The Second Sunday of Advent December 9, 2012
2 Peter 3:8-14
56, 648, 368(1, 4), 76(1, 4)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1,4 ESV)
Dear fellow sheep—you who long for the return of the Good Shepherd:
For the countless souls who have undoubtedly been won during this past year, we thank our God and acknowledge the compassion and wisdom of the delay of Christ’s second coming. Yet, we also acknowledge again this day that God’s patience and mercy must never become Satan’s tool—that is, Satan must never be allowed to turn God’s goodness into an excuse for man to doubt or to lose patience. This is the great danger that threatens all Christians as we wait for our Lord’s return.
Time is the key here. God grants us time to reach those who are now lost, while the Devil tries to use that same element of time to lull us into a self-indulgent stupor. This is the primary danger we address during our Advent services. This year the theme for these services centers around the simple, child-like prayer that many of us were taught from infancy: “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me!” Today, we ask our Tender Shepherd to come to us with His shepherd’s staff.
Our devotion is based on the Word of God recorded in Matthew chapter 9:
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”
These are the very words of God—words that God gave us to clarify our thoughts and to increase our understanding and appreciation for all that He has and will do for us. That our God would so bless us on this day also, we pray, “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth. Amen.”
What you are about to hear will—at least at first—probably strike you as absolutely contrary to everything you will hear about yourself from the world around you. It will be exactly counter to what modern philosophers and counselors expect, or even demand, that religious leaders and spiritual advisors tell their people.
We begin then with this premise: You and I have a much different image of ourselves than the reality which God sees. In fact, we can go one step further. Our self-image—how we see ourselves—probably only approaches anything close to reality when tragedy enters our lives and knocks away every false prop and prideful illusion of inner, human strength. It is at such times that we are given the more accurate view of ourselves as sheep, rather than lions.
The world is uncomfortable with such observations because its worldview is based on humanism—the idea that “man is the measure of all things” and that man possesses goodness and power within himself that are nearly unlimited.
God’s Word consistently rejects such notions as so much nonsense, but we often tend to drift from such truths. Part of the problem is that we often hear only part of what our God tells us. We do this in many different ways, but the particular problem area that we address today is that when we hear our God tell us things like “Be strong!” and “Fear not!” and “Be bold and courageous!” we dwell on that one thought to the exclusion of what always follows. What always follows is the “why.” What always follows is our God telling us why and how we can and should be bold, courageous, strong, and confident. God never says, “Be courageous because you are strong or able or powerful.” He says, “Be confident, strong, and courageous because I, your God, am all those things.”
A few examples will help. In Isaiah 35:4 we read: “Say to those who are fearful-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you.’” Again in Isaiah 41:8-10: “But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest regions, and said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away: Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’”
Note that it is always, “Don’t be afraid—not because of you but because of Me.” Paul summed it all up nicely in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV): “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul’s point is then as clear as it is valuable. Since man has strength only in God, the appearance or façade of human strength serves only to confuse or mask reality. The truth is only really and clearly seen when man’s illusion of power and potency are removed. The fact is man, on his own, always fails. So also the Holy Spirit through the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 146:3-6 (ESV): “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever.”
That is why, again, God sees us differently than we see ourselves. He sees us at all times like Jesus saw the crowds that came to him in our text. Note that the simile in our text was not that the folks who came to Jesus were like those who were harassed and helpless, they were harassed and helpless. The simile was that they were like sheep without a shepherd. The advantage that those people in our text had was that they were the diseased and afflicted of their day. They were, therefore, those who recognized their own helplessness and need. The fact that they understood their own helplessness caused them to seek an outside source of strength, comfort, healing.
All of this helps to set the stage for what we are asking when we pray, “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me.” This helps to explain why we ask Him to come to us with His staff.
Last week we asked our Shepherd to come with His rod, and we were reminded that the shepherd’s rod was used for both the defense of the flock and for the loving chastisement of the sheep themselves. Our tendency to wander means that we desperately need the wise, loving discipline that only our Good Shepherd can provide.
Today, we seek from our Tender Shepherd that which represents the balance to the rod: His staff. In Old Testament times a shepherd’s staff was used to guide, to separate, to gather, to comfort, and to rescue. All of these things we desperately need and therefore seek from our Savior.
Most are familiar with the shepherd’s staff, which was usually a fairly long stick or sapling with a hook formed in the end. Since it is common knowledge that sheep tend to wander, it comes as no surprise that a shepherd would use his staff to guide his wandering lambs away from the edge of an unseen cliff, or a noxious weed, or even just to prevent one of his little ones from taking the wrong path. Again, it is not hard to see how human beings need this same sort of guidance.
What a comfort then to know that someone with perfect knowledge, absolute strength, and total dedication is doing just that for us—guiding us flawlessly, moment by moment.
But the shepherd also uses his staff to separate and to gather. Shepherds at times have to separate the lambs from their ewes at birth. The mothers can sometimes grow confused or disoriented and can actually pose a danger to their own young until they are calmed and settled. We are not here asking our Good Shepherd to protect us from our disoriented mothers. Yet, it does remind us that there are and will always be sudden, unexpected dangers in life. God alone has the ability to recognize and defend us from the unseen and unknown.
The fellowship principle is one way that our Good Shepherd demonstrates His staff among us. While man tends to fear physical dangers above all else, spiritual dangers always pose the greater threat. Physical dangers harm the body, spiritual dangers are those that attack the soul. How foolish for God’s sheep to suppose that our Shepherd should separate us from physical danger but do little or nothing about the far greater spiritual dangers—enemies that seek our eternal destruction.
Nor should we imagine that our Shepherd cares little for our associations in life. Just as the staff was used to gather sheep, so our God gathers us into the relative safety of church families. This is the positive benefit of the fellowship principle—our God gathering us with like-minded believers for mutual support and protection.
The threats are often anything but obvious. As ewes at times posed a threat to their own lambs, so also the separation that our God must exercise in our lives will, from time to time, involve even the most painful separation from those very close to us. So also our Good Shepherd said in Matthew 10:34-36 (ESV): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
The dividing point is, of course, not ideology or opinion. The dividing point is Jesus Christ. Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Jesus Himself further defined, or refined, that dividing point when He gave us our life-long marching orders in Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…’”
The truth saves. Falsehood, to one degree or another, always does damage to the human soul and saving faith. Because He loves us, our Good Shepherd always wants to separate us from all that is spiritually harmful and dangerous. We ask Him to do just that whenever we ask him to come with His staff.
One final thought presents itself here. When we ask our Savior to come with His staff, we are also most eager for Him to come with a different kind of “staff.” That “staff” is the company of angels that has attended Him since their creation and will accompany Him when He returns on the Last Day. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:31-34).
This is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? We long for our Savior’s guidance and discipline because we want to be among those gathered on His right when He returns with His angels on Judgment Day. We are saved by His grace through faith in Him, but just as we were unable to create that faith in our own hearts, so we are also unable to maintain that faith without Him.
We ask our God to gladly accept His correction, His guidance, and His ongoing protection every moment of our earthly pilgrimage—right up until the moment He calls us home. Good Shepherd, hear our prayer. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.