April 22, 2001
Probably the most common Biblical portrait of our relationship with God is that of Good Shepherd and the sheep. Some of us here this morning can perhaps understand that portrait very well. But, here are there stories to both inform and remind us today about some very important aspects of this relationship.
An American traveling in Syria saw three native shepherds bring their flocks to the same brook where the flocks drank together.
At length, one shepherd arose and called “Men-ah! Men-ah!” the Arabic for “follow me.” His sheep came out of the common herd and followed him up the hillside.
The next shepherd did the same, and his sheep went away with him, and the man did not even stop to count them.
The traveler said to the remaining shepherd, “Give me your crook and turban, and see if they will not follow me as well as you.” So he put on the shepherd’s dress and called out, “Men-ah, Men-ah!” Not a sheep moved.
“Will your flock never follow anybody but you?” inquired the tourist. The Syrian shepherd replied, “Oh yes; sometimes a sheep gets sick, and then he will follow any one.”
The well-known and well-loved Baptist preacher, John Henry Jowett tells the story of following a shepherd in another country for several weeks that seemed to have an incredibly close communion with his flock.
Notes Jowett, “He led them with a song or a sweet, low wooing whistle like the call of the bird, and the sheep raised their heads from the herbage, look at their guardian and guide, and followed on.”
Finally is the humorous story of a party of English tourist and their guide as the traveled on the way to the Palestine region of Israel. As the went along the guide described some of the customs of the East.
“Now,” he said, “you are accustomed to seeing the shepherd following the sheep through the English lanes and byways. Out in the East, however, things are different, for the shepherd always lead the way, going before the flock. And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
The party reached Palestine, and, to the amusement of the tourist among the first sight they saw was that of a flock of sheep being driven along by a man. The guide was astonished and immediately made it his business to accost the shepherd.
“How is it that you are driving these sheep?” he asked. “I have always been told that the Eastern shepherd leads his sheep.”
“You are quite right, sir,” replied the man. “The shepherd does lead his sheep. But, you see, I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”
What characterizes the kinds of relationship between a shepherd and his flock? I think care. The shepherd cares for his sheep. What about vigilance? The shepherd certainly watches out for danger to his flock and is prepared to intervene when necessary. But what about love? Could we characterize the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep as one of love?
At first it may sound stupid to think of some human being loving an animal like a sheep. But, why have stories been told about shepherds who risk their life to save one of their flocks?
Jowett’s descriptive observation makes it clear that there is a very close relationship between a shepherd and his flock. He went on to say, “I have heard his song and his low-bird-call by the watercourse, and have seen the sheep follow his course over the rocky boulders to the still waters, where they have been refreshed. At noon he would sit down in a place of shadows, and all his flock crowded around him for rest. At night, when the darkness was falling, he would gather them into the fold.”
Jowett goes on to say, “We must realize that intimacy like this if we wish to understand the shepherd imagery of the Bible. The communion is so intimate that the shepherd knows if one of his sheep is missing.”
It wasn’t a real intimate scene. In fact it was hostile. There they were again, the religious leaders locked in a game of mental and spiritual cat and mouse with Jesus.
This time it was the Sadducees who were trying to challenge Jesus. The Sadducees were a group who did not believe in the resurrection after death. So they tried to see what Jesus says about the resurrection, which they did not believe, by posing a question about marital status after the resurrection.
Jesus makes short work of their question and leaves them speechless as we read in Matthew 22:34. But, the Pharisees decided to take another shot at Jesus.
They were well read in the religious law and they knew the Ten Commandments and other aspects of the Law of Moses quite well. So they decided to see if they could trick Jesus and trap him into saying something that could be used against him as his crucifixion was only a few days away.
So in Matthew 22:36 they asked him, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the Law of Moses?”
Jesus replied, ” You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”
Jesus’ responses comes out of a very important Old Testament passage regarding the place and importance of the law and what it meant for the people of Israel. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” But then we read verse 6, “And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today.”
Moses is speaking to the Israelites in the Deuteronomy passage and it is part of a larger collection of speeches Moses gives to the Israelites in the waning years of his life. Joshua is soon to be the leader of the Israelites and lead them to the Promised Land.
These words spoken by Moses are in the chapter that follows the listing of the Ten Commandments. However, what follow Jesus’ statement of this verse is the second commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
Why the difference? Because as Jesus was facing His death on the cross, followed by His resurrection, He was pointing to a new way of relating to God. One that was not bound by a set of commandments or regulations.
Rather, it was based on a new commitment, a new covenant, one that is based on God’s grace and mercy. One that is based on His love.
But, what does love have to do with it? Love, what is love first of all?
We talk about it. We sing about it. We will do anything and I mean anything for it. But what is love?
It is interesting that Love is defined in a dictionary as both a verb and a noun. It is an action and it is a description of our dispositions.
Love, noun, 1: a strong affection 2: warm attachment, as in love of the sea 3: attraction based on sexual desire 4: a beloved person 5: unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for others 6: a score of zero in tennis
Love, verb, 1: Cherish 2: to feel a passion, devotion, or tenderness for 3: Caress 4: to take pleasure in, as in so-and-so loves to play tennis
Can you identify with any of those definitions?
In my more honest moments, I have to confess that I don’t often comprehend what it means to love God. Yet, these definitions help me to comprehend and perform the expressions of love which I think Jesus wanted the Pharisees, and ultimately you and me, to express by first of all loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, our neighbor and ourselves.
This morning I want to ask you to reflection on a set of questions (Overhead Up):
1. Do you have a strong affection for God?
2. Do have a passion for God? Do you have a desire to follow God and experience Him like nothing or no one else?
3. Do you love God?
In moving act of restoration that is written in John 21, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” He did not ask Peter if he trusted him or like him or believed in him. He asked Peter if he loved him.
Why did Jesus emphasize love? Why does love matter in the Christian faith that we profess to believe in and live by?
Two important passages in which Jesus is speaking emphasize the primary importance of love in the motive of God for saving us and in our motive for serving God.
In John 3 Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, and in response to question about what it means to be “born again” He makes some very core and important statements about how being “born again” takes place. The statements reveal something very, very important about the love of God for us.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.”
For some of us that verse was perhaps the first one we memorized as a child. But, notice what it says, “For God so loved the world.” It does not say, “hate” or “trust” or “despise” but “love.”
This love of God is deep and profound and powerful. It is not a trivial love. It is not a flighty love. It is a pure and holy love. It is a love that is deeply given and deeply held.
In this day and age we have trouble understanding this kind of love. We have unfortunately so sexualized love that any type of loving regard for one another is immediately regarding as sexual. That is tragic.
It is tragic because there is more to love than sex and there is more to sex than love. That’s another sermon.
So many times, we have heard how bad we are and how much we need to be forgiven. We are flawed and we need to be forgiven. But, it was not God’s anger with us that caused Him to send Jesus to the cross; it was his love for us that sent him there.
One of things that my colleague Steve Schick said in the sermon not too long ago that sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do. It was not easy for God to become human and die a painful and unjust death. But, He did so because He loves and wants us back.
Shortly after Jesus speaks of loving God with all of ourselves, He brings it up again with the disciples during that last supper He shares with them before his arrest and crucifixion.
In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” Then in John 15:10 he clarifies that statement with this one, “When you obey me, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father and remain in his love”
Now there is a word in these two verses that quite frankly gets us stirred up – obey. We do not like that word. It demands a great deal of us. We want to do our own thing and nobody had better get in our way. Right?
Don’t talk to me about what’s right and wrong I am going to do what I want to do when I want to do. I am going to obey only my own dreams.
We are angry and hurting people aren’t we? We are mad at the world, at ourselves, and we are mad at God.
Why is obedience a hard thing to do? Well for one, we have this desire, this bent, to do things are own way and Genesis 3 tells us why – because of sin. Sin is more than a bad habit; sin is an attitude, a disposition that basically says, “I want to be God in my own life and in the lives of others.” That’s one reason why obedience is so hard – we have a built in aversion to it. But, there is another reason why obedience is hard.
Obedience is hard is because we have trouble trusting God and others. And we have trouble-trusting God and others because we have been deeply, deeply hurt at some point. We have been let down. Somebody that we cared about has abandoned us that we loved. A parent, a spouse, a friend; someone that has meant the world to us and who let us down.
So what do we do? We pull back both our love and our trust and become a spiritual hermit, no a spiritual porcupine, with our quills standing straight out. A sign that says, “don’t come near me! I’ll nail you!”
That does not bother Jesus, know why? He already has the nail prints in his hands so those little quills of anger; resentment, soul pain, and distrust are already dealt with.
Before we can really love, we have to learn to trust. This morning I want to ask you some questions as we concluded but then I have a more important question to ask. (OVERHEAD UP)
1. Are you loving God with your mind by allowing him to “change the way you think?”
2. Are you loving God with your heart by allowing him to “change the way you feel?”
3. Are you loving God with your soul by allowing him to “change the way you believe?”
Love and obedience go hand-in-hand. We love God as we obey Him as we do what He says to do. We obey God, as we love Him as we allow His love, through His forgiveness, to shape us into the person of God that He desires us to be.
But, we first have to trust Him. We have to believe that He won’t back out on us. That He will be there for us. We have to first let go of the distrust in our hearts, minds, and souls. We must forgive as well as be forgiven.
This morning I want to ask you, “Are you willing to trust God perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the fortieth time?”
David Watson has written: “To love all is to be venerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it safe in a casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But, in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable…. They only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is – hell.”
Without love life is hell. God redeems us from hell, the hell of now as well as the hell of the hereafter. He redeems us through and because of His love.
Love is the voice of the shepherd calling us to safety, to home. Love is the voice of God. Amen.