Micah 5:1-5a – The Shepherd Leader

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

Jerusalem, enemy troops
    have surrounded you;
they have struck Israel’s ruler
    in the face with a stick.

Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
because he will bring peace. (CEV)

In Micah’s day there was no peace on earth, goodwill to all. In the eighth century B.C.E. the powerful Assyrian Empire came and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting many of the people and re-populating the cities with their own.

The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians to keep them at bay. 

The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah sought to maintain their power and lifestyle.  The leaders neither looked to God for help nor looked out for the interests of the people.  Instead, they expected the already burdened poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

What is more, thousands of refugees from Israel flooded into Judah and Jerusalem.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink. Those in authority, the ones with resources who could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth.  In some cases, they leveraged their power by simply pushing people of their land and taking it over. It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival, Micah prophesied judgment upon the leaders who were oppressing the poor and displaced.  Micah’s message of hope was that a new kind of leader will come from humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

Christians see Jesus in Micah’s prophecy. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again using his power for security, peace, and goodwill.

Christ’s authority is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule. So, Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43, NIV).

The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances to hope of better days with food, peace, and protection.  We, too, feel insecure and anxious. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced.  But while we look to our politicians and election cycles for our hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.

Micah said the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem.  When Micah proclaimed this, King David, the original shepherd king, had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The people immediately made the connection between the coming leader and David.  There would be restoration and renewal!  A benevolent kingly reign is coming! 

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus the Bread of Life

“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth (“house”) and lechem (“bread”) thus being “House of Bread.” God was communicating that the coming shepherd leader would provide abundant food and care for them. God wanted, and still wants, a society that does not feed on itself, but is a house of bread for others. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Christ feeds us so that we will become a people who offer bread to others – both physical and spiritual bread.

Jesus is the bread for all the hungers we have in this life. We hunger for security in our world; satisfaction in our daily work; loved ones to be healthy and happy. In short, we hunger for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl with hunger for spiritual food.  Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in places without food.

Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely places of Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that do not even show up on most maps of the ancient world?  Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people. 

Christ was not born in the halls of power. Yet, through him there is peace, in the complete sense of the word. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to life, no matter the situations around us. Jesus is our peace:

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11, CEB)

“Yes, I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to a place of rest. I will search for the lost sheep. I will bring back the sheep that were scattered and put bandages on the sheep that were hurt. I will make the weak sheep strong, but I will destroy the fat and powerful shepherds. I will feed them the punishment they deserve.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, ERV)

 “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd.” (John 10:14-16, MSG)

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger.” (John 6:35, NKJV)

When Jesus originally said those words, it was scandalous, unheard of rhetoric. So, Jesus, the stinker he could be, pressed it even more:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you. (John 6:48-51, 53, NIV)

We are to ingest Jesus – to be filled with him. We need Jesus because he is our house of bread, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in him is to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

Lord Jesus, I have strayed far from your flock and taken matters into my own hands. I have chosen to feed in pastures that will never take care of my real hunger.  I need Your forgiveness. I believe You died on the cross for all the things I have done and left undone.  You rose from the grave to give me life. So, I want to stop going my own way and start going yours. Amen.

John 5:19-40 – The Centrality of Christ

The Risen Lord by Chinese artist He Qi

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

“If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is true.

“You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.

“I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (NIV)

There are many things in this world of great importance: how we govern ourselves as a free people; addressing issues of poverty, disease, education, taxes, healthcare, racism, and international relations; building local community relationships; supporting small business; working to make a decent contributive living; being a responsible citizen; and, loving our families and faith communities. It is my unshakable conviction that all these issues need more than mental and physical attention; they need our spiritual resources. People need the Lord.

Seasons, years, centuries, and even millennia come and go. People are born, live, and die. Generations exist and then are no more. Civilizations rise and fall. Yet, through it all and above it all is Jesus.

Christ is alive, and he continually brings life from dust, beauty from ashes, and everlasting meaning from apparent meaninglessness.

Today, Christ is still on the throne of all creation. 

Human elections and institutions only have authority as given by Jesus, the Ruler of all. Presently, Jesus remains attentive to people, even interceding for us at the right hand of his Father in heaven.  At this very moment, God’s Holy Spirit roams the earth and continues to apply all the redemptive consequences of Christ’s cross mysteriously and graciously to the lives of millions. 

Sometimes we need to do the occasional spiritual fact check, to remember what is really of ultimate significance in this old broken world.  If people need the Lord, then it only makes sense to live in ways that foster connection with Jesus. 

So, this morning I did what I do every morning: I began the day with Scripture reading, prayer, reflection, and gratitude – all done with the realization that Christ’s authority is real and pervasive, and his reign is supreme.

No matter the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is the exalted and glorified Son of God, the Sovereign authority over every dominion. Jesus is God. God the Father works through God the Son. The works of Jesus bear testimony to the cosmic reality that he is Lord of all. And, if that were not enough, Jesus shares his divine power with us, his people.

In the face of the greatness and majesty of the Lord Jesus, the only valid and appropriate response is sheer submission to Christ’s authority.  Just as Jesus listened to the Father and obeyed the Father’s will, so we need to listen to Jesus and carry out his will.  Just as Jesus enjoyed his relationship with the Father, so we are to bask in our wonderful relationship with Jesus. 

Since Jesus submitted to death on a cross and rose from the dead through God’s power, we now have access to that power by God’s grace through faith in Christ.

We need not bend to any other master other than King Jesus, the rightful ruler of the universe.  Let us put away all other “gods” in which we depend for solace and help.  Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation who guides us with grace into God’s will for us. Thanks be to God!

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen