Sunday, February 28, 2016

When Dark Valleys are ahead.

Poatina hydro pipe Western Tiers web small.JPG Mountains and valleys play a very prominent role in Biblical history. They also have a spiritual significance for our life. An interesting comment by Moses about the Promised Land comes from Deuteronomy 11:11-12. ‘The land you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the Lord your God looks after. The eyes of the Lord your God are always on it …’

We enjoy the mountains for the vistas they offer. However, we live down on the plains and in the valleys. The psalmist now takes us into one of the numerous valleys of life which even the right paths have to negotiate. David, seemingly takes a deep breath and confesses his thoughts about the valley of the shadow of death. Even then he will face any fear in the confidence of knowing his Lord. Sheep are guarded from brigands and predators by the shepherd’s rod and staff. Their spiritual applications are applied to the believer as he or she faces this and other shadowy valleys.

The rod can be translated as a sceptre. As such it defines authority and kingship, Psalm 45:6.  And it is also translated as a rod which smites as in Psalm 2:9.  Here is the flock’s protection. The regal nature of the Shepherd plus His righteous character and power unite in the image of ‘thy rod.’ The staff is used for rescuing the sheep caught in a difficult situation. It is also a source of strength on which the shepherd can lean. When we apply this to God’s word and its many shades of meaning we also will know comfort. It is through God’s involvement in people’s lives we realise He keeps His promises. Consider the case of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah. He was opposed though he walked the right path. His God given messages and warnings were despised and rejected. God’s judgement upon the nation, courtesy of Nebuchadnezzar, meant a valley of the shadow of death experience. Innocent though he was, Jeremiah suffered with his nation.

Jeremiah wasn’t deported to Babylon. He saw the destruction of his beloved city and temple. Evil had fallen. How did Jeremiah handle the sorrow, the grief and answer the fear of the survivors. In what way would he, could he, endorse the nice sounding words of the psalmist about being strengthened by comfort? In Lamentations he records, through tears, his hope. As you read the following from that book, understand it as referring to the ‘Rod and the Staff’, God’s word and promises. ‘The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

How could he feel that way in the shadows of suffering? Because he believed God’s promise about a coming Messiah, about the reign of that descendant of David over Israel and about God’s promise to Abraham. God had taken His flock through many valleys and endured their bleating and waywardness, especially in the Wilderness. He would not abandon them now. Interestingly, that experience is likened to going through the valley of the shadow of death. (Jeremiah 2:6 in KJV) Why does the Good Shepherd persevere with them? As we have said in the previous blogpost, it’s ‘for His name sake.’  He keeps His word. It was in that certainty Jeremiah trusted as he sat in the rubble of Jerusalem. It is the confidence of the prophets about Israel’s future role even as the nation endures judgement. It is the assurance for those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and their personal Lord and Saviour. In fact, it is your personal commitment to Jesus that declares the Shepherd took the nation through their valley of the shadow. It culminated in the fulfilment of Scripture about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Sure, Israel is in another valley of unbelief at the moment, but Scripture points to them coming out of it.

Hosea spoke of another valley called ‘Achor.’ It means sorrow and its story is in Joshua 7. The prophet likened Israel’s history to one of defeat and dispersion and being disowned. However, in Hosea 2:15 he foresees a future time when that valley will be transformed. The Lord (Israel’s Shepherd) said He will ‘make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.’ How? The Lord will reclaim them, will gather them and will make them conquerors. Truly, as the psalmist wrote ‘even though I walk through [notice it is ‘through’] the darkest valley … your rod and staff comfort me.’

Can you find comfort through God’s word for whatever valley is the way your path of rightness is taking you? Let His rod of authority protect you and His staff keep you safe. Then even the valley of the shadow or the valley of sorrow will be faced with faith and hope.

To be continued.

©Ray Hawkins, February 29th 2016.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Path can have potholes.

Psalm 23:3                                                           Where He Leads.

  Poatina mountains from bedroom window web small.JPG
The Shepherd, Jesus, is up front of the flock. He leads. He calls. The sheep follow. How many of us in the flock wonder about some of the ways He takes us. For, there are times when we see ourselves in strange and unexpected places. This is where the flock and the individual sheep must trust the Shepherd. In this psalm two paths are mentioned. We will look at one of them today.
He leads me in right paths. This brings to the fore the fact that there are wrong paths we can wander onto. Being human and being responsible to keep the unseen Shepherd in ‘view’ is an interesting struggle. We have a stubborn, self-interested nature which sometimes fights against walking the ‘right paths. The mind is inclined to delude us into thinking ‘if we cannot see the Shepherd, He can’t see us.’ In the Old Testament a whole book has stories summed up by ‘They did what was right in their own eyes.’ Judges is a depressing book, yet at the same time most illuminating and with a strong warning embedded in it. Proverbs 16:25 ‘Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.’

How then do we keep the unseen Shepherd in our focus? ‘Set your minds on things that are above, and not on things that are on the earth.’ (Colossians 3:2) Easy words but we live in the visual how can we discern the way we should go? We have been given the equivalent of a GPS. Let’s call the Bible our ‘Godly Pathway Service.’ While it isn’t audio controlled God does cause it to ‘talk to us’ when we open it and want to know His will.

We like the idea of being led by still waters and even in right paths if they’re comfortable. Unfortunately sometimes they lead through some tough territory. We will look at verse 4 later. From that verse David understands the fact, the right path can take him and us through valleys. It is those times which play on our mind and test the depths of our trust in the Shepherd of my soul. Psalm 25 was also written by David. Was it at a much later date? In it he talks about his Shepherd helping him in his life’s experience. What David wrote here could be inserted in various parts of Psalm 23. Many of us can identify with him in this Psalm.

What is very apparent is the road (in Psalm 25) he was walking had enemies, foes, affliction, distress and trouble. Such can be the case when a person wants to do the right things in life. In this psalm David wants to know truth, to fear the Lord and know the wonder of God’s covenant of love. Such desire can be opposed by others whose ways are shrouded in unrighteous darkness and hostility to the God of Israel. In psalm 23 is the grace of the Shepherd anointing the sheep with oil. In psalm 25 we gain a picture of why this healing, refreshing act was needed. David had transgressed, had a sense of guilt, was troubled in heart, and was caught up in some messy net. His cry “O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.’ How many of us have cried words of a similar vein?

Little understood by ‘the flock’ are the words of Psalm 23 which finish verse 3, ‘for his name’s sake.’ The honour of our Shepherd is bound up in the way the sheep follow. When we walk according to the path of righteousness it is our testimony of trust and obedience. Onlookers don’t see our Shepherd. This may cause them to wonder about our lifestyle, priorities, endurance and relationships. It is this principle of the honour of His Name’ which Ezekiel especially stresses. The Lord made a covenant with Israel and will keep it, regardless of their waywardness. The Shepherd will discipline them. He will deliver them from their enemies. He will not only restore them to their land (which has happened) He will return to them at the proper time. Why does He bother? ‘For His name’s sake!’ For in that Name we are baptised. In that Name we pray. In that Name we have a refuge. In that Name we approach the Father. It is that reason which places us under a lifestyle responsibility of walking in the right path.

Proverbs has a saying to remind us, the sheep in His flock, about the heart matter we need to be led.  Proverbs 3:5-6. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely upon your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’
 To be continued

Ray Hawkins 21 Feb 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Effort of the Shepherd.

Kylemore in Ireland

I wonder to whom David was speaking when he speaks about the Shepherd Lord in the third person. When David says ‘He makes me lie down’ is reads like it caused the Shepherd some effort as the sheep resisted. This is almost a confession of a hyperactive personality needing the Lord to intervene. There would be some reading this or the psalm that would nod in understanding of what the Lord did or might have to do. Why is this? Because sheep seem to have a silly, stubborn, wandering nature which is applicable to men and women in the Lord’s sheepfold.

What David alluded to we don’t really know. However, we can get some ideas from the life of the apostle Paul. He was a dynamo for preaching the Gospel, writing letters, debating, getting assaulted, ship wrecked and doing a lot of walking and talking. When you read the book of Acts in the New Testament Paul spent time in prisons. Would it be fair to say the Lord, his Shepherd, was making him lie down?

How then could we honestly equate a prison cell or home detention as ‘green pasture?’ One thing would be sure, there wouldn’t be much running or turbulent water in the place. The psalmist in this verse is contrasting the everyday experience of a sheep in Israel. The grass was sparse and needed constant searching if it was to have a good meal. The shepherd would know when it was time to give the sheep in his care a bit of a treat. He would take them to such a spot indicated by the writer. Would it be similar to an Australian billabong? That’s where fresh water ‘sits’ and is easy to access. For Paul in prison his cell was a place of stillness. Would he take heart from a psalm which talks about being still and knowing God? Psalm 46:10.

Being in such green pastures and beside still waters sounds idyllic. For a man or woman with a sense of mission, with restless energy to accomplish a calling, it can wear thin after a while. Paul, I think, would have gone mad in jail if he couldn’t share his faith. Prayer, devotion and reading parchments and books is well and good. But, they must have outlets! As you read the accounts in Acts and his letters you realise there were numerous opportunities for this man, beside the ‘still waters.’ In Caesarea the Governor dropped by seemingly regular. Paul was presented before King Agrippa to state his case. In Rome, under house arrest, he somehow met and led to the Lord a runaway slave called Onesimus. (Read the letter to Philemon). Paul was a driven man refreshed by God’s turning a place of ignominy and shame into green pastures. Through him, the Lord was able to share with otherwise untouchables the ‘Living Water’ of the Holy Spirit. In that place he also was able to meet and discuss with the Jewish leaders of Rome. (Acts 28) Later under guard and chained to Roman soldiers Paul had a captive audience. Some of these battle hardened and cruel men became Christians. Philippians 1:12-14 reveals that fact.

Reading Paul’s journey’s we can see that his Shepherd led him along many a hard track. It is also apparent the apostle wasn’t always sure just where the Lord was taking him. Paul had his way blocked here, intersected there and on another occasion had a dream which led him to Philippi. How true that is of us. We might have some ideas as to where the Lord intends us to be but the road isn’t always direct. The call of the Lord is to “Follow me.” That includes taking up a personal cross of obedience and trust. It often has a high price attached to personal ambition and expectations. However, as in the psalm and as displayed in Paul’s life, the Lord takes His followers into green pasture (some surprisingly unattractive at the first glance). Then He causes us to drink the still, the cool and clear water of His grace. Remember what the Lord said to His disciples? They had to draw aside and rest awhile before beginning any new work.

What is the purpose of all this? To restore the disciples life. It may include restoring a believer’s faith, health, priority or testimony. Being restored he can be led again to walk in the right paths with renewed enthusiasm.

To be continued.

©Ray Hawkins February 2016.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Is 'I shall not want' pious fantasy?

In my English translation of this psalm there are 120 words. What becomes evident, although before this time I’d not thought about it, only two people are featured! It is the ‘sheep and the Shepherd.’  Implied is a third person to whom the ‘sheep’ is talking in verses 2 and 3. The ‘sheep’ is highlighted by the use of ‘I, me, my’ 15 times. The Shepherd is highlighted by ‘you, yours’ 5 times. The fact of another is indicated by the mention of the Shepherd as ‘He’ or His’ to this unknown one.
Fishermen on Ghana's coast 

What is all this saying to us? The writer is revealing his relationship with and his dependence upon the Shepherd. The fact of someone else being in the ‘shadows’ makes me think this is a testimony. Was David encouraging such a person to join him in the Shepherd’s sheepfold? This is the privilege those of us who know Jesus as the Good Shepherd also have. It is especially true of men and women called to be ‘under-shepherds’ to Christ. According to 1 Peter 5:1-5 they have a responsibility to care for others and set them an example, especially to the youth, of godly leadership.

Gate of No return where slaves were
shipped across the seas from Ghana.
As I read verse 1 I have to make a confession. I find the second section difficult to fully agree with. Why do I write that? Is it out of my own circumstances across the years I find it hard to 100% agree? Not really. Living in Australia and enjoying its Christian heritage I’ve had it easy. I, with my wife and family, know the love and provision of the Lord Jesus and His people. What unsettles me about ‘I shall not want’ is that many of God’s people around the world are in ‘want.’

Does this make David’s testimony to us invalid? Is it merely a personal matter written before his desperate escape from Saul’s murderous intent and pursuits? Is this psalm primarily about a spiritual relationship divorced from everyday matters? No! Then how do we piece it all together? When we read the New Testament we find the early Church was suffering in Jerusalem from a severe famine. How was this ‘want’ (need) met? By Churches outside Judah. When Paul was in prison and in need how was that met? The Philippian church sent what he needed. (Philippians 4:10-17) This principle is still be faithfully expressed by many congregations around the world through Christian groups.

However, it would be fair to say some of God’s people die without this section of the psalm being theirs. How do we answer that? What would their response likely to be? I can only offer Paul’s words. One comes from Philippians 4:12: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learnt the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” How did Paul handle this? In the following verse he explains it. How unfortunate it is this verse is plucked out of its context and applied to other issues. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” To me, such and attitude points to what the psalmist was aiming at when he wrote, “I shall not… ” is a statement of trust in the Shepherd.

Put that also in the context of 2 Corinthians 4.1-18 where Paul shares his experiences. He and his companions endured some rugged times, as recorded in the book of Acts also. In verses 1 and 16 he writes “we do not lose heart.” How was that possible? How do our family of faith in severe circumstance remain faithful to the Lord? Because they know their Shepherd! They know what He said about taking up the cross. They know that He, Jesus, warned them about the suffering to come. As with the suffering church through the centuries they saw beyond the shame, suffering, losses to something far great. “Even though our nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us and eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) That passage then goes on to tells us about our home in glory – our eternal sheepfold with the Shepherd, Jesus.

To be continued.

© Ray Hawkins Feb 8th 2016