Monday 27 August 2012

The gates of Zion (Isaiah 3-4)

In this week’s study of Isaiah Chapters 3 to 4, we find God speaking to the men and women of Zion, confronting each gender with their respective struggles and sins, in terms that each could understand. It was picture language of course, as much of what God said to the men applied to the women as well, and vice versa. But as we learned in the previous chapters of Isaiah, identifying the idols of our hearts - the things which draw us away from loving God - is a tricky thing. It can be a very painful thing.

How does God do this? He speaks to our deepest and darkest fears. In this passage we keep meeting the phrase, “In that day.... in that day.” It was a day of judgement, when God would pour out his anger on our sin. It was a day when our deepest fears become reality. But you see, it would also be a day, when God can finally do his work of salvation in us - not by taking away our dreams but fulfilling them more wonderfully than we could ever imagine.

When men are no longer men

What is the nightmare scenario for men? To lose control. Men are terrified of looking weak and incompetent. Even when we know we are not up to the job, we still try to put on a show or we pass the buck to someone else under the guise of humility.

You see, the deepest worry of every man is not losing his job. It’s not losing all his money. No, the nightmare is this: to have a job that comes with all of the perks - the office, the car, the business cards - but to be absolutely useless. People are kow-towing to you in the hallways, but you know that they’re making jokes at your expense behind your back.

Isaiah Chapter 3 begins with God stripping the city of all its men - all its strong men, all its influential men, all its political leaders, all the intelligentsia - leaving behind children. “And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them.” (Isaiah 3:4) By that Isaiah does not literally mean kids and teenagers. No, these are childish men. Men who are good at pointing all the problems but never the solutions. Men who are only concerned with their own needs, not the needs of others. Isaiah gives us a picture - a dialogue - between two such men.

For a man will take hold of his brother
in the house of his father, saying:
“You have a cloak;
you shall be our leader,
and this heap of ruins
shall be under your rule”;
in that day he will speak out, saying:
“I will not be a healer;
in my house there is neither bread nor cloak;
you shall not make me
leader of the people.”
Isaiah 3:6-7

Here are two brothers living in their dad’s house, shifting the responsibility to one another. “You deal with this mess,” one says. “No, it’s not my mess, you take care of it!” the other replies. Look at the reasons why. The first guy says to his brother, “You have a cloak.” What he is saying is, “You look the part.” A lot of us do this, even though we know superficial it is to choose our leaders based on their appearances, we still want the pastor with the PhD. We still want the CEO who went to Cambridge. We want the guy with the cloak.

But then look at the brother’s response, “In my house there is neither bread nor cloak.” What is he saying? In part, its, “I’m not qualified,” which kinda sounds humble. But in reality he is telling his brother that he needs a real job. He doesn’t have bread. He needs a real job that will pay him enough to feed himself. He’s got his own problems and he doesn’t have time to solve the problems of others.

Here is a picture of judgement for men - and notice, it’s not fire and brimstone. It’s worse than that. It is the loss of control. Its that frustration of only being able to see the problems, never the solution. Its that dreadful feeling of uselessness and worthlessness that makes you feel like less than a man. That is God’s judgement on these men: he strips them of their manhood. The real question is why? We can understand judgement as wrath and anger and pain - though you might disagree with that - at least that makes sense. But why does God judge men in this peculiar way? Because sin means stripping God of his godhood.

For Jerusalem has stumbled,
and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord,
defying his glorious presence
For the look on their faces bears witness against them;
they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil on themselves.
Isaiah 3:8-9

The expression in verse 9, “the look on their faces,” is similar to when we say in Cantonese, “Pei Min,” or “Give face.” That is these men were giving face to one another, acknowledging each other’s status and achievements, all the while, ignoring God. The picture here is of men and women sinning against God, but more than that, living their lives independent of God. They couldn’t care less what God thought of their deed and actions. “They proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it.” This is the essence of sin: rebellion. God is no longer our ruler. God has no say, no significance and no control over our lives. I hope you realise that when sin is defined in this way, it doesn’t just mean doing bad things - stealing, lying and cheating - but this means we can look quite respectable on the outside and still be rebelling against God in our hearts. Sin means I get to call the shots; I am the boss of me.

God says one day he will remove all the men of influence and expose sin for what it is: the futile attempt of settings ourselves up as mini-gods. If you look back to the list of leaders in the beginning of the chapter, you see there, amongst the elders and leaders - the soothsayer and the clever enchanter. Meaning, the men that the people of Jerusalem looked to for leadership and inspiration were not simply strong, smart and sexy - they were pagan worshippers who led God’s people away from God. Such that, when God finally removes these men from leadership, it never crosses their minds to turn to God. What do they do? They turn to one another. The man says to his brother, “You take their place.” The men still want to be in control. Even in the face of disaster; even in the face of desperation, it never crosses their minds to repent of their self-sufficiency, to turn to God, to ask for help.

Man’s desire is always to dominate at all costs. They must always have the remote control (even though they can never decide what’s good on TV). They must keep driving on ahead at full speed (even though the GPS tells them they’re way off track). God says to these childish men, one day they will be stripped of their dominion, for it is God who gave them their dominion in the first place. For it is God who entrusted dominion into their hands in the first place, not for personal gain, not for personal glory, but for God’s glory. And one day, even the most stubborn man will have to acknowledge that he is not lord of all, God is.

Man’s desire is always to dominate, but next, Isaiah speaks to the women, whose deepest desire is to be desired.

When women are no longer women

The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet,
therefore the Lord will strike with a scab
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.
Isaiah 3:16-17

If every man wants to be the boss, Isaiah reveals to us that every woman wants to be beautiful. If the worst nightmare for men is that one day, they will lose all control over their lives, then the deepest fears for any woman is that one day, she will no longer be loved. God says to the women of Zion, that day will come when you will be stripped of all your articles of beauty. Why? Because for these women, it wasn’t enough to be beautiful. They wanted to be noticed. Or put it another way, beauty was no longer the end but a means to an end. Everything about the way that they dressed, even they way that they walked, said, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” The women of Zion used their feminine beauty as a tool to gain prominence, attention, worship.

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.
Isaiah 3:18-23

Now the application of these verses is not: Women can’t wear makeup or that girls can’t wear jewellery or nice clothes. That’s not the point. Please don’t quote me by saying, “Calvin taught us that all the girls must only buy the cheapest, the most worn out and tatty clothes from second-hand shops. Maximum 3.99 pounds!” That is not the application of these verses.

Why does God say that one day he is going to throw out your entire wardrobe? And let’s face it - it’s a pretty long and extensive list. Many of you girls have these very things at home. In your minds, you might be going, “No! Not my Prada shoes!” Nothing is left out of this list, as if to say, every single thing will go. Why does God say this?

Because sisters, as much as you might think that these things make you look more beautiful, they don’t. Not in God’s eyes.

You see, as many times as you might like to look in the mirror and say to yourself, “You’re worth it!” dressed in your finest clothes, with stunning makeup, hair-done up; as much money as you might spend, as much time as you might dedicate to making yourself look stunning; it is nothing compared to having someone else say to you, “You are worth it.”

The most beautiful women in the world can be at the same time, the most insecure. They were the supermodels and catwalk models of their day. They were beautiful, but that wasn’t enough for them. They had to be always beautiful. They had to always be reminded that they were beautiful. And the more attention that they received, the tragic thing was this, the less they believed it. That’s why they needed “accessories.” The handbags, the perfume, the scarves, the headbands, the flowing dresses. These accessories became essential. They might have said, “I’m worth it,” to themselves, but their hearts were saying, “These things are all I’m worth.”

And God says to these women, “The day will come when all your articles of beauty will be stripped away. In fact, on this day of judgement, you won’t even want to put on your makeup. Rather, you will dress yourselves in sackcloth.”

Instead of perfume there will be rottenness;
and instead of a belt, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth;
and branding instead of beauty.
Your men shall fall by the sword
and your mighty men in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
empty, she shall sit on the ground.
Isaiah 3:24-26

Beauty becomes meaningless without the beholder. Loveliness is emptiness when there is no one to love. Why are these women of Zion dressed in sackcloth? Why are their heads shaven? It’s not because someone took their clothes away and shaved their heads; no, it’s because they are in mourning. Their men have fallen by the sword. Their husbands have been killed in battle.

Isaiah says, “Her gates shall lament and mourn.” The whole city is in mourning. The entire city has been stripped of its beauty. The entire city is covered in ashes. She is empty. It is a description of hollowness, worthlessness, even meaninglessness. She sits on the ground. Lifeless.

And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.”
Isaiah 4:1

I know there are guys who read this verse and go, “Cool.” It isn’t cool. It is tragic and frankly, humiliating. Seven women chasing after one man (“You can be Monday, You can be Tuesday, You’re Wednesday...”). They don’t say to this man, “Love me. Take care of me. Protect me.” No, these women will look after themselves, they will feed and clothe themselves. But what they say to this man is, “Let us be called by your name.” It is a proposal of marriage.

Guys don’t get this. Mention marriage to a guy and he’s thinking about how much the wedding is going to cost or how cool he is going to look dressing up like James Bond. Girls have been thinking about their wedding day since five. They know what flowers they want to have, which dress they are going to where, what colour tablecloths to get. They’ve thought about the kind of house they are going to live in and how many girls and boys they want to raise. Why? Because the deepest desire in a woman is to be desired, to be cherished. To be loved.

Here we learn that even in the most desperate of times of judgement, even when the only guy available is a loser who can’t provide for these women, who isn’t thinking of their well-being but his own selfish gain - these seven women would still rather be loved by a loser of a husband than not loved at all. “Take away our shame,” they say to him.

Yet notice as well, that earlier, this was the same thing the man was asking of his brother. “Lead us! Take care of this mess!” Don’t you see, Isaiah is not describing two different nightmares but one and the same. Not two situations but the same worst case scenario. They lose their identity. They lose their purpose. They lose control. And they come to the point when they recognise that they can’t look within, they need to find help from outside themselves.

Both men and women recognise a need that they can’t fulfil themselves, and they turn to someone outside to fill that need - whether it is beauty or purpose. And it is here that Isaiah speaks of a day - the same day, in fact - that these men and women of Zion will finally recognise God as the only one who can give them the significance, the worth and the affirmation that they so long for.

The branch of the LORD

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Isaiah 4:2-4

It’s still Zion, the same place. And it’s still the same people, “the daughters of Zion,” though these are those of remain in Jerusalem, called “the survivors of Zion.” It is even the same day, the Day of the Lord.

But something has dramatically changed. These survivors are now filled with pride and honour. The branch of the LORD is described as beautiful. In case you didn’t get that, these were the two sins of the men and women back in Chapter 3. The men were proud of their strength and prowess and this led them to rebel against God. The women were haughty in their own looks and beauty that wanted more to be worshipped than to worship God. These were the same sins which resulted in judgement on the men and women of Zion. And yet, pride and beauty characterise the new redeemed community in Jerusalem. How can this be so? Because God is at the centre of the city.

Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah 4:5-6

The word for “canopy” (khupah) is the Hebrew word describing a wedding chamber, or the honeymoon suite, if you like; while “booth” (succoth) means tent, especially reminiscent of the tent of God during the Exodus. Here is a dual image of a wedding and worship. God comes as the true bridegroom of Zion, cleansing her by a spirit of fire and judgement and clothing her with beauty and righteousness. God comes as the redeemer of his people, pouring out forgiveness for their sin, sheltering them from the heat and rain. God saves the men and women in his city in such a way that strips them of the idols of their hearts but at the same time, fills their deepest longings and desires with himself. Zion is fruitful once again, not a heap of ruins. God takes away their shame and calls them by his name: holy.

The question I want to end with is: How do we get this? God’s promises are for Jerusalem, we’re in Cambridge. Isaiah speaks of a future day to come, can we apply this to our lives today?

To answer that, look back to verse 2, because its packed with clues and descriptions. Isaiah calls this new community of God, the branch of the LORD - and that word branch refers to a new family tree, meaning that God will raise a new people. He calls them survivors who “remain in Jerusalem.”

The reason why Christians can look at these words and know with absolute certainty that they have received these promises is because of Jesus, who once turned to his disciples and said to them, “You are the branches.” It was his last conversation with them before going to the cross. Jesus was on a steady course to his death - where he would be humiliated, despised and rejected - but he wanted his disciples to know that through his death, they would receive life; through his humiliation, glory. And Jesus said this:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
John 15:5-8

Jesus says to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and calls us to remain in him. He is calling us to find our deepest satisfaction, our truest joy in nothing else and no one else but him. Apart from Jesus, we wither and die, but in Jesus, we find life, purpose, joy, righteousness, peace. Love. And the reason why Jesus chose to say these words on that day was because that was the day when he would take our shame, our rejection and our sin. On the cross, Jesus took God’s punishment for sin on our behalf. It was the same day and the same event, both judgement from God and salvation through God’s Son, Jesus.

Isaiah was speaking of this day - a day when our deepest fears come to life. God would pour out his full anger for our sin; God will expose the shame of our sin, on this day. Yet, Christians know that on this day, Jesus took the penalty for our sin and offers us forgiveness, reconciliation and life. That is what we see on the cross. That is why we keep coming back to the cross, to see our sin, to see our God, and to see our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4-5

Thursday 23 August 2012

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Knowing our sheepness (John 10:11-18)

I had the privilege of speaking to the brothers and sisters at the English Congregation of the London Chinese Alliance Church last weekend from a passage in John’s gospel where Jesus reveals himself as the good shepherd. Compared to Jesus’ other “I am” statements, this one stands out as unique in that it doesn’t simply show us who Jesus is - to help us know him better, to worship him better, to see him clearer - this passage actually gives us a glimpse into how Christ sees us - as his sheep. That was the theme of my talk, “Knowing our sheepness.”

In order to do that, Jesus tells us that we have to know three things: (1) We have to know who our shepherd is, (2) We have to acknowledge our sheepness (and that isn’t as complimentary as you might think), and (3) Jesus wants us to be more than just sheep and he shows us how.

1. Know your shepherd

Sheep were valuable to their shepherds. This was before there were banks where you could safely deposit all your money. In the ancient world, all the shepherds had were invested in these livestock, such that every single sheep in the flock mattered to the shepherd. That is why earlier in the chapter Jesus talks about the thief and the robber climbing in the back gate to try to steal the sheep. If you went home today and found that your house had been broken into (this is just an analogy by the way, I really hope this doesn’t happen), you would expect the robbers to take your stereo, TV, computer, iPod, money. You would not expect them to run off with your pet cat (“They’re taken Fluffy!”) But these thieves and robbers run off with sheep which were valuable - for its wool and for its meat. Incidentally, in another parable told by Jesus, the one where the shepherd goes out to search for his one lost sheep, leaving behind the ninety-nine, illustrates this same point. They actually did that. If you drop a one-pound coin, you don’t say to yourself, “It’s OK, I’ve got ninety-nine other pounds in my wallet.” You go after it. (At least if you’re Chinese, you do!)

The sheep were valuable to the shepherd. They were his treasure. And Jesus is saying to us, his sheep, that we matter that much to him. Here is the Lord over all creation, who owns all the gold in all the mines, all the money in all the banks, saying, “If you want to see my treasure, here they are: Sheep!” The same cannot be said, however, of the hired hand. The hired hand might be doing the job of the shepherd - he looks after the sheep - but unlike the shepherd, has no attachment to the sheep. In fact, Jesus says, the hired hand cares nothing for the sheep. The hired hand is simply doing a job.

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
John 10:12-13

Sadly, many churches don’t get this. If I were speaking to a roomful of bankers and said to them, “Here’s your CEO. He’s going to be a fantastic CEO. He’s going to run the company well, generate huge profits, expand into new markets... you are going to love your new CEO. However, if the company collapses, he’s going to look for another job. If you stop giving him his bonuses, he will jump ship.” All the bankers and investors will say, “Of course! That makes sense. That’s what we would do.” No surprises there!

But with churches it’s a different story. They hit a rough patch, the pastor splits, and everyone goes, “What’s happened? How could he leave us?” They don’t get it. What they had was not a shepherd but a hired hand. The hired hand sees trouble and bails. We will take a look at what it means to be a faithful shepherd in just a moment, but for now, I want to talk about us as sheep - about our responsibility as the church. What are we looking for? Just another guy to do a job? The candidate with the best CV? Someone to babysit the English congregation? Someone to keep the chair warm until we find “the One”? In other words, when we think of a Christian leaders responsibility as no different from that of an Managing Director of a company, there to run the programs and keep the boat afloat, we miss something vitally important about what the shepherd is there to do in the first place: to fight off the wolves. We forget that the sheep face real mortal danger.

When the apostle Paul said goodbye to the church in Ephesus, I wonder if he wasn’t thinking of these very words of Jesus. In Acts 20, he says to the elders, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Here is the senior founding pastor saying goodbye to his church telling his people they are going to have it rough once he leaves. Paul doesn’t mince his words. Why? Because the danger was real. Because the wolves were always there. And the last thing he wanted to drum into the heads of their leaders was, “Don’t take this for granted! Be shepherds! Lead the flock. Protect the sheep.”

Jesus says he is not a hired hand, he is the good shepherd (notice the definite article “the”). Jesus doesn’t merely risk his life for the sheep, he lays it down.

The question I want to ask you is: Who is your shepherd? Who are you looking to for direction in your life? Is it someone who will be there with you when things get tough? Will that person give his life for you? If he is only there as long as it’s convenient for him, he’s not a shepherd. If he’s only there as long as make it worthwhile, as long as everything is smooth-sailing, he’s not a shepherd. You know this. And yet, some of us actually prefer hired hands to shepherds. The hired hand is someone we employ, and therefore someone we control, someone who has to listen to our orders because we pay him to do the job we hired him to.

If Jesus is the shepherd, he owns us, we don’t own him. He speaks to us and we follow his instructions. Friends, who is your shepherd? Do you even have one? Jesus says he is the only shepherd you can fully trust with your life, because he lay down his.

2. Know your sheepness

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.
John 10:14

When Jesus calls us sheep, it’s not exactly a compliment. Sheep are stupid. Any other domestic animal - think of your pet dog or cat - if they got lost, the dog or the cat would adapt. They would learn to live in the wild. They would do OK on their own. Either that, or they would use their tracking skills and eventually find their way back home.

Sheep aren’t like dogs and cats. They’re helpless. When sheep get lost they either (1) stay lost, or (2) get eaten. They just wander around aimlessly. If the shepherd turns up looking for it, the silly thing runs away. Furthermore, they’re totally defenceless in the wild. Even chickens are better survivors than sheep!

Now many of us hear Jesus calling us sheep and think that it means he is saying how cute and cuddly we are. Actually, what Jesus is describing is how lost, how helpless, how troublesome and yes - how stupid - we are. That’s our sheepness; and the truth is, most of us probably don’t get it. So here, when Jesus says “I know my sheep,” what is he saying? Jesus is telling us how he sees our hidden sheep - all the stuff we’re embarrassed to let our friends know, all the stuff we are ashamed of, all our sinful thoughts, all the stupid things we ever did. Jesus sees all that is in us as sheep, and he still says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” That’s amazing! But the point is: We don’t see. We don’t see our sin, and therefore, we don’t see him as our saviour.

Here, it is worth saying something about the background to this passage. In the previous chapter (John 9), Jesus had just healed a blind guy. It was a big deal. This guy had been blind since birth, Jesus healed him, and this actually caused the guy to get into trouble with the religious police. They kept hammering the guy because Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath which was a big offence in their eyes. All he knows is, he used to be blind, then Jesus healed him (these words were later adapted into a hymn called, “Amazing Grace,” - the line where it says, “I once was blind, but now I see”).

Anyways, by the end of the chapter, Jesus bumps into the guy, reveals that he’s the Son of Man, and the guy worships him. But then Jesus saying something really controversial. He says, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39) Jesus didn’t simply come to open blind eyes. In judgement, Jesus also closes seeing eyes. The religious teachers immediately say to him, “Are we also blind?” to which Jesus answers, “If you were blind,you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” What kind of blindness has Jesus really come to deal with? The religious teachers knew it wasn’t physical blindness. It was spiritual blindness.

Spiritual blindness is the theme of the chapter. Jesus has come to save those who are humble enough to see their own guilt by revealing himself as their saviour. Or to put it another way, Jesus reveals himself as the shepherd to those who recognise their sheepness. The whole of Chapter 10 is a response that Jesus gives to the religious leaders who don’t want Jesus as their shepherd because they refuse to acknowledge that they need to be led. Do you recognise your sheepness? Do you see your sin?

Jesus says he knows his sheep but he also tells us that his sheep know him. They recognise him. How? His sheep listen to his voice.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 10:16

Some of you might be wondering: How can I hear Jesus’ voice? You might even be praying earnestly to God, “Lord, I wish I could hear you.” That’s a good prayer, by the way; One which God loves to answer. And yet, when Jesus tells us that his sheep hear his voice, we need to remember that it is the voice of the shepherd leading his sheep. Earlier on in verse 2, Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice and he leads them out. The shepherds in Jesus’ day didn’t use sheepdogs. It wasn’t like cattle, where the farmer would go, “Yee ha!” and drive the cattle from behind (or use a whiplash - Whhhtisssh!!!). The shepherd was in front, not at the back. And his sheep followed his voice. That’s the voice of Jesus we need to listen out for as sheep; his voice leading us every step of the way.

Many of us only come to Jesus when we’re in trouble. “Lord, tell me what to do, I’ll do it.” That’s not listening to the shepherd. Sheep have to follow the shepherd every step of the way. Some of us want Jesus to speak detailed directions to us. That’s not what the shepherd does. He doesn’t say to his sheep, “Go up the mountain, down the ridge, follow the river, and I’ll see you home by six o’clock.” No, the shepherd goes ahead. The sheep keep listening out for him, “There’s the master. I need to follow him. There he is.” Every step of the way.

Are you listening out for his voice? Now, I didn’t say, “Are you hearing his voice.” You might, and Jesus does speak to us at times, especially clearly to remind us who he is. But that’s not what I asked. Are you listening out for Jesus? Meaning: Are you always looking out for the master, the shepherd - obeying him. Following him. Jesus says his sheep listen to his voice.

But the point of verse 16 is Jesus telling us that he has got other sheep. Sheep not from this sheep pen. Different sheep who are his sheep. And Jesus says, “I must.” Did you hear that? I must bring them also.

It is a very risky thing to have a big sign in front of our church that reads, “Chinese Church.” Why? Because if we preach the gospel, if Jesus’ voice is heard clearly, if we tell our friends about the shepherd, do you know what will happen? Sheep will come in. Not our sheep, other sheep. But if they follow Jesus, they are his sheep.

It is good and godly to witness to our Chinese friends in Cambridge. But what about the other sheep? Do you see your non-Chinese friends and go, “Maybe?” Or do you go, “Must.” Jesus says there are other sheep, non-Jewish sheep, non-Chinese sheep, who need to follow him. He will call them. And he says to us, he must; Jesus must bring them in.

3. How to be more than sheep

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from my Father.
John 10:17-18

These verses tend to get left out of bible studies. I think I can see why. There’s nothing there about sheep or the good shepherd. There’s nothing there about us: only Jesus going on and on about his relationship with his Father. But you see, that’s why these verses are the most important. Jesus wants us to be in a real relationship with him. He doesn’t want us to stay sheep. He turns us into sons. The question is: How?

Jesus lays down his life. Did you notice how he keeps saying that? Each time he introduces himself, “I am the good shepherd,” he qualifies that statement, he defines the good shepherd, as someone who “lays down his life for the sheep.” He did that twice in verses 11 and 14. But here in the final two verses, Jesus really cranks up the volume. “I lay down my life... I lay it down of my own accord... I have authority to lay it down.” What is he saying? Instinctively, a lot of us are thinking, especially if we know anything about the bible, “Duh! It means Jesus is gonna die. It means Jesus is going to the cross.” It’s actually more than that.

The word describing the “laying down” of Jesus’ life (tithemi) means taking something that is upright and not simply knocking it over - the way you might knock over a cup of coffee in the morning at the breakfast table - that’s not what it’s saying. To lay something down, means to intentionally, purposefully place it in that low position. The word can even mean “foundation,” as in the parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock which withstood the rising waters; there in Luke Chapter 6, Jesus says, the man built a “foundation” (themelios) in the rock.

The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and it’s not something unforeseen that shepherd has to do this. No, Jesus says, “I have authority.” It wasn’t unplanned; “This command I received from my Father.” Jesus wasn’t forced; “I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus is telling us that the cross was planned. The cross was purposeful. The cross was given him by his Father as a privilege, a charge, a command, and he willingly, obediently, humbly went to the cross and lay down his life for the sheep.

Now, something extraordinary is going on here, because what Jesus is saying is the shepherd is taking the place of the sheep (In fact, Jesus uses the word huper in verse 11, which means “in place of” or “instead of”). It is a substitution: the life of the sheep for the life of the good shepherd. If you look at Isaiah Chapter 56, you will see there what I think is the clearest and most profound statement of what this means, and I wonder if Jesus wasn’t referring to these promises from Isaiah. Listen to what it meant for Jesus to take on our sheepness.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
Isaiah 53:6-7

On the cross, Jesus didn’t simply just die. He was oppressed. He was afflicted. And yet, like a sheep, like a lamb, he opened not his mouth. He humbled himself to the point of death. He lowered himself to die a painful, humiliating, sin-bearing death he did not deserve. The good shepherd lay down his life.

Don’t you see. Jesus Christ took on our sheepness, he took our place by bearing our sin, so that in him and through his death on the cross, we might be more than sheep. We become sons and daughters of God. That’s why he talks about his relationship with the Father. He wants us to have that same relationship but the only way that can happen, is through the cross. Jesus Christ leads us to his Father by leading us to the cross. There we see our sin. There we see our Saviour.

What does this mean for us?

Firstly, know your shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd. He owns you. He loves you. He lays down his life for you. Don’t settle for the hired hand. Follow Jesus, every step of the way.

Secondly, know your sheepness. We’re sinful, we know that. But you know what? Jesus knows that even better than we do, and he still tells us that he is willing to lay down his life for us. There is a part of us that always wants to run from God, even when the shepherd turns up to save his lost sheep. We struggle, we fight back, we question his goodness. We need to trust Jesus and see what he is doing in our lives: He is bringing us home to his Father and he is rejoicing over us.

But lastly, be more than sheep. Jesus lays down his life. We should too. Those of us who have been given any form of responsibility or authority need to understand that it’s given us as the privilege of laying it down. We’re not to take advantage of the sheep. We’re not to make ourselves comfortable at the expense of the sheep. We lay it down. Jesus lay down his life on the cross. He humbled himself. He lowered himself. And that’s where we need to meet him, in his obedient submission to the Father, in his substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf. At the cross, the shepherd became a sheep; Christ became the lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world - and in doing so, transforms his lowly sheep into sons of the kingdom. That’s where we need to be: at the cross, in his death, in Christ alone.

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Saturday 18 August 2012

The good pastor (John 10:11-18)

What are you looking for in a pastor?

A friend? A leader? Someone to be an example? A good preacher, perhaps? Or someone who says little but gets a lot done? Are you looking for assertiveness? Graciousness? Patience? Youth and potential? Or age and experience? Must he have the right credentials? Should he come from the right kind of background? Should he be Chinese? Should he be good with kids; respected by his peers; adored by the elderly? Can the pastor be a she? Does it matter? What about his family? Should the pastor be married? Should his kids be committed believers?

What are you and I - what are we as a church - looking for in a pastor? Now I must start off by saying that this question is secondary to today’s passage. It isn’t the main question. And yet, it is a question that many come to this passage with, and in a way, it is a question that helps us understand the context behind what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is dealing with expectations from the crowds, from his friends, from his critics. But as he does so, he compares himself to the expectations of the religious leaders of his day. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in verse 11; and again in once verse 14. The latin word for shepherd is where we get the English word, pastor. “I am the good pastor.” That is what Jesus is saying. That is what the people around him would have heard Jesus say. “I am the good pastor.”

In doing so, Jesus builds upon the imagery and symbolism of the shepherd (or pastor) that was familiar to his hearers on two distinct levels. Firstly, sheep and shepherds were part of everyday life in first-century Israel. The way the shepherd called out to his sheep and they gathered around the sound of his voice (they did not use sheepdogs then). The way the sheep were kept in a secure area, fenced off to keep out the wolves and and robbers and thieves. Shepherding was hard work. It could even be dangerous work. It was always work carried out by men.

Secondly, shepherds were symbolic of leaders in the Old Testament. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Arguably the two greatest leaders in their nation’s history learned responsibility, humility and courage first by being shepherds of sheep; not forgetting of course the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, who were all, at one time, shepherds of their own flocks. (Even so, shepherding was not the popular career choice. Remember how the Egyptians detested shepherds in Joseph’s day - Genesis 46:34). Such that when God addressed the leaders of Israel, again and again, we find God calling them shepherds. We see this in the writings of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zechariah, where the shepherd was God’s title of address for the leader, the prophet and the king. Israel was God’s flock, and they were placed under the care of religious leaders, prophets and kings who were to serve as shepherds over God’s flock.

So on the one hand, for Jesus to identify himself with a shepherd, what he was doing was associating himself with a position of lowliness, great responsibility and hard work. On the other hand, he was picking up a thread running right through the Old Testament connecting Jesus with the kings, the priests and the prophets entrusted by God to rule over Israel, to lead as shepherds over God’s flock.

It is rather unfortunate how our modern understanding of the church pastor builds on neither one of these imageries. Mention the word “pastor” today, and we immediately think of a counsellor; someone who offers us tea and biscuits and an encouraging word of advice when we’re feeling down. Seminaries run courses on “pastoral studies,” which have nothing to do with bible study or preaching, but instead, focus on counselling techniques, providing marital advice and comforting the bereaved. Don’t get me wrong. Counselling is important and it is a vital part of a pastor’s job. And yet, it simply isn’t what the bible means by pastoral ministry. It certainly wasn’t what Jesus was talking about when he called himself the good shepherd.

I want us to see three ways that Jesus fills out this image of the good shepherd; three markers of what it meant for Jesus to call himself the good shepherd.

1. The good shepherd is not the hired hand
2. The good shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him
3. The good shepherd receives the authority to lay down his life and to take it up again

1. The good shepherd is not the hired hand

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
John 10:11-13

The word for hired hand misthostos, comes from the Greek word misthos, which means salary or compensation. In other words, he is an employee; someone who is doing a job for the money he gets paid for doing that job. Now Jesus isn’t saying that the employee is bad at his job. Nowhere does Jesus imply that this guy is lazy or irresponsible. If anything, Jesus is telling us how unreasonable it would be to expect the employee to do something that isn’t part of his job description; to do something he isn’t paid to do.

Earlier on in the passage, Jesus talks about the bad guys - the thief or robber who climbs in the back door (verse 1) only to steal, to kill and to destroy (verse 10). It is important to see that those guys are different from this employee right here. Those guys are breaking in to steal the sheep. This guy is being paid to look after the sheep. He isn’t the shepherd, that’s true, but he is a guy hired to do a shepherd’s job. This is the kid you pay to watch the store on your day off. This is the temp you bring in for that big project your company is working on. While it is reasonable to expect this guy - the employee - to get his hours in, not to slack off at work, to get all his paperwork filed before clocking out each day; what is unreasonable, says Jesus, is to expect this guy to sacrifice his life and well-being as part of his job.

“When he sees the wolf coming,” Jesus says in verse 12, “he abandons the sheep and runs away.” Jesus tells us why in verse 13, “The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

In effect, Jesus is saying to us, “What do you expect? Of course, he is going to run!” What Jesus is doing is giving us - not a worst-case scenario - but a real-world best-case scenario. The guy who has to be paid a salary in order to do his job, to do the ministry of leading God’s people, can only be expected to do so much. There is a limit to what he will do. When trouble arises and he is forced to choose between himself and the church he is serving, between his life and the lives of those under his care, the employee will inevitably choose himself. Again, without a hint of condemnation on the part of the employee, Jesus is saying to us, “What do you expect of the hired hand? Of course this is going to happen! He is going to let you down.”

It is against the picture of this employee, this hired hand, that Jesus introduces himself as someone entirely different. He is a shepherd, yes, but more than that, he is a good shepherd. He is a good shepherd, yes, but more than that, he is the good shepherd. Not just another shepherd, but the Shepherd of shepherds. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

What does this mean? Jesus explains in verse 11, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the face of real danger to the sheep and real risk to his own life, the good shepherd responds with real sacrifice. He lays down his life for the sheep. The Greek word huper can also mean “in place of” or “on behalf of”, meaning Jesus lays down his life in place of his sheep. The question is why?

If you remember the story of David and Goliath, it is set at a time when David is still a young man working as a shepherd looking after his dad’s sheep. Even so, David says his experience in protecting the sheep has taught him courage and trust in God in the face of his danger. He says this:

“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth.”
1 Samuel 17:34-35

David the young shepherd rescues his sheep by risking his life to fight off the lion and the bear. Furthermore, he says “When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.” In other words, David, acting as a good shepherd fights for the life of his sheep and fights for his own life.

Jesus, however, does something entirely different. The way in which Jesus rescues his sheep isn’t by risking his life, it is by giving up his life. He lays down his life. There is a fundamental difference between David, a good shepherd by all accounts, and Jesus, the good shepherd. In effect, what Jesus is doing is raising the bar of expectation, because If there were any shepherds there that day, frankly, they would have said to themselves, “This is crazy! I love my sheep. I understand that my work has its hazards. But sacrificing myself for sheep? What good would that do?” And if there were any there who knew their bibles - and there definitely were, as the context in Chapter 9 has Jesus directly addressing the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day - they would have picked up on the shepherd analogy in the Old Testament. Yet even they would have gone, “What kind of leader is Jesus comparing himself against? King David saved Israel by conquering his enemies, not by dying at the hands of his foes! That looks more like defeat than victory!”

To answer that question, we have to look at the sheep. So far, our attention has been focussed on the shepherd. We have been preoccupied with what Jesus can offer us as a shepherd, what makes him the good shepherd, what makes him stand out as the kind of shepherd we would want in our lives. But it is only when we understand how the bible portrays us as sheep that we begin to grasp how Jesus is the kind of shepherd we really need.

Sheep are stupid, smelly and rebellious creatures. Other animals - cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters - are Einsteins compared to sheep. You can teach a dog to do tricks, not sheep. When your pet cat gets lost, it learns to survive (usually by eating out of the dumpster), not sheep. When sheep get lost either one of two things happen: they stay lost or they get eaten. They really can’t do anything for themselves. When a predator appears - like the wolf does in this story - the sheep are too slow to run away, they are too dull to find a place to hide, they certainly can’t fight back; so the one thing they can do is flock together, that is, they band together to form a ginormous cotton ball. And the wolf takes his pick of the juiciest, slowest sheep of the flock. Sheep are defenseless, witless and dull.

So when Jesus calls us his sheep, he’s not saying how cuddly and cute you are. He’s calling you dense. And when the bible refers to all of us as sheep, it is a way of describing the sinfulness and lostness of man. The prophet Isaiah says this:

We all, like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:6

How does Jesus’ death save the lives of his sheep? By taking the God’s punishment on our behalf. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This is something the best of pastors can’t do for you. Your shepherd cannot take your punishment on your behalf. But the bible tells us that is precisely what Jesus did when he died in our place on the cross. The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, so that his sheep “may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) He gives us eternal life by taking upon himself our sin, our punishment of death on the cross.

The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Which brings us to the next question: Just who are Jesus’ sheep?

2. The good shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know him

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father - and I lay down my life for the sheep. 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.
John 10:14-16

The background to Jesus’ words here in Chapter 10 is a miracle that Jesus performed back in Chapter 9, when he healed a man blind from birth (John 9:1). In fact, if you look just a few verses on in Chapter 10, verse 21, the people around him are still debating about whether to believe Jesus’ words in light of the miraculous healing that had just taken place.

If you’ve ever sung the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” composed by former slave-trader John Newton, a line from that famous song echoes the words of the blind man, who says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25) And by the end of the chapter, the man meets Jesus but doesn’t recognise him. Jesus says to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”
He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him.
Jesus said, “For judgement I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
John 10:36-39

Notice what Jesus says. He didn’t simply come to open the eyes of the blind. No, Jesus has come to bring judgement over this world, to cause blindness in those who claim to able to see. By that, Jesus didn’t mean physical blindness, of course. We know that because in the very next verse, the Pharisees immediately say to Jesus, “Are we also blind?” Listen to Jesus’ answer:

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
John 10:41

The reason why the Pharisees don’t believe is not for lack of miracles. It is not for lack of evidence. It is not for lack of experience. Jesus says it all boils down to one reason alone: Spiritual blindness. The Pharisees were blind to their sin. “Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” They were blind to their need for forgiveness of sin. They were blind to their need for Jesus, the good shepherd who lays down his life for our sin.

All that follows here in Chapter 10 is a response to the Pharisees blindness; Jesus declaring himself as the door; Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” - is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who are trying so desperately to disprove Jesus as nothing else but a fraud. And you would have thought that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees ought to have been, “Look at the miracle! Explain what just happened!” But he doesn’t. That’s quite remarkable. Everyone was going on about what a big deal the miracle was. What does Jesus do? He speaks. Jesus says to them, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus speaks to them about himself. Jesus reveals who he is through his words and through his voice. Look down to verse 25.

The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
John 10:25-27

Whether or not someone believes in Jesus has nothing to do with miracles. I mean, the miracles do testify to Jesus; they do point to him. But the miracles themselves don’t bring anyone to faith. No, what determines whether someone belongs to Jesus is not works but his words. “My sheep listen to my voice.”

Do you recognise his voice? The reason why Christians call the bible the Word of God is because God speaks to us through the pages of this book. The bible is God’s voice calling us to put our trust in Jesus Christ. When Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice,” he is saying more than that Christians need to pay attention during the sermon. We listen to Jesus because we want to know him better. We listen in order to obey him as our shepherd. We listen because he knows us better than anyone else, and each time we hear his voice, we know him better. In short, this is Jesus’ definition of a true Christian believer: someone who listens to him. It is that simple. Are you listening to Jesus, thinking hard about what he is saying, maybe even wrestling with his words in your mind, treasuring them in your heart? That is the sign that you belong to him. It is a sign that you love Jesus - that you love and treasure his word.

The way to see Jesus most clearly is by listening to his voice. That is tremendously good news for those who have never heard about Jesus before, who have never been to church, who are new to the bible because Jesus says to you in verse 16, “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.”

Who is Jesus talking about - these other sheep? People of different races? People of different religions? People from different social classes? Yes, absolutely yes and amen. I will come back to this in a just a moment - about who Jesus is talking about when he says there are other sheep he needs to bring into his flock, but in the first instance, I need to remind all of us here in the Chinese Church, that he is talking about you. Yes, you. Some of us have been here so long, we think we own the place. We know all the songs. We turn up for all the bible studies. We have stories about what it was like in the good old days. Every now and then, I need to remind us so-called old-timers that we are all outsiders. We didn’t start out belonging to Jesus. We came from a different culture, a different people, a different religion. Our ancestors worshipped different gods and idols, not Jesus.

The only reason things changed; the only reason why there can even be such a thing as a Chinese Church, is verse 16. “I have other sheep not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” Jesus looked at you and said, “I must bring him in. I must bring her in.” Do you hear what Jesus is saying? I must! And you heard his voice calling you - the voice of the good shepherd - and you responded by saying, “I must follow him.”

Listen to what Jesus was saying to the old-timers in his day. He looked straight at the Pharisees and religious teachers, the pastors and elders who had been running the church all their lives, and said to them, “I have other sheep. I must bring them in.” Can you imagine a day when the Chinese Church is filled with non-Chinese people? That’s what Jesus is saying. When you look at your Muslim friends, your Buddhist friends, your non-Christian atheist friends, do you say to yourself, “I must bring them in?” Do you see it as an obligation, not simply optional? Jesus does.

That’s why we keep the bible open. We want his voice to be heard. We want to his word to be proclaimed. We want Jesus ot build his church - his word calling rebels, sinners, outsiders into his presence and into his flock. It is not our programs and planning that does this, only Jesus’ voice heard in God’s word, the bible. It means amazing things will happen if we continue to preach the gospel here at the Chinese Church - people will come to know Jesus. Not necessarily the kind of the people we expect. Not the kind of people we might want or like. Sinful people. But for those who respond to Jesus, his people.

Jesus says, “There shall be one flock and one shepherd.” This is a direct reference to a prophecy found in the Old Testament recorded by the prophet Ezekiel (The whole of Ezekiel Chapter 34). There, God rebukes the shepherds of Israel who take advantage of the flock only to feed and clothe themselves, all the while neglecting their responsibility to care for the vulnerable. Because of this, God responds with judgement - he holds the shepherds accountable for their actions and removes their positions of responsibility - but God also responds with salvation - and this is pretty amazing, because God says that he himself will search for his lost sheep. God himself will be the shepherd of his people Israel. God says, “I myself will search for my sheep... I will rescue them... I will bring them out from the nations.... I will pasture them on the mountains... I myself will tend my sheep.... I will shepherd the flock with justice.” Do you hear what God is saying? He removes all other shepherds and he himself becomes the shepherd of his flock. God himself becomes senior pastor of his church.

Now Jesus comes along and says, “I am the good shepherd.” Throughout John’s gospel we find Jesus making seven of these bold statements about who he is and what he came to do. Each one begins the same way, “I am...I am...” Jesus says.

I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
I am the gate (John 10:9)
I am the good shepherd (John 10:11)
I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)
I am the vine (John 15:5)

Jesus begins in the same way each time (“I am”) to emphasise his exclusivity and intentionality (“I myself,” the same way God spoke in Ezekiel’s prophecy), but also, to give his hearers a glimpse into his divine identity. “I AM” was the personal name God revealed to Moses and to Israel (Exodus 3:14), and if you think the Jews didn’t get that, you only need to look at the end of John Chapter 8, to see how the crowds tried to stone Jesus because of what he said (John 8:58-59). Jesus was saying something quite radical. He was drawing on the promises which God made for hundreds and thousands of years to Israel, through his prophets and messengers, and saying that all of them pointed to him. Jesus had come as God himself - the great I AM - intervening into human history.

At the same time, Jesus is clear to distinguish himself from his Father. He says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (John 10:14,15) Jesus’ relationship with us as his sheep is first and foremost, shaped by his intimate relationship with his Father. In that same passage from Ezekiel, we find these words spoken from God:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.
Ezekiel 34:23

God himself will shepherd his flock. God himself will rescue his people. No one else. Yet in the same breath, God says he will place over his people, another shepherd - one shepherd. I wonder if you get how mind-blowing this statement is. God is transferring his full authority, his divine right, his kingly majesty to another individual, “My servant David.”

This brings us to our final point, which is the most important one of all. Here, we explore Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. It is a pity that many a bible study and sermon stop short of looking at this last point. I can understand why, though. The previous verses talk about us and Jesus. The previous verses talk about how Jesus is a good shepherd in relation to our needs and our fulfilments. But this final section is about Jesus and his Dad. In effect, he is saying to us, if we want to know who Jesus really is, we need to look that relationship first, because Jesus tells us, “This is the reason the Father loves me.”

3. The good shepherd receives authority to lay down his life, and to take it up again

The reason my Father loves is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.
John 10:17-18

Notice that the same phrase gets repeated again and again, “I lay down my life... I lay it down... I have authority to lay it down.” In fact, if you have been paying attention so far, each and every time Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, he immediately qualifies it by saying, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (verse 11) and, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” (verse 15) Above all, this is Jesus’ definition of the good shepherd: he lays down his life for the sheep.

What we have here is Jesus turning up the volume. “He lays down his life... the good shepherd lays down his life.” Each time, the people around him must have been thinking, “What does that mean... laying down his life?” Jesus tells us in this final section. It means this: Jesus has received authority from his Father and it is the authority to save through sacrifice.

We think of authority as something easily abused, and it is. We think authority means telling people what to do. The pastor has authority to decide on the programs for the Mid-Autumn festival, and we have to do it, no questions asked. The father has authority over the remote control, and the family has to watch Expendables on a Saturday evening. The boss has authority to cancel the employee’s Christmas holiday plans but take an extended break himself.

Jesus receives authority from God the Father, and it is the authority to lay down his own life. He dies on the cross. “This is the reason my Father loves me,” Jesus tells us, is “that I lay down my life - only to take it up again.” You could rightly translate that as, “in order to take it up again.” That is, the reason why Jesus lays down his life and sacrifices himself on the cross, is in order for him to be exalted, glorified and magnified when he is raised from the dead. In other words, God the Father said to his Son, “Here is my glory. Here is my authority. But the way that you are going to be glorified is through the cross. You will be rejected. You will be despised. You will die.” And Jesus receives that command and submits to that command (verse 18 - “This command I received from my Father,” - entole can also be translated commandment). He submits as a Son to his Father willingly, obediently, lovingly. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (verse 18).

People have a hard time understanding this kind of relationship. It seems burdensome to have to submit to one another. It seems needless to have to sacrifice yourself for the sake of another. And if we’re honest, it sounds old-fashioned - Who does this anymore?

Husbands do this - “Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Wives do this - “Submit yourselves to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” As Christians, we are all called to do this - to have our relationships with one another shaped by our relationship to Jesus, shaped by Jesus’ relationship with his Father. This is sacrificial headship mirrored by obedient submission - in husbands and wives, parents and children, church leaders and church members, Jesus and his flock, and even as we have seen in this passage, God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus receives authority to lay down his life. That is saying to those of us in authority - as husbands and fathers, as pastors and bible study leaders - what we have received is the call to die. It’s not the call to boss people around. It is the right and privilege to die to our own needs and to die for the sake of those under our care. That’s pastoral ministry - to lead authoritatively, lovingly and sacrificially. It means taking responsibility not passing the buck. It means putting the needs of others above your your own needs. It means bearing the consequences of the mistakes of your flock and your family, coming clean with your own, and turning to the cross again and again in repentance, faith and trust.

Yet at the same time, it is important for those of us who have been called into leadership to recognise that there is only one shepherd, there is only one flock. Jesus is the good shepherd who entrusts us with responsibility and leadership over his flock. The best thing you can do as a husband, a father, a leader, a Sunday School teacher, a friend in Christ - is to bring those under your care to him. Only his sacrifice brings forgiveness. Only his death brings new life.

The New Testament passage most turn to is 1 Peter Chapter 5, where Peter calls upon the elders in the church to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” (1 Peter 5:2) It is one of the key passages in the bible that connects the pastor as the elder. Peter is telling the elders to be “pastors” of God’s flock, in anticipation of the appearing of the “Chief Shepherd,” or if you like, the Senior Pastor, who is Jesus. All elders are called to be under-shepherds of the one true Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

But the passage I want to end with is a different one. It has no mention of elders or deacons, of husbands or dads, and yet has relevance to all these positions of leadership. The passage I want to look at is Hebrews Chapter 13. Hebrews 13 is very interesting, in that it makes repeated reference to what I think are the elders in this church, yet the author never once uses the term. Instead he uses the word hegoumenon, a very generic word for “leader”. He defines leaders as “those who spoke the word of God to you” (Hebrews 13:7) and as those who “keep watch over you (literally, over your souls/lives) as men who must give account” (Hebrews 13:17).

If you are a Christian leader, that’s your job description: Your job is to speak about Jesus and to call men and women to Jesus. That’s the Hebrews 13 definition for a leader. Whether you are an elder or deacon - or even if you don’t have any titles to your name, a Christian leader speaks the gospel and watches over the lives of those redeemed through the gospel. Of this Jesus will call you to account. Sunday School teachers, you will have to give an account for kids under your care. Fathers, for your family. Elders, for the church under your watch. Have you told them about Jesus? Are they living for Jesus? It’s not how many programs you ran this year. It’s not even how many turned up at that evangelistic concert. A Christian leader will be held accountable by Jesus for the gospel and for souls redeemed through the gospel. Have you told them about Jesus?

Near the end of the chapter, Hebrews has this to say:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with doing everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 13:20-21

It is a prayer that reminds us who the real Shepherd is. The leaders are leaders, they are important, but only Jesus is the “great Shepherd of the sheep.” Even as he talks about greatness, notice how the emphasis falls on Jesus death - the blood of the eternal covenant, the death of Jesus from which he was raised - reminding us of his sacrifice as the good shepherd. We see the greatness and the goodness of the Shepherd most clearly on the cross where Jesus was glorified.

What are you looking for in a pastor? It’s not wrong to ask that question. That was the question God asked of his leaders, his pastors. He wanted them to be generous, to be righteous, to be submissive, loving shepherds over his flocks. Even God had expectations for his pastors. They are held accountable for the lives - for the souls, even - of those under their care.

But friends, do you know the true pastor? That is the real question. Is Jesus Christ the Senior Pastor in your church? Is he the shepherd of your soul? Could it be that the reason why some of us are so eager to connect with our pastor and then get frustrated when our needs are not met, get anxious when our phone calls aren’t answered, is because we have forgotten who the Senior Pastor is. We have forgotten what his voice sounds like. “My sheep hear my voice.” That’s how you know you belong to Jesus, if you hear his voice. That’s how you know you are loved in Jesus, if you listen to his word.

Shepherd of my soul I give you full control,
Wherever You may lead I will follow.
I have made the choice to listen for Your voice
Wherever You may lead I will go.

Be it in a quiet pasture or by a gentle stream,
The Shepherd of my soul is by my side.
Should I face a mighty mountain or a valley dark and deep,
The Shepherd of my soul will be my guide.

Monday 13 August 2012

Diary of a sermon prep: A fairly typical Sunday at the Chinese Church

[0730] Wake up and pray. I pull out a list of names of all my family members, every single person in my congregation, most pastors I know of in Cambridge (especially those I know are preaching this morning), and pray quick-fire bullet-point prayers for each. I pray for the gospel.
[0800] Devotional. “For the Love of God” by Don Carson.

[0830] Final sermon preparations. I produce a two-page outline and rework the headings to my main points. Retitled sermon: “Outsiders, insiders and Inbetweeners”

[0930] Breakfast and off to a local church.

[1130] Lunch
[1200] Last-minute idea to get snacks for after-church party.
[1230] Print off sermon outline and rush for church
[1300] In Chinese Church. The musicians begin their practice. Get to catch up with the guys back from PHAT camp. It’s really hot!

[1400] Sunday Meeting begins. Love the songs chosen by David. Everyone is singing sooo loudly (especially the men)! How encouraging to hear Jesus praised as Lord and Saviour!
[1445] I begin my sermon and speak for 30 minutes from Isaiah Chapter 2.
[1520] Closing song. We end with the words of the grace.
[1530] Impromptu birthday party for Sarah and Lisa followed by group photo (we haven’t had one of these for ages!)
[1600] Hang out with the guys at Weatherspoons. We talk about the service, give thanks for one brother who just recently professed faith in Jesus, make plans for this week’s bible study and next Sunday’s arrangements for the guest speaker (Bartow Wylie). This is always one of the best parts of my Sundays - to be able to cut back, do life and talk about Jesus with my best buds.
[1730] Home. Dinner and the Olympics closing ceremony.


1.    Question: What does it mean for us to be a church in the city?
a.    Impact on Cambridge
b.    Aware of it’s impact on us, songs, sermons
c.    Culture - Just another Chinese gathering?
2.    Isaiah: God addresses the city
a.    City of Righteousness, City of Faithness
b.    NOT because it is righteous, but as part of his act of redemption, he transforms the city and imparts his righteousness
c.    Ch2: Isaiah again addresses Jerusalem
d.    City on a Hill
3.    3 groups of people
a.    Outsiders (verses 1-5)
b.    Insiders (verses 6-19)
c.    Inbetweeners (verses 19-22)
a.    READ: ISAIAH 2:1-5
b.    Nations - outsiders, outcasts, not the people of God
c.    They are saying to one another “Come, let’s go” (verse 3)
d.    This is weird for Isaiah’s friends to here
e.    Chinese church
                                      i.Big sign in chinese
                                     ii.One day, filled with non-Chinese
f.     The result of the gospel (verse 3b)
                                      i.He will teach us his ways, so that we might walk in his paths
                                     ii.God’s word goes out, all nations come in
                                    iii.Submission - not just listening to a good sermon, living according to God’s way
g.    Peace
                                      i.Evidence of submission
                                     ii.READ: verse 4 “He will judge between the nations, settle disputes for many peoples; They will beat their swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks
                                    iii.World peace - Miss Universe
                                   iv.Submission to God’s rule that comes from submission to God’s law
                                    v.Not just compromise, but living under a loving authority
                                   vi.David - good brother and friend, helps us to be good friends to one another; trips: David organiser, guys need to take charge, responsibility - people want to be able to trust that you are fair & loving
h.    Come, O house of Jacob
                                      i.What about you?
                                     ii.Let US walk in God’s light. Are the outsiders putting the insiders to shame?
a.    God looks at the insiders and sees FULLNESS
b.    READ: Verses 6 to 9
                                      i.FULL of superstitions
                                     ii.FULL of silver and gold
                                    iii.FULL of horses
                                   iv.FULL of idols
c.    What is our city best known for?
                                      i.FULL of students
                                     ii.FULL of nobel prize-winners
                                    iii.FULL of churches
d.    Verse 8: Their land is full of idols, they bow down to the work of their hands
e.    Contrast between the OUTSIDERS and INSIDERS
                                      i.OUTSIDERS are leaving their mountains, coming to God’s mountain
INSIDERS are filling God’s city with pagan worship
                                     ii.OUTSIDERS are humbling themselves before God, his word, his rule
INSIDERS are proud of their silver and gold
f.     DO NOT FORGIVE THEM (verse 9)
                                      i.Just because they have the temple
                                     ii.Just because they have the membership card (House of Jacob)
                                    iii.Isaiah sees what God sees - a city full of idolatry - and even on his own people, prays for judgement
                                   iv.WHY? Because God alone deserves to be worshipped
1.    READ Verses 10 to 11
2.    The LORD alone will be worshipped/exalted
3.    Problem is not having too much money, education
4.    Worship our money, education, achievement
5.    Instead of serving God with your money, you serve money as your God - Jesus: You cannot serve 2 masters
6.    In the end, God alone will be worshipped
7.    A Day....
6.    INSIDERS (PART 2) - The Day of the LORD
a.    READ: verses 12 to 18
b.    For all the proud
                                      i.all the exalted
                                     ii.all the cedars
                                    iii.all the oaks
                                   iv.all the mountains
                                    v.all the high hills
                                   vi.all the towers
                                  vii.all the strong (fortified) walls
c.    What are the symbols of pride?
                                      i.Yes, strength, speed, intellect
                                     ii.But also, stable economy (verse 16 - the trading ship), architecture (lofty tower - verse 15), natural resources (oaks of Bashan - verse 13), even beauty (stately ship - beautiful/elegant vessel of verse 16)
                                    iii.Symbols of pride
1.    The arrogance of man, the pride of men (verse 17)
                                   iv.God has set aside a day when the proud will fall
1.    It does NOT say that he will destroy the ships, mountains, the hills
2.    But it does say that the idols will disappear
3.    How will that happen?
4.    We will get rid of our idols
5.    One day God will show up!
a.    READ: Verses 19 to 21
b.    Men will throw away their idols (silver and gold)
                             bats and rodents
                                     ii.unclean animals - these are junk, with the trash
c.    Many look to Rev 6
                                      i.JUDGEMENT - 4 horsemen of the apocalypse, fire on earth, famine, disease, war
                                     ii.Climax - kings, princes, free man hid in caves among the rocks of the mountains “Fall on us, hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”
d.    But there is none of that here
                                      i.Not because God won’t judge, he will
                                     ii.Not because it won’t be terrifying and awesome and fearful, it will
                                    iii.But because when it comes to our idols, God doesn’t need to, he just needs to SHOW UP!
                                      i.Those who try to keep both - idols and God
                                     ii.Those who end up losing both
                                    iii.Verse 20: They throw idols of silver and gold to the rodents and bats
                                   iv.When you see God, it doesn’t compare
                                    v.But at the same time, you lose your appetite for true greatness
f.     Jesus said to the Samaritan woman
                                      i.A time is coming when you will neither worship on this mountain or that
                                     ii.Worship the Father in spirit and truth
                                    iii.His death - the hour in John’s gospel is always a reference to the cross
                                   iv.You worship what you do not know - outsiders
                                    v.You worship what you do know - insiders - but even that is going away
                                   vi.One day, worshippers - spirit and truth
8.    Conclusion
a.    outsiders
                                      i.Come in, hear the gospel and come in
b.    insiders
                             is going to be tempting to take God for granted
                                     ii.In the past, the songs remind you of GOd, now they’re just songs; bible reading, prayer
                                    iii.Keep coming, keep turning
c.    Inbetweeners
                                      i.You cannot serve two masters
                                     ii.Spoiling your appetite - addiction, it draws you in, damages your tastebuds, you need more
                                    iii.The only solution: See Jesus for his glory
                                   iv.On the cross: God showed up - in all his glory, all his humility, all his greatness