Tag Archives: Psalm

Taking the Journey Together: Witness in Crisis

I know a man who works at a large, warehouse-style home-improvement store. One day he shared a story about how to help people find what they are looking for. There is a sign in the employee break room that says: “No Pointing.” The message to store employees is that when customers ask the location of an item, one should not merely point and say, “over there.” Nor is it sufficient to give an aisle number and description of the location on that aisle. Rather, the employee should walk with the customers and make sure that they are able together to locate what the customers are seeking. Along the way, the employee might learn more than just what one item the customer is looking for. Even at some small level, relationship and goodwill are built. The customers realize they are not alone and lost in their search; someone with expertise and experience is traveling with them. We are in a time when people need to know that the church is not merely pointing at some far-off place telling them that they must go on the journey alone. Rather, we go on the journey together.

No matter how we are called to serve in ministry – as a lay person or pastor – it is important to remember that we do not go alone. We join with one another in our mutual work for the sake of the Gospel. Examples of this are frequently found in the Scriptures. In Genesis 12, when God calls Abram to the land he would see later, he did not go alone. In Luke 10, Jesus sent the witnesses out in pairs to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near.” After the Resurrection, Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24). Paul and Barnabas are sent together in Acts 13. If you are a leader in ministry, are you merely pointing, or are you joining others on the journey?

The same holds true for those who are trying to find their way in the Christian faith. The last few months have turned many of us upside-down. People are looking for someone to show them the way in a dark time. Many people are afraid of what the future will hold, as evidenced by panic buying and the hoarding of basic necessities. They want direction on how to navigate uncertain times. Social distancing does not necessarily mean going it alone. Rather, at this important time, people around us need to be reminded that they do not need to go on this journey by themselves.

In times of difficulty, many people of faith have turned to Psalm 23 for comfort. Frequently, Bible study teachers and pastors point to the fact that the psalmist walks through the darkest valley rather than remain in that dark valley. That is an important point. However, notice that the comfort also comes from the fact that the Lord walks with us in those dark valleys. The Lord does not simply point but rather accompanies us. We take solace because we are not alone.

Though the problems facing the world today are significant, perhaps even unprecedented, this is not the first time that the church has faced ministry to those impacted by a widespread illness. In the second, third, and sixteenth centuries, the church was able to minister to people in times of plague and disease. Without minimizing the human toll, it is important to remember that the church served as a faithful witness in those times. The church has the opportunity to be a faithful witness again in a difficult time for many around the world. It is demonstrated in showing the mercy given to us by Christ and coming alongside others as we walk through these dark times.

As a response to social distancing, many churches have generated a great deal of online content in the form of services, devotionals, and Bible studies. I am grateful there has been a proliferation of these types of resources. The internet certainly needs it. All the while, church leaders can ensure that these are not just inwardly focused—aimed at people who are already connected with a church.

Many of our neighbors are asking some really big and really important questions about life, death, and the nature of the world in which we live. The gospel is the answer to these questions. This is an opportunity for us to journey with a world that is asking. We need to do this in a way that is not merely pointing and saying, “over there.” This is the moment to show the world the One who walks through our valleys with us.

Featured image courtesy Andrew Ly for Unsplash.

Joy Is a Verb

I’m not going to lie – finding joy during 2020 was difficult for me. I suspect many of you may have found that challenging as well. For me, it was difficult when the traveling ministry that brings me so much fulfillment was put on hold. I faced new challenges in family relationships and finances, and an unexpected medical challenge brought me to my knees (literally).

As much as I’ve preached and written about joy in the past, last year I was not feeling it. It’s humbling to admit that I just felt sad. I found that almost embarrassing; sometimes leaders struggle to say it without feeling ashamed or guilty. In the middle of challenges and grief, though, I knew that joy was still possible. After all, the Gospels show Jesus as a man who felt sorrow deeply. He wept. He was tempted. He knew hunger, thirst, rejection, and loneliness – and yet he gladly made water into wine to keep a party going! Jesus knew the range of what it means to be human.

Forget the somber, anemic portraits of Christ you’ve seen on funeral home walls. Jesus was a joyful person. We know this because in his final moments with the disciples, the Lord said his greatest desire for them was not that they have strength, salvation, or peace, but that they would share his joy.

In John 15:11, he said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

In John 16:24, he instructed them, saying, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

Then he prayed for them, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17:13)

Soon to be beaten and pierced with nails for a crime he didn’t commit, Jesus prayed that his friends would be as joyful as he was. The Lord showed us by example that joy isn’t the result of an easy life. He had joy even in the midst of pain, because he wasn’t swayed by what was happening to him. Jesus’ heart was only moved by the heart of his Father.

Joy is the atmosphere of heaven and the very fabric of who God is. In Psalm 16:11, we read, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” Yes, Jesus felt pain in his body and soul, but his spirit was always resting in his Father’s love. Joy was the overflow of the constant presence of God within him. In the same way, it is possible to find joy in any time and in all circumstances when our hearts stay focused on the Lord. Our faith makes room for his joy when we are willing to trust God’s purposes even when we don’t understand.

I love how the prophet Habakkuk rejoiced despite the fact that everything in his life seemed to be going wrong.

Though the fig tree may not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines;

Though the labor of the olive may fail,

and the fields yield no food;

Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,

and there be no herd in the stalls—

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The word “joy” in that last verse is not a noun – it’s a verb! Though his circumstances were desperate, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the God of his salvation. He took joy in who God was even in the middle of catastrophe, rather than allowing his response to be determined by the disaster. When we begin to praise and thank God regardless of what we feel like doing, the Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with the joy of his presence and even change the atmosphere around us. 

One of my favorite examples of joy in action is found in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were arrested in the city of Philippi simply for preaching the gospel. Having been falsely accused, they were whipped and then locked in the inner prison. Though their backs were bleeding and their feet were chained, Paul and Silas chose to worship their God!

“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26)

I weep as I read these words yet again. Paul and Silas were so full in the presence of the Holy Spirit that injustice and injury did not dampen the joy of the Holy Spirit’s presence within them. In fact, the power of God was released through Paul and Silas’ praise; it was so great it caused seismic activity in the earth. The prison gates were jarred open and their chains came loose – not only their chains, but the shackles of the other prisoners who found themselves in jail. In the end, even the jailer and his family were saved, becoming believers.

Paul and Silas received joy in the dark and painful place; they chose to join their worship with the worship of heaven even in those circumstances. They knew that no power on earth could stand against the purposes and goodness of God. I even wonder if, by faith, these men already knew what was about to happen. Perhaps they could picture the Lord smiling and saying, “Wait for it…wait for it!” Notice that the earthquake rumbled and shook as they lifted their voices in praise to God.

Would I have acted the same as Paul and Silas did that night? I don’t know, but perhaps I can learn from them as I face hardship in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for opportunities to be beaten for my faith! But I want to learn to live in the overcoming joy of the Lord, regardless of the circumstances I find myself in or how I feel. I want to be so aware of God’s goodness and love for me that my response in every trial is simply worship.

If you have felt stuck this past year, be encouraged. When we face upheaval and darkness, there is something we can do. We can join our song of God’s faithfulness with the song of the saints, the joy of heaven. We can praise God for his promises for the future, and we can worship the Lord for who he is right now. The Lord is our Shepherd, our Father, our Strength, our Shield, our Shelter, our Rock, our Peace, our Righteousness, our Savior, and our God in whom we trust.

Yes, these are difficult days, but the joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8:10) As we boldly lift up his name in the middle of our circumstances, the one who raised Jesus from the dead will surely lift us up. God uses even our trials to do miracles we could not foresee. However painful or lonely your situation may be today, know that you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is with you and within you. Call out in prayer. Sing praises to him! Joy in the presence of the God of your salvation, and listen for the rumble and rattle of seismic shift.

Featured image courtesy Jenni Peterson on Unsplash.

Make a Path for God’s Comfort to Arrive

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.’ You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” Isaiah 40:1-10

Comfort. It is such a simple word. Yet, when spoken in certain contexts, it becomes profound. The year 2020 has been one such context. Whether it has been the violence and racial injustice in American towns and streets, the divisions over the national election, or the murder hornets, there hasn’t been much comfort this year. This is to say nothing of the disruptive pandemic we are in. Some people have lost their jobs, others their businesses, still others, their lives. Some readers probably have had Covid, the experience of which, I am told, makes comfort a distance memory. Others have had to care for a loved one with Covid or watched a loved one die from it. During such tragedies, we normally find comfort in the presence of friends and family, but Covid has robbed us even of this. After the year we have had, what would we give to hear that simple word spoken to us: comfort.

The uncertainty and sense of hopelessness of the current moment approaches the context in which these words from the prophet Isaiah were first spoken. The people of Israel, to whom he addressed his message, were in exile in Babylon. They had been forcibly removed from their native land years before. Their homes and crops had been destroyed, their temple burned to the ground, and their king killed along with the rest of the royal line descended from David. Having been rescued from slavery by their God over 1,000 years before, they found themselves back as slaves in a foreign land. “By the rivers of Babylon,” laments the Psalmist, “we sat and wept when we remembered Zion . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4). The lament of the people of Israel must have had an additional layer of bitterness; they knew their own unfaithfulness caused their exile. The writer of Lamentations writes, “After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place…The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins” (Lamentations 1:3, 5). The people of Israel were experiencing the covenant curses for their centuries of unfaithfulness and idolatry: namely, the loss of God’s presence, for which humans were created. Exile. Death.

And then, spoken in the midst of their darkest days, comes that profound word, comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says the Lord through the prophet. Yes, even in exile, even in their unfaithfulness, they were still his people. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” he continues, “and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” If we could put this message more simply, it would be, “It’s over!” Or maybe even, “It is finished.”

What amazing words of hope and comfort! Those of us living through 2020 may understand a bit the unspeakable joy these words would have brought the exiles. How many internet memes and discussions are devoted to what we all will do, when this pandemic is over? How wonderful will it be, to be among friends and family again without fear, without masks? How lovely will a simple hug or handshake seem then? To eat at a restaurant, to go to a movie, to go back to work. We long after ten months of a pandemic simply to be able to leave our homes; the Israelites were in exile for 70 years; more than anything, they wanted to just go home.

But the completely unexpected truth about this prophecy is its proclamation that the end of exile would not consist in the Jews going back to their homeland, back to the place where they assumed God was. Rather, exile ends by God coming to them. The prophet says, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” The highway was not for them to leave; the highway was for God to come.

The Jews didn’t grasp these words when they were first spoken. And so sometime later when they were released from Babylon and a remnant returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, they thought that their exile was over. It wasn’t. Roman soldiers marched in the streets, David’s throne was still empty, and no one saw the glory of God. Most significantly, though they had returned, comfort remained far from them. Their disappointment must have been like ours will inevitably be, when 2020 turns to 2021, and we realize the pandemic has not ended. A random year change or a lighted ball dropping from a building or a presidential election can’t fix anything. The only thing that can fix a broken and hurting world, an exiled and a quarantined people, is God showing up in our midst. And for that, they would have to wait.

Like the exiles, we are in a period of waiting right now, the season of Advent. In the cultural mind with all its cherished traditions, Advent always gets mixed up with Christmas. But the celebration and feasting that is Christmas doesn’t actually start until December 25th. The season of Advent is less about celebration and more about exile, and the Church’s song in this season is less the joyous herald angels singing and more the lamenting cry, “Oh come, oh come Immanuel!” The words of this cherished Advent hymn are not far from the song of the exiles, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Thus, Advent focuses us not only on Christ’s first coming 2,000 years ago but also on the hope of his second coming. We are reminded in this season that though Christ has already come, all is not well. Our world is still broken and hurting and we still long for Christ’s full presence. And so we wait.

Thanks be to God that unlike the exiles, we are waiting in this season with the confidence of the children of God, and the comfort of those who know that although not all is well, exile has indeed ended. It didn’t end because the Jews went back to Canaan or because they rebuilt the Temple. Its end is not found in the ceasing of pain or death or in the absence of rulers opposed to the purposes of God. These things are still very much a reality, as 2020 has made all too apparent. Rather, as Isaiah prophesied, exile ended when God came to us, in the very midst of our darkness, in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. It is for this reason that all the Gospels launch readers into John and Jesus’ ministries with the quotation from Isaiah 40 about the God who comes on a highway in the wilderness. About the God who speaks comfort. We know, then, that God is with us in the waiting.

No matter how dark these days are, take comfort in the Gospel’s promise that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Featured image courtesy Alexandre Dinaut on Unsplash.

Edgar Bazan ~ Emmanuel: God Wants to Be With Us

Christmas is around the corner, and for the Christian church this is the beginning of the Advent season.

Advent is a season when we are reminded that God is with us. In fact, one of the names for God that we hear often during Christmastime is Emmanuel, which means: God with us. (Isaiah 7:14)

However, many times we don’t feel that God is with us. So today I want to address this concern: is God with me? Perhaps many of us have asked this question.

What I do know is that most people struggle with feelings of loneliness or abandonment at some point in their lives. They have felt the heavy weight of loneliness through the loss of people we love or missed opportunities in life. These experiences set on us as a heavy burden and make us wonder if God cares about our lives or if God is with us at all.

Other times, as it relates to our faith, we believe that God is not with us or that God does not want to have anything to do with us because either we don’t think we deserve the presence of God in our lives or simply that God does not care enough to be with us. Even more, our acting sinfully causes us to struggle with shame, guilt, and fear and these sentiments make us distance ourselves not only from God but also even from the people we love.

In such times of loneliness when we are confused, afraid, tempted, hurting, or discouraged, what does God do for us? How does God speak to our needs? Are any of us, today, feeling alone or abandoned?

One of the things that I have learned by ministering to people and by having my own personal challenges is that God is always with us, but we don’t always feel God’s presence, right? Well, feelings are not infallible; sometimes our feelings are misplaced and misguided. From this, I have learned that God is with us not because you or I feel it, but because God has promised God’s presence in our lives.

So, when we feel alone and struggle with all kinds of heavy thoughts and emotions, there is a gift we can always rely on: God’s presence. The God we believe in has chosen to be present in all of our pains and needs. Our God joins us in our brokenness. Our God feels as we feel. Our God has been with us since always.

Psalms 139 gives witness to the presence of God through the struggle of someone that thought deeply about the same things we are thinking right now. Hear the Word,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

King David wrote this Psalm. A beautiful one indeed. In this Psalm, David tells us that he knew that God knows everything, and God is everywhere. He is reflecting about a place and time where he may find himself truly alone, yet there is none. Even if he goes deep into a pit of darkness, God will meet him there. Even before he had a consciousness while he was being formed in the womb of his mother, God was there with him. And, he says: I come to the end of everything I can possibly think of, and I am still with you.

But he did not know this always, he experienced a great deal of loneliness in his life and endured a myriad of struggles that led him to write this and many other Psalms.

He was the youngest of seven brothers, often left out of any important family discussion. Throughout his life, David was persecuted by people he loved; was left to die in the hands of his enemies; he committed dreadful sins like killing and adultery, and he did so many other things that we wouldn’t think a man of God would do. Yet he always came back because in spite of all his mischiefs he truly loved God, and the moment he realized his wrongs he would return to God confessing and imploring for God’s presence to not abandon him. (See Psalm 51 as an example of this.)

David soon learned that God’s presence never abandons us but that it is we humans who run away and hide from God, even reject God, because we have yet to realize how much God loves us. We say things like: “God would never want me. God would never welcome me. God has abandoned me because of what I have done. God does not care.”

King David would challenge these statements because he learned that God’s love was greater than any of his fears, shame, and guilt; that even though God knew his brokenness or lack, God had never abandoned him.

This knowledge or revelation of God’s heart changed everything for King David and can change everything for us too. God, knowing everything and being everywhere, was not a cause for fear but for comfort, hope, and confidence in the future. Even when he felt alone or forsaken by all others, he knew that God was there with him. To this, David exclaims (v. 6): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.”

And so, David reflects: God isn’t just everywhere, but everywhere I go God lays hold of me (v. 10). God’s presence is not like a force field that follows me but is personal, a warm, caring, and guiding embrace that upholds us.

The Bible is the constant narrative of God’s work to bring God’s presence into our lives, of God’s continual struggle to be with us. If anything can be said about God, it is not: “why have you abandoned us,” but, “why do you keep insisting on being with us?”

This is a very significant theological theme in the Bible: the unwavering presence of God. This is so important that it changes the way we pray, worship, and practice our faith if we realize its meaning.

To explain this properly, I need to elaborate on a particular theme in the Bible: The Temple.

In general terms and across religions, a temple is a place of worship. In the Bible, it specifically was the place where heaven and earth met, as if heaven and earth were two separate circles, and the circles overlap in the middle, and they called that place the temple.

This is because heaven was seen as God’s dimension. The place where God dwelled. And the Jewish people saw the temple as that space ripped down from heaven here onto earth. Once they entered the temple, they were entering the space where human space collided with God’s.

Jefferson Bethke writes in his book It’s Not What You Think about the meaning and significance of the Temple and the presence of God in the Bible. He explains,

“All temple-building texts had two huge markers to distinguish themselves from other literature. The first thing to recognize is all temples, when they would be completed, would put the image of that god in the temple on the last day as a sort of seal or marking that it was done. The second thing would be the builders would rest and celebrate the day after they had finished, and formally invite the god to take up residence. It was an ancient version of an inauguration ceremony. It would be seen as a day of rest where you would invite the god [or goddess] to flood the temple with his [or her] presence.” (Chapter 2)

This observation takes us back to the beginning: the book of Genesis.

In Genesis 1-2, on the last day of creation, God placed Adam and Eve in the garden as God’s image-bearers and rested from all the work, making the seventh day the Sabbath –a day of rest and enjoyment. Hebrew and Israelite listeners and readers would have recognized those markers and said, “God is following temple-building patterns in the telling of the story.”

The meaning of this is that Genesis is all about a temple being built: the creation itself. But the strange thing about this text that is completely unique and different from other ancient Eastern religions is that there is no building or imageries of metal, wood, or stone placed in a temple. In Genesis, the images are flesh: spirit, flesh, love, and humanness. And the Temple is the whole of creation. While other gods were regional and controlled only particular elements of nature such as the sun or sea or field, this God was God of all and God of everywhere. The whole world is God’s temple.

But this is just the beginning of temple-building work. Soon after, as Genesis tells, sin broke into the Creation, and those who were the reflection and witness of God’s presence couldn’t carry it anymore. What Adam and Eve lost in the Garden of Eden when they sinned was the presence of God –not because God abandoned them but because they rejected God. Nevertheless, God continued to carry on pursuing all people and designed a new plan to make himself available to humanity.

As the story continues and goes beyond Genesis, in Exodus, God tells us that God, “will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God.” For this, right after God pulled the Israelites out of slavery and oppression in Egypt, God provided instructions for building a tabernacle, basically a tent, a new means and place for God’s presence to manifest and dwell temporarily.

As the story continues, once the Israelites had settled in their new land, God gave Kings David and Solomon permission and instructions for building a permanent dwelling place for him: The Temple.

However, this did not last long. The people of God rejected God and lost everything again like back in Genesis: their home and this time their new Temple. This exile was such a disaster for the people of God because they were away from God’s presence. But what happened next changed everything.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is Godself becoming flesh to dwell among us. In the very words of John 1,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and [dwelt] among us… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (v. 1, 14, 16)

A significant detail in this text is that the Greek word translated as “dwelt” in verse 14 is eskenosen, which can literally mean “to fix a tent or tabernacle.” With this, John is saying that Jesus himself (Bethke would say) is “pitching his tent” (that is, his holy tabernacle) among us. His body was now the place where heaven and earth met together.

This means that through Jesus God was pitching God’s tent with us—to be with God’s people. Jesus is the ultimate and perfect manifestation of God because “God became flesh and [dwelt] among us…” In other words, Jesus was the walking Temple of God, the very presence of God’s self. What Jesus did, what he said, everything he accomplished was a manifestation of God’s heart for humanity, for all of us.

Hence, when we ask: How does God uphold us? How is God present in my life? How am I not alone? What is the value of God’s presence? We need to look no further than to Jesus. He was fully present in everything. Fully caring, for everything. Completely invested in all people.

But now what? Jesus is not here anymore. Is God still present? Does Psalms 139 still hold true today? Well, there is one more thing that Jesus accomplished that answers these questions.

After his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled his promise of sending his Spirit to dwell in us. Now, God’s presence is not just walking among us, but truly dwelling in us! Jesus spoke very clearly about this. (I won’t quote the whole chapter, but I do encourage you to write it down and study it later in your home.) This is from John 14, excerpts from verses 15-20,

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day (when the Spirit comes to you) you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

What we hear and read here from Jesus himself is that the overarching theme of God’s presence in Scripture is the progressive movement of God to dwell with God’s people. God in creation, God in the temple, God in Jesus, and now God in us through the Holy Spirit.

King David saw a glimpse of this, and he shared it with all of us through Psalms 139: “God, you are with me always; I am with you always. I am never alone or forsaken. I come to the end, and I am still with you.”

Let me ask you now: What is the “end” for you, when you feel like there is nothing else left for you?

My friends, there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And there is no “end,” no place where we can be completely lost, or we can run away to because God is already there. Hope and new beginnings can find us in all places and circumstances. We may come to what we think is the end, but God is still with us giving us the power to change everything for good.

Today, let us know that dwelling is God’s goal.

This is what the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Ephesians,

“[Through faith in Jesus] You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Ephesians 2:19-22

We, the people of God, are the dwelling place of God, we are the overlapping middle place where heaven and earth meet. We are the Temple of God forever. We are now the dwelling place of God. So, we can’t go anywhere that God is not with us and in us. As King David said, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? I come to the end, and I am still with you.”

When we are confused, God’s presence will guide us; when we are afraid, God’s presence will protect us; when we are tempted, God’s presence will help us resist; when we are hurting, God’s presence will comfort us; when we are discouraged, God’s presence will encourage us; when we are lonely, God’s presence will be our companion. God sees us, walks with us, and cares for us no matter where we are.

In the beginning, God impressed his presence in everything he created, including us –particularly us. But now, through Jesus, God’s presence is not just an impression on us, but we are now a dwelling place of God, where the fullness of God’s presence is our gift forever.

Let us come to God today and always, and dwell in the fullness of the gift of his presence: Jesus, Emmanuel.

Jeff Rudy ~ What Good Is a Dead Shepherd?

The texts for this sermon come from Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18.

In the middle of the Easter season every year is what some call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” which falls on the fourth Sunday of Easter. The revised common lectionary readings for this Sunday are always related to the image of the shepherd – Psalm 23 is the psalm all three years, and the Gospel reading always comes from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, which prominently displays Jesus’ referring to himself as the “good shepherd.”

Good shepherds develop a sort of bond with their sheep. Some say that the bond is such that the sheep consider the shepherd as one of their own. This can shed a little light on the idea that not only is Jesus our “good shepherd” but is also deemed as “the lamb of God.” The bond of trust between sheep and shepherd is confirmed by David’s meditation on how God is the shepherd of God’s people and by Jesus’ use of this analogy: “I know my own and my own know me.” The sheep know the shepherd by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.

My father concurs with this. Until he suffered a heart attack, my Dad had a flock of about 100 sheep. I talked with him a few weeks ago, reminiscing on those days and pondering on this beautiful metaphor. He said that Jesus’ statement that the sheep know his voice is right on target.

Whenever the sheep got out and Dad was at the farm store several miles away, one of the neighbors would call him to let him know the sheep were out of their pen. The question became, how would he respond? If he wanted the task to not consume the whole day, he couldn’t dispatch one of his employees…the hired hands, if you will…but would have to go down to the farm himself. There was a powerful combination of the sound of the feed hitting the trough along with the unique sound of his voice that would be the key to fully inviting and bringing them back home.

The 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ comforting words, and experiences like my dad’s that confirm these truths evoke a sort of pleasant rural image. But other than these pleasantries, the picture of a shepherd is one that, frankly, we have overly romanticized when in reality, the life of a shepherd, especially in the ancient world, was anything but warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t glamorous; it was messy, risky, tedious, and dangerous. It was really a thankless job, but think about this: shepherds were tasked with caring for the very animals that would be slaughtered as the sacrificial offerings of the worshiping community. Because of the value of the commodity of sheep in the ancient middle east, whenever a sheep or a lamb had been attacked or killed by a predator, the shepherd would have to bring proof by retrieving a part of the sheep, which meant fighting the wolves or whatever the predator was.

And this is the part of the analogy. Jesus said, memorably, that he is the good shepherd, and that means that he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. This, of course, speaks to a sort of quality that is hailed as wonderful – sacrificial, self-giving, love. It’s a simple picture that emerges really – the sheep face danger; the shepherd goes out to meet the danger, and, if necessary, takes upon himself the fate that would have befallen the sheep. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

But all of this begs the question about the nature of this good shepherd, which is this: “What good is a dead shepherd?”

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” If that is where Jesus’ analogy had ended, then this question would be even more puzzling. This is more than a theological question; it’s a practical one. If a predator kills the shepherd, what is to stop that predator from destroying the sheep? At the very least, as the prophecy said, when the shepherd is struck down the sheep will scatter. At worst, the wolf eats the flock.

The tragic scene of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what the evil witch says to him as she slays him speaks to this very problem that makes a sacrificial shepherd seem so pointless. The lion Aslan, in the fashion of the good shepherd, had gone to meet the witch and had agreed to trade his life in exchange for the life of Edmund Pevensie who had betrayed the Narnians by leading the witch to them. Edmund regretted his traitorous action, but his punishment was supposed to be death. However, Aslan stepped in and appealed to an ancient agreement that would establish the balance of justice. An innocent life (Aslan, in this case) could be given so that the guilty party (in this case Edmund) wouldn’t have to be condemned to death.

But for the witch, this was more than just about an exacting of punishment or a balancing of the scales – it was a battle in which she was seeking to rule the whole world and destroy or enslave all her enemies. So, after Aslan is tied up, his mane is completely shaved, and he’s beaten to within an inch of his life, the witch drew near to the lion’s ear with an attempt to crush his spirit in defeat as she dealt the death blow. She said this:

And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.

What good is a dead Aslan? What good is a dead shepherd? What is to stop the wolf from destroying the sheep too? The answer to these questions is, nothing.

Unless…The shepherd’s not actually dead anymore. Did you hear? The shepherd’s not dead anymore!

As he did in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so also here in John, Jesus gives a premonition of his death – “I lay down my life for the sheep.” But once again, he also follows it up with the glimpse of hope on the other side of that valley of the shadow of death. “I lay down my life…in order to take it up again.

This is why this passage finds its way into the season of Easter. Because what’s good about the dead shepherd is that he isn’t dead anymore and, in his return, has brought in a bigger flock of sheep than what had been known before. Jesus speaks of another flock to add to the fold – a way of speaking about salvation being not only for those inside the Jewish community, but also for the rest of the world. It was after the resurrection when this reality would come into being. The shepherd’s not dead anymore…and he’s even more powerful than before.

In Narnia, Aslan was resurrected as the White Witch went to battle against the good Narnians led by the humans who were all loyal to Aslan. When Aslan came back to life, the first witnesses were two girls, who laughed and danced and played with him until it was time to gather more troops for the battle. So while the battle is out on the field, Aslan stormed the witch’s castle, breathed upon the creatures that the witch had frozen and they thawed, coming back to life. They then ran out to defeat the witch and sent her comrades into full retreat. In describing his resurrection, Aslan appealed to the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which said, “that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [on which Aslan was killed] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards…”

What’s good about the dead shepherd who has taken up his life again? The sheep who aren’t in the flock yet but are waiting to come alive are seen as the shepherd to be potential sheep.

Jesus was trying to get them to see that the Gentiles were not really their enemies: they were sheep who weren’t in the fold yet.

And maybe that ought to speak to us about our role in relation to the mission of the good shepherd. The once dead, but now resurrected good shepherd, I would suggest, is telling us – I have other sheep…potential sheep outside of your fences, outside of your walls, that are waiting for the life-giving word, for the life-giving witness, for the life-giving invitation of the good shepherd, whose voice we are called to bear in the world.

Will we introduce them to the good shepherd or will we run and hide like the hired hand?