shepherd calls our names and draws us back into His presence. Those who do not believe do not hear His voice. They arenít sheep, they are of this world. And while it is up to us to share the Gospel with them, we must never allow ourselves to be conformed to the world. When the wolves come, we must be sure to remember the true Gospel, not follow the false gospels that lead us astray.

One of the hardest words of Jesus for us to understand is in todayís Gospel lesson. Jesus says, ďI have told you, and you do not believe.Ē I think this is hard for us to understand for two reasons. First of all, Iím not sure I have found anywhere in the scriptures where Jesus tells us plainly that He is really the Messiah. He says many things that lead us to believe in Him and know that He is indeed the Messiah, but plainly? The other thing that bothers me is that they do not believe because they are not Jesusí sheep. Doesnít God love all His creation? Doesnít He promise His grace to all? How can there be sheep that do not belong to Him?

His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive verb. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Paul heard and he believed. He went out and began preaching the message of the Gospel to all who would hear. The Jews heard, but they did not believe. They demanded proof. They wanted to see Jesus do and say what they expected from the Messiah, but Jesus didnít fit their mold. He refused to conform to their expectations because God had already proven Him. Jesusí authority and power were established in the signs (especially in Johnís Gospel) and in the words He spoke. Saying ďI am the MessiahĒ would not change their hearts.

Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of His identity and purpose. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and they did not hear because He was not what they wanted for a Messiah. He could not be a king; He could not deliver them from their enemy. His teachings were different than the established Jewish thought. They did not want to hear because they had rejected Him. He did not fit into their expectation, so they ignored His voice. They were not His and it was not because Jesus rejected them. They rejected Him.

The same was true for the Church in Ephesus and for us today. Unfortunately, the wolves are not only those who try to get us to conform to the world, but we often find them in our midst. They speak words that sound true but are far from God. They havenít heard His voice, but have followed another. While we can talk about the devil, we canít ignore the reality that the false voices are often our own. They seek the wrong things. They turn others away from God for their own benefit. They say and do what makes them feel good or fits into their own agenda. They turn from God and act as their own gods. Then they try to get others to follow.

It is up to us who have heard to speak like Paul, to humbly face whatever might befall us for the sake of the Gospel. Paul knew that he would die at the hands of men who did not believe. We might die, too. It is hard to imagine, especially in modern America, that we could be persecuted, beaten, imprisoned and killed for our faith, but it is always a possibility. And it saddens me to think about it, but I know that some of the readers of this devotional live in places where it is a reality. Christians are being hurt, imprisoned and killed all over the world on a daily basis.

Are we willing to be like Paul, speaking the whole counsel of God even though it might cause us pain and death? Are we responding to the urging of the Holy Spirit to go into the very center of the danger without fear, knowing that God is always near? Are we willing to reject the ways of the world and follow only Christ?

The passage from Revelation shows us a vision of heavenly worship, where a great multitude from every nation and tongue are standing before the throne of God in white. They are waving palms, just as been done in religious ceremony for generations. The symbolism here can mean many thingsóGodís victory, His hospitality, His peace and strength. It can represent the joy of the multitude and their thanksgiving for Godís blessings. The white of their robes does not come from their own righteousness, but because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, ďSalvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.Ē They sing praise and thanksgiving to God because the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever.

The wolves want it to belong to them. Paul knew the truth: it is all about God. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior. Are we ready to be His sheep, to follow Him wherever He leads? Our story might not be as extraordinary as Paulís, but we are called to do the same thing: to speak the truth, share the Gospel and live faithfully in this world. We might even be called to die. But whether at the hands of nature or man, death will bring one thing: the eternal life God has promised us.

Do not fear, for the Good Shepherd is near. Hear and believe. Go and speak and do as He has commanded. Who knows? Perhaps God has chosen you to be the vessel through which He will guard and protect and provide His sheep with everything they need. Or you might be the one to help them join the fold. Then we will spend eternity together singing Godís praise and thanksgiving at the foot of His throne.

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