Have you ever tried to corral sheep? I had a friend who had a small flock of sheep. One day I assisted him in attempting to move the sheep from a small pasture into a building so they would be ready for the shearers. The task was a monumental one. Each time we would get a majority of the sheep headed in the correct direction, one or two of them would break away to go their own direction. When you tried to bring those back to the flock, the flock would scatter because your attention was in another direction. Quickly I understood the value of one or two sheep dogs.
The writer of Isaiah clearly understood the nature of sheep. He uses the imagery of scattering sheep to describe the state of our being. We have gone astray and the Servant has paid the price for our going our own way. This passage is part of a whole section usually entitled the Suffering Servant portion of Scripture. Many biblical interpreters link what is described here with the experience of Jesus Christ.
The realization that out of great love forus, Jesus was willing to endure suffering and even death to ensure we are brought back to God’s flock is humbling. Our desire to go our own way is a strong one. We frequently convince ourselves that we know what is best for us. Instead of being guided by the Spirit into the safety of the Lord’s way, we break out in a different direction, endangering ourselves and potentially others. Jesus brings us back through his suffering and obedience to God. He shows us the way home.
As we go through life we are influenced by many people. The amount and manner in which we are influenced depends on many factors. If the influence creates positives or negatives in our lives is based on perspective. A challenge before all of us is to seek out those people who are a beneficial influence and avoid the people who influence us in negative ways. Evaluating the positive and negative influences is a crucial aspect of life choices.
Jesus was continuously engaged in a tug-of-war dynamic with the Pharisees. Being the keepers of the Law for the Jewish people, the Pharisees were prone to interpret and debate in most interactions. They considered themselves to be the gatekeepers of the Hebrews. They had just asked Jesus to produce a sign that would convince them the claims made about him were true. He not-so-politely refuses their request. Jesus there turns to his disciples to caution them against the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. The disciples misunderstand his point and think he is talking about the bread which they are lacking.
Jesus is talking not about bread but about influence. He is saying that the disciples should not be influenced by the legalistic focus of the Pharisees. He also connects Herod to this warning as a way to also speak against ruling out of fear and force. Jesus views both ways of interpreting life and interacting with others as bad approaches. Jesus presented, as an example, a different influence operating out of grace, forgiveness, compassion and love.
The caution which Jesus places before the disciple is still very real for us today. Are we going to let individuals who live by the letter of the Law instead of the spirit of it be those who influence our world view? Are we going to follow the influence of those who dominate by the use of fear and force because of their own fear of losing power? Or are we going to be influenced by and follow the example of Jesus who lived the meaning of love and forgiveness? Be careful what and who you choose to let influence your life.
Recently I ran across a meme on Facebook which summarized one of my core beliefs. The meme stated: “When people bring up your past, tell them ‘Jesus dropped the charges.'” This is a helpful way to look at grace and the saving actions of our Lord.
In the letter we refer to as 1 Timothy, we see the idea of Jesus being the sole mediator between us and God. Humanity existed, and still exists, in a state of bondage to sin. God is purely holy so is incompatible with sin. In our sinful state, it is not possible for us to be in full relationship with God due to this incompatibility. Here is where Jesus enters the scenario and through his righteousness, removes the barrier of sin from our relationship with God. Jesus mediates on our behalf and provides us victory over sin’s hold upon us.
I find it helpful to imagine a courtroom scene. Each of us stands before God to be judged on our worthiness to be eternally in relationship and the presence of God. The Great Tempter prepares to argue why we are unworthy. As the first words of the charges are read, Jesus steps in front of us and says, “Father, I know this person and chose to carry any charges which may be recorded myself. The price has been satisfied and all charges should be dropped.” The Father responds, “Charges paid in full. All charges against this person are dropped.”
The school which I attended throughout elementary, junior high and high school did not have a wrestling program. I was introduced to wrestling while in college. My college had a nationally ranked wrestling team and one of the team members lived on my floor in the dormitory. My floormates and I would go to the meets to support our friend. This is how I would learn the basics of wrestling and its scoring system. Later in life I would continue to have times when wrestling would play a role in my life as a fan and supporter of specific team members. While I never have became a fan of WWE, I have enjoyed going to junior high, high school, and collegiate meets.
Today we hear about a wrestling match recorded in Scripture. Jacob, his family, and his entire entourage are going to visit his brother Esau. Jacob is going to attempt to reconcile with his brother after having deceitfully taken their father’s blessing from his brother. Jacob is understandably nervous about how Esau will respond when the brothers see each other. So as they prepare to cross the river into Esau’s land, he sends everyone ahead of him in order to be alone to prepare for the encounter mentally and spiritually. Jacob may have hoped to get a good night of sleep so that he would be on the top of his game the next day. This would not be the case. Instead, he spent the night wrestling with God. Able to only obtain God’s blessing in lieu of God’s name (discussing the importance of this will have to wait for another time), Jacob awoke having been physically changed as well.
Each one of us have experienced wrestling matches in our lives. Some of the wrestling has been with our own thoughts, plans and emotions. At other times, we have wrestled with God. Like Jacob, when we wrestle with God, we are changed. It is not possible to wrestle with the Lord and come out of it the same as we went into it. The good news is that once again like Jacob, when the wrestling is done, we find we have received a blessing. Wrestling with God is not easy but beneficial.
Some years ago, I was given a gift from a dear friend which still hangs on my wall today. It is a wall hanging which reads, “Faith makes things possible…not easy.” We tend to be people who desire aspects of life to be easy. Many of the inventions from the 1920s to the present were designed to make our lives easier. Prior to that time, people labored in difficult situations and often at the mercy of creation to acquire those things which sustain life.
When it comes to our belief in Christ, we want following the Lord to be easy. The hope is that if we believe in Jesus Christ, our lives and our discipleship will require limited effort at most. We will follow Christ’s teachings and minister according to his example but hope it will not be too demanding. However, when we examine what Jesus tells his disciples, we find that a life of ease and ministering without sacrifice is never promised. (See Luke 9:23 and Matthew 19:23-30) The walk with Jesus is not an easy one. Like everyone in life, followers of Jesus will experience highs and lows, successes and failures.
The words on my wall hanging puts everything in perspective for us. Faith, as Jesus describes in our passage, makes all things possible, not easy. We will experience all types of obstacles which challenge our faith. There will be times when we struggle to understand why we cannot accomplish what we desire or what we think the Lord desires from us. These are exactly the moments when we rely less on ourselves and more on our belief in God. Jesus reminds us that there exist situations when for us it is impossible but with God all things are possible. Faith means seeing the possible in and through our Lord. Faith gives us a power beyond ourselves.
Anyone who observes the situations in our world right now, comes to the realization that we are in a broken world. The world is broken because we, who live in the world, are broken. We search for answers, solutions and leaders who will cure the brokenness. However, the one who is capable of eliminating broken lives in a broken world has already come and is actively engaged in the work of healing.
Casting Crowns captured this sentiment in their song, Healer. Listen and ponder what this means for you and for our world.
There are times when our journey does not always make sense. In this age of GPS-guided travel, we can gain a fake sense of certainty in regards to our route. Having recently moved to a new community, GPS has been an important aid in my navigation. However, I have already discovered that Google Maps does not always provide the most ideal route for arriving at a destination. More than once I have said to Google (like anyone is actually listening), “Why did you take me this way instead of…”
Philip had been called by God to go on a journey. Like many calling stories in the Bible, God does not give a lot of details about this travel plan. While Philip is traveling, God’s GPS announces a route redirect. Philip takes the road he is directed to which leads him to encounter an Ethiopian eunuch. This encounter provides Philip with an opportunity to connect the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s words to Jesus Christ. He is able to share the good news about Christ with the eunuch and the eunuch begins a journey of relationship with Jesus.
Sometimes we may be given a call by the Lord to go on a journey. We are asked to go with limited details at best. During our travels we may be redirected and that direction may, or may not, make sense to us. The key is to trust our God GPS. God knows the correct route and what we will encounter along the way. There may be an opportunity which is missed if we do not follow. Our Lord is more accurate in giving us direction than our trusty Google Maps. Take the journey. You could be surprised what the Lord has planned along the way.
Have you ever had a chore or an assignment which you just did not want to complete? You probably procrastinate as long as you possibly can. Maybe you go to the person who gave you the chore or assignment in an attempt to bargain with them and convince them why you should not be expected to complete it. You might even avoid the assigner in an effort to not be confronted in regard to the status of the chore or assignment. Seldom do any of these tactics work and you are forced to do whatever you have been given, complaining the whole time you are doing the work.
Today we read the opening to the familiar story of Jonah. We witness God calling Jonah and assigning him the task of taking a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah does not want to accept the task because he has judged the people of Nineveh unworthy of God’s forgiveness and does not like any of them. Jonah does what he thinks will save him from the assignment; he runs away. Running away from an omnipresent God is totally illogical but Jonah apparently did not fully think through the plan. God gets Jonah’s attention by allowing Jonah, the ship, and his shipmates to be in peril. Jonah attempts to save the ship and his shipmates by going overboard. God saves the ship, the crew, and even Jonah.
How often do we attempt to bargain with God or hide from God? We sense God giving us something to complete on God’s behalf but it is not something we wish to do. We try to get out of it using any means available to us. However, like Jonah, we come to realize the futility of our “running” from God’s call to action. God saves us from our foolishness and sets us back on course to fulfill our assignment.
Are you running from God’s call to action? If so, stop now because in the end you know God’s will is always achieved. Learn from Jonah’s story. In the end, what you are prompted to do will be best for you and those to whom God sends you.
Goals in life are those things which encourage us to move forward. By establishing goals, we have an understanding of the areas in which we need to work. Goals give us direction to our forward motion which is unavoidable. Once we obtain a goal, we set another so we act on the momentum achieved with the obtaining of the first goal. Until we successfully meet our goal, we continue in our striving.
Paul writes to the Philippians in regard to obtaining a goal. The goal which he has set for himself is to know Christ and become like Christ in suffering, death, and resurrection. Upon self-evaluation, Paul declares that he has not arrived at his goal but continues to press toward it. He also states that in this effort, he does not look backward but strives toward what is ahead.
The goal which Paul lays out for himself should be a goal of every believer. Each of us should set a goal of knowing and being as Christ. This effort is one which will consume all the years of our lives. There will be movement toward and setbacks from our obtaining of this goal. Paul encourages us to not look at our past and setbacks but instead to keep our eyes on what lies ahead for us on our quest. Looking back only mires us in the negatives of our past which will hamper our movement forward.
Transitions can be a challenge in life. There is a part which wishes to cling to the old even if the new is exciting and full of promise. The old is familiar, comfortable in a way. Even if you have become frustrated or bored with the old, you at least know what to expect. There is uncertainty with the new which makes one feel uneasy at best or frightened at worst.
Jesus had come to bring a new way to understand God, live in relationship with God, and live in community with others. The struggle between the old ways of the past and the new ways which Jesus was introducing was apparent. The people of power and status prefered the old norms because they helped maintain their power and status. Even some of the average Hebrew people preferred the old over Jesus’s new ways because they were comfortable and familiar even if they complained about them. Jesus articulates this struggle when he speaks of garment patches, wine, and wineskins. He signals the importance of letting the new exist on its own versus attempting to conform the new to the old.
It is easy to approach transitions and attempt to place the new in our old understandings. Jesus taught us that this approach is doomed to fail. We must embrace the new on its own merits. We can reminisce about the old but we need to live in the new. Our God is a living God who continues to guide us to new paths of understanding. Living means transitioning. Transitioning means experiencing the new.