Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wishful thinking or assured reality

PA170148.JPG David is emotional. Here he is affected by the thoughts of running oil down his head and an overflowing heart. With a sense of wonder, generated by the moment, David is convinced about what is following. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Within the Scriptures we have numerous episodes of his history. Does it bear out this assurance?

Surely it does! Goodness (of God’s grace and covenant) and mercy (God keeps His word) did follow David. It is to the Shepherd’s honour that He didn’t kick this sheep out of the fold. It was fortunate for David and maybe for you, definitely for me, when we wear His brand the Shepherd always seeks the wayward sheep. David’s story is one of great privileges, promises and achievements. It is also one of great betrayal, a father’s stupidity mixed with a spiritual ‘dark hole.’ Where can we see ‘goodness and mercy’ in his life?

It emerges from the wonder of God’s covenant. When He makes one with the nation or the individual He keeps it. Discipline is meted out for protracted insolence and rebellion, mercy is provided for repentance. Consequences for actions done are inevitable, but, God’s goodness offers comfort and hope. All of this is wrapped up in psalm 51. What David wrote in younger days and with emotion proved valid in his later and more turbulent years! Over and over his psalms vibrate with God’s steadfast love, faithfulness and mercy. From our perspective, words written by Paul to the folk at Rome promise a similar assurance. ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)

However, for Goodness and mercy and other blessings from God to follow us has a ‘depends’ clause. A father’s advice to his son explains it well enough. In Proverbs 4 the father uses such words as, keep you heart with all diligence, put away crooked speech and devious talk and don’t swerve from the path. Our Good Shepherd has endorsed those words elsewhere in His book of life. Sometimes we feel that the path of right living is restrictive and we are tempted to take detours. The word for paths in psalm 23:3 defines it as a ‘path for wagons.’  God’s lifestyle for us has space for us to enjoy the pleasures of His company and calling. He gives us the privilege of exercising our gifts and abilities with a proviso’ ‘Whatever you do, do as unto the Lord!’

To change the metaphor, we are warned that even as ‘sheep in His fold’ we will reap what we sow.’ We are deceived if we imagine we can sow to our sinful nature and reap spiritual blessings! In fact such thinking is a form of mockery to our Saviour Shepherd’s word and character. We are not to presume upon Him and His grace and mercy to us. Fortunately, God’s gift of repentance is available for us to grasp, embrace and unleash within our heart. We will still know the fallout from our detours or bad seeds sown, but God’s mercy lessens their impact. To know the forgiveness of God is to bow before Him in awe. It is to appreciate the power of grace won for us at Calvary’s cross. It is to offer back to Him our heart, now broken, but healed, and contrite yet joyful. It is as the forgiven, the restored, the humbled we are able to bear testimony to what it means to know Him, walk with Him and worship Him, the One we call Jesus.

It is by repentance we get back onto the right path. It is then our Lord is able to let loose ‘goodness and mercy’ to chase after us. It is when we are following the Shepherd a confidence arises. This happens despite our previous stupidity. Once again we can do no better than quote the one who knew this truth. ‘I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.’ Signed David, son of Jesse, King of Israel, psalm 27:13, 14.

To be concluded next week.

©Ray Hawkins. March 2016.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Of Cups and Sheep

When someone refers to me, either in jest or seriously “You’re a bit of a sly dog” is that because I have paws, a tail and slink around? Of course not! They are using a figure of speech termed a metaphor. It’s a descriptive use of words which define one thing and applying it to another person or situation. This must be the case in here in psalm 23. What use does a sheep have for a cup? A trough perhaps but a cup! David must be applying a full cup to how he feels when experiencing the care of the Shepherd. The cup surely is a description for his heart’s gratitude to his Shepherd. Was David looking back over what he wrote and realised how fortunate he was. Something about the ‘oil being poured’ must have stirred the emotions.

Consider the ‘cup’ as being a metaphor for the heart. As David reflects upon the faithful care of the Shepherd an overwhelming sense of gratitude arises. The psalms, are often the expression by the various writers of their feelings at that moment. This is why we still find them to interesting and authentic. In fact, we can find ourselves and our situations already recorded. As we are considering the rejoicing, not the burdened heart let’s see some reasons for this overflowing pleasure.

In psalm 4 is having some difficult people trying to dishonour his character. His sanity’s security is safeguarded by his confidence in the God who hears. “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.” David is enjoying a relationship with his Lord that thrills him with more pleasure than having a party after harvest. Living a godly life within a community and working among and with others can stir up animosity. Unless our hearts are filled with a sense of the Lord’s pleasure, constantly, we will be drained. Remember the promise of the Lord in John 7:38? He wants your life to be a waterfall. That is, out of your life Jesus wants His people to know they are overflowing with ‘Living Water.’ He was referring to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. What is the purpose of this overflowing relationship? So you and I can provide the spiritual thirst quenching water of God’s grace. I guess that would make us a ‘cup’ in the hands of the Shepherd.

Sometimes our full and flowing heart makes us burst out in song. The more creative may even write out words and melodies to how they feel. David is one of the most prolific at this. Psalm 108:1 “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody.” The cause of David’s joy was the Lord’s faithfulness and victories over Israel’s foes. For all of David’s weakness his heart is wonderfully expressed in “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.’ When such a longing permeates our faith relationship with the Good Shepherd surely our ‘cup overflows.’ He knows we need both the oil of anointing for our failures so that we can, in a sense, return the favour. That’s what appeals to me about the cup. It is ‘my cup’ a.k.a my heart, that is overflowing. For what purpose? That the One who has lead me, cared for me, protected me, stood by me might receive my praise and gratitude.

Others might hear what I sing, shout, say that’s okay. But my heart is for the Lord. However, there are times when only the angels hear it with delight and the demons shudder with displeasure. Whatever the scenario, we honour the Lord for He is good and His compassion never fails. One of the amazing facts about a full heart is it isn’t limited to those in pleasant pastures. It is the wonder seen in men and women in difficult, unsafe and distasteful circumstances who praise the Lord. The writer of Proverbs 15:15 makes this observation and its effect. “All the days of the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.” How can they maintain that? Only through a knowledge of their Good Shepherd and where He will ultimately take them. Where is that? “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ Psalm 16:11.

That we will consider next week from psalm 23:6.

©Ray Hawkins March 2016.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Oil to soothe, refresh.

It sounds idyllic, even exciting when we read about the Shepherd’s leading, and safe keeping. But the journey for the sheep can be a far cry from the ideal. Along the way are irritating shrubs that leave seeds and twigs in the fleece. Parasites lie in wait to jump on board for a free ride, meal and the fun of being an irritant. Eyes can become inflamed by dust or the sun’s brightness. It is in these moments the sheep appreciates the Shepherd’s care. The oil he pours soothes plus deals with the bugs and clears the eyes and refreshes the face.
In what way was David applying this imagery to his relationship with the Good Shepherd? How do we? This is especially important for us to understand as we are dealing with the spiritual, not literal experience. The journey aspect is easily understood. We get weary. Parasites latch onto our soul and annoy our spirit.  Our spiritual eyes can be inflamed by the dirt of the world and the heat and smoke of opposition. How does our unseen Shepherd apply the oil of His grace and compassion to our life?

The sheep must be in a secure setting as intimated by the set table. This allows the Shepherd access to the person a.k.a. the sheep. In psalm 19:8 David defines one of the ‘flasks’ of oil. ‘The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.’ Why are there ‘blighted believers?’ The teachings of God’s Word have been resisted or neglected, not applied. It is no use singing ‘open my eyes, Lord …’ if you won’t open His book. When you read and heed His word Proverbs 15:30 is activated. ‘The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the body.’

Grief is another factor which contributes to cloudy eyesight. This is something we will all experience. Some will see through their tears the hope we have because of Christ’s triumph over death. Such comfort will keep the eyes clear and healthy. As Paul told the Thessalonians ‘so [do] not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ On other occasions a person may feel as though he is the victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Life’s spitefulness and unfairness assaulted him and left him in a bad state. How does our unseen Shepherd minister to such a person (who may well be you or I)? How does he pour His oil into our wounded heart, mind and body? Through a man or woman equipped with the necessary resources.

Why was the Good Samaritan travelling with the ancient equivalent to our first aid kit? He must have been a much travelled person and had learnt to be resourced to meet the unseen emergencies. The Lord wants to equip us with His grace, wisdom, compassion and practical skills to help others in their crises. It is costly in both the learning and then the applying of what was needed. Why would anyone really enter upon such a venture? For the Lord’s honour and His compassion which dwells within and compels a follower to care. I often wonder if the victim ever met his benefactor. Does that really matter? How fortunate are those assaulted by life to have someone known or unknown who becomes their Good Samaritan.

Part of the spiritual first aid kit requires the renewing power of knowing and obeying the Good Shepherd. As Jesus put it, He knows His sheep and they know Him. We only get to know Jesus when our relationship is put under pressure. Theory must be replaced by practical experience which only happens when you do His specific will. The bruises from attempting and failing are pleasing to the Master. The oil of His pleasure and its soothing power is able to be applied by His Spirit. Out of such a ministry we can truthfully bear witness to the character of the Shepherd. What psalm 100 says becomes more than a theological statement. It takes on the personal dimension of witnessing to your own discoveries of knowing Him and His anointing. We are the ‘sheep of his pasture’ and wear His brand.

To be continued.

©Ray Hawkins March 2016.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Table in a strange place

‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’ Psalm 23:5a.

It reads as though the Shepherd has taken the ‘sheep’ on a picnic. The word picture of ‘prepare’ indicates He had gone to a lot of trouble for it means ‘to set out in order.’ What has He placed upon it? Refreshment for the body after a day’s journey. What has preceded this ‘picnic?’ The possibility of or the fact of travelling through the valley of the shadow. Whilst fear may not have dominated, it would strike me as unusual if a wee bit of nervousness wasn’t tingling the spine. So, here is the Shepherd’s opportunity to settle the sheep and to provide nourishment for the next day. Treats with which to surprise and please may also be on the menu. David makes this a personal, one on one ‘picnic.’ We can understand the imagery of Shepherd waiting upon the sheep, but what about the Master waiting upon the servant? Jesus said He would do this for the servant found faithfully fulfilling his responsibilities when Jesus returns, Luke 12:37. The One who was prepared to wash the disciples feet is not adverse to being a waiter to honour the faithful. What a wonderful and gracious Lord we serve and worship.

When we apply the psalm to our circumstances can we recall the Lord ‘feeding’ us in a strange place? Mary and I were on a short term mission and study trip to Africa and experienced the Lord’s ‘picnic table.’ We were not so much in enemy territory, but in the midst of a different culture. What did the Lord do to refresh us? We went to a camp for refugees from a civil war. There we met some Christians who welcomed us, spoke English and shared a time of worship with us in their distinct celebratory style. Also, in the camp were family members of people we knew back home. What a joy to tell them of their loved ones and to be able to take messages back home! The stress and strain of ministry and travel were eased then swamped by God’s grace reaching us through His people.

The concept of the table is also more than simply sharing a meal. It is coming under the protection of the householder. Even if enemies found themselves within the same house and at the same table honour forbade them to begin hostilities. It was offensive to the owner and to the culture. In psalm 41:9 David speaks about a person who breached this trust. Such a person is personified in Judas at the Passover time in the Upper Room with Jesus. (A similar breach is told in Jeremiah 41:1-3.)

With that in mind I wonder if the following words of the verse take on a deeper meaning: Rather than David’s enemies prowling the perimeters or spying from hidden vantage points, they are sharing in the table time. This may be hard to accept until you realise the grace and power of the Shepherd. ‘When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.’ Proverbs 16:7. The heart of the Good Shepherd and His transforming power is written about by Paul in Ephesians 2. An implacable dislike, even hatred, between Jews and Gentiles, is overcome when both make Jesus Saviour and Lord. He is our peace. He breaks down our barriers. He puts us into one Body (the Church) and we are ‘built together spiritually.’

What then does this tell us about ‘sheep head-butting sheep?’ Something is wrong. The have been bitten by a parasite and its causing them to be ‘unsheep like.’ It also effects their relationship with the Shepherd. Something is overriding His indwelling grace. Something is creating a betrayal of their ‘table manners.’ Unless this spiritual ‘bug’ is removed it will devour faith, relationships and testimony. Imagine what would have happened after the betrayal of Jesus by all the disciples in the Upper Room. Guilt, self-righteousness, denial, shame and the ‘blame-game’ would have made null and void their future message – if they had a future. What did Jesus call on them to do to prove each of them as disciples? To love each other! (Read John 13). That was the power of Christ’s resurrection grace, redemption and forgiveness. It had overwhelmed their betrayal of their Lord. It also dealt with any recriminations they would have held against themselves and each other.

The Lord’s Table (Communion or Eucharist) is the ‘sheep’s’ table today. There our Shepherd wants to refresh us, equip us, sooth our troubled heart and mind, heal broken relationships and mend any shredded witness. Read why this is so important in 1 Corinthians 1o:16-22. 11:17-32. When Jesus is our Lord and He breathes His peace in us then we will be at peace with each other.

Then He can anoint our individual and collective heads – but that is for next week.

©Ray Hawkins March 2016