God's Choice Sheep
I just got off the phone with a friend who is struggling. He lost his job because of COVID. His unemployment ran out this week. He's thinking about changing careers. He's selling his house. He's thinking about moving. He's wondering where his next paycheck is going to come from. What should I say to him?
Anyone who reads the Bible regularly has a favorite psalm. I have several favorites. One of them is Psalm 23. It paints a picture of the believer as a sheep being cared for and guided by the Lord. In the New Testament, Jesus declares that He is the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear His voice. He knows them by name. It all seems so picturesque. Until you really start thinking about the 23rd psalm.
The sheep of the 23rd psalm faces constant danger. Yes, he lies down in green pastures by the still water. But he also needs the shepherd to protect him with a rod and staff when wolves appear. He needs the shepherd to walk with him through the valley of the shadow of death. The grass isn't green, and the water isn't still, when you head into dark places like that.
In William Still's great book The Work of the Pastor, he warns would-be pastors that the job of a shepherd isn't easy. And it especially wasn't easy in Israel. He writes, "Israel's sheep were reared, fed, tended, retrieved, healed and restored—for sacrifice on the altar of God." The shepherd knew that his sheep were liable to be sacrificed, especially the best sheep. He knew the sheep by name. But he also knew that one day they might end up on the altar.
The best sheep are sacrificed. That's the way it's always been. King David, who wrote Psalm 23, saw himself as one of God's choicest sheep. Yet he faced immense suffering and loss. All the best sheep do: Abel, Moses, Samson, Peter, Paul, and everyone in between. Paul looked at his life and said, "We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Rom. 8:36).
It doesn't seem like that verse fits in Romans 8. We love verse 28: "All things work together for good..." And verse 38: "Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ..." But the idea that we are suffering sheep doesn't seem fitting for a glossy postcard of a green pasture with a clear stream flowing through it. At the top of the postcard, "The LORD is my Shepherd," written in crimson.
What do I tell my friend? I tell him, You are God's choice sheep. And so I say the same to you. You may feel like you're standing on the chopping block. The good news of the gospel is that the Good Shepherd Himself stood on the block for you. He offered His life as a sacrifice to God, so that our sacrifices are now the sacrifices of humility, thanksgiving, and praise (Psalm 51:17, Psalm 50:14).
William Still writes, "This end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten—that its ultimate aim is to lead God's people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service." This is the job of a pastor, he says: To teach them to devote themselves to Christ and His work even when times are hard. So give thanks, I say to my friend, even if giving thanks feels like a sacrifice—because sometimes it is.
SVC members are not monolithic. Some of you are doing very well right now. Some of you not so much. Some of you are back to living your lives almost as normal. Some of you are still feeling the heavy weight of the current economic situation and the coronavirus lockdown. Whichever your situation, know that we serve a Shepherd who will go with us into the darkest places. But He'll also be our Friend when the sun is shining. From the rising of the sun, to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord shall be praised.
This Sunday we'll continue our journey through the book of Psalms. Pastor Jim will be preaching on Psalm 19. Everything points us to the glory of God. The rising of the sun. And its setting. I look forward to gathering with you, my fellow sheep, to give the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise. And for those of you who can't be with us, I need to do what William Still tells all pastors to do. I need to remind you that you are God's choice sheep, that He knows you by name, and that His eye is on your every act of sacrifice and service.