Victory over Bad Choice (May 3, 2020)
Victory over Bad Choices
Right now you have a lot of choices as to what you could be doing right now. Today you’ve chosen to carve out some time for worship. You could be sleeping in, or getting a head start on mowing the lawn, or whatever else you have going on today. But you’ve made a choice and decided that it’s important to carve out some time for God’s Word. During these strange times, currently, that means getting on you device, pulling up YouTube or Facebook and… you are greeted with so many choices. There’s the big TV preachers who have long had a media presence. There’s probably many channels from the very large churches in your area. There’s new and emerging channels from smaller churches that are perhaps just getting into the media game. If there’s one good thing about the coronavirus its that almost every church now has an online streaming presence! You could even probably find a livestream from the church you grew up in and pop in for a virtual visit! But with so many choices, how are you going to know which voice to listen to? What are you going to base your decision on?
Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because we always have readings focusing on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. So, I could just say that when you are making a decision, like where to worship, just listen to Jesus and he will guide you. Amen, let’s sing the next hymn. But if you are like me, that doesn’t quite satisfy. I’ve always struggled a bit with the idea of Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a very nice picture, a very comforting illustration. Don’t get me wrong. But to me, it never quite seemed powerful enough. I mean, yes, a shepherd definitely cares a great deal about each one of his sheep. I know that a shepherd, “Gently guides me, knows my needs and well provides me” – that’s all very sweet. But to me it never seemed like… enough. I wanted a wise counselor to guide me in my decisions. I wanted a supreme king to show me the way. I wanted a mighty warrior to fight against the bad choices and dangerous consequences that could potentially harm me. I wanted all of these things! And to me, well, a shepherd just never quite seemed to cut it.
That’s because I was thinking about shepherds all wrong. The best I could picture was a modern-day farmer – and although I greatly respect and appreciate all the hard work and tough decisions that farmers today put into their livelihood, it still doesn’t quite capture the character of the ancient Judean shepherd. But my eyes were opened when I came across this quote: “In such a landscape as Judea, where a day’s pasture is thinly scattered over an unfenced tract of country, covered with delusive paths, frequented by wild beasts, and rolling off into the desert, the shepherd and his character are indispensable. On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their kings; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice” (George Smith).
Jesus chose that name for himself, that type, because he is your tireless guardian. Watching over, concerned about, protecting every one of his sheep. He is the one, guiding his flock, leading them to good pasture, and keeping them from all harm and danger. He lived with us. Ate and drank with us. Died for us and was raised to life for our victory. Jesus is the Good Shepherd – wise, mighty, and on your side. But Jesus also gives the distinct honor and privilege of being so-called “undershepherds” of his flock, to those who serve in divine ministry. The term “pastor” is actually the Latin word for “shepherd”.
But, as I mentioned, there are so many pastors and ministers to choose from – made extremely accessible by our recent circumstances. And, unfortunately, they don’t all say the same thing. So how do you know which shepherd, which pastor, to follow? How do you know which one is a true “under-shepherd”? Jesus tells us in John 10 that you will know a true shepherd from a false one by his words, by his actions, and by his intentions.
Let’s start with the words. Jesus says for the true shepherd, “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… His sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize his a stranger’s voice” (Jn 10:3-6). A true shepherd of God’s sheep will speak the same words of the Good Shepherd. The pastor will always and only be an echo of what God has already spoken in his Word. And God’s Word alone is the authority on what is truth and what is not.
So listen to a shepherd, a pastor, who speaks what God speaks – not claiming to have any sort of special insight or personal revelation. Not speaking God’s Word through a filter of human reason and emotion. But speaking God’s Word plainly to the sheep. This of course then means that you yourselves are familiar with the Good Shepherd’s voice – that you regularly take time to hear the Good Shepherd speak so that you can compare any pastor’s voice to the familiar voice of the Good Shepherd. Those who are not familiar with the Good Shepherd’s voice by reading Scripture will be easily fooled and tricked by pastors who are in fact robbers and thieves dressing up their words as shepherds.
The second test for choosing who to follow is observing the actions of a pastor. “Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Jn 10:1-2). A true shepherd’s actions match his words. There’s no double speak or hypocritical words. What the pastor preaches, he preaches also to himself. And practices it himself. He comes to you through the gate – which Jesus later says is him. He’s not preaching any other way to be saved except through the gate, Christ. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (Jn 10:9), Jesus says. This predominates any true shepherd’s preaching, and he knows how to apply that message to each one of his sheep because they are always on his mind – each one, individually.
We get an eye-opening contrast between true shepherds and false shepherds in the first reading we had from Acts. Note, the apostles’ care for Christ and his Church leads them to raise up more leaders to serve. These new leaders enter by the gate! “They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them” in blessing (Acts 6:6). And see how Stephen holds to Christ – the only way to be saved – no matter what the consequences! Even facing a gruesome death by stoning. How true were Jesus’ words about the false shepherds: “they come only to kill and destroy” (Jn 10:10) With their words and actions and rocks they testified to whom they belonged – stoning and killing a true shepherd.
This brings me to the last distinction. You will know who to follow by their words, by their actions, and by their intentions. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). What is the pastor’s intention for you. Are they willing to say the difficult things you and I need to hear in order that we may have eternal life? Or would they rather gloss over difficult topics because they’d rather not upset you? They’d rather see you happy now in this life than be concerned by the life that is to come. Do they do the bare minimum, or are they deeply invested in each one of their sheep?
It makes me think of David, who, long before he was the royal shepherd of the kingdom of Israel, shepherded his father’s flock in the wild country. And as he did that, he let no danger stop him from caring for his sheep. No law required a shepherd to fight lion and bear for the sake of the sheep. In fact, David’s actions and Christ’s words here in John 10 are all the more striking because Rabbinic law made it clear that a shepherd was not called upon to expose his own life for the safety of his flock. Yet a good shepherd does just that. The Good Shepherd did just that – giving his life for yours.
That’s why it is so important to make a careful distinction, an informed decision on whom you choose to follow. You have access to so many churches, so many pastors, across the English speaking world right now. Whom are you going to choose to listen to?
“The thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy” (Jn 10:10). No, they don’t say it outright. They approach with reassuring words, dressed as a shepherd. Many, don’t even know that their words no longer echo the voice of the Good Shepherd. But make no mistake about it. Follow a false shepherd and you are in great risk of following him to death and eternal destruction.
But “the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls the sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice… Jesus said, ‘I am the gate for the sheep… Whoever enters through me will be saved… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10).
Listen for the Shepherd’s voice as you choose carefully who you follow. “When you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed with Scripture, leaning upon his Word, and looking out over his scattered sheep – every one of them on his heart – you understand why Christ took the shepherd as the type of his self-sacrifice.