In God’s Hands

Have you noticed that the Scriptures call us “sheep?” I’ve heard people say that sheep are dumb, and I don’t think that is entirely fair. Sheep just get focused on one thing – filling their bellies – and don’t pay attention to what they are doing or where they are going. A sheep will put his head down to graze and keep it down as he moves from one succulent tuft of grass to another. He doesn’t look up to see where he’s headed or how far he has gone from the shepherd or how close he is to the edge of a river bank. One more step and he is tumbling down, down, down, and into serious trouble. If the shepherd doesn’t find him soon he’ll fall prey to a predator and sheep are helpless in a fight.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve wandered. Or maybe you know and love a wanderer. I’ve shared before that I have a prodigal – a wanderer. He grew up in the church and a godly home. But he’s grazing out in the world with his head down. I’ve prayed for him for many, many years: “God, please don’t let him fall away from You.” One morning the Spirit impressed on me to sing “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” “Mama,” He said to my heart, “If I have room for the whole world in my hands then you can be sure my hands a big enough for him to roam far and wide without falling off.”

David said, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps 139:7-10). Re-read that last sentence. Your right hand will hold me fast. God loves you too much to let you go. He loves your wanderer more than you do.

If you have wandered from the shepherd, just call out His name from wherever you are. He will leave the ninety-nine and come rescue you and bring you back to the flock. If you are praying for a wanderer, don’t give up. God’s got them, even while they roam. Jesus said the Father is not willing that any of his sheep should be lost (Matt 18:10-14). Beloved, He’s a big God with big hands.

For the Name of Jesus

She looked at me with disgust, “Keep that stuff to yourself” she snarled. “God bless you!” I called out to her as she stormed away. I was young in my faith and bold – maybe brazen is the better word. I was sitting in the food court of the local mall with a friend who was giving witness to God’s work in her family. I raised my hands and shouted, “Wooo! Praise God!” That’s when the woman at the next table picked up her bags and launched her bomb at me. I wasn’t fazed. In fact, I wore it as a badge of honor. I counted it as “religious persecution,” and for the time and the culture, I suppose it was.

But what I called persecution was not even a slap on the wrist compared to believers in China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and dozen more. There the threats are not merely verbal but physical, economic, and relational, and often end in violence and death. I dare say their faith has been forged in the fire. Just as the apostles’ was.

Even after being ordered to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, His followers didn’t quit. The religious leaders were filled with jealousy and ordered them to be arrested (Acts 5:17-18). They responded by escaping jail with the help of an angel who said, “Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life” (v. 20). After being brought again before the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jews – they declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). In return they were flogged and the Bible says they “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41).

In our modern, western culture, religion is regarded as a personal preference, not a life-giving entity.  It is kept private and should not be allowed to spill over onto others.  In schools, workplaces, among our peers, and even in the food court at the mall we are told to keep our religion to ourselves, or “save that stuff for church.”  And we do because we don’t want to rock the boat.  But true Christianity – the kind that changes the world – is all-or-nothing. Beloved, it’s time for you and me to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

The Good Shepherd

The Lost Sheep, Painted by Alfred Usher Soord (1868-1915), Oil on canvas, Painted in 1898, © Alfred Usher Soord

My favorite “I Am” statement of Jesus is “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). It always reminds me of a painting that hung in the vestibule of a church I worked at thirty years ago depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He is reaching from the side of a cliff to rescue one of His little lambs. Sheep are notoriously clueless and helpless. They start grazing and fail to notice when they wander too far from the fold or too close to the edge of a cliff. They love to graze at the edge of the water because the grass is abundant and lush. But they step on the slippery rocks and tumble into the water. Their wool becomes so heavy they cannot right themselves or climb out. If the shepherd doesn’t hear their bleating, they will soon drown. Sound familiar? It sure does to me. I have often wandered from the safety of my shepherd’s side following the lush and tempting things of the world. But Jesus never fails to rescue me when I cry out.

I love how, in this painting, Jesus has put Himself in a precarious position to bring His wandering one to safety. What struck me the most about the painting though was the look on the little lamb’s face – absolute confidence in the Shepherd. There is no worry or doubt that the Shepherd will rescue her. She isn’t trying to pull herself up the rocky wall of the cliff but waits for Him to reach her and bring her to safety. There is no fear of anger from the Shepherd. Just trust. This little lamb knows the Shepherd, knows that He is able to rescue her, and knows that He loves her.

I don’t know what danger you may have wandered into. You may be trying to get yourself to safety, too ashamed to call out for help. You wonder if Jesus will come and if He will be angry with you. Beloved, stop trying to rescue yourself. Cry out to Jesus – there’s no need to be ashamed. He will come and He is not angry. The Lord is your Shepherd – whether you are safe in the fold or hanging on the side of a cliff. You are His beloved lamb.

Not Your Warm and Fuzzy Devotional

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There is a lot of hero-worship in the church. There are “rock-star” pastors with thousands of followers and Bible teachers who sell out auditoriums around the country. Jesus had quite a crowd that followed Him and hung on His every word. Take the fellow in Luke 9: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you where you go.’” (v. 57). He wanted to be part of Jesus’ entourage. But Jesus didn’t encourage this would-be fan. His response: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (v. 58). I believe Jesus was saying, “This is not going to be the high-life you’re expecting. I don’t have a multi-million dollar mansion to put you up in. I walk hot, dusty roads and sleep where I can.”

What did you expect from Jesus when you chose to follow Him? A solution to all your problems? A good reputation in the community? A full life with heaven thrown in after it’s all over?

Just a few verses before this scene, He told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (v. 23) Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem and the cross. He might have also told the man, “Don’t hook your wagon to me unless you’re prepared to die.” There is a war going on between good and evil, between light and darkness. Evil and darkness have the upper hand at the moment. God’s people are the enemy of the present ruling authorities who are bent on destruction. If you choose Jesus, you need to know that you are also choosing self-denial, persecution, rejection, and suffering. That is what Jesus endured. Why should we expect any less?

But then, I look at the modern church, so comfortable in our air-conditioned sanctuaries. Where is the suffering? Where is the persecution? Where are self-denial and the cross? Maybe the enemy’s strategy against the church today is not a full-on battle, but just to make us relaxed and contented. Just before he hits us with an all-out assault.

Here’s a thought: If Christianity is comfortable, maybe we’re in more danger than we know.

Shaken and Stirred

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Oswald Chambers said, “Beware of the danger of spiritual relaxation.”  If every day as a Christian is an easy-breezy-peazy day, then we are in trouble. Following Jesus is not intended to be some blissful nirvana. It’s a climb, a race, a battle, a challenge. It’s a step-by-step, day-by-day, prayer-by-prayer trek over desert sand and rocky mountains and treacherous trails through hostile territory. That’s the life the Apostles experienced. That’s the life the martyrs endured. Their faith was tried and tested in the fires, and it came forth as gold. The Christians with the strongest, deepest faith are the ones who defy opposition, persecution, threats, and even death for the name of Jesus. The most dangerous state for a Christian is when all is right in their little world.
Jeremiah 48:11 points this out: “Moab has been at rest from youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another. So she tastes as she did and her aroma is unchanged.” In making wine, the grapes are first crushed to extract the juice which is placed in bottles or wine skins and allowed to ferment. During fermentation, the dregs, or sediment, settle at the bottom of the container. After forty days the wine is “shaken up” – poured into another container to allow the dregs to be removed. If the dregs remain, the wine becomes too sweet and thick and it is spoiled. Moab had always been largely at peace, and their turmoil-free life had made them spoiled. The Lord said the same of Jerusalem, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs . . . (Zephaniah 1:12)”
Has your life – and your faith – been shaken lately? James says, “Count it all joy . . .” (James 1:2). God is sifting out the dregs, the dangerously sweet stuff that spoils you. He is making your life an offering worthy of Christ. Is it hard? You bet. Is it painful? Without a doubt. Is it worth it? Just ask the saints who endured. They’re the ones singing songs of joy and praise around the throne.