Life on God’s Terms

“Life on God’s Terms” – July 12, 2020

Rom 8_11 Spirit of God

Romans 8:1-11 (8:10)

Does anyone know what this is? [motioning towards the garbage can] You’re right. This is a garbage can. Good for being a container for all the garbage – refuse – junk – from our homes, workplaces, and communities. All kinds of worthless garbage that is not needed or wanted goes right in here. The apostle Paul talks about all kinds of garbage in our lives, on our insides, here in the letter to the church in Rome.

Imagine, if you will, all the internal junk in a person’s life, and mind, and heart. All of that meanness, and selfishness, gossip and swearing, bullying and arguing. And, what about the times people cheat? Or, blow off assignments or obligations? Or, stretch the truth just a little – or, perhaps a lot? Oh, it’s not much. But, do you think God keeps track of each and every time?

Just think of a person’s life. Perhaps, your life, or mine. If all the years and decades of those junky, selfish, stubborn, or mean thoughts, words or deeds were piled in this garbage can, I’d imagine it would be pretty full. Even, perhaps, full to overflowing.

Life on the inside, our internal selves without God can be pretty hopeless. Worthless. Just like garbage – refuse – junk that goes into this garbage can. Another word that Paul uses for all the stuff in these garbage cans is sin. I suspect many of us here can quote Romans 3:23, where Paul says “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul does not say, “For some have sinned,” or even “For many have sinned.” No, we all have our internal selves filled up with meanness, selfishness, gossip, swearing, bullying, arguing. And, then some.

God does have laws. Many of these laws are common sense, and others are in keeping with moral codes that many civilizations have held for millenia. We know the big 10, the Ten Commandments, and many of the other laws of Moses that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Right before Paul writes these marvelous words in Romans 8, he talks about the huge problem with law and sin. We know about that. Sin and the law of God do not get along.

What do I do now? I know a lot of these laws of God, sure. But I still fall into sin, even though I know the rules. Another way of looking at sin is separation from God. When you—I—when all of us sin, we are separated from God. What’s more than that, sometimes people don’t even think of the Lord. God does not even enter their minds. Can you imagine? Ignoring God? Yet, so many people do just that.

So many people today are running on that treadmill of self will run riot, of selfish, mean, resentful living. I have seen a number of these kinds of persons, and they keep running, running, running on that treadmill of separation from God.

I have one particular person in mind. An acquaintance, from some years ago. To all outward appearances, she was very successful. She had designer clothes, a successful job, a luxury car, a fancy house. But, on the inside? All kinds of resentment, anger, greed, envy, gossiping and backbiting. She cut corners on her integrity and honesty, and just did not have a moral compass. Do you know someone like that? I have a feeling we all might have more in common with this unhappy lady than any of us might like to admit.

I’d like all of you to think of a sin in your life. I suspect you have thought of a sin that is really obvious to you, right now. the one thing you feel worst about. The one regret or misdeed or misfortune that you wear like a snail does its shell. The one part of your life that forever threatens sin and condemnation. Could you write it down? Or, if you don’t have a pen and paper, could you think really hard of that particular sin right now?

Paul does not leave us in that horrible place. Yes, all of Romans chapter 7 is talking about sin, and separation from God, and how much difficulty all of us have with these sinful thoughts, words and deeds. We might think that we are stuck at the bottom of one of these smelly, stinky, filthy garbage cans, with no way out. Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? How can I – can we – get in a place where we can possibly have access to God?

Paul has good news for us. In fact, it’s great news! We do not have to stay in this garbage dump for the rest of our lives. No, Jesus reaches down from heaven and rescues us from sin and death. Jesus takes each of us out of that separated, filthy garbage can and brings us into the glorious presence of God!

Here is the best part of all. God’s Holy Spirit helps us to stay free from the power of sin and death. We no longer need to reflect on what we have done – or said – or thought that was wrong. No! Jesus Christ delivers us from sin and the Law.

I want to invite all of us to—virtually—toss that sin we wrote down into the garbage can right here. Jesus can clean us up from the inside, and help us to sin less and less. Amen!

One last thing. I invite each of you to take another piece of paper, and write what you are free to do now that you do not have that condemnation in your life and inside your very self. What challenge will God bring into your life, now that you know you are beloved by God and filled with God’s Spirit? What kindness or generosity will you attempt? What will you do with all the love and grace God can give you? [1]

God promises to be with us, yes! And, even more, God promises to use each of us for the sake of the people and the world God loves so much. Go out into the world for God, today.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1571

“What Willl You Do…?” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Green Pastures, Quiet Waters

Psalm 23:2, John 10:4 – May 7, 2017

John 14 Good Shepherd, stained glass

“Green Pastures, Quiet Waters”

If I mention images of sheep and green pastures, what comes to your mind, on that video screen in your head? For some people, it might be something on the Nature channel on cable television, with verdant, green grass and gently rolling hills, dotted with fluffy white sheep. For others, it’s a painting at an art museum, with lush green meadows under brilliant blue skies. Again, dotted with sheep feeding on that green grass.

In Psalm 23, our psalm writer is King David. He is writing about his youth as a shepherd for his father’s sheep, long before he ever became king. That time as a shepherd must have been vivid in his mind, because David’s poetic description of sheep and shepherd remains one of the most striking, beloved, and relatable passages in the Bible, in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament.

Here is another way of saying the first verse of Psalm 23: Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.

Wait, that makes me a sheep, and sheep are not particularly intelligent. Now, I am okay with that. As I have said in the past, this is a common analogy in the Bible. The nation of Israel is referred to as sheep several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Different biblical writers refer to people who believe in God as sheep. Several times in the Gospels—as in our Gospel passage from John 10, today—Jesus talks about Himself as Shepherd, and His followers as sheep.

I figure God must know a few things about people, being the Creator of the Universe, and all. Since God uses this common analogy of sheep and shepherd so many times in the Bible, and since sheep have been known to be stubborn and timid and sometimes even foolish, I guess I might have a few things in common with sheep. Maybe you do, too.

Sheep need stuff. They need grass, water, nurture, and protection against enemies. They depend on their Shepherd to provide all of these things for them. But, what if there is no Shepherd? What if there is no one to provide all of this good stuff for us—I mean, for sheep?

Sometimes bible study leaders and bible teachers have their students do an exercise. They write a reverse psalm. That is, writing the reverse of what the verses say. One of the bible commentators I read used this process. She said, “I’ve been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, ‘Why do it this way?’ But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.” [1]

I’m going to read just the first few verses of Psalm 23, written in reverse. It was written by a then-15 year old named Anna Thompson.

“I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd./I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty/and no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares./I am scared of evil, because I am alone.”  [2]

This is truly a hopeless example of our life without God! What would happen to a few little sheep, huddling in the wilderness or the desert, with no one to guide them, take care of them, or to shepherd them? I don’t think they would last very long. Some predator might come along and have some lamb and mutton for dinner. That’s what probably would happen. This is a far cry from the green pastures and the quiet waters the psalm describes for us, and quite different from the Good Shepherd who supplies our wants and needs.

Jesus takes this image of sheep and a Shepherd from Psalm 23, and enlarges on it.

Notice what is not mentioned in either Psalm 23 or John 10. Is there any mention of the sheep needing all the stuff we see on television? I must have this new outfit or latest electronic gadget or trendy pair of shoes. I absolutely need to be healthy, beautiful, entertained, wealthy and successful. No, neither of these bible readings have anything of the kind.

Psalm 23 has a basic set of wants that “the shepherd provides for his sheep. That list includes food, drink, tranquility, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death, a sense of being surrounded by the grace of the Lord, and a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. An ever-rising mountain of material possessions is not on the list.” [3]

.           Let’s think about the reverse psalm again. I have no shepherd. I am caught in the desert. I am thirsty. I am lost. I am all alone.

Doesn’t that hit you right in the gut? Hopeless, helpless, life without God. Where are You, God? I’m all alone out here, and I am lost and scared!

One of my favorite commentators is Carolyn Brown, a Christian educator who’s worked with children for decades. She writes about the Bible and our worship being filled with metaphors. We try to help children understand them “when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later [when they are older].  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors. [Doctor and educator] Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure and held onto it ‘for keeps.’” [4]

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Shepherd of Psalm 23, or the Good Shepherd of John 10. The Shepherd helps the sheep to feel safe, to feel protected and full, able to rest and feel content. Not to feel hungry, thirsty, frightened, lost and alone.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus adds something to the picture of the Good Shepherd that is not in the 23rd Psalm. Jesus talks about the sheep knowing the Shepherd’s voice. That means whether sheep are in green pastures or brown ones, in the desert or high in the hills, the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and call. As Jesus said, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In Palestine, in the mid 1930’s, a village near Haifa had some internal conflict. The occupying British soldiers confiscated all the villagers’ animals and put them in a central pen, mixing them all up. The animals’ owners were permitted to redeem their animals, if they could identify them. An orphan shepherd boy whose only possessions were six sheep and goats came to the officer in charge, and asked for his animals. The officer ridiculed the idea that the shepherd boy could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the hundreds of animals in the pen. The shepherd boy had his pipe and gave his own “call”—his unique call for his animals. “His own” separated from all the others and trotted out around him. [5]

The sheep know the Shepherd. They follow the Good Shepherd’s voice, and willingly go with Him to green pastures, and by the quiet waters. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and He will be with us in green pastures as well as desert places, by quiet waters as well as in thirsty times. And, Jesus will walk with us through those dark and scary valleys of the shadow, too.

Even when we walk though the valley of the shadow more than we like, praise God, our Good Shepherd will always be there beside us, to help, nourish, protect and nurture us.

Yes, I am a sheep. I freely admit that.

I know if the Good Shepherd is my Shepherd, surely His goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

[1] http://bethquick.blogspot.de/2011/05/lectionary-notes-for-fourth-sunday-of.html

[2] Psalm 23: “I Have No Shepherd” https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/05/psalm-23-i-have-no-shepherd.html

[3] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-fourth-sunday-of-easter-may-11-2014.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[5] Bishop, Eric F. F., Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 297-98. Quoted by Kenneth E. Bailey in The Good Shepherd, 42.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)