Faith


When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

Mark 6: 34

Sheep are remarkable animals. They can be very productive as they grow that woolen coat that can be made into clothing and many other useful items. They are also used for food, and their skins make great cold weather clothing. Sheep are smaller and so eat less than cattle and more can be kept on a parcel of land. Yet, they do need care and management. Sheep will not take care of themselves and thrive. One of the most impressive sights that can be seen in my part of the world is that twice a year migration when sheep are moved from winter pasture to higher elevation summer ones and its reversal in the fall. Then, large flocks of sheep are moved by a team of shepherds and sheep dogs, and these flocks are so large that their entire group cannot be seen at one time. Still, even in large numbers, they are not safe or secure without that human and working dog care, management, and direction.

People are similar. We may not seem to need the presence of that highly instinctual and well-trained herding dog nipping at our heels to keep us moving in the proper direction, or the skill and knowledge of the shepherd who leads us to places where good water and abundant forage are available. But, when I look at the sorts of challenges, trials, and struggles that people generate for themselves, I am not so convinced that we don’t need a little herding along the course of life. We might fight against the idea of management or control, for we are thinking and perceiving creatures and can sort out the best ways to handle whatever it is that life sends our way. However, it is my observation that people simply don’t always pick the best path, make the righteous decision, or seek to think, speak, and act in a manner that brings honor and glory to God. We need to be taught, we require correction, and we thrive when we are receiving nurture and encouragement along the way.

Christ provides all of this to His people. His Spirit takes us into the deep truths that are contained in the text of God’s Word, and He opens up our minds and our hearts to understanding the application of those words of life to the situations that we are encountering today. When we look at Mark’s account of the events that were happening in those days when Jesus was actively teaching and healing on earth, we see the Lord directly engaged with people in meeting their needs and providing care and comfort to them. This same real and tangible presence of our Lord is with us now, too. Christ gave us His Spirit, and He is at work in and with us on a continual basis. Our Great Shepherd walks through life with us, and He never fails to safeguard our souls or to feed our spirits. The Lord’s truth guides our steps and protects us from the deceptive traps that Satan attempts to set for us. As we navigate life’s journey with Jesus, we are no longer those lost sheep who are without a shepherd, for we are continually cared about and cared for by the one true and eternal shepherd, Jesus Christ, God With Us.    

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No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.

1 John 3: 6

John sets a very hard standard here. For there is no question in my mind that even as a follower of Christ sin is not absent from my life, and the same hard reality is attested to by others that I know and by the witness of many as set out in God’s Word. Accepting Christ is not some form of magic wand that immediately changes this aspect of who we have been for the prior duration of our lives. In addition, He does not take control over our hearts and minds in a manner that overrides all of the impulses, desires, and conditioned responses that we have to life. Through the work of His Spirit on and within us, Christ does change His people in ways that are both subtle and profound. Yet, He does this through a process that takes place over time, and this process involves us in on-going acts of submission to His will and of surrender to God’s holy and righteous way of engaging with life.

 This would seem to put most people at odds with God, or at least with John’s view of the way that God works in the lives of His people. There were very few people who knew Jesus better than did John. He was closer than almost anyone else to Jesus while He was living on earth as a man, and John’s continued service and leadership in the fellowship of faith became legendary due to its singular length and his intense devotion to the gospel of love as known only by and through a relationship with Jesus Christ. So, when John speaks, it is wise to listen, and when he says something this powerful about the fundamental nature of what it means to be in relationship with Christ, we should take his statement seriously. John was not a person who said things for their shock value alone; rather, he was a disciple of Christ who was charged with guiding many into an ever deeper form of living out their calling to service to God.

John is not saying that true followers of Christ will live sinless lives. Instead, he is indicating that people who have in fact given themselves to Christ and entered into a relationship with Him will never be comfortable with the sin that is remaining in us as we engage with and conduct life. In Christ, sin loses its hold on us and its rule over us is ended. (John 8:31 cf.) So, as we remain close to our Lord, as we abide in Him, the contrast between living as Christ’s true follower with its characteristics of love, grace, mercy, justice, and peacemaking and the way of the world with its characteristics of a drive toward power, control, personal gain, and self-determination of right and wrong, becomes ever starker and more uncomfortable to us. John is providing us with a strong warning and a clear reminder that we are to seek out the Lord and His righteousness as the primary focus of our days. We dwell in the presence of Christ when we turn to Him through consumption of God’s Word, in meditation and prayer, and by holding God’s view of what constitutes holiness and righteousness as superior to personal comfort, our long-established habits, or to life, itself. Thus, as we remain attached to the source of wisdom, truth, and gracious love, as we abide in the vine that is Christ (John 15), the sin that seeks to control our lives is driven off, and our souls are set free to live out the Lord’s calling and purpose for us.    

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

   who will shepherd my people.

Matthew 2: 6

These wise men from the east spoke true wisdom when they were interrogated by Herod. He would have done well to have listened and responded to what they had to say in a manner that embraced both the content of their statement and also the One who would give the world its ultimate expression. David was the shepherd king, and he was a gift that God had given to Israel and to the world many years prior. Samuel describes David and his shepherding of the people and of the nation. But David was far from perfect in this role of care taker and care giver, and his time was in the dim past. Herod was a king who was about as far from the concept of shepherd in his actions as there could possibly have been. Sadly, there have been very few rulers in our world, whether they are called king, prince, emperor, or president, who have done much better. 

Jesus set a very high standard for others who would rule over nations or lead people. His primary objective was not power or control. Instead, He sought to heal the brokenness that disabled people as He cut through the external manifestations of what we perceive as strength or weakness and probed deeply into the hearts of people so that our separation from God became the true focus of His restorative work. Jesus cared for the physical needs of His people as He entered into the eternal needs of their souls. The loyalty that Christ demands is not to an earthly cause; rather, it is formed out of submission to God’s call to live righteously and the sort of loving and just life that springs up out of that well of living water. This is the sort of submission to a higher purpose and to the one true King of the Universe that can make a profound difference in the nature of a leader’s tenure in office and would define those who honestly and sincerely desire to shepherd the people that are within their arena of responsibility.

As we know, shepherds tend to their flocks. They nurture and protect them as they attend to the need for food, water, shelter, and comfort that is all a part of the ongoing life stories of the sheep that have been given to them to watch over. The Lord does all of these things for us as well; yet, He also gives over that responsibility and role to human agents. God appoints people to positions of authority of various types and at differing levels of responsibility, and the Lord then sends His appointees out to rule justly, to care for the flock with real concern for the well-being of all of them, and to do this work in a manner that points people toward God as their true and ultimate shepherd. Sadly, only a few leaders do these things very well. Yet, this should not stop you and I from seeking to be different. As we lead others, we can model Jesus and engage in shepherding those people well. We can know them deeply, pray for them faithfully, and seek to be loving and just in all that we do. We can also set the Lord’s standard and model for leadership as the one that we hold up and demand from the people that we select to rule over us. Jesus is the King who kneels down in the mud with His sheep in order to hold them close and care for their minds, hearts, and souls; we can seek to do the same for the people that we are given to lead, and we can select our leaders based upon this same desired model of leaders who are shepherds.       

Lord, you have been our dwelling place

   in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, 

   or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Psalm 90: 1, 2

Something great or at least very significant has happened. The writer of this psalm, it is credited to Moses, has witnessed God’s hand in action in a mighty way; so, perhaps the setting for these observations is the wilderness after the rebellious generation has died off, the Israelites are in sight of Canaan again, and Moses is at the end of his life’s journey. Regardless of the situation or the circumstances, most lives are touched by times when hard things come our way and situations where we feel overwhelmed and insecure. All of that is a part of life in this place, and all lives are lived out with uncertainty and an element of fear or distress as the backdrop for the journey. Yet, Moses reminds us that there is always something bigger than our story going on in our lives and that our place in history is important to God but it is still just a moment in time from the Lord’s perspective.

All people throughout the entire scope of time have been given the gift of the presence of the Lord. This was true for Eve and Adam, He was there with Moses through the entire course of his life, and God is right here in this world with us today and until the end of time. The Lord has given us a safe place to dwell in the midst of the storms that swirl about us in life. His presence is real and His loving grace and mercy are poured out upon us even when we think and act in ways that are undeserving of that sort of care. The Lord had a plan and a purpose for Moses and the Israelites that he led, and He never departed from leading them into the fulfillment of their place in that great and eternal story. The same thing is true for each of us now. God sees and knows each of us in ways that are deep and intimate, and He desires for us to trust Him so that we will follow His will into the outworking of that great adventure of life that He has established for us.

Even our days of turmoil and trouble have a purpose in the much bigger perspective that God holds over all of the world. Everything that we lose is this life and each of the setbacks that we encounter is an opportunity for us to turn in faith toward the Lord and to trust Him to carry us through these moments and into the rest and the hope of His care and provision. Every step that we take can be one that is set out for us by God as He surrounds us with His love, grace, wisdom, and hope. To put things into perspective, the God who formed the universe and who contemplated the entire scope of its history before any of it was hung in the sky is the same loving Father, Savior, and Lord who sheds tears over the pain and the trials that each person endures. The Lord of that universe and the King of Glory is also my comforter, the Savior of my soul, and the One who guides my steps along His paths of righteousness, and this is true for each of us as we trust in Him and seek out His presence with us for the journey.     

We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2: 10

Some days I just feel worked over, wrung out, and soundly punished by whatever it is that has grabbed onto my shoulders and refused to let go. These are hands that do not stop working me over until I had been all but turned inside out. Unfortunately, when I attempt to come to grips with the causes for these bad days, the trail of evidence frequently leads right back to my own actions, attitudes, and to the state of my heart and mind. Then I am inevitably brought to my knees in thanks for the grace of God that keeps working on my heart despite these times of errant wandering away from His will.

The hand of God reached out and embraced me in His loving arms, and He immediately started to work on my heart in a way that brings about deep, lasting, and real change; however, the Lord’s work in my life and in the lives of all of His children is never finished. God’s purpose and His plan are much bigger than we have the capacity to understand, and His desire for us is that we would trust Him totally so that we can enter into each day and embrace every relationship that comes our way with anticipation of the great things that He will do in and through us.

As each of us prepares to engage whatever may be on our calendar for today and looks ahead at who we will need to deal with, we should consider this thought; you are the handiwork of God, the Creator; you were designed and crafted by Him individually; and you were formed perfectly to execute His plan for your life this day. The Spirit of Christ is alive and active in you, and He will continue to shape and to mold you into the person that He knows will be prepared and equipped to walk through all of the days of your life in righteous service to God. The Lord asks only that we be willing to listen, follow, and surrender to His loving ourselves to His will and follow His direction.    

But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Mark 5: 36

When it comes to matters of faith, we hear a lot of chatter in our world. People and organizations readily share what they think is right, and they often seek to impose their views on these matters on others. They ask that we have faith in them and in their mission. It would seem that faith in something is very important. For many it is also important to be right about these things. After all, we are talking about the sorts of beliefs that hold our world together and that frame the way that we view it and engage with it.

What we have faith in and how that belief is lived out can get to be very complicated. It often involves rituals and sacred practices. There is special knowledge to be obtained that comes only from wizened masters and long-term practitioners of the faith. For many there is the very powerful faith in the non-existence of any form of god or creator. This is faith in self and belief in systems and structures that we can observe fully in all of their brokenness and failure. Yet, Jesus says that faith is actually very simple. No secret handshakes or elaborate rituals are needed.

He tells the grieving parent, “Do not fear, only believe.” This is a story about the way that faith heals, but it is not about the restoration of our bodies. Jesus does restore life to this twelve-year old girl, but that fact is not the most important thing. The faith that heals is the one in which we are able to surrender ourselves to Christ totally and fully. It is a simple and unadorned belief in Jesus as God, Savior, Lord of my life, and King of all Creation. Belief in Jesus is what heals us of all that is diseased and dying in our souls. This faith tosses off the fears that disable us, and it provides us with the strength and the vitality that we need to live out God’s calling for our lives.

To you, O God of my fathers,

    I give thanks and praise,

for you have given me wisdom and power.

Daniel 2: 23

Everyone has a family history of faith, and it doesn’t matter if your parents and your grandparents knew God in a deep and an intimate way or not. For each of us who does know the Lord in this personally redemptive way is a direct descendant and a personal participant in a long line of people who have likewise been close to God. Their stories and my story are entwined by Christ’s redemptive love. I am truly thankful to God for the way that He has always been the active seeker of the hearts of people, and I am very blessed by the way that He has worked trough these people to make Himself more accessible and better known to me. God has caused others to write down the story of how they came to know Him, of what the Lord has done in their lives, and of the transformation that His love brought about in them. Then, as I read His Word, God continually speaks to my mind to provide me with an understanding of these stories that makes them applicable to my life.

God wants to be understood and clearly available to all people. He doesn’t need the type of power that comes from being obscure; so, He makes the process of entering into a relationship with Him very simple. After we truly know Him, God stays with us through the entire journey of life, and His loving grace continues to make it possible for even a person as flawed and weak as I am to stay in close relationship with Him. Thus, I am thankful to God for His love for me, for His desire to be close to me, and for His continued interest in my life. Additionally, I praise God for the amazing ways that He works in my heart and my mind on a daily basis to bring about an on-going process of growth and of movement toward His will.

It is through this process of recognition of all that God is in our lives that we come to a place where we are made open to the interaction of His Spirit in us. As I look at the stories of my spiritual fathers that are told in God’s Word and as I reflect on the odyssey that is my own life, I am led to see the never ending and unfailing touch of the Lord’s hand at every turn of those roads. Knowing God is to know His power, mercy, grace, and love. Truly knowing God places me in a position to humbly allow Him to be my strength throughout the day. His presence encourages me when there is doubt in my mind, and His strength upholds me when the things that I am encountering are too big, loud, and ominous for me to see my way through. Finally, I also have a long history of God’s unfailing faithfulness to look upon so that I can count myself truly blessed and fully supported by my Savior, Lord, and King.

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