THE BEAUTIFUL SHEPHERD & THE CHURCH IN THE 21ST CENTURY [PT. 3]

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[In parts 1 & 2 we highlighted the chief focus of Jesus’ teaching in Jn. 10:1-21, viz. ‘The Beautiful Shepherd’ and how he relates to his flock. We noted the reality of false shepherds and flocks, the character of the Chief Shepherd himself, and how his flock have to (by grace) learn to recognise his unique voice and follow his unique leading]

Close on 800 years before Jesus’ coming, there lived another master-shepherd (Heb. noqed) named Amos, a southerner from rural Tekoa (cf. pic above, taken from Herodion, south of Bethlehem), sent to the northern kingdom to challenge the social injustices of Israel. He was no rustic nincompoop – as my College Principal reminded us, he came to the kingdom with the Bible in one hand and The Jerusalem Times in the other. Much more to the point of our blog, the prophet speaks of God’s judgement in the form of ‘a famine of God’s word.’ (8:9-14)

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[Eastern Free State, on way to Thaba’Nchu, pic by Josefa Olivier]

As a result of El Nino and other factors, we in South Africa can presently relate to drought, that ultimately leads to famine – maybe the Church-at-large in our nation hasn’t noticed what some believers are seeing viz. ‘a famine of God’s word.’ Amid all the false voices (cf. Pt. 1 & 2), we are also not always hearing clearly ‘the voice of the Lord,’ via Scripture, creation and community. “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it…'”  (Am. 8:11ff).

I have seen on national TV how, when the farmer drives to his flocks with his bakkie (pick-up) laden with emergency feed, the hungry sheep come storming up to the vehicle. In my own country, spiritually speaking, that  search for food is just a trickle at the moment, but I also see trickles becoming streams as the political, economic, social and ecclesiastical circumstances become even more challenging.

But, to return to ‘the beautiful Shepherd’ of Jn. 10, we focus (finally) on his inclusive person and ministry as depicted in v. 14ff, ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd…’

How come, despite the clear desire of Yahweh, from his promise to Abram in Gen. 12 to bless him so that ‘all peoples on earth’ may be blessed through him, to Isaiah’s constant reminder that Israel existed to be ‘a light to the nations’ (Is. 42:6ff; 49:6ff; etc), to Jesus’ messianic mission to the poor and broken (Lk. 4:14ff; Mt. 20:22:34-40; Mt. 28:16-20; etc), God’s people have clung so tenaciously to exclusivity and resisted with equal tenacity his call to inclusivity?? This was true of Israel over all the centuries, 1st temple Judaism, continuing through to modern Zionism. I have been told that some modern Jews are just beginning to confront this fatal blunder. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner was right, ‘The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’

Of course, we who make up the Church, so often walk down the same rebellious road… We are blind ‘disciples of Moses,’ rather than open-eyed (pun intended) disciples of Jesus (Jn. 9:24-41).

In his high-priestly prayer we read, ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (Jn. 17:20ff). The loving unity of God’s people is the perfect apologetic to a watching and waiting world. I’ll ever be grateful for Francis Schaeffer’s little gem, ‘The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century,’ so relevant for the Church in the 21st century!  Cf. also Michael Cassidy’s ‘The Church Jesus Prayed For’ (foreword by Eugene Peterson).

Jesus’ ‘other sheep’ include the one’s and two’s amid the myriads. We recall his story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 safely in the pen to pursue ‘the one lost sheep’ (Lk. 15). He searches until he finds it, then brings it home with joy:  ‘I tell you… there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent’ (Lk. 15:7ff). Where do you and I fit into this picture?? And our community?? [cf. Addendum  below]

I didn’t have time to share this with my Free State friends (cf. ‘A Baptism of Love’), the discussion was that glorious! I refer to ‘Incognito Zone:  Where the Church is Booming,’ from Thom Schulz’s blog Holy Soup. During a recent visit to Cuba he observed 6 things about the Cuban Church:

  • Congregations are mostly small. Almost all are house churches that serve their immediate neighbourhoods.
  • Denominationalism and church brands are de-emphasised.
  • Ministry is deliberately relational:  one-on-one, growing friendships.
  • Believers don’t fret over persecution:  they focus on their invisible Lord and visible neigbours.
  • Churches exude the joy of being ‘family of God!’
  • Money doesn’t control them. The average wage is $ 20 (R. 280) per month.
  • [Dear American/Western Church, ‘hands off’ the Cuban Church… as one of their leaders put it, ‘You don’t need to bring Jesus to Cuba. He’s already here.’]

An increasing number of South African believers, including myself, see something happening across the world and in our own land, in terms of Ezek. 34. In Pt. 1 we noted in v. 1-10 the dismal failure of God’s appointed shepherds in caring for his flock. Now look at the momentous shift in v. 11ff:  “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says:  I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land..I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice!’” 

I believe God in great grace is once more raising up a ‘remnant people.’ Many of them will come from that growing company of followers of Jesus outside of traditional church structures. They are marked by simplicity and agape-love,  they are ‘in him’ by faith and he is in them (Gal. 2:20), they are obsessed with Christ (especially as revealed in the Gospels), they are increasingly crowning him the functional head of his flock, they are ‘ordinary’ grass- roots believers who are devoted to the apostolic doctrine (1 Cor. 15), ‘the life together,’ the Lord’s table, and the prayers (Acts. 2:42)…

My fellow-followers, let us study Jesus our Shepherd, soak in his attractiveness and goodness – people are won to God through these godlike virtues. Of course in ourselves we are helpless, so let us daily remain in Christ as he remains in us (Jn. 15:1-17), producing much fruit.

[ADDENDUM TO BLOG:

How does Lk. 15 happen today?  About 2 years ago a young Eastern Cape mom, unknown to me, read one of my blogs. I have no idea how she found it. We have continued the odd bit of correspondence over that time. She even helped sponsored some under-privileged kidz to one of our youth camps. She has just updated me with her continuing story, and given me  permission to share it.

  • A year ago she heard about a nephew, jailed for drug-abuse and house robbery. She felt an intense desire to visit him in prison. On the first visit she took him a Bible, but due to bad behaviour on his part she could not give him the Bible – he was behind a thick glass window. Eventually, miraculously, she was able to get the Bible to him. She inscribed it, ‘From God.’ His eyes started to light up. In between visits he would call her, they would chat about his prison environment, etc. Eventually he started opening up his deepest secrets. Lk. 15 became very relevant to her at the time, here was indeed ‘a lost sheep’ in need of the Shepherd. She prayed intensely for him. Six weeks ago he was unexpectedly released, immediately found legal work, and is at the moment working hard at his place of employment. Of course it’s ‘early days,’ and yet the transformation so far has been nothing short of miraculous. A subsequent miracle has been the conversion of her nephew’s mother, who came to that point largely as a result of my blog-friend’s life and witness.
  • My friend went on to share her own story. She has only been converted about 4 years! Jesus rescued her from a life of alcohol abuse, she was a party-animal second to none, and this led her into a promiscuous lifestyle. Since, God has brought her through a painful divorce, and she is now endeavouring to be the best mom she can be to her two children. Please breathe a prayer for her and her little family as you read this – thank you! PS. Through prayer God has used her and some believing work colleagues to complete a project saving their company some R. 5 million. Talk about market-place faith!]

 

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THE BEAUTIFUL SHEPHERD & THE CHURCH IN THE 21ST CENTURY [PT. 2]

In part 1 of our trilogy on the Shepherd-theme from Jn. 10, we recognised that:  (a) the key-figure is the ‘Beautiful Shepherd,’ i.e. Jesus himself; (b) there have always been false shepherds and false flocks; (c) we cited some contemporary applications.

Currently the pure numbers of the N. American Church suggest that she is producing more atheists than disciples. Cf. sociologist Prof. Josh Packard’s most recent input at a Future Church conference [Packard’s book Church Refugees explains why so many serious believers are leaving the traditional Church and pursuing ‘church’ outside its structures].

Today’s focus serves as a corrective for a rather sad situation. From Jn. 10 we focus on two further key-truths (I’m being very selective, there’s just so much here) surrounding the Shepherd, who he is and what he does.

First, it is vital that we hear the Shepherd’s voice‘The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep (v. 2) … the sheep listen to his voice (v. 3) … his sheep follow him because they know his voice they will never follow a stranger; in fact they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger‘s voice(v. 5).

In Jesus’ day there were so many voices, leaders and groups purporting to speak on God’s behalf. Today we are literally ‘bombarded’ by voices claiming to speak in the name of the Shepherd – I hinted at some of these in part 1. The secret is getting to recognise the Chief Shepherd’s voice amid the cacophony. Years ago, during a hike in the highlands of NW Scotland, enjoying the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs, my wife and I took a moment’s break to take in the absolute silence. Not a sound anywhere. Until we heard a piercing, shrill whistle – lo and behold, in the distance we spotted the figure of a shepherd whistling for his flock. Slowly they emerged from hidden spots and began to follow the sound of his call. Likewise, knowing the Chief Shepherd’s voice comes from years of intimacy between flock and shepherd. For us, it means discerning Jesus and his voice in Scripture, God’s creation, the community of saints, etc. To recognise the voice of God takes practice and more practice:  it’s not just a case of believing any old voice claiming to come from the Shepherd.

Jn. 10 reveals that the Shepherd’s voice, in accordance with his innate character, is authoritative (v. 3), intimate (v. 3, 14, 15), caring (v. 11-13, v. 17:  to the extent of laying down his life for the flock – he was no hireling who ‘cared nothing for the sheep’), inclusive (v. 16) (unlike the voice of the Pharisees), even sweet. At our Free State gathering a farmer’s wife mentioned how, on hearing her voice, the little ‘hansie’ (hand-reared lamb) would come running for its regular cuddle and bottle of milk. John Newton, composer of ‘Amazing Grace,’ got it right…

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds

In a believer’s ear!

It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,

And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,

And calms the troubled breast;

‘Tis manna to the hungry soul,

And to the weary rest!

Second, it is vital that we follow the Shepherd’s leading in all things. It is of course common knowledge that the oriental shepherd leads the flock from the front, unlike the situation in my own land and many other cultures. My paternal grandfather was a sheep farmer in the Great Karoo, and as a 5-yr-old I still remember the shepherd ‘driving’ the flock from behind with loud shouts, a sheep dog running alongside and nipping at those animals tempted to stray from the general desired direction of the shepherd.

Our Free State sheep farmer friends (cf. ‘A  Baptism of Love’) reminded us that sheeps’ eyes are positioned on the side of the skull unlike ours [we ‘stadsjapies’ (city-types) can be stupid]. Thus, ideally, a shepherd would lead from the front and yet slightly to one side. Maybe this hints at the shepherd’s nearness and accessibility, giving security and direction?

The Beautiful Shepherd’s leading is firm but freeing:  his sheep ‘will come in and go out, and find pasture (v. 9). False shepherds come ‘to steal, kill and destroy,’ whereas the Chief Shepherd, by laying down himself for his sheep, gifts them his own divine ‘life,’ i.e. life to the full’ (v. 10). False shepherds drive their sheep, cajole, injure and even destroy them. Have you ever seen a wolf or jackal or wild dog rip at flesh? (v. 10). How many stories I have listened to in recent years of faithful followers who have been deeply scarred by their leadership or church system in one way or another. False leaders are ‘controllers,’ slowly sapping their flock’s freedom, joy and life itself. Church please note, any Christian leader who ‘controls’ and micro-manages his flock instead of serving his flock is a false shepherd! False shepherds do not understand the dynamics of Christ’s flock (v. 6) (they ‘do not understand what Jesus is telling them’), they are blind (Jn. 9:35-41), confused and even demonised (10:19-21).

To summarise, if we are going to be worthy under-shepherds of God’s flock who lead according to the example of the Beautiful Shepherd, we must be those who have first of all listened to his voice. So many claim to have ‘heard from the Lord,’ but have they truly? The prophet Isaiah wrote centuries before of an obedient servant, sent to rescue Israel from her rebellion:  ‘The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me…’ (Is. 50:4-6). We humbly follow in the dust of his feet.

I shall never forget some of these truths breaking in on that small Free State group on Sunday morning of 25th October, just after 9 am. Tobie and a few brothers had been meeting earlier in fellowship. God took them to various scripture passages and eventually to Jn. 10 (which I had inadvertently been meditating on) and Acts 20, Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders. In the latter, having referred to his own shepherding example (v. 17ff), and knowing that suffering in Jerusalem awaited him, Paul in an emotionally-charged atmosphere exhorted the ‘elders’ [note, not so much people of ‘office’ but of experience and character as made plain by the Holy Spirit and sanctified common sense, rather than by some hierarchical or democratic ‘election’]:  ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. BE (my emphasis) shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves (Judaisers, etc) will come in among you and not spare the flock… be on your guard… Now I commit you to God and the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (v. 28-32). The need of the hour? Jesus-indwelt and empowered men and women, adorned by grace, spiritual ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’:  in a Church and nation full of spiritual orphans…                Selah.