Tag Archives: Shepherd

God in my Suffering

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”

Zechariah 13:7 (NIV)

For anyone who is not a regular, a quick explanation. For the past several months, I’ve been blogging my way through the texts that concern a specific period in Jewish history when the people were forced into exile by their enemies and then returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple there. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the middle of a year-long contemplation of exile as an overarching theme of the Great Story.

As I excavate the meaning of exile, I can’t help but escape the fact that suffering is part of the exilic process. I don’t find this a surprise. Followers of Jesus are told to expect suffering time and time again. Jesus was very direct:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”

Matthew 10:16-17 (NIV)

“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:32-33 (NIV)

As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Matthew 8:19-20 (MSG)

Of course, this line of thinking runs against the current of popular culture which tries to avoid suffering at all costs. As I mentioned in a post last week, God’s kingdom as Jesus presented it is typically opposite the kingdoms of this world.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah is once again envisioning events in the future, when a “fountain” is opened to cleanse the people of sin and impurity. Zech returns to the theme of the Messiah as Shepherd. The Shepherd is struck and His sheep are scattered. This is the very verse that Matthew points to in his biography of Jesus when Jesus is arrested and the disciples all run for their lives into hiding.

The remainder of Zech’s prophetic poem concerns a period of suffering, and it is fodder for scholarly debate. It could relate to any number of great persecutions that God’s people experienced. Many scholars believe that it dovetails with the prophecies of the book of Revelation. I find both to be reasonable conclusions, and I am reminded in the quiet this morning that prophetic text can be layered with meaning, so I’m comfortable with the answer that it is “both, and.”

In the quiet of this morning, I find my heart wrestling with the reality of suffering in this life journey. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” We heard an excellent message about this exilic theme of suffering yesterday. I received a text from a friend who said that the key question for him was this: “Who is God in my suffering?”

Scholars have chronicled a distinct shift in Hebrew prophetic writing during the 70-year Babylonian exile. The theme of their message shifts from God being the righteous judge to God being redeemer, sustainer, and the promised savior amidst their suffering. “Who is God in my suffering?” Some see God as the punisher. Some see God as an ambivalent spectator. Some choose not to see God at all. I can’t help but notice that Zech’s vision is of a suffering Shepherd, just as Isaiah did:

There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

Isaiah 53:2-3 (MSG)

At the end of today’s chapter, the suffering Shepherd and suffering exiles own one another. “This is my people,” God says. “This is the Lord our God,” the people say. Both walk the path of suffering and find one another along the way.

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Prophecy in Story and Life

room of prophecy

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 (NIV)

In recent weeks my heart and mind have been mulling over this idea of good stories being reflections of the Great Story that God is telling from Genesis to Revelation. And so, perhaps it’s no surprise that this morning I was thinking about all of the stories that contain the theme of prophecies:

In the Lord of the Rings:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In the Chronicles of Narnia:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

In Harry Potter:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies […] 

In The Matrix, The Prophecy was a prediction made by the Oracle and, as told to Neo by Morpheus, states the coming of The One and that it will herald the destruction of the Matrix and the freedom of humanity from their oppression by the Machines. Once The One enters the Source, he will have the power to destroy the Matrix.

These are just a few top of mind examples, but if you think about it for a few minutes you begin to realize that the theme of prophecy and oracles is found in stories from Disney fairy tales to Shakespeare.

One of the important things about reading the books of the Old Testament is to gain an appreciation for how the person, life and work of Jesus prophetically fits into the context of the whole story that God is telling. Ezekiel’s messages were written over 500 years before the events of Jesus’ earthly life, and yet they are an important prophetic link.

As Ezekiel writes his prophetic word picture of God’s flock in today’s chapter “the sheep” have already begun to be scattered. Assyria had assailed the northern tribes and taken them into exile in Persia. Babylon had already laid siege to the southern tribes and many, like Ezekiel himself, had been scattered to Babylon and surrounding areas. Ezekiel’s metaphor of a scattered flock would have deeply resonated with his compatriots.

Into this word picture comes a prophetic word through Ezekiel of one shepherd from David’s line who will be raised up to gather the flock. Then you fast forward 500 years to Jesus who was born a descendant of David (remember the Christmas story when they return to “the City of David” for Caesar’s census?). As Jesus is at the height of His teaching, the question everyone was asking him was: Who are you?

To those who knew Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle, Jesus speaks clearly:

“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. The reason my Father loves me 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.”

Today, I am thankful for good stories. I’m thankful for prophecy both in stories and in life. I’m thankful for the Great Story that is being told and lived. I’m thankful for my place in it.

Chapter-a-Day Zechariah 11

Adventures in Babysitting
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And then I got tired of the sheep and said, “I’ve had it with you—no more shepherding from me. If you die, you die; if you’re attacked, you’re attacked. Whoever survives can eat what’s left.” Zechariah 11:9 (MSG)

Back in my college days, when I would do just about any odd job for a few bucks, my buddy Spike told me about a week long job he’d picked up babysitting. One denominational organization was having their national meeting in Ames and they needed people to help with babysitting and day care for all the Pastor’s Kids (PKs) and Missionary Kids (MKs) while the adults when to various sessions during the day.

Being the only guys in the pool of child care workers, Spike and I got the two toughest groups in the lot. I was given responsibility for the 11-12 year old boys. Spike got the 9-10 year old boys. So for the next week we were responsible for the naughtiest, rowdiest, most cantakerous bunch of foul-mouthed brats I’ve ever experienced (and that’s putting it nicely).

If there was a rule, these boys would break it. If you told them to do one thing, they’d do the other just to spite you. Some of my clearest memories were of riding on the bus getting pelted from spit wads fired from the kazoos they’d been given by some dear, ignorant woman who thought the kazoos a “safe way to keep them entertained on the bus.” Then there was the field trip to Living History Farms when the boys found a crab apple tree and decided to band together and play attack Tom with rotten apples. Early in the week I was tired and frustrated. By mid-week I was cranky and short-tempered. By the end of the week I was downright homicidal. It was only my dire need for college money that kept me showing up each morning.

When I read in today’s chapter about the shepherd getting downright sick of the sheep, I think about my little flock of 11 and 12 year-old PKs. Then I think about Jesus who said He was “The Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.” How frustrated must God be with this rebellious sheep who is so prone to wander. Yes, I look back with sarcastic and critical eye at those rowdy bunch of boys, but how hypocritical am I being, really? Can’t the Good Shepherd get just as frustrated with me?

Today, I’m mindful of the ways I must be a frustrating person for God to Shepherd, and I’m thankful for a Good Shepherd who would leave the entire flock to find one lost sheep.

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Chapter-a-Day Matthew 9

tear
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When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. Matthew 9:36 (MSG)

The prophet Ezekiel said that God would take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. I thought about that as I read the verse above this morning. The further I get in the journey I find my heart getting softer. My family will tell you that I’ve always been a softy, but sometimes I think it gets a bit ridiculous. Thankfully, I have a wife who doesn’t seem to mind that her husband cries right along with her in movies, who rarely gets through a worship service without shedding a tear, and who feels things with increasing depth.

I’ve never forgotten my friend, Mike, who said he had to give up being an EMT after he started following Jesus. When God took away his heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh, he suddenly began to feel the pain of the broken people he was called on to serve in emergencies. “I couldn’t do the work through my tears,” he said.

And yet, what is it to feel empathy and compassion if it doesn’t motivate me to act? And what should that action be? How interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Look at the confused and aimless crowd, like sheep without a shepherd. I MUST SHEPHERD THEM ALL!” He said, “Listen up boys, we need to pray for reinforcements.”

Today, I’m praying for depth of discernment to accompany my depth of feeling. I want my emotions to motivate appropriate actions.

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Chapter-a-Day Isaiah 13

Judgement. "Watch now. God's Judgment Day comes. Cruel it is, a day of wrath and anger…." Isaiah 13:9a (MSG)

There are two sides to love. There is the soft side of love with warm-fuzzies, hugs, grace, and random acts of kindness. There is also a hard side of love. The hard side of love stands up for what is right, sets clear and appropriate boundaries, and ensures that justice is appropriately carried out. The hard side of love is hard because it requires tremendous strength of character to wield it, and because it appears harmful to the ignorant, casual observer. A doctor will, lovingly, injure his patient to ensure future health and wholeness. The hard side of love seems terrible, unjust, and unfair in the moment while it is utterly necessary in the context of the whole.

Let's face it. We like the idea of a safe God. Give us a God of stained-glass and angelic choruses. We like a God with babies in his arms or a gentle lamb draped over his shoulders. But the God who gathered the innocent child into his arms is the same God who made a whip and went on a violent rampage through the temple. The shepherd who gently carries the wayward sheep home must also be ruthless in killing the lion and the bear who would prey upon his flock.

A father who cares for his children must dispense both praise and punishment appropriately, and with great wisdom. Our Heavenly Father, a God of love, must also by definition be a God of judgement. Love without justice is not true love.