Sunday, July 20, 2003

Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.

We certainly see Psalm 23 often in our worship. It is a Psalm that provides comfort and peace, as we see the Lord our God described as the One who provides everything we could possibly need in this life - food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love.

In the New Testament, the term 'shepherd' is synonymous with 'pastor'. As we look at these passages, we tend to think of the shepherd in spiritual terms - our shepherd is the one who cares for our spiritual needs, just like the pastor of our church. Yet, in ancient Hebrew, the word for shepherd often refers to a ruler - not one who rules with an iron fist, but one who cares for the needs of his people. So, when the Psalmist said, "The Lord is my shepherd," he was not just thinking about his spiritual or religious needs. He was placing the Lord as shepherd of his whole life, ruler of all his needs.

Unfortunately, in the days of Jeremiah the shepherds were leading the sheep astray - the civil and spiritual leaders. There was no one to keep God's people together and safe. God speaks through Jeremiah and says, "Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" He warned the rulers that they would be punished for their deeds. Then He said, "And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply. And I will set up shepherds over them, who shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking."

Then Jeremiah points toward the coming of the Messiah, the Righteous One who would reign wisely and restore the people to the Kingdom of God. Jeremiah lived in the divided kingdom, where Judah and Israel had their own kings, priests and prophets. This is not how God intended it to be. Jeremiah says, "In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely." He would break down the walls of division that has separated God's people.

The Messiah did come, and His name is Jesus. Jesus was ministering throughout the land, touching the lives of many with His words of peace and the Kingdom of God. He touched their flesh by healing their ills and their souls by granting forgiveness. Then He appointed twelve men to go out and be shepherds for the people, doing everything He was doing. Mark 6:12-13 says, "And they went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them." They became like shepherds to the people, caring for their needs and speaking the kingdom of God into their lives.

Today's Gospel lesson begins with their return from ministry. Imagine how incredible it must have been for these twelve men? They had seen the power of God at work through their lives. They were excited when they returned to Jesus, telling Him everything they had done. I can almost see the confusion as James and John wouldn't let the either get a word in edgewise before interrupting with his own version, Andrew praising God for the lives changed and Peter trying to get things organized in some way. What about Judas? He must have cast out demons and healed the sick just like the rest of them.

They didn't even have time to rest before the people came looking for them. Not only were they seeking Jesus now, but they knew that the disciples also had this power to change lives. Jesus was concerned for their health - physical as well as emotional and spiritual. He took them away so that they could rest and eat, but they also needed time away from the admiration of the crowd so that they would not become proud of these accomplishments, but to remember it was God's power.

When they slipped away by boat, the people saw where they were headed and ran to meet them on the shore. Jesus saw the people, who needed so much, and He had mercy on them. They were like the sheep that had been scattered and they needed shepherds who could meet their needs -- all their needs.

So, He began to teach. The day ended much too quickly and the people were far from home. We do not hear the stories which follow - the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water - yet they are worthwhile to mention. Jesus was preaching to the people and the disciples came to Him. "The place is desert, and the day is now far spent; send them away, that they may go into the country and villages round about, and buy themselves somewhat to eat." Jesus said, "Give ye them to eat."

Now, remember, these guys just came home from the most amazing 'revival tour' where they had been doing the work of God in extraordinary ways. Yet, when Jesus told them to feed the people, they answered in a huff, "Where are we supposed to get food? Even if we could, we don't have the money to feed so many!" Jesus told them to find some bread and they found five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed it and they fed the people, with baskets full of leftovers.

Then Jesus sent the disciples in the boat and dismissed the people. They didn't get very far on the sea because the wind was bad, but it was far enough from shore to make it difficult for Jesus to get to them. Yet, He walked on the waves and approached the boat. They were afraid because they did not know who it could be. "It is a ghost!" they cried. Jesus told them not to be afraid. "It is I." I can almost hear Him saying, "I am the good shepherd who has come to set you free from fear and pain, who has come to take away your hunger and give you peace."

These men, who mere hours before had been so excited about the work of God through their lives, still had trouble with faith. They needed these two lessons, these two reminders to keep their feet on the ground. Verse 52 even tells us that they did not understand what happened and their hearts were hardened.

We return to the Gospel lesson with the boat landing at Gennesaret. The people recognized Jesus and ran to Him with their sick. We see in these few verses a great deal of faith, faith that Jesus would change their lives. The people begged Jesus to let them touch Him and all who did so were healed. Interesting contrast, isn't it? These men whom Jesus had chosen to continue His work - who had known the power themselves - were as unbelieving as His opponents, but the people of the countryside who had only heard of Him came running for His healing touch.

I wonder if we don't do the same thing with our faith. We believe in Jesus, we've seen His power in our lives. But when something out of our control happens, we grumble and moan or are afraid of what it means. We don't expect God to feed five thousand or walk on water and we lose heart. Do we also misunderstand the things Jesus does and harden our hearts against His power in our lives? Do we think that was for them, but not for us? Do we accept things as they are without expecting God to do the miraculous?

One thing is certain; Jesus' ministry broke down walls between people. He reached beyond the Jews and touched the lives of all those who had faith. Surely in such crowds there would have been both Jews and non-Jews, but Jesus did not concern Himself with their heritage. He simply loved them and met their needs. In the verses that follow today's lesson, we see the Pharisees begin their quest to discredit Jesus and the disciples. Jesus was not an ordinary problem for them.

The questions about Jesus and those who He came to save would continue well beyond the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul had to deal with the misconceptions in the early churches. Ephesus was a very large port city with visitors - merchants and pilgrims - from all over the world. Paul preached to huge crowds in the city and the church flourished for some time. Many of the Christians were not converted Jews. They were Gentiles, welcomed into the Kingdom of God by the blood of Christ. The shepherd promised in Jeremiah would not only reconcile Judah and Israel. He would draw all who believe into the flock and give them peace.

Paul writes, "For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition." Jesus broke down the walls that divide us, giving us all the power to be saved and making us One body. "He came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh." He doesn't worry about who we are or from whence we come. He is that Shepherd who by His Spirit, His power, gives us all access to the One who meets our needs, the Father who provides all good things for our physical, emotional and spiritual welfare. He brought us into the reign of the righteous King whose rule is just and right.

Paul writes, "So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit." We are recipients of the promise, no longer separate but one with all those who believe. We are pieces of the whole, bricks in the wall that is being built. It is not a wall that divides, but a wall that encloses the people of God with the peace that passes all human understanding. The words of the Psalmist are as true to us as they were to him so long ago. The Lord is our Shepherd. He provides everything we could possibly need in this life - food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love.

We may still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that we have no wants with Him as our Shepherd. Let us always remember the words of Jesus, "It is I," and walk in faith that He can do the extraordinary in the lives of even the most ordinary people. Do not harden your hearts like the disciples when you do not understand what He is doing, but go forth in faith knowing that even a touch on His robe will bring you healing and peace.

Thanks be to God.

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