Episode 1. The Shepherd Heart of God
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There’s an old Song by Sting called, “Message in a Bottle”. Maybe that’s what Christmas is – a message in a bottle. But who’s it for? You, me? … surely not! It’s Hard to Believe I …
There’s an old Song by Sting called, “Message in a Bottle”. Maybe that’s what Christmas is – a message in a bottle. But who’s it for? You, me? … surely not!
It’s Hard to Believe
I have to tell you it Is hard to believe that we are on the home straight again – just turned that corner into December again – the end of another year. The shops are full of Christmas decorations. You know, it seems like just yesterday it was January and here we are, another one over – it’s hard to believe.
As I sat down this year to think about messages for December, you know, the whole Christmas, New Year thing, I just felt that this year, we need to take some time and start looking and talking about Christmas just a bit early. You know this whole rush, rush, rush thing that many of us go through and then in the middle of it all, in this clamber and noise and busyness, the end of the year, you hear ministers talking about the “real meaning of Christmas” – yea, right! I just want to get over the line; I just want to finish the year.
Ever thought about this – the challenge for ministers and people like me is to talk about Christmas each year. In part there’s a sense of, “Well, what do I say? I mean, it’s Christmas – we all know the story; we all know the meaning.” Do we, really? Rush, rush, rush, buy the turkey, the Christmas pantomime and then it’s all over. And all the time you know, people are living lives that fall so short of, well, a full life; a satisfying life.
Now sometimes people criticise me for saying things like that. “You religious people are always telling us that our lives fall short; you tell us something is missing; you tell us this and that”. There’s a tension between what I call the advertising industry view of the world, on the one hand and, you know, the glossy images of success we are all trying to live up to and the reality on the other.
And it’s not just me – there’s a great song by Sting a few years ago called, “Message in a Bottle” – remember that one? This is how the lyrics start off:
Just a castaway, an island lost at sea.
Oh another lonely day and no one here but me.
Oh more loneliness than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair.
I’ll send you an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle.
And it finishes up like this:
Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore.
Seems I’m not alone at being alone.
Hundred billion castaways looking for a home.
I’ll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle.
It’s a song that connected with a lot of people. It’s a song that tells it just the way things are for so many people. It flips under that thin veneer of so called “success” – all those glossy, successful images the advertising industry used to get us to buy their stuff. And somehow, this song, “Message in a Bottle”, speaks to the heart – it’s real.
So what are you saying, Berni, that we are all a bunch of losers? No, not that. Look around – there are so many people succeeding; doing amazing things: they’re talented; their able; their committed – there’s lots of good stuff happening in the world. Mixed up with lots of bad stuff too – it’s always been that way.
I guess though, I want to think for a moment about this whole “Message in a Bottle” thing. Is it true? Are there a whole bunch of lonely people out there? I was reading an article in the weekend newspaper the other day about the internet and blogging. The word ’blog’ is short for ’weblog’. It’s where people, mostly young, but plenty of not so young as well, get on line on the internet and they share their thoughts and their photos and their videos on this – it’s like a personal billboard – for the whole world to see.
How many people do you think there are on the internet, blogging – you know, people with their own personal blog sites? Over a hundred million! A hundred million – all sending out their ‘message in a bottle’ – all crying out to be noticed; all wanting to be significant.
I asked my daughter – “what’s it all about – I mean, you know, why do you do this blogging thing?” And she said it’s all about how many friends you can have subscribing to your blog – whether it’s on myspace.com or youtube or – it seems like this “message in a bottle” thing is happening in a way today, that Sting could never have imagined when he wrote that song a few years ago.
Maybe you’re not a blogger – I’m not – but you know what I’m talking about. There’s this search for significance; looking for that place where, finally “I’ve found myself. I’ve discovered who I am. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction about life and me and how I fit in.”
Well, often it’s not so much about our circumstances but just about finding who we are and connecting and knowing why we are here and what our future is and where we’re going. People are sending out their message in a bottle in the most amazing way. Sometimes it’s through crime – it’s about attention; about wanting to be noticed and needed. Yet the vast majority, I believe, live out life without ever really discovering who they are and why they’re here and where they are going.
Here we are at the beginning of December, hurtling towards Christmas. I know what you are thinking! ‘Isn’t it a bit too early for you to be talking about Christmas, Berni? Well not really – the shops have had their Christmas decorations up for weeks now. We are taking an early look at Christmas over these next few weeks because Christmas started well before Christmas; well before that starry night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. The first Christmas started a long time before that.
We know that Christmas probably wasn’t in December because the shepherds were unlikely to be tending their flocks out by night in the middle of winter. And I guess, we all kind of know the Christmas story, the whole baby Jesus, born in a manger thing – Mary and Joseph and the donkey and the shepherds and the wise men from the East – all that stuff. But my hunch is the whole Christmas thing started well before that night in Bethlehem.
A Radical Concept
I was saying before that the whole Christmas thing started well before that night in Bethlehem. In fact, we know that it did. If you look through the Old Testament – if you’ve got a Bible, grab it because we are going to go there in a minute – the old Hebrew Scriptures, thirty nine books, written by different people over many centuries before Jesus was born.
And the Old Testament contains a whole bunch of predictions or prophesies about Jesus – some are very, very specific, like: He would be born in Bethlehem, born of a virgin, of the tribe of Judah, the house of David – well over a hundred and that’s a conservative estimate. It predicted how He would die; it predicted there would be soldiers gambling away His clothes; all sorts of things, things that Jesus would have found pretty hard to arrange for Himself, unless of course, He was who He says He was.
Kind of a weird thing – what was God up to? Why are these predictions throughout the Old Testament about Jesus the Son of God? In fact, can I ask even a more direct question than that? Why Jesus at all? I mean why send Jesus His only Son to become a man and ultimately to die for you and me? Why not just forgive us and be done with it. I mean, I’m sorry to sound cynical, but why the theatrics? This is how I used to think. Not bad questions really.
One of these places in the Old Testament that points forward to Jesus and shows us the shepherd heart of God happens in the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 34. If you’ve got a Bible, open it up; let’s go to Ezekiel, chapter 34 and verse 11 – this is what it says:
I myself will search for My sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so I will look after My sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
And again in verse 16:
I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd My flock with justice.
There’s this sense of the heart of a shepherd and you see it right through the Old Testament, over and over again, God talking about His shepherd heart; His heart to be in our midst. What if God saw all our bottles lying on that beach, like we heard in that song; the lyrics from “Message in a Bottle”?
What if He heard the cry of our hearts? What if God always knew that the only way to still our hearts and satisfy our souls was for us to know Him? What if, well, what if Jesus is God’s “Message in a Bottle” to us; to you and me? For me the constant theme of the Bible, from beginning to end, is God’s heart to be in our midst. You see it over and over and over again.
Remember the Exodus, when God heard the cry of His people who were oppressed in Egypt as slaves and He sends Moses to Pharaoh to tell Pharaoh, “Let My people go.” And so eventually they flee and God protects them and they pass through the Red Sea and then they spend forty years in the wilderness. Let me ask you, where’s God in all of this? Where’s God in the wilderness?
Come with me to Exodus, chapter 40 – the last chapter in the Book of Exodus – we’ll have a look at verses 1 to 5. It says this:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Set up the Tabernacle or the Tent of the Meeting Place on the first day of the first month. Place the Ark of the Covenant in it and shield the Ark with a curtain. Bring in the table and set out what belongs on it, then bring in the lamp stand and set up its lamps. Place the gold alter of incense in front of the Ark of the Testimony and put the curtain at the entrance to the Tabernacle or the Tent. (The word “tabernacle” means “tent”.)
And again later in that chapter, beginning at verse 34, it says this:
Then, when Moses had done all of these things, a cloud covered the Tent of the Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tabernacle, they would set out but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out until the day that it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the Tabernacle by day and fire was in the cloud by night in the sight of all the House of Israel during all their travels.
See, all the other gods that the different nations worshipped were up on hills – they lived in temples. That’s why the Old Testament talks about and condemns the high places because people had to go to those tin-pot little gods and idols up on the temples on hills and worshipped them – the people went to the gods. But the real God; the God of Israel – God wanted to be in the midst of His people.
This notion was so radically different. I mean, we weren’t there and so it’s harder for us to appreciate how radically different God’s approach is. And He was the only God who was like this. When they camped, the Tabernacle – the Tent of the Meeting; the Tent where God’s presence resided – was right in the middle of them.
There were twelve tribes of Israel – they would camp three to the north, three to the south, three to the east and three to the west. God was smack, bang in the middle. And you notice what it says here:
In all the travels … (Exodus, chapter 40, verse 36)
Notice how God uses “all”:
In ‘all’ the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tabernacle, they would set out but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the Tabernacle by day, fire was in the cloud by night in the sight of ‘all’ the House of Israel during ‘all’ their travels.
That’s why again, over and over in the Scripture, you read these words and you can read them with me here in Leviticus, chapter 26, verses 11 and 12. God says:
I will put My dwelling place among you and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God and you will be My people.
Please understand with me, how radical this is – how totally contrary it is to people’s expectation about a god – how different the true God is from all the other gods that all the nations worship.
Their concept was by and large of appeasing the gods so they wouldn’t be punished. Here the God of Israel says, “I’m a God of relationship. I want to be with My people, on their journey, in their midst, all the time, where all the people can see Me.” And then the whole of the rest of the story of the Old Testament is about Israel’s struggle with God. That word “Israel” literally means “he struggles with God”.
Over and over again God sent His prophets to call the people back to Him and over and over again Israel rejects God and suffers the consequences. And for me the whole of the Old Testament is kind of screaming out, “IT AIN’T WORKING!” We can’t hold up our end of this bargain – we need a different approach – and so it was.
In the Flesh
Christmas is such a wondrous time and it’s true for so many of us, it’s easy to miss in the hurly burly of life. I wonder as you chew over the Scriptures we’ve looked at today how radical is it to you, this shepherd heart of God; this heart that God has to be in our midst? It’s one thing to read about it, as God expressed it back then, but here and now? I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to forget – to forget that God is on this journey with me.
Let’s look at Ezekiel’s words again. Ezekiel, chapter 34, verse 14:
I will tend them in a good pasture and on the mountain heights of Israel will be your grazing ground. There they will lie down in good grazing land and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I, Myself will tend My sheep and have them lie down’, declares the sovereign Lord.
What’s this “lying down” business? Have you ever asked that question? Well, it’s shepherd language. See a shepherd knows that sheep will only lie down when they feel safe and when they feel at peace. And often you see it, the shepherd walks in their midst and they start to lie down because they feel safe – they don’t feel like they’ve got to run away from danger. And for God in this language here in Ezekiel, He’s saying, “By putting Myself in the midst of the people, I want to bring them peace and rest and joy in a good pasture, in good grazing land where they can feed on rich pasture.”
So we see God with this amazing heart to be smack, bang in the middle of our lives. And the logical extension of that, as He talks about it in the Old Testament, is He becomes one of us – flesh and blood; human. It’s exactly what John writes – he called Jesus “The Word”, the expression of who God is; God talking to us and telling us who He is, through Jesus. And the beginning of John’s Gospel starts this way:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning and through Him all things were made. Without Him nothing was made that has been made.
But look just a bit further down in that same chapter – John, chapter 1, verse 14:
Then the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory; the glory of the One and only who came from the Father full of grace and truth.
See the next logical step is that God becomes man. And the word that John uses for “made His dwelling among us”, means “tabernacle or tent”. “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” is what John writes here. He pitched His tent right in our midst. What does that remind you of? The Exodus story, we looked at just before on the programme – God on our journey with us.
It’s come back to the radicalness of this thing that God did. The Son of God becomes the Son of Man. We’ll look at that and what it says to us a bit more next week. But talk is cheap, right? Anyone can talk – God can talk but actions speak louder than words – that’s what Christmas is about.
Christmas is about the shepherd heart of God in action – it’s a radical step. God slips quietly into this world in a stable – humble but not unnoticed. At Christmas God slips quietly into our lives and on our journey. How different would our lives look if we truly came to grips with the fact that God is on this journey with us?
Maybe I’m thick, but whenever troubles or opposition or tension or temptation comes in my life, I find it very, very easy to forget that, through Jesus God is on this journey with me. Like all the other nations around Israel who had gods out there; gods that they had to go to; gods that they had to shout a distance to; gods that they had to appease, you and I when life gets hard, can be like them.
You know what; the only thing that stops me from living my life under the yolk of that terrible misconception is that I spend a lot of time in God’s Word. My Rock and my anchor – God is speaking to me every day, through His Word, saying to me, “I am on this journey with you. When I sent My Son to become a man, one of the prime things I was saying to you is that I have come to tabernacle in your midst – I have come to be in this place with you – I have come to walk the roads that you walk, to feel the pain that you feel, to deal with the temptations and the trials that you have to deal with.”
Jesus is God in our midst. That’s why in Isaiah it says:
Thou shall call Him Emmanuel – God is with us.
And as Jesus walks with us and we walk with Him and we build that relationship, His heart is for us to lie down in good pasture, to have peace.
My peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.
“I know how you feel, not just because I’m God but because I’ve walked the road ahead of you. I’ve dealt with all the things you have to deal with.”
I don’t know about you, I wasn’t born in a stable, but my Saviour was. I didn’t have to flee King Herod as he tried to kill me, but my Saviour did.
Come on! How different would our lives be if we lived them in the certain knowledge that this radical God took this radical step at Christmas? He stepped out of the comfort of heaven onto the dusty roads of Israel, to walk them ahead of me, to be my God, to be with me on my journey, to be with us in our midst.