Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

And he came forth and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.

In the days of the early church, the apostles found themselves caught up in the business of the organization. They were organizing the food bank, and doing other work that was taking them away from the work of preaching and teaching the scriptures. They knew this was a problem, and in Acts 6 they chose men to do that work so that they could focus on prayer and ministry of the word. I’m sure they didn’t mind doing the work, serving their neighbors, but that work was keeping them from doing what they were called and gifted to do. There was no reason for this, since there were capable and gifted people who could do it.

There is sometimes good reason to be distracted from the work we should be doing. My job as a retail manager was to run the store. I had a very specific job description that included jobs that were beyond the scope of the employees. They were not responsible for the financial aspects of the store or for hiring new employees. They did not have the authority to fire other employees or assign them work. While the job descriptions of those in our retail store were somewhat flexible (a cashier might be asked to stock shelves), they generally had their own work and stuck to it.

There were times, however, when it was necessary for me to jump in and help. I might jump onto a cash register if we had a sudden influx of customers. I might unload a truck if our warehouse guy was on vacation. I might stock a shelf if we ran out of a popular item. Though it was not part of my job, I would do it in an emergency. It was important that I didn’t let it disrupt my own work. I could not be on the register if I had to receive an order of change from the armored truck driver. I could not be hiding in the warehouse during a busy time in the store; I had to be available to handle problems. I could not let the employees tasks keep me from doing my own job.

That seems to be what was happening to the early church. Though the apostles did not think those tasks were beneath them, ‘waiting on tables’ had gotten in the way of ministering the word. They needed to give those responsibilities to others so that they could do what they were called to do.

Now, I’m sure there are many pastors out there who wish their congregations would understand this passage a little better. After all, how many pastors are viewed as the fall to guy for all the work of the church? How many pastors change the toilet paper or produce the bulletins? How many attend every meeting and get involved in every project? How many members expect those pastors to be available every minute of every day, and yet think that pastor only works an hour a week? Do they even know how much time it takes to do ministry of the word? “Oh, he’s just reading.” “Oh he’s just surfing the internet.” “Oh, he’s just writing some notes.” “Oh, he’s just praying.”

Yes, sometimes lay people put a very low priority on prayer and yet it is a vital part of ministry. Unfortunately, I think too many pastors are left with too little time to pray because they are jumping in to do the work that needs to be done, work that belongs to the lay people in the church.

Now, our scriptures for today do not really focus on this particular problem when it comes to pastoral care. Unfortunately, there are some pastors who have lost touch with the reality of what it is to be a minister of the word. They focus on other things. They choose to be on every committee so that they can have control of every event. They jump in and do the work not because there is no one to do it but because they want it done their way. Instead of being a shepherd who cares for the sheep, he becomes a shepherd who destroys and scatters the sheep.

There are those who see their position not as a shepherd but as a ruler. They forget that their job it so lead the sheep into doing what God has called them to do, and thus forces them to do what he thinks they should do. There are those who are more interested in power than in service. They are more interested in changing the world than in caring for the sheep. Those pastors who jump in and do everything are not necessarily harmful, but they are taking away opportunities for their flock to serve God. The pastors who see themselves as rulers, however, are very dangerous. They turn Christians to a false Gospel. They lead them down a path that no longer glorifies God, but rather glorifies men. They cause people to turn their focus from God’s work to their own.

The shepherds in Jeremiah’s day were not leading God’s people. In this case, the prophet is talking about the kings, who were often referred to as shepherds. The kings were not meant to lord over the people, but to care for them. The king was calld to ensure the well being of the people, to protect them from enemies and guide them in the right path. For God’s chosen kings, that right path was faith in God. However, Judah (and Israel) often followed other gods. They turned to allies rather than relying on God. They were drawn into the ways of the world rather than living according to God’s commands.

In today’s Old Testament passage, God warned Judah’s rulers that they had failed and that they would no longer have His blessing. They had failed to care for God’s people and God was ready to take over. He promises to take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, He would take care of them by calling them to account; they would experience the same measure of care they gave to those they were called to lead. In other words, they will suffer the same lack of compassion as the sheep they were given.

God never speaks threatening words without offering a promise. The promise is not meant to ease the burden on the guilty, but rather so that the godly will not despair in the midst of the suffering they will experience. “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.” Times will be tough, but there hope beyond this day and this problem. The fulfillment of the promise would be long in coming. The passage ultimately points to the coming of the great Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. The promise of a Messiah gave hope to many generations in the darkest of days: one day the evil and unfaithful kings would be set aside for a perfect and righteous rule.

The king to come would be a true shepherd, like the shepherd we hear about in today’s Psalm. The words of the psalmist is a song of trust in God, but we see them through Jesus colored glasses, recognizing in Him the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Jesus is the promised Messiah. He is the Shepherd King. He is the One who will take care of us. Psalm 23 offers us a glimpse of God’s concern for our whole beings. The Lord makes us rest in green pastures where there is plenty of food and clean water. He keeps us from evil and protects us from our enemies. He meets our physical and emotional needs. He gives us a home, a family and everything we need to survive. He gives us our identity.

Did God hand me the keys to my house or go grocery shopping for me? No, of course not. Just as it is not the responsibility for the store manager to stock the shelves or the pastor to print the bulletins, God is not in the business of doing our work for us. But we trust that He will supply what we need to live in this world. We trust that He will walk with us. That He will lead us down the right path. We trust that He will rain goodness and mercy on our lives, even when we find ourselves in bad times.

See, God doesn’t promise us a life of roses and butterflies. We live in a world where people make mistakes. We have leaders that do not do what is right. We fail to be what God has called us to be. Because we live in an imperfect world, our life will be imperfect. We will have to walk through dark valleys. But God has promised to be with us. He has fulfilled His promise in Christ Jesus. Through Him we are forgiven for our failures and we are gifted with the ability to forgive those who hurt us.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greets the returning apostles who have been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest. He led them to the boat and took them to a quiet place, but the people saw them.

Now, if you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed a shepherd, they needed a Messiah.

Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what He’d been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.

Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and break down the middle wall of partition.” Jesus broke down walls and crossed borders. He reconciled people to God and to one another. He drew them together into one flock. On the cross Jesus destroyed the hostility that exists between people. Paul was specifically addressing the enmity between Gentile and Jew, but we have other hostilities to face in our world. Jesus broke those walls on the cross also.

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.” In Christ we are being built into one temple, the temple in which God dwells.

He is the head of that temple. He is the one in charge. He is the one who guides the way. Unfortunately, human nature tends toward wanting control. From the very beginning we wanted to be God. Peter and the other apostles understood that they couldn’t do it all, so they found others to do the work that was keeping them from ministry of the Word. A good pastor will allow the congregation to do the work they are gifted to do. A good pastor will step in when necessary, but will not rule over others. He will trust in God, follow God’s will and do God’s work in the world.

Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that He is our Good Shepherd. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.

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