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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