The Mark of a Disciple

31 When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:31-35

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 19th May 2019 at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, West Sussex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Who is Jesus?

How do we respond to Jesus?

Two significant questions.

Of course, the answer someone gives to the second question, how do we respond to Jesus, is very much determined by the answer to the first, who is Jesus?

If Jesus was nothing more than a first century rabble rouser, then no response is needed. We can consign him to the margins of history.

If Jesus was a good moral teacher, we might reflect on his teaching, before then deciding to ignore him anyway. After all, how can the moral teachings of a first century carpenter have any relevance for us today?

But what if Jesus was something more than these things? What if he was the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah? How do we respond to Jesus if this is the case?

This is what I’d like us to consider this morning.

There are three points I’d like us to consider.

Firstly, who is Jesus?

Secondly, what should our response be to Jesus?

And thirdly, what is the true mark of a follower of Jesus?

We’ll be considering John 13:31-35 today, so if you have a Bible, you may find it useful to have it open in front of you at John 13:31-35.

Firstly, then, who is Jesus?

Before we get too far into this, it’s probably a good idea to think about the context of this particular passage. The disciples are gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover Festival. This is where Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper. Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. This is a real moment of intimacy between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is seen to be playing the role of servant king, humbling himself before those who thought that it was they who should be serving him.

As the chapter progresses, we see the actions of two disciples in particular. First of all we see Judas decide to betray Jesus. Jesus suddenly announces to his disciples, “very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples were completely shocked. John, urged on by Peter, asked Jesus, “who is it?” Jesus replied that it was the one to whom he would give a piece of bread, before passing the bread to Judas. At the moment Judas took the bread, John tells us that “Satan entered into him,” signifying no doubt the moment that Judas allowed himself to make the decision to betray Jesus to the authorities.

We also see Jesus predict Peter’s denial. He says to Peter, “very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”

So there’s a great deal going on in this chapter!

As we begin our passage in verse 31, Jesus makes some rather cryptic statements. He begins by saying, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.” “Son of Man” is in fact Jesus’ most common title for himself, using it on 81 occasions in the Gospels. It is never used by anyone else in the Gospels. In the Old Testament book of Daniel, the Son of Man is shown as a heavenly figure who in the end times is entrusted by God with authority. Jesus used this as a messianic title. He was the one sent by God from heaven to earth, and who has all authority to judge humanity when the end of the world comes.

It is at this point that something truly remarkable happens. Jesus is glorified! His full glory is laid bare for all to see. It is at this moment that Jesus’ true identify becomes evident.

What does this mean, though? What does Jesus mean that he is glorified? Jesus is glorified because it is revealed who he is. He is God! When he is glorified, God himself is glorified in him.

Jesus points the way to his father and shows the disciples God himself. And since Jesus glorifies God, God in return glorifies Jesus. We see that incredible bond resulting from the Father and
the Son being one, with the Spirit. Jesus is indivisible from his Father because they are one God. Jesus chooses to serve his Father on earth and because he carries out his Father’s will perfectly, God gives him glory. Jesus, precisely because he is so attuned to his Father, glorifies God.

This is Jesus at his most remarkable, the servant king who washed the feet of his disciples, revealed as God himself, and now about to die on the cross for the whole of humanity.

This might not sound particularly glorious but it is. It is because of the context here. Jesus knows what is going to happen. Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He could have stopped Judas, but he did not do so. He does not stop Judas because dying on the cross is the path that his father has marked out for him.

Jesus allows this to happen to him. Yet he is not the tragic innocent party, the sad victim of betrayal. He is totally in control. He is the triumphant, glorious victim of betrayal. Judas may just be concerned about the money he is going to receive for delivering his master to the authorities, yet he is doing the work of the father. He is doing the work of Christ, bringing him to the cross where he would die for the souls of billions.

Why is he doing this? It’s fine to say that Jesus is allowing this to happen, but why?

He’s doing it because God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:16-17.

This, then, is the glorification of Jesus. This is the glorification of God. This is beginning of the end, the fulfilment of God’s plan to bring salvation to humanity. The glorification of Jesus is at its brightest at the darkest moment of human history, when Jesus hangs from the cross. But in that moment, Jesus defeats sin. He defeats the devil. He defeats death itself. So that anyone who believes in him, and trusts that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, can have eternal life in heaven.

But that eternal life begins in the here and now. It doesn’t suddenly kick in when we die and are raised with Christ. Eternal life is all about a new perspective on life and the world.

And that brings us to our second point. What should our response be to the glorification of Jesus? If Jesus is God himself, how should we respond?

Having revealed himself to be God, Jesus tells his disciples in verse 34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Here’s our answer, then. If Jesus is God, we should follow this new command. Since Jesus loves us, we should love one another.

But why does Jesus describe this as a new command? There’s nothing new about this is there? Surely loving one another has been at the heart of God’s calling since the beginning of time itself. So why is this a new command?

The answer here is the level of expectation that is associated with it. Jesus is not commanding his followers merely to have a warm, fuzzy feeling towards other Christians. He tells his followers that we are to love, as he loved us.

I mentioned that at the beginning of this chapter Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. This seems to be a real reversal of position, an upending of expectation. Surely Jesus’ disciples should be washing his feet? He was their master, after all. He was the one they were following. Surely they were the ones who should be acting in subservience to him?

Yet it’s Jesus who washes their feet.

This is the mark of the servant king. Here we see Jesus humbly taking on the role of servant to his disciples, when he is the king. Not just an earthly king either, but the king of heaven, the Son of God!

That’s the kind of love that we should be demonstrating to one another. We should be humbling ourselves before each other, placing others before ourselves, and serving whatever the cost.

We should act sacrificially. That’s the mark of Christian love. Giving that we actually feel. Giving that actually has an impact on our own lives.

What do you think the mark of that is? The usual answers to this focus on our money. You know the lines. We should give more cash to the church. We should give more to charity. We should spend less on ourselves and give our money to worthy charities.

And yes, of course, it goes without saying that those are admirable things to do. We should most definitely be doing all of those things.

But perhaps over and above financial giving, we should think about our time. Perhaps that’s where we can give truly sacrificially, because perhaps that’s where we’re actually most selfish. Many, most of us probably, work long hours. Perhaps we have long commutes too. Our time is precious and we have so little of it. Of course we want to spend the little time that we have left over doing the things that we want to do. Maybe that’s going for a run or for a swim. Maybe it’s taking in a film at the cinema. Perhaps its playing with our children, or going for dinner with our partners, or meeting friends for a drink. Maybe it’s just vegging in front of the television at the end of a long, demanding and stressful day.

Would it make a difference to God’s kingdom, to the Church, to our lives, if we sought out new ways to serve, to give up our time? That might be seeking to get involved with the running of the Church, by joining the church council. It might be offering our services to play an instrument, or to sing, or to train to preach, or to arrange the flowers, or to sweep the floors, or to clean the loos. It could be committing to attending church prayer meetings. Maybe we have a brilliant idea for an outreach project that “someone” should take on. What if that someone was you?

One of my friends who is a pastor in a church in Oxford was once given a piece of advice by an older pastor. He was told that after church, when you’ve got a coffee in your hand, you’ll often find yourself in the position when you see a group of people whose conversation you know you will enjoy, and a person, perhaps on their own, who you know is going to bore you, or annoy you. Don’t take the easy option. Go and chat to the person on their own. Walk towards the pain, he says. Walk towards the pain.

Perhaps that’s something we could try. When we find ourselves in a gathering, don’t just gravitate to your friends, but head for the person who might otherwise feel lonely, isolated, or rejected. Walk towards the pain.

That’s what Jesus would do.

And that’s what this command is all about. Sacrificial giving. Love one another as Jesus loves us.

Of course, Jesus took this to the greatest extreme. At the time he was speaking the disciples might have thought that the pinnacle of Jesus’ sacrificial loving was washing the feet of his disciples. But we know, with hindsight, that that was relatively trivial compared to his greatest act of sacrificial love. That greatest act of love for us was to willingly go to the cross, to suffer an agonising death so that you and I might be reunited with God, so that our sin might be forgiven, and so that we might have eternal life.

That’s real love.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s what Jesus says in John chapter fifteen, verse thirteen.

Maybe we might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, and die for someone we love.

That’s probably not too likely, however.

But our life on earth is finite. The clock is ticking. And by giving our time away to love our fellow Christians, perhaps in a sense we are laying down our lives for each other and for our ultimate friend, Jesus himself.

That, then, is what our response should be to Jesus. We should love one another. Sacrificially. In a way that impacts our own lives as much as it impacts the lives of those whom we love.

That would make us truly distinctive. And that brings us on to our third point, what is the mark of a disciple?

Jesus says in verse 35, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This, then, is the mark of a disciple. Loving each other. This is the mark of a follower of Jesus. Loving one another.

Not only are we called to love one another sacrificially. The love that we have for each other should be evident to all. It is this love that is the mark of a disciple. This is the distinctive of the Christian faith.

Jesus loved us enough to die for us. We should love each other in the same way. We should love in the same way that Jesus loved us.

If we are genuine followers of Christ, the overarching impression that a visitor should get from visiting our churches is that they are places of love. Anyone who attends one of your services here at St Andrew’s, or one of your activities during the week, should leave this building think, “my goodness, St Andrew’s church really is a place of love.”

I wonder if that is the impression that people have of this place?

How do you think you measure up to this mark of a disciple?

When you come here, do you feel loved?

Come to that, do you feel that you love?

Do you go out of your way to love everyone in your church family?

The context of this passage shows just how difficult this can be at times. As we’ve seen, Jesus knows that Judas, one of his twelve disciples, his closest friends, his most loyal followers, has just left the room in order to betray him to the authorities. Jesus has just predicted that one of his very best friends, Peter, is about to deny that he even knows him. All whilst facing up to the prospect that in just a few hours he will be nailed to a cross.

I know that when I’m at my most stressed, I am at my least loving. When there’s just too much going on, I can be quite short with people, rather grumpy, and generally not very nice. Just ask my wife about that! But if I’m to follow Jesus’ example, even when I’m feeling really put upon, my attitude should still be one of love.

If Jesus could love even whilst facing up to his future at the Last Supper, then surely I should be able to love when I’m tired and stressed.

Jesus’ ultimate act of love was dying on the cross. He died out of love for you, and for me, and for all of humanity who would turn to him. And even at his bleakest moment, whilst hanging from the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And that’s how we should be known. By our completely outrageous love for one another. Even at our darkest times. Even when we feel stressed. Even when we feel wronged.

That’s not to say, of course, that we will always agree with one another. Disagreements are only natural.

But anyone who encounters us, as individuals, and as a church, should know that we are Jesus’ disciples, precisely because of the love we have for one another.

That, I firmly believe, is the greatest witness, the best form of evangelism that there is. Loving each other.

People will know that Christianity is real precisely because of the witness that we give. They will know that there is a living Messiah who gave everything for them precisely because of the love that we display. Because there is simply no other explanation for the outrageous love that we will share if we are truly followers of Christ.

As someone far wiser than I once said, the mark of faithfulness is not doctrinal belief, but Christ-like love.

That love cannot be faked. It’s possible to come along to church on a Sunday but not truly be a disciple of Christ. It’s perfectly possible to serve on a church committee, or to lead prayers, but not truly be a Christian.

But it is not possible to counterfeit the love that comes from being a true disciple of Christ. That’s the true Christian distinctive that marks as out as followers of Jesus.

People should look at us as Christians and be completely gobsmacked by the way we support each other, look out for one another, love one another, that they are left desperately wanting what we have. And what do we have? We have love.

That’s the mark of a disciple; that we love in such a way that everyone knows that we are followers of Christ.

So where does this all leave us?

We’ve seen that in the midst of darkness, as Judas left his table to betray him, as one of his closest friends, Peter, was about to deny even knowing him, the true glory of Jesus is seen. In his darkest moments, Jesus is glorified by God, pointing the way to his father as his father points to him and shows the world, here is God made flesh, here is God dwelling amongst us.

How do we respond to this?

The only way there could conceivably be. To follow Jesus’ command, to love one another as he has loved us. We should love each other sacrificially.

And this is the mark of a disciple. Our love should be evident to everyone. People will know us as Jesus’ disciples because of our outrageous love.

If there is no love, then we are not true followers of Jesus. How could we be if, after the love he has shown us, we do not follow his command to love as he loves us.

So how effectively are we following this command? Do your friends, your colleagues identify you as a disciple of Christ because of your love?

Does St Andrew’s stand out as a beacon of love to Horsham and beyond?

Do all those who come into this building feel loved?

Do we feel loved by this community?

Do we love each other?

Let’s aim to follow this command in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. To love one another, as Jesus loves us.

Amen.

Safe in the Father’s hand

22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

John 10:22-30

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 12th May 2019 at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Who is Jesus?

I wonder how long it is since you last grappled with that question.

Perhaps it’s something that you considered before you became a Christian, but haven’t explored since then.

Perhaps it’s a question that is never far from your thoughts, because people are always asking you who he is.

Was he really the Son of God? How can we know? Did he ever actually say he was the Son of God?

Today we’ll be pondering just who Jesus is. Having come to a conclusion on this important point, we’ll reflect on being obedient to him, before thinking about the rewards of our obedience.

So do turn to John 10:22-30 in your Bibles as we go through this passage together.

Who is Jesus?

So to our first point, who is Jesus?

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus finds himself accosted by the Jews. He was at the Temple for the Festival of Dedication, with many other Jewish people. When they see Jesus, John records that the Jews ask Jesus, “how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Maybe some of the questioners were sincere – they genuinely wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised one of God, but wanted Jesus just to make it clear that this was indeed the case.

Perhaps some were trying to trick Jesus, putting him into a position where he could be charged with blasphemy and charged by a Jewish court, or charged with insurrection and brought before the Romans.

Maybe others were simply mocking him, laughing at the thought that this man from Nazareth could possibly be the Messiah.

These attitudes to Jesus have actually travelled across the generations. There are still some today who would like to put their faith in Jesus, if only they could see compelling evidence that he was the Son of God. There are people who still regard Jesus as nothing more than a first century troublemaker, a rabble rouser. Others find the notion that Jesus could be the Son of God simply laughable.

I’m sure that you have encountered people like this, perhaps in your workplace, perhaps amongst your friends, maybe even in your own family. People who cannot bring themselves to believe that Jesus is anything more than a man. You might know people who seem entirely genuine in their desire to believe in Jesus Christ but, as yet, have yet to be convinced by his claims. I’m sure you know people who mock the notion that Jesus could possibly be the Son of God, and maybe mock you too for your faith.

It could very well be, of course, that at one time you found yourself in one of these categories, but found yourself somehow convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.

Perhaps you’re here today and you have yet to be convinced of Jesus’ divinity, but you genuinely want to believe that he is who he claimed.

Jesus’ response to the questioning of the Jews is interesting. In verse 25, we see he answers, “I did tell you, but you do not believe.”

Up to this point, Jesus has only revealed his true identity in conversation with individuals. He does so to a Samaritan woman that he encountered at a well, recorded in John 4. The woman says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” To which Jesus responds, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.” He leaves the woman in no doubt at all that he is the Messiah.

Similarly, John records an incident in chapter 9 of his gospel, when Jesus meets a man born blind, to whom he gives sight. Jesus asked the man, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The formerly blind man replies, “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus replied, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Jesus was in no doubt about his identity, and was happy to share this with people one to one. So why was he so reluctant to share publicly that he was the Messiah?

This is probably due to the fact that the Jews at the time had an unrealistic expectation of their Messiah. They were waiting for a military figure who would lead them in victory against the Romans, liberate their land from their oppressors, and restore their nation’s greatness. They were looking for a Messiah of their own creation, and, as a consequence, had failed to recognise the true Messiah ordained by God.

The true Messiah would indeed liberate them, but Jesus planned to liberate all people from the burden of sin and death, rather than this discrete group of people at this particular time from the occupying forces. Jesus’ plan was earth shattering, and has ramifications throughout the whole of history. If he had been the Messiah that the first century Jews were looking for, he would barely be a footnote in the History books.

Although Jesus may not have publicly affirmed that he is the Messiah, he continues in verse 25 by saying, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me.” Jesus is telling the Jews that the miracles he has performed all demonstrate that he is the Messiah. This, after all, is why he performed the miracles. Already in John’s Gospel Jesus has changed water into wine, healed an official’s son, healed a disabled man, fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread and two fish, walked on water, and healed a man who had been born blind.

These works, Jesus tells the Jews, testify about him. These miracles demonstrate his true identity. They show that he is the Messiah.

Who else could perform the feats that he had performed? Jesus’ miracles went beyond healing, which in itself is remarkable. Jesus’ miracles involved the act of creation. He created enough food to feed 5,000 men – probably more like 15,000 plus people if you factor in women and children – from essentially nothing. He created sight where there previously was none in a man who had been born blind. Here’s someone who is not just fixing things, but making things anew. There surely is no-one other than the Messiah, the Son of God who could achieve this.

So why, then, have the Jews questioning Jesus not grasped the answer to their question – yes, of course Jesus is the Messiah. Come to that, why have those people we know not come to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah?

This leads into our next point.

Obedience to Jesus:

Our second point today is obedience to Jesus.

Jesus says in verses 25 to 27, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

This is the reason, then, why the Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. This is why, despite the clear testimony of his miracles, they are imploring him to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. They do not believe because they are not Jesus’ sheep. Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice, they listen to what he is saying, and they follow him. They trust him to be their shepherd.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, Psalm 23, David, the Psalmist, gives us an insight into what it means to follow God the shepherd as a sheep. Sheep, David says, trust in their shepherd to provide everything they need to meet their needs. A sheep follows the lead of the shepherd. A sheep accepts guidance. A sheep fears no evil, even when walking through the darkest valley. A sheep knows the comfort of the shepherd during difficult times.

In short, sheep place their complete faith in their shepherd and trust that they will meet every need they might have.

The Jews fail to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah because they do not place their complete faith in Jesus. They hear his voice but they do not listen to what he says. Since they do not listen to Jesus, he does not know them, and they do not follow him.

Jesus’ words, therefore, are his second testimony. Just as his miracles point to the fact that he is the Messiah, so too do his words. Who else could have taught so coherently, so cogently, in such a challenging manner other than the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ?

John famously begins his gospel with a preface about the Word. His opening line is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us. We have seen the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

John sees Jesus as the embodiment of the Word of God, the Word which he believes is God himself. John understands that when Jesus speaks, it is God who those listening to Jesus hear.

If only the Jews listening to Jesus took his words to heart, if they only stopped to think for one minute about the incredible utterances that Christ made, they would know for themselves that Jesus was the Messiah. There would be no need for them to complain about being kept in suspense. It wouldn’t be necessary for them to implore Jesus to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah, they would know and understand for themselves the divine nature of Jesus.

There’s quite a challenge here for all of us today. How much do we really listen to Jesus and his words? When we hear the Bible read to us, or when we read it ourselves in our quiet times, do we simply think, “that’s nice,” before promptly forgetting everything we’ve read and moving on with our lives? Or do we inwardly digest every sentence that Jesus said, reflecting that this is not just some Middle Eastern carpenter speaking, but God himself, the creator of the universe?

Are we challenged by Jesus’ words, or do we simply allow them to wash over us?

Are we obedient to our shepherd?

If we understand all that Jesus is saying, then we would follow him. We would make him the shepherd of our lives and trust in him as sheep trust in their shepherd, confident that he will supply our every need, guide us through life, and comfort us when times get difficult.

The Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah because they were not his sheep. They were not obedient.

When we listen to Jesus and follow him, we become his sheep and accept him as our shepherd. Consequently it becomes clear to us that Jesus is not just an entertaining performer of miracles, or an exceptional teacher of morals. He is the Messiah. He is the one who has come, sent by his father to liberate humanity from the greatest oppressor of all, not the Romans, but sin which ultimately leads to death. That’s quite something.

The Reward for Obedience to Christ:

It’s this idea of Jesus, the Messiah, the liberator of humanity that I would like to pick up in my final point. In this passage in John chapter 10 Jesus outlines what the reward is for those who become his sheep.

First of all, as we’ve already seen, those who follow Jesus benefit from being known to him. Jesus knows us intimately, and, despite this, loves us, cares for us, provides for us and guides us. It’s so much more than this, though. If we look at verse 29, we see that Jesus has been given his sheep by the Father.

If we are one of Jesus’ sheep, then, not only are we known by Jesus, but we are known by God the Father. This all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe knows us all by name. He loves us so much that he gave us to his son.

Secondly, if we follow Jesus, he gives us eternal life. When we know Jesus we understand that there is more to our existence than just the here and now. We begin to understand that there is a reality beyond this earth. This changes our perspective on everything. Life for a Christian isn’t just about living for the moment, for seizing everything we can, for gathering all that we are able to. Life becomes about bigger issues, like placing our love for God before everything else, like loving our neighbour, whoever he or she may be, whether we like them or not. We strive to do all that God has required of us, namely to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, as Micah wrote. Ultimately, we understand that we are citizens of God’s kingdom, and will want to work hard to build this kingdom right here and right now, here in Southwater, in Sussex, in the UK and in the world.

Thirdly, we realise that Jesus promises us that we will never perish. If we make ourselves into Jesus’ sheep and trust entirely in him, following his lead in everything, then we can be confident that we will live with him and his eternal father in heaven after our bodily deaths.

For many, the prospect of an eternal existence with God in his perfect creation seems too good to be true. But we can be completely confident in this.

We can be confident of an eternal existence precisely because God sent Jesus to die for us, and, since Jesus loved his father perfectly, he was willing to go to the cross on our behalf. This was God’s plan right from the start. And God the Father and God the Son were in complete agreement over this. In verse 30, Jesus states, “I and the Father are one.” He and his Father are in one mind – humanity had messed up, God knew he could send his perfect son to take the punishment that should be ours, and Jesus was willing to accept this task out of love not just for us, but for his father too. We’ve seen how in verse 29, Jesus says that his Father his given his sheep to him. The Father gave Jesus his sheep, and Jesus accepted them, knowing that he would have to die in order to give his sheep life.

We can be confident of an eternal existence with God since Jesus was raised from the dead. What’s more, he was able to do this himself, since he had been given the authority from his Father. Just before our passage, in John 10:17-18, Jesus says, “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

If Jesus was not raised, then there would be no point in any of this. Yes, Jesus may have performed some incredible miracles, yes, he may have been an inspirational teacher, but if the story of Jesus ended on the cross, then there would be no hope for any of us. Yet precisely because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can be confident of being raised with Christ ourselves. We can be confident that if Jesus knows us as a shepherd knows his sheep, then, since he has received authority to raise from the dead by the father, we shall never perish.

There’s one final piece of reassurance lurking within his passage, and that is to be found in verses 28 and 29. Jesus says of his sheep, “no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Really, there’s a double reassurance here. If we follow Christ, then no one will snatch us from his hand, no one will stop us from being his sheep. But since we have been given by God the Father to Jesus to be his sheep, no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand either. And God the Father is greater than all. We can be confident of our salvation. We can be confident of remaining a Christian until the very end.

Sometimes I wonder how my faith will stand up against the new generation of super atheists, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. Will they one day make a proclamation that resonates so much with me that I will renounce my faith? What if one day a scientific discovery rocks my understanding of God so greatly than I can’t continue to believe in the divine nature of Christ? What if a colleague or friend succeeds in convincing me that actually, there really is no God, and therefore Jesus cannot be his son? What if the Devil succeeds in convincing me that my faith is all meaningless?

The answer to this that Jesus himself gives is that this simply cannot happen. Provided I am genuinely one of his sheep, provided I listen to his voice and trust him as my shepherd, there is no-one, there is nothing, that can snatch me out of Jesus’ hand.

If I place myself in his hands, I am safe there.

If I accept him as my shepherd, then I can be at peace knowing that he is leading me into eternal life, and ultimately I will never perish.

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from his hand.
Till he returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I stand.

How incredibly reassuring.

Jesus may not have made many public acclamations of his divinity. He may not have stood up in the synagogue and proclaimed himself to me the Messiah. He may not have stood in a Galilean market place and proclaimed himself to be the Son of God. But there is no doubting that this is who he was. He told individuals that he was the Messiah. His miracles demonstrate that he is the Son of God. His teaching could only be that of God himself. The Jews may not have recognised this, but this is because they refused to listen to him because they are not his sheep.

Do we trust in Jesus’ identity? Do we have confidence that he is the Son of God, one with the Father? If we do then we should be obedient to him. We should make ourselves as sheep before our Good Shepherd. What a reward we will receive if we trust in him. We will not only have a loving shepherd who we can trust to lead us through our lives, through highs and lows, meeting our needs at every turn. We will also be given eternal life, a new perspective that puts our current existence into a eternal perspective. And we can also be confident that we will never perish. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, we will too.

And there’s nothing that can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand, because if we are in his hand, we are also in his Father’s hand.

And he is greater than all.

Amen.

I am the Bread of Life: Finding Eternal Satisfaction

24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:24-35

Window of St Joseph's Catholic Church, Central City, Kentucky.

Window of St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Central City, Kentucky, by Nheyob and sourced from Wikimedia.

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 5th August 2018 at Manningtree Methodist Church, Essex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Where do you seek fulfilment?

Where do you find satisfaction?

Difficult questions for a Sunday morning, but definitely questions worth considering.

You can learn a great deal about a person when you know the answer to these questions.

You see, I believe that the source of our satisfaction defines us, it shapes the pattern of our lives.

Some might draw satisfaction from their job. It’s usually easy to spot these people because all they ever talk about is work.

Some draw satisfaction from their home. These are the people who, when you visit their home, everything is pristine. Nothing is out of place, and you might think you’ve walked into one of those show homes that builders furnish to show off properties on their new development.

Others might draw their satisfaction from food. These people are often marked out by a slightly rotund shape. They might have piles of Mary Berry and Delia Smith cookbooks scattered around their home, plus an enviable collection of pots and pans.

I suppose if someone was to study me closely, they might think that I derive satisfaction from gadgets. I’m usually carrying the latest iPhone, plus an Apple Watch, and can bore for England about the latest in technology.

What might someone think is the source of your satisfaction? If they studied you, would they be able to pinpoint the one thing that satisfies you?

I wonder if someone studied any of us here today if they would deduce that we derive our satisfaction from a relationship with Jesus Christ?

I wonder if we, ourselves, think that we derive satisfaction from knowing Jesus, from having a relationship with him?

This is what I’d like us to think about this morning as we study God’s word together.

It might be helpful if you have John 6:24-35 open in front of you as we continue.

I’m going to try to cover three interconnected points this morning. These are refocusing our desires, what must we do, and Jesus, our eternal satisfaction.

Let’s get straight on with our first point, then, refocusing our desires.

I teach in a posh London prep school. The school has many pupils from the wealthiest end of our society. The road outside the school at picking up time is full of Teslas, expensive customised Range Rovers, Bentleys and Ferraris. Many of my pupils will, even as we speak, be holidaying in multi-million pound foreign homes, or relaxing in the most exclusive resorts around the world.

And you know what? Good for them, I say.

The people who send their children to my school have worked incredibly hard through school, through university and through their professional lives to earn the money that pays for their expensive lifestyles.

What does concern me, though, is that for some people, this quest for more and more money, for flashier cars, for more homes, for the best holidays money can buy, becomes the whole focus of their existence. This quest for more and better stuff becomes their primary desire. They invest in big houses and fancy cars because they think that this is where they will find satisfaction. And it is this pursuit of bigger and better stuff, whatever the cost, that shapes the pattern of their lives and defines them. I guess you could define them as brazen materialists.

In our reading from John’s Gospel today we encounter Jesus soon after he has fed 5,000 people with just five small barley loaves and two small fish. Well, 5,000 men anyway, as we see in John 6:10. The real number was probably several times larger, since women and children were not included in this number.

This same crowd, we see in verses 24 and 25 of this morning’s reading, were trying to find Jesus. They were a little confused to find Jesus in Capernaum, since, whilst the disciples had been seen getting into a boat, Jesus had opted for the slightly less traditional method of crossing the lake, or at least the first three or four miles of it, on foot.

Jesus is quick to reprimand his audience, who are probably Jewish, and more than likely being addressed by Jesus in the synagogue. They have been looking for him, he tells them in verse 26, because he provided them with a free meal. They ate the loaves and the fish by the lake, and ate until they were satisfied.

Their earthly needs have been satisfied by Jesus and they are happy. They have found satisfaction in having their physical hunger satiated.

They are following Jesus because they see him as a provider of free food and hope that he will continue to be their meal ticket. They think that he will continue to satisfy their physical needs.

At a simplistic level, if we are looking to define this crowd based on the source of their satisfaction, you could say that they like to have full bellies at no cost. Perhaps not unreasonable, but they have lost sight of who Jesus is as a consequence of their desire for him to give them food.

The crowd have completely misunderstood the reason for Jesus being present amongst them.

As the Biblical commentator William Barclay puts it, “it is as if Jesus said, ‘you cannot think of your souls for thinking about your stomachs’.”

Jesus doesn’t tell his audience that they are wrong to hunger for food. He knows that this is a perfectly reasonable desire. He doesn’t rebuke them for looking for satisfaction in earthly terms, but he does want them to think carefully about their life priorities.

You see, when we focus solely on earthly satisfaction, we lose sight of our spiritual identity.

In verse 27 Jesus tells the assembled throng, and through them, he tells us too, that we should not work for food that spoils, for food that will satisfy our hunger briefly but leave us wanting in due course. He tells us that we should work instead for food that endures to eternal life.

Sometimes if I work late, I pop into McDonald’s for a quick burger before getting the train back to our home in Sussex. Now, whilst I might buy the biggest, juiciest burger that McDonald’s has to offer, by the time I get home, I’m hungry again. I don’t know why, but McDonald’s food never seems to satisfy my hunger for more than an hour.

And that’s a good metaphor for the point that Jesus is trying to make.

Whatever we find ourselves craving, be it food, cars, homes, gadgets, a relationship, children, once we have them our craving continues. These things might temporarily satisfy us, but we’ll soon hunger for something else.

The Buddhists call this craving Tanha. They believe that Tanha, craving, is responsible for all the suffering in the world. It stands to reason, therefore, in their belief at least, that if only we could eliminate all craving from the world, then all suffering will end.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But I happen to believe that they’re wrong. I don’t see how it is possible to end craving. Show me a person who doesn’t crave, who doesn’t have desires of any kind, and I’ll show you a dead person.

Jesus’ approach is rather different. He doesn’t tell us to end our craving, to stop having desires, to stop looking for things that provide us with satisfaction. He knows that this is a fundamental part of being a human. Instead, he tells us that we need to focus our craving appropriately. We need to focus our craving, our quest for satisfaction and fulfilment in him.

Instead of trying to find satisfaction in earthly things that spoil, we should seek satisfaction in food that does not spoil, in food that endures to eternal life.

The source of this food is Jesus, as he makes clear in verse 27.

Jesus withholds nothing from us, and will gladly give us this eternal food if we just ask him to. He is able to grant us this food because he is the one whom God has placed his seal of approval.

There’s nothing wrong with drawing satisfaction from earthly things, whether that be food, cars, jobs or houses. We must ensure though that these things do not become our primary source of satisfaction. If they do, then we ultimately remain unsatisfied, unfulfilled. We won’t be able to shake off that feeling of emptiness.

If we only find real satisfaction in the food that Jesus will give us, we should refocus our desires on him. We must turn to him and make him our primary source of satisfaction.

On to our second point then. What must we do?

It’s great that Jesus will provide us with food that endures to eternal life, but how should we respond?

Funnily enough, this is exactly what the crowd asks Jesus in verse 28, “what must we do to do the works God requires?”

How can we work for food that endures, for satisfaction not just in the here and now, but eternally?

The crowd presumably expect a list of rules and regulations akin to the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses.

But Jesus surprises his audience. He doesn’t provide them with ethical codes or laws that can be ignored, circumvented or broken. Instead he tells them that the work of God is simply to believe in the one he has sent.

“The work of God is this,” Jesus says in verse 29. “To believe in the one he sent.”

What does it mean to believe in the one who God sent?

Believing in Jesus means believing his claims, trusting that he was sent by God, that he is the Son of God, that he died to pay the price for the sins of the world, that he rose again three days later, that he dwells at the right hand of God the Father, and has opened the way to eternal life for all those who believe.

Believing in Jesus is not simply about giving lip service to him. Genuine belief in Jesus is transformational.

If we believe in the one who God sent, our lives will be transformed, because our desires, our appetites will be redirected. Our priorities in life will not be about short term resolutions to our temporary appetites, but will take on an eternal perspective.

If we are to progress beyond empty statements of Jesus’ identity, if we are genuinely to believe in him we need to know him. We need to meet him in his word, the Bible. We need to spend time in prayer, listening to him and sharing our concerns with him. We need to understand his character, his priorities and strive to emulate him as closely as we are able.

Jesus was concerned about the lost, the sick, the outcasts. Jesus brought light into the darkness of the world. He brought love where there was hatred.

It seems to me that we live in a period in history where sometimes it feels like darkness and hatred might prevail. I’m sure that every successive generation feels this. But I am increasingly concerned at the self-centredness of the western world. Whether it’s the narcissism of social media, or whether it’s countries putting up borders, literal or metaphorical, to keep anyone “other” out, it feels like loving one another, the second of Christ’s great commandments, often seems to be side-lined.

Believing in Jesus should spur us on to want to stand out in the world as agents of life, of love, of light. If we share Christ’s priorities, we too will share his concern for the lost, the sick and the outcasts. We too will want to support the weak, the frail, the sick. We will want to look after the widows and orphans.

Ultimately we will want to show the world what we have discovered, that there is another way to live, a more enduring source of satisfaction; hope of an eternal life with Christ himself.

Of course, believing is hard. Many will find the idea of believing in something that they cannot see to be intolerably difficult, impossible, or even a nonsense.

Verse 30 shows that the crowd listening to Jesus struggled with this notion.

“Give us proof!” they demand. “If you are the one sent by God, give us sign! If you give us a sign we’ll believe!”

Funnily enough, these people had just been given a sign. They had just witnessed Jesus feed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five small barley loaves and two small fish. I don’t know about you, but I think I would regard that as a sign!

“Just one more sign, then we’ll believe,” they implore.

I wonder how many of us fall into this trap? I wonder how many of us lose out on the life that God would have us live because we are simply looking for more evidence of Christ’s identity.

More evidence please, God, then we’ll trust in you, then we’ll follow you.

How easy it would be to miss our calling, simply because we wanted more evidence.

There comes a point, though, where having weighed up the evidence, we must take a step of faith.

Take a step of faith to trust that Jesus is the one sent by God.

Take a step of faith to follow Jesus.

Take a step of faith to live the life that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later it will be too late.

Our earthly lives our finite, measured, if we’re lucky, in years. Yet the eternal existence we’re promised by definition lasts forever.

What a shame it would be if we missed the boat.

What must we do? We must believe in the one who God has sent.

Our third point then – the Bread of Life.

We must believe in the one God has sent because he is the Bread of Life who provides eternal satisfaction.

We’ve seen in verse 30 that the crowd asked Jesus for a sign so that they might see and believe him. In verse 31 they spoke of their ancestors who were given manna in the wilderness. We read about this in our reading from Exodus. Stuck out in the desert, God had given them bread to eat. They wanted Jesus to make bread come down from heaven so that they might believe.

He answers them by saying that it is God who gives true bread from heaven, bread that gives life to the world.

This seems like an appealing prospect to the crowd, who demand that Jesus always gives them this bread.

Jesus responds with one of the great I AM declarations, that mirrors the declaration that God himself gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM.”

“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus told them in verse 35. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Here, then, is the source of genuine satisfaction. Whilst the fulfilment of our earthly desires will only be temporary, Jesus provides eternal satisfaction. Only by turning to Christ and believing in him will we find true satisfaction.

When looking at verse 32 and verse 35 together, we see that Jesus comes from heaven. He has been given to us by his Father. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s redemptive plan for the world, the one whom the Jewish people had been waiting for, the one who the Old Testament points towards. Here is God himself, the word become flesh, dwelling amongst his created people, giving those who believe in his name the right to become children of God, as John stated at the beginning of his gospel.

Jesus, the bread of God, the bread that comes down from heaven, gives life to the world, Jesus says in verse 34.

Ever since the fall, humanity have dwelt in sin and death. Through our disobedience, as a consequence of turning from God, death has been a part of our human experience. A significant part too.

We’ve all experienced death through the death of loved ones we were close to.

We’ve all experienced the grief that accompanies the passing of someone that we loved. This is the reality of human existence.

Jesus, though, comes to bring life. He brings the hope that, if we turn to him, if we accept him as our saviour, earthly death is not the end, but the beginning. Just as Jesus rose from the dead to dwell with his father in heaven, the same will be true for us too. We too will be raised to life after death.

What’s more, Jesus affirms that this offer of life isn’t restricted. He gives life to the world, he says in verse 33. His offer of forgiveness, of eternal life, isn’t limited to those of a certain lineage, or nationality, or caste, or creed, or status.

He gives life to the world. His offer of forgiveness is open to all.

Anyone can turn Christ and be forgiven.

Anyone who calls on the name of Christ can find eternal satisfaction dwelling with Christ in God’s new creation.

This is reiterated in verse 35 when Jesus says that “whoever” comes to him will never go hungry, that “whoever” believes in him will never be thirsty. Whoever you are, Christ offers eternal satisfaction, eternal fulfilment.

Jesus brings satisfaction in ways that nothing else can. If we come to him we will never go hungry, he says. If we come to him we will never be thirsty.

So the question is, where will we seek fulfilment?

Where will we find our satisfaction?

Will we look to the world to address our cravings?

Or will we turn to Christ, the Bread of Life, who offers eternal fulfilment and satisfaction?

If the source of our satisfaction defines us, if it shapes the pattern of our lives, will we allow ourselves to be shaped by the Bread of Life, by Jesus?

Let’s all strive to refocus our desires and cultivate a genuine, life changing believe in Jesus, trusting that he is the Bread of Life.

If we draw our satisfaction from a relationship with Christ then we will have found a source of satisfaction that doesn’t spoil, but endures to eternal life.

The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 16th July 2017 at All Saints’ Church, Lindfield, West Sussex.

What is the link between Clint Eastwood, George W Bush and Eminem? They’ve all referenced Psalm 23 in their work – in a film, in a speech and in a song respectively. These aren’t the only well-known figures who have quoted from Psalm 23. Coolio, Tupac and Kanye West have all included words from this Psalm in their songs, as have Fall Out Boy, Jay-Z, Hollywood Undead, Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, U2, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Duke Ellington amongst many others. It’s been set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Schubert, Ralph Vaughn Williams to name just a few. The Psalm was read in the film Titanic and at Whitney Houston’s memorial service.

Clearly there’s something about this Psalm that resonates through the ages and with people of all faiths or of no faith. It’s certainly one of the best-known texts in the Bible.

But how well do we really know this Psalm? There’s a danger with well-known texts that, precisely because we know them so well we cease to reflect on the words and the meaning behind them.

This evening I would like to share three points relating to the Psalm. I’ve picked out three reasons why, like David, we might like to declare that the Lord God is our shepherd. These reasons are:

  • Firstly, when we make God the shepherd of our lives, he provides for us;
  • Secondly, God restores us;
  • Thirdly, God guides and protects us.

On to our first point, then, God provides for us.

I’m no fan of shopping. I tried to avoid it as much as I can. Sometimes I feel inspired, however, and brave the shops. Within minutes of arriving however, I feel like I lose the will to live, and end up retreating into Costa for a caramel latte. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love online shopping. Even here I’ve been let down a couple of times recently. I ordered some goggles recently from Wiggle with next day delivery, and it took them an age to turn up. Similarly, I ordered some T-shirts from Fat Face, also with next day delivery, and they eventually arrived several days later. First world problems, I know, but I did find the experience infuriating.

Luckily, David knew that he had a much more reliable source than Wiggle or Fat Face to provide him with all his needs. In Psalm 23 he makes it clear that he trusts God completely to provide him with all his needs.

He declares right at the outset that the Lord is his shepherd. He has made a personal decision to allow God take on the role of a shepherd in his life, whilst he adopted the role of a sheep, making himself entirely dependent on God. He had complete trust that God would provide him with all that he needs, declaring, “I shall not want.”

As the shepherd of his father’s flock, David knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.
David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

Living in a materialistic society it is not easy for us to echo David’s words and proclaim “I shall not want.” We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is always something that we want.

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t. But God provides for us according to our needs, not according to our greed.

David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

David understands that God is not a miserly provider, but the most generous benefactor.

It was common at this time for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.

David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.

David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.

If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we have every reason to be thankful. Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Our gratitude will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as an amazing witness.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance? Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

On to our second point, God restores us.

I’ve just had a lovely week. The school where I teach has the builders in and so we were forced to finish early for the summer holidays. Consequently I’ve spent the last week on the beach with my wife, Claire, and children, Daniel and Lily. We’ve had a lovely time, and I feel well rested. A good rest was exactly what I needed after an incredibly busy and stressful term at school.

I have no doubt that I’m not the only one here who often finds life just too fast paced. Many of us have lifestyles that are often very busy. Whether we spend our day preparing for exams, looking after our families, or working every hour under the sun, it sometimes feels like we simply do not have the time to rest.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of peace. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his father’s flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.

David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.

If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.

The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that “restores his soul,” as he wrote in verse 3. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour.

Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.
It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.

If we wish to join David in declaring that the Lord is our shepherd, perhaps we should reflect on this element of the Psalm. Perhaps we should consciously find opportunities to take rest in order that we might better understand the peace of God. Ultimately we have to trust in God’s goodness as our shepherd, not in our own strength.

David trusted that God would restore him and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and restore our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Let’s move on to our third point, which is, that God guides and protects us.

I’m a big fan of Sat-Navs. I’m just about old enough to remember big, old fashioned road atlases. When I first learnt to drive, if I was going on a long journey I used to consult the road atlas in advance, and then write out road numbers and junction numbers on Post-It notes to fix to the dashboard of my car. Sat-Navs have certainly made life much easier. They can sometimes go wrong, though. When I was on a driving holiday in Arizona with my friend Clive we had two Sat-Navs running just to ensure we didn’t get lost. But somehow we still ended up completely stranded in the middle of a desert. We drove past those rather creepy swinging signs you sometimes see used to illustrate impending disaster in films. We passed road signs that had been shot to pieces. Then we eventually got our big four by four stuck firmly into deep sand. It turned out that both of our Sat-Navs were pretty useless!

David certainly knew a great deal about deserts, and I’m sure he must have got lost once or twice. He knew that in God he had a reliable guide, however. He states in verse 3, “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. David understood that the right paths through the journey of his life were those that bring glory to God.

We can learn a great deal from David here. Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. It can be a real struggle at times to know which way we should head in life, particularly when we reflect on potentially life changing decisions. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

If we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments. If we factor these into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, then God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse 4, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say, “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

In our busy, stressful world, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.
David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, God would be with him still. He trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

If we trust God as our shepherd, we need never fear anything that life might throw at us, because he will never abandon us. He remains with us at all times, whether we find ourselves in a period of great joy, a period of great sadness, or a low period of depression. Just as a shepherd would never abandon or turn his back on his sheep, our faithful God will never leave us.

Of course, it is precisely when we hit those dark periods of life that we might feel utterly abandoned; by our friends, by our families, even by God. Yet David is absolutely clear that God is always with him. Scripture is clear that God will never abandon us. We might need the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us to see this, but God will never abandon us, he doesn’t ever abandon us, he is always with us. God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

God is also fully equipped to protect and guide us. The shepherd in the Psalm has a rod which he uses to deal with any threats that the sheep might encounter. He also has a staff which he uses to gently prod and guide his flock in the right direction.

If we make Jesus the shepherd of our lives, then we too can draw great comfort from his presence as our protector and guide.

As a shepherd, David knew that there might be times when leading his sheep when he would be forced to put his life on the line to protect his flock. Whilst looking after his father’s sheep, David had to fight off lions and bears.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for those who follow him. He said, as recorded in John 10, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. To save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but I have found it to be an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I have hardly been able to scratch the surface of its depth this evening. I hope, however, that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives. I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Loving ourselves more

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

Image by quinndombrowski@flickr and made available under this licence.

How are you feeling this morning? Have you had a good, healthy breakfast? Have you been for your morning run yet? Have you looked at yourself in the mirror and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re not doing too badly really?

Or perhaps the reverse is true. Maybe you haven’t had time to get yourself a hearty meal. Perhaps a run is the most awful thing you can think of. Maybe you’ve looked at yourself and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re a bit of a failure.

With the pace of life and pressures of every day living, it can be all too easy for us to fall into a negative spiral when it comes to our own perspective of ourselves. Yet in chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment, after loving the Lord God, is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whilst this speaks volumes about the attitude that we should adopt to those around us, it is telling that Jesus uses the love we have for ourselves as a benchmark for the love we should have for others. Jesus plainly thinks that we have good reason to love ourselves.

Many Christians struggle with the idea of loving themselves. There is a big difference between arrogant self love and ensuring that we treat ourselves with the care and consideration that we need, however. If we believe that we are created in God’s image, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, there is clearly a case for loving and respecting ourselves. Perhaps we need to think more positively about ourselves, therefore, and not allow ourselves to fall into self-loathing. After all, if God has a plan for our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are fit and well enough to carry it out!

Let’s think today of how we can love ourselves better. Maybe that is thinking more carefully about the food and drink that we consume and making sure that we get enough exercise. Perhaps it is recognising that we are loved by God and have a specific role to play in his creation. Rather than putting ourselves down and being critical of ourselves, maybe we should rise to the challenge of loving ourselves more!

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.