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The Grass is Greener

Notes & Transcripts

    07/12/2009 The Grass is Greener Knox 16 PC 324/746/670

Psalm 23 Ezekiel 34:11-16 Hebrews 4:14-16 John 10:11-13

OOPS! An ignorant man was examined on the subject of his faith, as follows: “What do you believe?”—“I believe what the Church believes?”—”What then, does the Church believe?”—“The Church believes what I believe.”—”Tell me, then, I pray you, what it is which you and the Church both believe.”— “Why, truly, sir, the Church and I both believe the same thing.”  
  UGH! Today, this generation is seeking for something. They are not satisfied with what they have now. There is a smorgasbord of a tremendous number of different religions all professing to lead to the truth, and yet people keep moving from one religion, to another religion, to another religion. They are seeking for knowledge. They are seeking for certainty. They only know that they are not satisfied with where they are now.
Diana Butler Bass writes in her book “A Peoples History of Christianity”: Medieval people knew where God was-the Father sat on the high throne of heaven, was mysteriously present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and was manifested through the authority of the church. They took literally the words of Jesus' prayer, "Our Father, who art in heaven."  
  As the Reformation fractured this traditional arrangement, God appeared to move away from familiar spiritual geography, leaving modern people to relocate the divine. Modernity opened the terrifying possibility that God was not reliably present-and that God may even be absent. Was God really in heaven, as generations of Christians had recited in their prayers?
Although modern Christians struggled with many questions, an overarching one was achingly simple: "Where is God?" Since God could no longer be assumed, modern devotional quests sought to answer this question and find God. In order to find God people had to determine what the divine might look like.  
  Despite the fact that early modern people gloried in human capacities and experience, they somehow found God to be more ineffable and less physical than had medieval Christians. As evident in art, medieval painters often depicted God in graphically mundane ways; modern artists rendered the divine as more elusive, often as diffused light.
A number of years ago a number of students for the ministry were taking a course called philosophy of religion. The Professor of this course was very open-minded. But one thing aggravated him.  
Those of us who were Christians, and especially those who were studying for the ministry, seemed to be totally satisfied with where they were now. That we have found everything we needed in Jesus Christ. The man was almost envious of us. He wanted this same experience, but at that time he could not seem to make the connection.  
  AHA! He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He makes me to lie down in the most pleasant of places. To come into a habitation which has everything that I need and especially the presence of the Good Shepherd. The presence of the Lord God Almighty.
WHEE! I had an individual come to me who purported to take seriously Transcendental Meditation, TM for short. And he was telling me of all the peace that he had. But his body language spoke something different! He was not content, in fact he was agitated.  
  In his book, "a Shepherd looks at Psalm 23", Philipp Keller presents four things which must be satisfied in order for a sheep to lie down in green pastures. These four things apply equally to human beings being able to settle down in the grace of our lord Jesus Christ.
They will refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. And because of the social behaviour within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only free of these pests can they relax. Finally, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel the need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.  
  It is significant that to be at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom from fear, tension, aggravation and hunger. It is only the Shepherd who can provide release from all of these anxieties. It all depends upon the diligence of the owner as to whether or not his flock is free of disturbing influences.
That is why it is important that they have somebody who is more than a hired hand, as Jesus describes in John 10. And in Ezekiel, the Prophet points to the reality that the shepherds of the people of Israel had dropped the ball. The leadership, that is, the Princes and the Kings and the priests and so on had failed to meet the mark of what God required for them to be shepherds. Therefore, God has to come in and be the Shepherd.  
  Let's make the transition from sheep to people. A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well. And the same is true of people. It is not generally known that sheep are so timid and easily panicked that even a stray jackrabbit suddenly bounding from behind a bush can stampede a whole flock.
When one startled sheep runs in fright a dozen others will bolt with it in blind fear, not waiting to see what frightened them. The sheep have little or no means of self defence. Keller reports that one morning at dawn I found nine of my choicest ewes, all soon to lamb, lying dead in the field where a Cougar had harried the flock during the night.  
  Fear can paralyse individuals, and in fact, whole communities. But, once again, we need to define fear. Fear is spelled in this way f, e, a, r. False evidence appearing real. One of the most prolific expressions in the Scriptures is this: fear not. This particular statement is made hundreds of times in the Scriptures.
When the storm was raging and the disciples saw Jesus coming across the water walking they were sore afraid. And Jesus said to them fear not, it is I. One thing that can dispense all fear is the presence of the living God. It is important for the community of Jesus Christ to come together in prayer and to call upon the living God. It is like when the Shepherd is in the midst of his flock there is no fear.  
  We live a most uncertain life. Any hour can bring disaster, danger and distress from unknown quarters. Life is full of hazards. No one can tell what a day will produce in new trouble. We live either in a sense of anxiety, fear and foreboding, or in a sense of quiet rest. Which is it?
Take for example the Scripture from 2 Timothy 1:7. " For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound or disciplined mind." The idea of a sound mind is that of a mind at ease, at peace, not perturbed or harassed or obsessed with fear and foreboding for the future.  
  There is an old Arab tale about Pestilence overtaking a caravan on the desert road to Bagdad. "What exactly are you going to do in Bagdad?" asked the caravan leader. Pestilence replied, "I shall claim 5000 lives." Actually, 50,000 people died of pestilence. The caravan leader later met again with Pestilence and asked, "You said you would claim 5000 lives, but 50,000 people died." Pestilence answered, "I did only claim 5000 lives, the other 45000 died of fear."
The sheep will not prosper in an environment of conflict and tension. Over the years I have seen people leave automatically from churches where there is tension and conflict. As long as there is tension and conflict going on visitors will come in and they will be only too glad to leave as quickly as they can. In the animal kingdom here is a pen full of chickens where we refer to the pecking order. With cattle it is called the homing order. And among sheep we speak of the butting order.  
  Generally an arrogant, cunning and domineering old ewe will be boss of any bunch of sheep. It will be her way or the highway in that group of lambs and sheep and so on. The sheep can not lie down and rest in contentment. They must be always standing up and defending the rights and contest the challenge of an intruder. Once again the presence and the power of the Shepherd dispels the tension and the conflict. Foolish rivalries end.
One of the outstanding marks of a Christian should be a serene sense of gentle contentment. "Godliness with contentment is great gain." Paul put it this way, "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content," and certainly this applies to my status in society.  
  Another point that impressed Keller, was that the less aggressive sheep were often far more contented, quiet and restful. So that there were definite advantages in being "bottom sheep." But more important was the fact that it was the Shepherd's presence that put an end to all rivalry.
In the Christian life there are bound to be many small irritations. There are the annoyances of petty frustrations and ever-recurring disagreeable experiences. Can one come to the place of quiet contentment despite them? This is one of the main functions of the Holy Spirit. In Scripture He is often symbolized by oil - by that which brings healing and comfort and relief from the harsh and abrasive aspects of life.  
  Finally, to produce the conditions necessary for a sheep to lie down there must be freedom trom the fear of hunger. Palestine where David wrote this Psalm and kept his father's flocks, especially near Bethlehem, is a dry, brown, sun-burned wasteland. Green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous labour, time, and skill in land use.
Green pastures were the result of clearing rough, rocky land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special grains and legumes; of irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks. All of this represented tremendous toil and skill and time for the careful shepherd.  
  On such forage it was common to have lambs reach 100 pounds in weight within 100 days from birth. The secret to this was that the flock could fill up quickly, then lie down quietly to rest and ruminate. A hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and satisfy its gnawing hunger.
In the Scriptures the picture portrayed of the Promised Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was that of a "land flowing with milk and honey." Not only is this figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology. In agricultural terms we speak of a “milk flow” and “honey flow”. By this we mean the peak seasonof spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said to be producing a corresponding “flow" of milk or honey. So a land flowing with milk and honey is a land of rich, green, luxuriant pastures.  
  YEAH! An tourist, traveling in Syria, saw three native shepherds bring their flocks to the same brook, and the flocks drank there together. At length one shepherd arose and called out, “Men-ah! men-ah! ,” the Arabic for “follow me.” His sheep came out of the common herd and followed him up the hillside. The next shepherd did the same, and his sheep went away with him, and the man did not even stop to count them. The traveler said to the remaining shepherd, “Give me your turban and crook, and see if they will not follow me as well as you.” So he put on the shepherd’s dress and called out, “Men-ah! men-ah!” Not a sheep moved. They know not a voice of a stranger. “Will your flock never follow anybody but you?” inquired the gentleman. The Syrian shepherd replied, “Oh, yes; sometimes a sheep gets sick, and then he will follow any one.”
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