Archive for I AM
Each of us has experienced the pain that enters our hearts when someone we love passes from this life. We are too familiar with the experience of mourning: black clothes and black cars; hushed voices speaking in solemn tones; flowers whose brilliant colors are drained as we view them through and endless flow of tears. It’s hard for us to let go, and hard to say good bye. Comforters come and go, yet the grief remains fresh with strength. Finally, the inevitable silence comes. There are no more tears. Just the deafening sound of silence.
Even those of us who have found our hope in Jesus Christ still mourn, feeling the pain and anguish of loss and separation. The school bus drives down the street, yet there is no stop in front of the house. Rush hour traffic dwindles into twilight, yet no car arrives in the driveway. Busy feet rush through the back door, yet there is no kiss of welcome. And worst of all, there is an empty place at the table. Death draws clear lines of separation for people of faith and unbelievers alike.
John chapter 11 tells the story of a man named Lazarus who became very sick. His sisters sent word to Jesus, begging him to come to Lazarus’ aid. Yet the Lord delayed his arrival. Why did Jesus do that? Even the Jews who were in attendance at the funeral acknowledged that the man who could restore sight to blind eyes could have prevented Lazarus’ death (John 11:37). Yet the Lord delayed his arrival. Jesus love for Lazarus had been an open love. When Mary and Martha requested that Jesus come, the messenger reported, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3). The gospel writer also tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). At the tomb of Lazarus, as Jesus joined the family and wept with them the Jews exclaimed, “Behold how he loved him” (John 11:36). Jesus’ delay was not a deficiency of love.
Martha, Lazarus sister, struggled like we struggle with separation. She boldly approached the Lord and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Lovingly, the Lord looked into her moist eyes and said, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). Martha, engulfed in the present separation of the moment was not immediately comforted. Brushing aside her tears she said, “I know–someday, a not so near and very far away someday–he will rise” (John 11:24). Jesus caught her eye again and proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Martha, filled with faith, desperately wanting to find security in Jesus simply confessed, “I believe (John 11:27).
With great reverence Jesus approached the tomb. He sighed deeply and commanded the stone to be removed. The stone that covered the tomb was a tangible reminder of separation. The stone that covered the tomb was the ongoing memorial of the separation that death had brought. It was designed to keep Lazarus from all of the family members and friends who loved him. “Take away the stone!” At the command of Jesus, the stone of separation was removed. Jesus looked up into the heavens and prayed. With a deep cry that pierced through the sorrow of separation, Jesus wailed, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43). At the powerful and loving word of Jesus the night gave way to dawning and the desperation of separation gave way to hope and togetherness.
In some rural areas of the midwest, many of the country people have a simple tradition. While the calendar marks Memorial Day, to these it is called Decoration Day. It’s a time when people go to modest cemeteries and place flowers on the stones of separation. Those marble monuments, tombstones we call them, stand on bright green grass fresh from winter’s sleep. To the right there is a stone which marks the separation of husband and wife. To the left, a stone that marks the separation of a parent and child. Across the well measured row stands another that marks the separation of friends or neighbors who took time to share both the joys and struggles of life. Those markers are bittersweet reminders. They are markers of separation indeed, but they are also reminders that Jesus has promised us that the separation that death brings is not permanent.
This past week we celebrated Easter and the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week, the Bible tells us that the women made their way to the garden tomb to finalize the burial preparation for Jesus. When they arrived, the stone of separation had been rolled away. An angel of the Lord sat victoriously atop the rock. Because of Jesus resurrection, we never need to fear the stones of separation ever again. While they exist, they are not permanent. They are markers of hope that remind us of the promise that what Jesus experienced in resurrection is shared with us. There is life on the other side of death, all because of resurrection. And this is our hope!
Do you remember your first car? Mine was a 1972 Chevy Impala, two door hardtop. It was candy apple red with a white top and black interior. I think the car stereo I installed was probably worth more than the car itself. I remember driving around on summer Saturday nights, windows down, stereo blaring, with no particular place to go. Cruising the streets of a small midwestern town was an art form. Aimlessly driving, wasting precious gas (which at that time was 54.9 per gallon), only stopping to talk to others who had stopped as well.
Life as an adult isn’t as aimless. When you grow up, you get student loans, spouses, jobs, mortgages, kids, and other demands that call for responsible behavior. As an adult, I’ve learned that there are three essential elements for travel. First, you have to have a mode of transportation. Planes, trains, and automobiles, for example. Of course walking counts, but only for trips farther than the fridge. Second, you have to have a route that helps you have direction so that you don’t get off course. Finally, you have to have a destination. Those three things are essential to travel. Unless you still enjoy the occasional aimless trek.
Those three elements of travel help me understand what Jesus meant when He said, “I AM the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me ” (John 14:6). In this simple statement Jesus claimed to be our mode of transportation, our route, as well as our destination. If we lack any one of the three elements we will not find success. Lacking any one of these, I believe, also explains the spiritual aimlessness in our nation today. It takes all three, and Jesus perfectly embodies each one.
The voice of the stranger and the voice of the hired hand both speak into the lives of the sheep for their own purposes. Over and against these two voices is the voice of the good shepherd. What characterizes the voice of the good shepherd? How do we know if we can accurately identify the voice of the good shepherd?
Characteristic One: The voice of the Good Shepherd knows us intimately. According to scholars, sheep would be placed in a communal pen overnight. The next morning, each shepherd would come to the gate of the pen and call his sheep. The sheep would recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow him out of the pen. They didn’t follow any shepherd but the one who intimately knew them, even by name. Though 2,000 years have passed, Jesus still knows us by name. He is intimately aware of our lives, not just the surface stuff.
Characteristic Two: The Good Shepherd leads his sheep to life. He doesn’t drive them. While strangers and profiteers steal, kill, and destroy the sheep, Jesus came to give his sheep and full and satisfying life (John 10:10).
Characteristic Three: The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep. Three times in the passage Jesus said that he voluntarily and willingly gives His life for the sheep. No other, especially the hired hand that flees at the first sign of trouble, would dare consider such sacrifice.
Characteristic Four: The Good Shepherd makes room for more. Multiple times in John 10 Jesus refers to sheep in the plural, talking about flocks and the need to create space for more. The Good Shepherd loves each of us, but he also loves all of us. His flock is inclusive. To the first century hearer, this bold statement would have been understood in the context of the Gentile mission. The kingdom was not just available to “children of Abraham.” It was, and continues to be available to all.
Yesterday I posted about the danger of listening to the voice of the stranger. There is little doubt in my mind that all of this talk about the voice of the stranger was a veiled reference to the influence that Satan attempts to have over the lives of Jesus’ sheep. Smart sheep don’t listen to strangers. Neither do they listen to hirelings.
The hired hand was the second voice that Jesus described in his good shepherd discourse. He described the hired hand as one who would be with the sheep during the good times, gladly earning a profit for his interest. But when threats arise the hired hand flees because he is more interested in wages than the sheep.
I’ve always taken a strong stand against televangelists who do the same thing. These ministry profiteers promise prayers and miracles across airwaves in exchange for your generous donation. They incite the viewing sheep with fear mongering regarding government and the soon to come apocalypse in order to keep their listeners connected. They claim to have special insights into the world affairs and positive proof of the President’s real religious affiliation. “Stay tuned” and “keep those cards and letters coming” seem to be the ongoing mantra. These charlatans are like the hired hands in John 10, promising much, delivering little, all the while enhancing their own lifestyles with little or no accountability.
I think the hired hands Jesus referred to in the first century were the Pharisees. The Pharisees of second Temple Judaism were the televangelists of the day, lording their persuasive power over the poor and marginalized, manipulating them for personal profit. They conveyed an image of piety yet were rotten to the core. The bottom line was that they didn’t care one bit about those first century sheep. They were in it for cash. Jesus discouraged his listeners from paying attention to the voice of the stranger, and interestingly enough, placed these religious charlatans in the same category.
That leaves us with the voice of the good shepherd. How do we know how to identify this true voice? Check in tomorrow and I’ll share a few characteristics of the voice of the good shepherd.
In his teaching regarding the “good shepherd,” Jesus described three voices that speak into our lives. The first, of which, was the voice of the stranger. When my children were young, we became aware of the importance of teaching our children about “stranger danger.” As parents we were diligent about telling our kids who to listen to and who to avoid. For example, we taught them that if a car pulled up and asked them to go help look for a lost puppy to run to a safe place. We also taught them not to speak to or acknowledge strangers for the sake of their safety. I think our kids marveled in disbelief that a person offering them a piece of candy could pose a threat, but we drilled it and instilled it into their heads.
Jesus seemed to be doing that same drill and repetition with those who listened to him that day. The voice of the stranger, according to Jesus, was not to be acknowledged because the stranger was up to no good. In fact, the goal of the stranger was to “steal, kill, and destroy” their lives (John 10:10).
It was the strange voice of the serpent in Genesis 3 that caused the downfall of humanity, and ever since that stranger’s voice has been causing pain and disappointment in the world. Jesus’ counsel to the sheep was to not listen to the voice of the stranger, and his advice still stands today. At first the voice may sound appealing, or at least innocent enough. But smart sheep learn to listen to one true voice that leads to life. Tomorrow I’ll continue this series and discuss the second voice that sheep have to contend with, the voice of the hired hand.
The Gospel of John contains some of Jesus’ most profound teaching not the least of which is the discourse on the good shepherd in chapter 10. There are several ways this passage can be addressed, but the one I chose for this weekend’s message centered around the voices that speak into the lives of the sheep. Let me share the text and then I’ll break down how I handled it.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.”
Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded” (John 10:1-18, NLT).
Did you see it? Jesus talked about the stranger, the hired hand, and the good shepherd. Each one has a motive for what they say and what they hope to gain from the sheep. Tomorrow I’ll begin the with voice of the stranger. In the meantime, who are the voices that speak into your life? Do you know what each wants? Do you know how to identify the voice of the good shepherd?
Jesus’ promise to be the “gate” is still valid today. He offers security for our lives during these turbulent times. How, then, does Jesus provide security? Upon what basis is He able to make such a bold claim? I must confess I had to think about this for a while, but I settled, at least in part, on the fact that He is changeless. It is the immutable, changeless character of God that provides this security. He can make this claim because He is unchanging in His being, His attributes, His purposes, and His promises. Consider the following texts…
“Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth and made the heavens with your hands.
They will perish, but you remain forever; they will wear out like old clothing.
You will change them like a garment and discard them.
But you are always the same; you will live forever.
The children of your people will live in security.
Their children’s children will thrive in your presence” (Psalm 102:25-28, NLT).
“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed” (Malachi 3:6, NLT).
“Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow” (James 1:17, NLT).
“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39, NLT).
A God that is changing is a God that cannot be trusted. Because God is changeless, He can be trusted to keep us secure for this life and the life to come.
Gates have a couple of functions. For one, they provide a designated point of access; a place to enter and exit. Because of our strong evangelical leanings, we tend to make much of access into eternal life. So it would stand to reason that Jesus’ self description as the gate could make that impression. But gates do more than provide points of access and reception. They also provide security and safety.
(Jesus) explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before mea were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. (John 10:7-10, NLT)
Scholars claim that in the ancient world that sheep pens were communal. A shepherd would lead his flock to graze in pastures, then at the end of the day lead the sheep to a communal pen for the night. These pens may have been the courtyard of a home or a partially fenced area adjacent to a natural rock formation such as a cliff. The shepherd would examine each of the sheep individually as they entered the pen. If an injury had occurred the shepherd would anoint the wound with oil. Each sheep would be given a drink of water. Then after all of the sheep were accounted for, he would physically lie down to sleep across the threshold of the entry way, providing a living gate that would guard the entrance through the night. That being said, I don’t think that Jesus’ metaphor of gate as security is a stretch. He is our safety and security in an unpredictable world.
The word secure has its origins in the Latin language. Se-, meaning “free from,” is coupled with -cura, meaning “care.” Free from care. That’s not a bad working definition for security. Are you free from care? Life in the 21st century is unpredictable. We find our faith challenged on every front as we are burdened with cares about our relationships, our health, our employment, our identity, and our retirement accounts. Our world grows more and more unpredictable as we read of challenges that cannot be solved through diplomacy. Natural disasters are becoming commonplace fixtures in the nightly news. The world is an unpredictable place. Yet there is security in Christ, for He is the gate.
How can Jesus provide guarantees of security when all of life seems so tentative? What is the basis of such a bold claim? Check in tomorrow and I’ll share the basis of His claims.
My parents celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary yesterday. No, that’s not a typo. As the story goes, my father was 19 and my mother 16, a high school junior. They had to keep the marriage a secret until she graduated from high school. But that’s not the only thing that happened in 1943. Psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper that year, producing data to support his theory on why exemplary people performed at high levels. For some time, Maslow had been curious as to what made high achievers exemplary. Instead of studying those who were challenged by particular dysfunctions, Maslow composed a research sample of the top 1% of college students. The result of his work is what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. According to his theory, no one can reach their potential (self actualization) without first having basic life needs met, such as their physiological needs, their need for security, their need for love and belonging, and their need for esteem. Those needs provide basic platforms which build one on top of the other until a person is able to perform to their potential.
2,000 years before Maslow, Jesus of Nazareth was operating on these principles. Last week I blogged about Jesus as “the Bread of Life,” which was the teaching Jesus gave following his feeding of the 5,000. Yes, Jesus shared this principle after feeding them. Jesus was attuned to the physiological needs of people, as further evidenced by many of the miracles He performed. In addition, Jesus was aware of people’s needs for security. That’s the gist of his declaration, “I AM the gate.” This week I’m going to post some thoughts about security and how Jesus provides security for our insecure, unpredictable lives.
They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, ‘Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.” Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. However, those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them. For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:30-40, NLT)
The final question the multitude asked Jesus revealed their unbelief. In so many words, they were asking for Jesus to prove his claims. “Show us a sign” was a common demand placed upon Jesus in the Gospels by unbelievers. We read of it here from the multitude, and later we read of the same request made by the Pharisees and the leaders of Rome. Why didn’t Jesus grant this request? It seems logical that if Jesus would have performed two or three basic miracles that the people would have responded and believed. But Jesus didn’t give in to their request. Why not?
Generally speaking, miracles in the Bible were done for those who already believed. The reason, I think, is that miracles in the face of unbelief actually hardens the heart. Think back to the Exodus account where Moses stood before Pharaoh. On ten different occasions Moses performed signs (the plagues) before the Egyptian leader and his people. With each successive miracle the Bible reports that Pharaoh’s heart grew increasingly hard. In other words, if a person is mired in unbelief, they are not prone to respond to miracles with belief. Think about it…if miracles could change unbelieving hearts the mission would have been accomplished by now! God would be showering the world with miracles.
So what impacts the unbelieving heart? I think the greatest response we can make to the unbelieving multitude is the response that Jesus gave. He loved them. Love is the quality that ultimately proves to be irresistible to a skeptical world. Sometimes people don’t immediately respond to love. In fact, if you read the end of John 6 you’ll discover that the multitude was dissatisfied with each of Jesus’ responses, and that they turned away to follow no more. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He continued to love them all the way to the cross and beyond. And so should we.