Sunday, April 17, 2016

A SHEEP IN THE HAND IS WORTH...EVERYTHING

"They will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand."
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There are several metaphors in the Bible that God uses for his people. Each of these is intended to illustrate and accentuate a particular aspect of God’s relationship with us. One of the most common of these metaphors for the people of the Lord is the sheep of God’s pasture. We find this image repeatedly in both the Old and the New Testaments. 

The picture of the shepherd with his flock of sheep used to illustrate God with his people is not only one of the most common in the Bible, it is also one of the most endearing. It reveals God’s heart of tenderness and love for us.
The prophet Isaiah says this of God: “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock. In His arms He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom. He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (40:11).

There is something about the relationship that a shepherd has with his sheep that illustrates especially well God’s relationship to his people. In our experience with actual shepherds and with real sheep, the sheep are dependent upon the shepherd in every way for their well-being. Without him, they would be left unprotected and defenseless in the wilds, and even often times unable to find food. These shepherding qualities of being a protector and a provider are important for any leader of people.
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David the Shepherd King

One of the reasons that David of the Old Testament was such an effective king and had such a vital relationship with God is because he had received his early training out in the pasture as a shepherd. His youth was largely spent tending his father’s flock of sheep. David understood well the role of protector and provider. What is more, because of this knowledge of what it takes to be a shepherd, David also understood that he himself was also totally dependent upon God.

That is why he could write, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:1-4)

That is why David could also write, “Know that the Lord himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

That is also why Jesus, seeing the multitudes of people without true purpose in life and wandering aimlessly, “felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). 

Seeking the Lost One

One of the aspects of a shepherd who is a protector and a provider is that the shepherd is one who will seek out someone who has gone astray. If a sheep turns up missing, a good shepherd does not simply count this as a loss, but goes to great lengths to find the lost one.

This is also God’s promise for his people. In the book of Ezekiel, God says, “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day” (Ezekiel 34:12).

Of course, this quality of a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep is perhaps best illustrated by the story Jesus himself told. “What do you think?” Jesus asked his disciples one day, “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying?” (Matthew 18:12). 

The Love of the Shepherd

Our understanding of the depth of God’s love for us is far from adequate. To us, love has become a tenuous and fleeting sentiment. We speak of love as something we can pick up or put down, almost at will.

“I don’t love you anymore,” a husband may say to his wife.

If we truly understood the concept of love, we would see that this is an impossible statement. True love is not something that fades or diminishes, and it certainly does not end. Why we do not understand this about love – I do not know. We read it over and over in the Bible.

“Love never fails,” the Apostle Paul tells us. “Now these three things abide – faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13). When Paul speaks of the abiding quality of these things, he means it in the sense that, although everything else might decrease and fail, these will always remain (abide –  menĊ – to stay, remain).

Love is, more than all else, a matter of choice. When we choose to commit our lives to another person, if the choice is based on love – that commitment will remain. It will abide. 

The Love of God

If there is one thing that should become obvious to us through reading the Bible, it is that God has a love for us that goes beyond anything that we can comprehend. We see this in many ways in the Bible. We see it with the many different people throughout the pages of Scripture whom God has chosen to love.

The first thing about God’s love that we should come to understand is that his choice of us is not based upon some inherent positive quality that we possess. God does not choose someone to be his follower because he or she is better than other people, or more beautiful or more handsome. He does not choose us because there is something of greatness in us, or even some inherent potential of greatness. The truth be told, we do not know why God chooses us.

Moses told the ancient people of Israel, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I know that no good thing dwells in me” (Romans 7:18).

And here is something else that is interesting about the love of God – his commitment to his people does not change despite whatever rebellion or unfaithfulness that they may exhibit. Very many times, God called these same Israelites whom he had chosen “a rebellious and stiff-necked people,” but he never gave up on them. He may have left them suffer the consequences of their rebellion for a time, in order to cause them to see the error of their way, but he always called them back. God’s love for his people compelled him to seek them out when they were lost.

God said this about the ancient Israelites: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. [But] the more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols… How can I give you up, O Ephraim, how can I hand you over, O Israel?... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger;      I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (from Hosea 11). 

God’s Love Illustrated in Hosea

This writing is from the book of Hosea in the Old Testament. Hosea was a prophet of God who knew more than most people the depths to which God will go in his love for his people. At times, the prophets of the Old Testament were given the task by God to live out examples that were meant to illustrate something about the relationship that God had with his people, or to teach the people something. Through Hosea, God wanted to teach the people how God loved them and how he was committed to them, despite their unfaithfulness.

Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute, a whore.
This was a woman who had no idea what the meaning of faithfulness was. After Hosea and she were married, the woman soon left Hosea and began to live with another man. Despite her adulterous ways, God instructs Hosea to seek out his unfaithful wife, and to buy her back. Hosea redeems her. He pays fifteen shekels of silver and a quantity of barley. He then brings his wife back to him so that she should remain his wife and learn to be faithful to him. 

God’s Choice of Us

In the New Testament as well, the Apostle Paul tells the followers of God in his own day  and our day, now also non-Jews, that we also are chosen by God. God’s purpose in this is that we are to be holy, and that we are to be blameless (Ephesians 1:4). We know pretty much what it means to be blameless, but like love, the word holy is another of those terms that does not have the same meaning to us as it did in the Bible. We think being holy means something along the lines of being and acting very religious or very pious. But that is not what Paul means in using this word. The word holy actually is used to indicate something that is exclusively dedicated to God. When Paul calls us to be holy, he means it in the sense that we be dedicated only to the One who created us, devoted only to God.

It is here that the writings of Paul and the writings of Hosea meet in their meanings. Hosea was trying show his bride that he chose her and he loved her, and that he would pursue her even if she was unfaithful to him. Paul also tells us that God chose us and that he will not let us go. God has chosen to love us, and as we have seen, that love of God is a commitment that does not fail. Indeed, it cannot fail.

And it is also here that the writings of Hosea, of Paul, and also of others in Scripture, meet in their meaning with the words of Jesus Christ in regards to a shepherd with his sheep.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said, “And the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me… and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14-15). 

The Security of Being Loved

If we are a follower of Christ, do we not know the security that we have in this relationship? We have become so accustomed to the insecurity of relationships in present marriage circumstances in our own culture that we often cannot appreciate the security of our relationship with God in his culture.

Hosea was a living metaphor to demonstrate to us the security of our relationship with God. Hosea did not file for a divorce from his unfaithful wife. Rather than that, he sought her out and redeemed her. God also paid a price to redeem you and me.

God is also the shepherd, whom even though he may have ninety-nine obedient sheep safe in the fold, will still risk his own life to search for that one that has gone missing.

And that is why Jesus said in today’s scripture, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give to them eternal life. They will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). 

What Do We Do?

What then is our part in all of this? If God is the one who chooses us and is the one who keeps us, it might seem to you as if we are just reluctant or perhaps even unwilling participants in this relationship. Is this a fair representation of the situation?

It is true that we are sometimes like a sheep who wanders off. We do this either by our own inattentiveness or our disobedience. We depend upon the love of the shepherd to seek us out and to save us. Also, like the wife of Hosea, we are sometimes unfaithful. We break our commitment to God and pursue other lovers. We seek after those things that may give us immediate pleasure and which do not keep us close to God. To put it bluntly, we prostitute ourselves with the world.

I do not deny that these things are true. We may talk about the early Israelites and criticize their unfaithfulness, but we are no different. The level of own commitment to God is tenuous at best. We may look at the wife of Hosea as turning her back on a love that is real, and instead seeking cheap thrills, but we are just as untrue to the love of God.

It is true that we are totally dependent upon God. It is he and he alone who not only has called us, but he sought us out when we were lost, and he redeemed us when we were unfaithful. If we think that, by some virtue of our own, we have any part at all in this relationship of love, I am afraid that we think too highly of ourselves.

But there is one thing that I need to mention. Although God is the one who chose us, who sought us out and redeemed us, it is not true that we are unwilling participants in this relationship. We see this lesson in the example of Hosea and his wife. There was a point early in that relationship, when Hosea sought her for his wife, when she had to consent to becoming his bride. When Hosea asked her to marry him, she had to say “yes.”

It is true that God chooses us and seeks us out, but it remains that we have to say “yes.” Although our relationship with God is totally and completely dependent upon him, he does not force us into this relationship. He seeks us out and proposes, but there is a decision that is left to us. We can say “yes,” or we can turn away.

What have you chosen to do? God has sought you out. Have you said “yes” to him? Perhaps as you think about it, you are unsure if you actually have said “yes.” You may base your relationship with God upon something else. You may say that you were baptized as an infant. Fantastic! That shows that it was a priority of your parents that you needed to have this done. It was their choice. But what have you chosen to do?

You may say that you have gone to church your whole life. Wonderful! That shows that this is either something that you like to do or that it is something that you feel is an obligation. But going to church is not the same as having a vital relationship with God. We can never have a true relationship with God based on something that we do.

For God to have a living and a vital relationship with you need to recognize that there is nothing that you have in your own life that can contribute to this relationship. The prophet Isaiah said that the best that is in us is as filthy and disgusting rags. For any good thing in our lives, we are totally dependent upon God. In order to be free from a life of a completely wasted existence, like the wife of Hosea, we need God to redeem us. That is the whole reason for Jesus Christ coming to earth. We were not bought with fifteen shekels of silver, but in a way that we do not understand, it was the sacrificed blood and body of Jesus that was the price that he paid to buy us back. He offered himself.

But despite all of this, it remains that we have to say “yes.” We simply cannot ignore this fact. We cannot walk away and still expect to live. If we want to have a life that has meaning, not only for these days, but for eternity, we need to respond to God.

Do something today to confirm in your life that you have said “yes” to God.

If you are unsure if you have ever before actually said that to God, say “yes” to him today. He seeks you out and want to redeem you. Once you are in his care, there is no person or no power who can snatch you out of the safety of his hand.

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