Sunday, February 11, 2007

How Not to Be a Hired Hand

Texts: 2 Corinthians 5:14 - 6:2; John 10:1-18

IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT you may remember watching Westerns at the movies. One common theme was the situation where a hired hand falls in love with the rich rancher’s beautiful daughter, and the rich rancher father doesn’t approve, and the hired man has to prove he’s worthy of her by saving the day in some heroic fashion or other.

I used to think that was very narrowminded of the father. Why shouldn’t he let his daughter marry the handsome, mysterious hired hand? That’s how the script writers want us to feel.

But when I look at it objectively, I have to admit the rich rancher father has a point. I mean, here’s your only daughter and the heiress to your fortune. Do you really want her to marry a drifter who showed up yesterday and may saddle up and go tomorrow? Do you really want her hitched to some guy who doesn’t really have any commitment to you or the business, he’s only there for the money? Do you like the prospect of your land someday controlled by a stranger from who-knows-where, who’s maybe just itching to sell off the livestock to raise money for whiskey and gambling and floozy women on the side? Come to think about it, the only way the hired man in these Westerns can prove he’s worthy to marry the heiress is by proving that at heart he’s not really just a hired hand after all!

In our reading from the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus talks about the ranching business. Sheep ranching, to be specific. He says He is the Owner of the sheep. He declares that He is the gate to the sheepfold for the sheep. And He proclaims that He is the good shepherd of the sheep.
What He is not is a thief, a stranger, or a hired hand. What’s more, Jesus wants us to have nothing to do with thieves, strangers, or hired hands. And certainly, when it comes to His sheep, He doesn’t want any of us to be a thief, a stranger, or a hired hand.

Of course when Jesus talks about sheep this we know He’s not talking about the woolly critters that walk around on four legs and go "baaa!" and keep the grass on Scottish golf courses so nice and short. He’s talking about the faithful people of God.

The Jews Jesus was teaching that day in Jerusalem should have understood that, too. God had been calling Israel His sheep for a long, long time. The Lord was Israel’s shepherd even before He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, ever since He called Abraham and his household out of the city of Ur. Didn’t King David sing, "The Lord is my Shepherd"? And didn’t prophets like Ezekiel declare that some day the Lord Himself would come and be Israel’s Shepherd in person?

But John tells us that as Jesus began this teaching, His Jewish audience didn’t get what He was telling them. It’s like they’re standing around thinking, "Right, Rabbi, everybody knows you don’t let just anyone into the sheep pen. Everybody knows that sheep recognise their shepherd’s voice and follow him. Everybody knows that the man who climbs over the fence is a robber and the sheep will scatter if he comes after them! Rabbi, you’re boring us. Tell us something deep and divine and theological. Tell us something new."

So Jesus does tell them something marvellously new. He says quite plainly, "I am the gate of the sheepfold." What does the sheepfold gate do? It shuts out the wild animals by night. It lets the sheep go out to good pasture by day. It completes the ring of protection around them and deters the thieves and the robbers.

What? How can a man be a gate? And how can this Man say that "all who ever came before me were thieves and robbers"? I think that’s when it dawned on the people that the Rabbi from Nazareth wasn’t talking about sheep farming. He was drawing on the old metaphor of Israel as God’s sheep. Jesus was actually declaring Himself to be the true Messiah and King that God’s prophets had promised from centuries of old.

"I am the Gate for the sheep," says Jesus. That is, "I, Jesus, am the way a man or a woman becomes part of the flock of God. I am the only way through which anyone can receive God’s care and nourishment. I am the door of protection between God’s people and the evils of this wicked world. I am the door to the kingdom of God."

All the false messiahs, all the lying prophets, all the bad kings Israel and Judah had ever known: they were all thieves and robbers. They didn’t care for the sheep. They didn’t love them. They only wanted to prey on them, to steal and kill and destroy. Anyone who trusted false shepherds like them would come to grief and destruction. Whereas if you come in through Jesus of Nazareth, you would be saved. You would have life. And you would have it to the full.

I wonder how Jesus’ hearers took that. I’d say they piously approved of what He said about the false messiahs, the lying prophets, and the bad kings. Maybe they even felt a thrill of excitement--Could this Jesus actually be the long-awaited messiah? He performed enough miracles to back up His claim!

But the messiah they envisioned would only be God’s representative and the bringer of God’s justice. They didn’t expect God literally to come shepherd them Himself! But now Jesus proclaims something entirely shocking: He says to them, "I am the Good Shepherd. I am the shepherd who owns the sheep."

Do you realize what that means? His Jewish hearers did! Jesus was claiming to be Israel’s Owner and Shepherd! He was claiming to be God!

And when He talked about the hired hand who does not own the sheep, who runs away and leaves them when he sees danger coming . . . It was clear whom Jesus meant. He was talking about the scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. All those men who should have been guarding God’s people Israel but who were really in it for themselves. All that sort of man who would give in and give up and give over whenever Rome said Boo! to them, because they feared Caesar more than they feared God. Shiftless, unreliable, mercenary hired hands, that’s all they were.

Not like Jesus, the good shepherd of His sheep. Not like Jesus, who would give up His life for the sake of His sheep. Not like Jesus, who would never be content and will never be content until He has added in every last one of the sheep His Father has given Him and brought them together in one precious flock. No, people of God, you want to avoid the hired hands. Most certainly, you want to avoid being one!

Now, when I think of myself as one of Jesus’ sheep, this passage gives me great comfort and peace. But when I consider my own role in shepherding God’s flock, I have to wonder, where does it leave me? Where does this teaching leave any of us who serve the Church of Jesus Christ?

Because in the church we have pastors and elders. We have deacons and trustees, missionaries and evangelists. We have lay people who work hard teaching Sunday School or organizing fellowship dinners. We have ordinary church-going Christians who show they’re in the sheep-tending business every time they tell someone in the unbelieving world about Jesus Christ or do a kind act in His name. We even have itinerant pulpit supply preachers like me, who go from church to church preaching the Word of God, and we’re not committed to any one congregation.

What about us? Are we all hired hands? Because that’s the contrast Jesus sets up in these verses. There’s Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. And then there’s the hired hand, who throws down his staff and runs for cover at the first sight of a fang or a claw. We can’t be Jesus, right? Only Jesus is Jesus. And we don’t want to be hired hands. What are we supposed to do?

Actually, we are supposed to be Jesus. If you’re a church officer, every time you carry out your required service, you’re supposed to be Jesus. If you’re a Sunday School teacher, or a member of a women’s fellowship and service group, or the person who vacuums the church floor during the week, or the clerk who types up the bulletins-- if you’re working to benefit the people of God or carrying the good news to people who aren’t the people of God yet, you are supposed to be Jesus. If you’re out on your job or doing the shopping or at home with your family, anywhere there are Christians to be encouraged or lost sheep to be brought home, you’re supposed to be Jesus.

But how can we be Jesus? Isn’t Jesus the one and only unique Son of God? Isn’t He the only Good Shepherd and Saviour of the world? Well, yes. But our reading from 2 Corinthians shows us the way out of our dilemma.

First of all, verse 14 of chapter 5 says, "For Christ’s love compels us."

Compels us to do what? His love compels us to spread the good news of new life in Him to everyone around us. Christ’s love compels us to spend our lives in His service. But not as hired hands. No.

The next verse says, "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." Who is it who died and rose again? Jesus Christ our Lord, our good shepherd, the righteous Son of God. Who is it who live? It is we ourselves, who trust in what He has done. We were dead in selfishness and sin, but now Jesus has given us new life in Him. So we no longer are to live for ourselves! We aren’t in the Christian life just for what we can get out of it. We shouldn’t do Christian service for the sake of material or social or psychological gain. We mustn’t be hired hands!

The world says that’s why you do good things-- for what you can get out of it. That’s why people in the world-- unsaved people-- are kind to others: So others will be kind back to them. That’s why unsaved people get involved in religion-- for what it will do for them. Never mind if it’s true or not. Never mind that there really is a sovereign Creator God who deserves all praise and eternal devotion. The hired hand mentality says, "I’ll do this for you if you pay me so much in return. If not, I quit." Have you ever heard someone say, "I believe in my religion because it works for me"? Maybe you’ve even heard people say that about Christ and Christianity! And if Christianity stops "working for them," if life stops being peaceful or their disease isn’t healed or if they no longer feel they have life under control, they’ll go find another religion that does work for them! That is regarding Christ from a worldly point of view. That’s thinking like a hired hand.

And before we come to faith in Jesus, we all think of Him in that mercenary way. But we do so no longer, because now we are in Christ! That’s how we can be Jesus Christ as we serve His church and the world. He has made us to be a new type of human being. We have God Almighty living in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. So when we serve and act and speak and love according to His will, it’s just the same as if the one acting and speaking and loving were Jesus Christ Himself.

Sounds a lot like "WWJD--What Would Jesus Do?" doesn’t it? But it’s better than that. The trouble with "What Would Jesus Do?" is, that slogan gets us thinking about what Jesus did in the past and then trying to run with it now on our own. That’s not what the Spirit had in mind when He had Paul write that now we are in Christ. The question really is, "WDJD-- What Did Jesus Do?"

He served God perfectly as a loving Son, that’s what Jesus did. He willingly laid down His life for us, His sheep--that’s what Jesus did. He took it up again in resurrection, that we might have new life in Him. That’s what Jesus did. He reconciled us to God and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that’s what Jesus did!

And because of what Jesus did, what we now ask is, "What is Jesus doing in me, right now?" For you are in Him and He is in you, and He is in all of you as His body, the Church. As His new creatures, all you do should be done in identity with Him.

Say you’re an elder, and you’re sitting in a Session meeting and things are getting contentious: Remember, you’re not a hired hand. No, you are the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd to your fellow elders and they are His presence to you. He lives in you, and your words must be His words and His grace your grace.

Or suppose you’re on the board of deacons, and you’re all trying to decide the best ways to minister to the congregation and the community. Ask, "What is Christ in us directing us to do?" Remember, He does only what pleases and glorifies His Father in heaven. And He never operates out of self-interest or fear. How does Jesus want you to be His shepherding presence to His flock in this place? What is Jesus in you giving you the power to do?

It’s the same even if you’re not ordained. It’s amazing what God can do in a congregation that’s living in the resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s wonderful how souls can be saved and the needy helped and evil and tragedy faced down when the Spirit of Christ the Good Shepherd motivates His people and leads them and sustains them in all they do!

All this assumes you’re hearing His voice as He speaks to you in the Holy Scriptures. Don’t bother asking what Jesus wants to do through you if the voice you hear is your own and not His! Jesus feeds you with His Word to make you strong and capable, and to incorporate you more perfectly into Him. He gives you the words to speak, and they are the words He spoke by His apostles and prophets. Everywhere you go, in every situation in life, you are Christ’s ambassador. You are called and commissioned to speak and act for Him. When people see you, they should see Jesus. When you speak in God’s service, it should be with the loving voice of Jesus. When people experience your patience and your care, it should be the care of the good shepherd Jesus.

Stop trying to do this on your own. You can’t. Don’t serve God so people will think well of you or to try to earn your way into heaven. That’s worse than useless, it’s an insult to the Lord who is the only Gate into heaven there is. But why attempt it anyway? You’re not a hired hand! You have been made one with Jesus Christ your Lord! In Him you have become the righteousness of God! You are a fellow worker with Him! You are one of God’s precious flock-- but to some person who needs you, to some lost and lonely sheep, you are also the voice and care of the Good Shepherd who is calling that soul back to Himself.

In the time of His favor God has heard you. In the day of salvation He helped you. He has brought you safe within His sheepfold and you are secure in Him forever. Relying on the love and power of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, serve and minister and love in His name, for He ministers and lives and loves in you.

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