Understanding


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.       

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Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;

   bring an offering and come before him!

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.

1 Chronicles 16: 29

If I want to be honest, holiness is often viewed as inconvenient or as uncomfortable. People are turned off by others who seem to be superior in their devotion to living Godly lives and in remaining relatively free from the influences of the world’s ways of thinking and acting. We don’t really want the people who are around us to be too holy, and there is a limit to the amount of holiness that we are able to handle at any one time. As a follower of Christ, this is a sad state, and my participation in its existence is something that I need to look upon with open eyes, take to the Lord in prayer, and enter into repentance for all that He reveals to me within my attitudes, thoughts, and actions that is contrary to His will. 

This process of reflection might begin with gaining a better understanding of what holiness means. Meriam-Webster defines holiness as “being holy”, and it says then states that holy means, “Exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” When I look at these definitions, there is little wonder left as to why we are so troubled by the concept of holiness in our world and why seeking after holiness in our own lives leads us straight into conflict with other people and with institutions, organizations, and sometimes even with the church. We struggle with the idea that there exists such a thing as perfection in goodness and righteousness, for perfection suggests that everything else is somehow less than perfected, and recognition of imperfection requires us to engage with people in a manner that can be confrontational or challenging. Our world looks down upon this sort of thing when it comes to issues of ethical thought, morality, and righteousness. When we enter into these arenas of discussion, stop signs are raised, caution flags are unfurled, and hard conversations are waiting for us at every turn in the road.

Yet, God seems to attach a very different vision to what holiness means in our world. According to David’s words in this song of praise and thanksgiving, holiness is related to God’s glory being revealed on earth and in the heavens, and it is something to be celebrated with offerings of praise and worship of God’s character and nature, which have produced the holiness that is being celebrated. In fact, the atmosphere that surrounds God’s holiness is described as being enveloped in splendor. As God, Himself, is the only source of this sort of perfection, we need to turn to Him alone in order to see and to understand what thinking and living in a holy manner means for us. I know that there are many aspects of my life that do not conform to God’s definition of holy, for there are too many situations, interactions, and decisions that I engage in during each day that are not influenced and directed by God’s standard of what is loving, gracious, just, and redemptive. So, as I enter into this day, I turn to the Lord in repentance for these times of departure from His will. I seek out the Spirit’s guidance in all that comes my way today, and I purpose to bring encounters with the glory of the Lord and the splendor of His Kingdom come into each moment of my day.   

Sing to the LORD all the earth!

   Tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

   his marvelous works among all peoples! 

1 Chronicles 16: 23, 24

We seldom use the word marvelous to describe things in our world. Either it has passed out of fashion or there is just not much left for us to marvel at. I tend to think that the later of those reasons is at play here, for the world that we know today is filled with things, with human accomplishments, that were not even dreamed about in the most fertile of our grandparent’s imaginations. It is hard to impress us, and perhaps, we don’t really want to be taken over and knocked off of our feet by all that much, either. We desire to be in control so that we have answers for any and all questions that might be posed to us. This is how many of us today see our world, but this was not what David saw as he looked out upon the nature of his day.

He was viewing myriad reasons to sing, and the song that he composed was one that placed the Lord squarely in the center of all of the goodness that was going on in the world. Now David was not an idealist and didn’t live a protected life. His world was not a calm and peaceful place, either. He resided in times that reflected the fallen nature of this earth. The culture in those days was just as broken, violent, and godless as is ours today. So, David’s reason for singing makes just as much or as little sense today as it did then. He sees the hand of the Lord at work in the world, and that same hand has never stopped being engaged with us and in our lives. God was present then; He is present now, and He will be present for all of the time to come!

God’s presence is not a passive or uninvolved hovering over us. He brings the hope of salvation to our need for redemption. God has granted us His Son, Jesus the Christ, as the answer to our need for a Savior. But the salvation that David was singing about is much greater and extends further than the miracle of eternity, for he experienced the form of saving grace that transforms the lives that we are living today into ones that know righteousness, justice, and deep love. Christ, present with and in His people, provides the lyric to the song of life that is the great marvel of all times. The fact that we can be redeemed from the state of rebellion against God that is our natural one is a wonder, and the lives that we can live as those redeemed ones of God is the most extraordinary expression of God’s glory that it is possible to utter. God’s love, sacrifice, and the salvation that comes out of it all provides the chorus to this life-long song of praise, and its verses are expressed by the love, grace, justice, and mercy that we extend to others in the name of Christ.  

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mark 4: 23

Although Jesus speaks about a physical feature that almost all people possess, He is not talking about our physical bodies. The Lord is restating a comment that occurs several times in the words of the prophet Isaiah and that also run deep in a Jewish understanding of the way that God desires for His people to respond to Him. I think that a key element in what Jesus says two times in this section of Mark’s gospel is found in the all but universal presence of hearing in people. We were meant to hear. This is the way that God designed people, and that hearing is an important part of the manner in which we are intended by our Creator to navigate our way through this world. People can operate successfully with diminished or even absent hearing, but this takes extra effort, training, and on-going practice to do well. When it comes to hearing, Jesus is saying that God gives us all the equipment with which to hear, the ability to decipher this auditory input, and the capacity to use what we take in in order to live righteously in the manner that God desires for us to do.

The fact that we all fall short of this last aspect of what God intends for us is the result of our own rebellion against God, of our selfishness, and of our unrelenting need to go through life making our own decisions and following after our personally desired and fabricated gods. We don’t hear God’s word of truth and life because we refuse to listen to His voice. We fail to live as redeemed people in this fallen world because we shut off the receptivity that God designed into our hearts and our minds. In too many instances we become the fool, the person who should know better but who still acts as one who does not know Christ at all. This can be true in big things and it can also be the case in the small elements of life. Jesus is saying to those of us who know Him that we need to engage the full concept of the hearing that we have been given as a gift from God. That is, we need to let God’s word in, and we also need to surrender ourselves to obedience to the call to love others, seek justice, grant mercy, and hold righteousness as more precious than breath itself. In addition, people who do not know Christ are provided with an opportunity to hear Him in the expression of our lives when we follow Christ as He would have us do this.

For people who struggle with hearing, and I would guess that this includes most of us, there is hope. Jesus would not have made such a point of this if He were not also providing a way to redemption from the manner in which we have deviated from God’s will. In Christ, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit who grants understanding to us and who counsels us in all aspects of following God. We are also provided with God’s Word and the wealth of truth, wisdom, and descriptions of righteous living that are contained within it. Then, the body of faith invites us into its presence and provides followers of Christ with a place to dwell where support, accountability, instruction, and opportunity to use the gifts that God has given to us are formed together into common worship of our Lord. Thus, Jesus points to the obvious presence of ears on our heads, and He instructs us to truly hear, which means that we are to seek out the face of God, to meditate deeply upon His Word, to pray regularly and routinely, to listen even more intently that we speak, and to engage in the fellowship of the body of Christ even when those associations may seem hard or troubling. As Jesus said to us, “Hear and obey and commit your life to following what it is that God is continually saying to you through the ears of your heart.” At least that is how I heard His words in my heart.     

If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?

Acts 11: 17

Peter had just experienced one of those great moments of eye opening, blast of ice-cold water in the face truth revealed to him by God. He had been thinking that he had a responsibility to perform as a sort of filter on what would be acceptable to God and on how people could be made worthy of entering into the fellowship of people who believe in Jesus. Peter was wrong. He was absolutely and totally off track in his thinking, and his actions followed along after his thoughts. In this same light, it is interesting how much Peter was like me and so many other people that I know and have heard about.

It seems that we humans are very slow learners. Thus, it is a really good thing that the Lord is a very patient teacher. There is one and only one authorized and final judge who has authority over the affairs of people, and that judge is the resurrected One, Jesus the Christ. We are called upon by God to function as a continuation of Christ’s interaction with people here on this earth; for, people who know Jesus are the living Body of Christ in our world. The Holy Spirit is given to us so that we can possess the heart, mind, and the power of Christ in order to fulfill His mission for us of bringing God’s loving grace, restorative peace, and eternal perspective to this sin ravaged world.

There is no person who is so far removed from God that His grace cannot save them. There is no place that the Lord does not want us to go to tell His truth, and nothing should stop us from seeking to follow in Jesus’ footsteps in all aspects of living on a daily basis. When I start to apply standards to others that will get in the way of my ability to speak truth to them with the love of Christ on my lips, I need to stop and consider how my Lord would have approached the same person. These are often situations where my actions are more important than any words that I can speak. In these situations and circumstances service, sacrifice, and simple love are frequently the vocabulary that Christ provides for me to use. At these times of engagement with people, as in all aspects of living as a follower of Christ, I need to seek the Spirit’s leading and ask that Christ open my heart and fill my mind with His loving attitude and gracious words of eternal hope and salvation’s message of redemptive grace.

You were running well, who hindered you from obeying the truth?

Galatians 5: 7

The strides are coming in a smooth and easy rhythm, ground is flying past with little effort, and the race is going just as you had planned for it to go. Then, there is that sudden sense of a foot being nailed to the track or you experience that disorienting feeling that comes when one foot is knocked off line by an outside force. In a moment order and progress have become chaos and pain, victory tasted has become defeat experienced. This is the nature of life when we dare to venture into the world of entering into the contest against the forces of evil; for they don’t compete in a fair and above board manner. They want to win, and will do and say anything to achieve that end. So, we need to be willing to fight even harder to stay true to the calling that Christ has set before us.

It seems that one of the things that Paul is telling us here is that we need to be continually on the alert for the sorts of false information and misleading thoughts or ideas that will be set before us to try to get us off of God’s desired course. Living a life in the center of God’s will is never going to be a sit back and let it all come to me sort of existence. There will always be a need for effort and focus on our parts. We need to be students of God, studying His truth and its application in our lives through continual and thorough engagement with His Word. In addition to our study, the Spirit of Christ will provide us with the discernment and understanding that we need to test everything that we are told and taught so that we will not be tripped up by false teaching.

In my own experience, I am often my own greatest hindrance in running this spiritual race well. It seems that I fail to condition and to train consistently and adequately; then, my legs become weak, my cardio conditioning fails me, and my form is flawed so that I end up tripping and falling into an inglorious heap on the side of the track because I stepped on my own foot. What I mean is that the same exercise of study, prayer, and fellowship that is the best way to defeat each and every one of Satan’s assaults upon the practice of my faith is also the best way to stay conditioned for the rigors of living a life of righteous joy in the center of God’s will. Truth wins the race in this life, truth is defined by God, Himself, and truth becomes real and tangible as we grow in our relationship with Christ. So, truth is the heartbeat of the runner who finishes strong in this race of life. 

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

Psalm 13: 5

The little word “but” that David hangs out there at the start of this verse carries a large amount of weight, for the four verses before it are loaded with the pain and the heartache that can come to anyone when the world seems to be against us. He was feeling as if his enemies were prevailing in their assaults upon his body, mind, and spirit. The fact that those enemies included formerly trusted friends and even family members made this new reality all the more difficult to bear. In times like this, the tangible or physical aspects of the assault are hard to handle, but the emotional and spiritual components of it are what truly oppress and drive us down. Unfortunately, this is the sort of time in the journey of life that almost everyone experiences. We all find ourselves in a place where we are at odds with others and wherein those challenging relationships reach the point of seeming no return where our resources are depleted and our hearts are overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

These are times when we need to be rescued, when we need a real and a lasting friend to reach out to us and to hold us tightly in a safe and a reassuring embrace of genuine love and care. We may be comforted by such a friend, and I pray that each of us has at least one of those in our lives; yet, the sort of love that is being described here finds its source in the author of all love, in the God of our salvation. This is a love that does not look at our weakness or failure and hold these things against us. This is a love that desires to redeem rather than defeat; so, this is a lover who wants nothing from us other than the pleasure of our company and the return to health and strength of our bodies, minds, and spirits. The sort of love that is sourced in the Lord forgives wrongs, points out goodness, and speaks truth to counter the lies that evil attempts to use to overwhelm us. 

The Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, into our world to demonstrate and to perfect this form of love. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided us with the ultimate expression of God’s unending and unshakeable love for all of the people in the world for all time. This is a love that was present with the first people and that has continued unchecked and without change through the balance of history. Try as we may have done, we are not able to defeat God’s love; so, there is no sin or rebellion that is greater than Christ’s ability and will to save us. There is also no dark place where we can go that is sufficiently hidden from His view that we are unfindable there. This is a hard and a harsh world that is populated with people who think, say, and do things that are mean, violent, and damaging in many ways; yet, nothing that they do can truly harm our souls. Christ loves us in a way that can bring joy to the darkness and that can bring about a heart-deep form of rejoicing that overcomes our tears. This is the love that Christ desires to pour out on you and on me, and this is the love that saves!     

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