Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Faithful Shepherds vs. Greener Pastures

In Scripture we find many important writings on shepherds of God’s flock. We find that overseeing the flock of God is given criteria in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (ESV):

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
This criteria is very specific starting with the desire to oversee the flock of God while not lording over them. The shepherd/overseer is to have good character, good reputation and it is imperative for him to be able to lead his family if he is to lead the church. Shepherds are to feed, correct and train the flock of God fulfilling the ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5). Shepherds are not to rob God or his flock lest they be cursed (Ezekiel 34). Shepherds are to be diligent to not be a burden to the people (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10) but at the same time, the shepherd deserves appropriate wages for his work (1 Timothy 5:17-18). All this is important, including that a shepherd be faithful over God’s flock, but this article is not about the faithfulness of the shepherd, but about the sheep and greener pastures.

I know that there are many shepherds out there today that do not preach the whole counsel of God, but there are many who do faithfully proclaim the Word of the Lord and use it rightly (2 Timothy 3:16-17). When these shepherds do fulfill their responsibility, then what happens when the sheep stray? What is a shepherd to do?

Well, most expectations lead to the idea of a shepherd chasing after that “lost sheep” and carrying them back to the fold. Yes, that is the example given in Luke 15:4, but that is not what I am discussing here or even the implied meaning of that passage of Scripture. The problem I see most often is not only that a “lost sheep” wanders off, but when the shepherd goes off and finds it, the sheep goes off and does it again and again and again. The “lost sheep” desire to spend more time away from the sheepfold than with it. I tell you this particular type of “sheep” is starting to look, act and sound more like a goat. I understand goats because I raise goats. It amazes me that a goat can be standing in a pasture with grass higher than its head and it will stick its head through the fence to other side to get a bite of subpar or less nourishing morsels; many times leaving the goat with its head stuck in a fence or being shocked by the electric containment fencing.

Many of these “lost sheep” type are the same way. They see the greener pastures of money, work, new jobs, sports, hobbies, entertainment, etc. and they run off dining on the tender morsels they so desire in their hearts. They enjoy this pasture until they pick their heads up and see an even yet greener pasture than before and they drift off into it, indulging in the morsels they desire more and more of. Each new pasture they see gets even better and better in their minds until that moment where they find themselves trapped beneath a load of debt, work, and dissatisfaction, yet when they look up, they do not see the sheepfold, nor the shepherd and recognize they are alone. These sheep will begin calling out for the shepherd of the flock and maybe he even hears their call and comes and rescues them and brings them back into the sheepfold. When they get back to the sheepfold they notice that the other sheep are well-fattened and looking much better than themselves. In fact, they notice how skinny and disheveled they have become from all their running about to and fro and they cannot comprehend how they got that way. How is it that these sheep that stayed with the shepherd seem so much better off? Maybe, it’s because he likes them more or gave more care to them? Maybe they were his favorites? Maybe he didn’t care about the “lost sheep” as much or he forgot about them? Maybe if he had paid more attention to the “lost sheep” they would not be in as bad of shape? Maybe. But what if that is not the case?

What if the sheep of the sheepfold understood their shepherd and stayed with him and followed him as Psalm 23 says:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness  for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death  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 goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

And the “lost sheep” did not? What if in the midst of their entire search to dine on the morsels of the greener pastures, they really were dining on that which was leading to their death? By the way, not all greenery in the pasture is good for sheep to eat, but can become toxic ending in the death of the sheep. The shepherd would know this, but the sheep unwilling to follow the shepherd or being enticed by the greener pastures would not and might meet their utter destruction. What if the shepherd was feeding them quality feed and calling them to come and dine on it and they were showing up to the feed trough a little late, missing out on the best and getting the leftovers? They were becoming malnourished, not because a lack of feed because there was plenty, but that they were distracted by other things and just showed up late regardless of the shepherd’s past promptings. Is all of this the shepherd’s fault? Is the shepherd not doing his job? Do they have grounds to stand upon in claiming that this shepherd has become neglectful to them during their wanderings, while taking care of the sheepfold that benefited from the shepherd’s guidance?

This is what happens in churches today. There are many in our churches that claim to be a part of the sheepfold, but rather are “lost sheep” that act like goats heading for damnation. They are always being sucked away into greener pastures that are mere mirages of morsels of this life that are leading to their destruction. Their church shepherds call out to them and chase after them bringing them back time and time again just to have them wander off again and again and again. When they do come to their senses recognizing they have strayed so far they can no longer recognize the sheepfold or the shepherd, they cry out to him and maybe he hears them and comes and rescues them and brings them back to the sheepfold.

When those who have strayed look around though, they might see some new faces or the sheepfold looks a bit different. They talk differently and they talk about things that these wandering sheep don’t understand or aren’t interested in. They wish the shepherd would dumb things down a bit and simplify because they are skinny and disheveled when it comes to Word of God and they just can’t comprehend what is being talked about. For while they were out in the wanderings of their greener pasture life, they dined on very little of the Word of God and they are malnourished and some are sick with sin because they dined on the wrong things. Maybe they showed up to church occasionally or late in a rush, never truly prepared to hear from the Lord and be fed. Maybe they are malnourished because the whole time they are there with the sheepfold they are distracted with the worries of this life or the football game and party afterward or that new trinket they haven’t got to play with or the work that still needs to be done. They begin to notice that the other sheep of the sheepfold hang on the words of their shepherd and it seems they have a different relationship. It seems that they almost know how to finish each other’s sentences and laugh at jokes that the wandering sheep seem out of the loop on. It seems they are outsiders to the church. It seems that the shepherd cares more about the sheepfold than them. Is this the shepherd’s fault? Is the shepherd not doing his job? Do these wandering “lost sheep” have grounds in which to stand in claiming that this shepherd has been neglectful to them while taking care of the sheepfold that remained and benefited from the shepherd’s guidance?

No friends, this shepherd has done all he can do. He can leave the ninety-nine to go after the one lost sheep, but how many times? When is enough going to be enough? When will the wandering sheep be responsible? How many times will the shepherd go searching for the lost sheep to the detriment of the sheepfold? How long will he hold back spiritual food so the wandering sheep can catch up or get their act together? It is not fair or right for a faithful shepherd to have to compete with greener pastures. He knows what you need. He should not have recreate the greener pasture experience to get you to come back to the church or to keep you at the church. You either love the Lord, your shepherd and your sheepfold, or you don’t. Also, don’t hold your church shepherd responsible that you are distracted with the morsels of the greener pastures of this life. Take personal responsibility, repent of your idolatry, use some self-control and live for King Jesus along with the other sheep of the sheepfold. Spend some time with them in worship, in fellowship (the feed trough), and in community. It says in Luke 15 that there is rejoicing over the one who is brought back in repentance. If a wandering sheep keeps leaving the sheepfold because they idolize greener pastures and comes back to the sheepfold, but never in repentance, that sheep is looking, acting and sounding more and more like a goat than a sheep, and goats don’t belong in the sheep pen.

Friends, let me remind you that the goats will be separated out at the last day to their destruction (Matthew 25:31-46). The question you must ask yourself is whether you are a sheep or a goat. If you are a sheep, then you need produce fruit in keeping with it (1 John 2:3-6). If you are acting like a goat, I call you to repent and be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. I must say there is no room for goats in the church and as faithful shepherds we must not allow them either, but protect our sheepfold. I challenge you to make faithfully attending church and preparation for church a priority in your family today. You will be spiritually healthier and your church will be stronger. The Church across this world and time will benefit as well because neither goats nor the gates of hell will prevail against the Church of the Living God.