Redefining #Blessed

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Our society is always changing.

And perhaps this is best represented in our weird tendency to redefine things. Particularly nowadays. It seems everywhere we turn, a previously unquestioned concept is experiencing a huge social reconstruction. I’m looking at you, marriage. Not forgetting the 63 genders you can now choose from. Here’s the problem:

We all want a say on how life should be defined.

We do it in more subtle ways too. For example, the hashtag #blessed has been used 77,000,000 times (on Instagram alone). And for many (not all) it appears to be a way of boasting whilst remaining humble. Win a sporting event. Pass that hard university topic with flying colours. Get a promotion at work. Be surrounded with friends and family. Live in a huge house. Such events seem to qualify our ability to say that we are blessed.

And so our culture has formed something of a silent creed. An unspoken but very loud anthem, drummed into the hearts of many. That to be blessed is to be subject of favourable circumstance. This is the lie we have smuggled into our internal dictionary.

And there’s a reason I say this is a lie.

To be blessed has become totally synonymous with gain in this life. But Jesus came to tell us those who lose their lives for his sake are blessed.

As always, my opinion means squat.

My greatest hope is to draw attention to the works and words of Christ. And as I understand it, Jesus seriously challenged our definition of what it is to be blessed. And he didn’t do this privately. He challenged it publicly. 

To a crowd of eager and expectant people, Jesus said some shocking stuff. Jesus defined the truly blessed people in life as being poor, hungry and thirsty, and persecuted to the point of death (Matthew 5:2-12). The crowds were not expecting that. Because it sounds like the complete opposite of being blessed. So we have to ask ourselves:

What did he mean by it?

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BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT 

The world says those who are rich and esteemed are blessed, Jesus says blessed are the poor and humble before him.

This one is so counter-cultural.

Because most of us spend our lives trying to be rich. Whether you realise it or not. We strive to be rich in money. Many of us aim for richness in achievements. Most of us long to be rich in our friendships. Rich in reputation. Rich in purpose. Rich in happiness. And so for the most part, we look to life’s many riches as our primary source of joy.

Well, Jesus uses the very first words of his sermon to tackle this issue.

Jesus has little time for those who use stuff as their primary pursuit of joy. He makes it crystal clear – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:2). Incredible! Jesus is extending to us the richest richness possible. He is literally ushering us into the Kingdom of Heaven. And get a load of this:

The only requirement to God’s kingdom is empty hands.

Those who fall at the feet of Jesus totally broken. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus bankrupt. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus bereft of all pride and life’s riches, in passionate abandon of he who can satisfy every longing. It is to that calibre of people, Jesus promises to bless with everything.

Namely, himself.

BLESSED ARE THE HUNGRY AND THIRSTY

The world says those who have everything in abundance are blessed, Jesus says blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

We have so much stuff.

Food isn’t even an issue for us,  because every type of food we need is at the supermarket down the road. To hunger and thirst in the first world is pretty much a non-issue. But we aren’t let off the hook to easily. Because Jesus isn’t just talking about food and water here.

You see, when you hunger and thirst after something, it controls you. It dictates your movements. It becomes the very thrust of your life. In fact, you know you hunger and thirst for something when you cannot go one day without feeling the pain of its absence.

Because in the end, desiring the things of this world never truly satisfies.

Death puts a dramatic end to all pursuits of happiness. So the words of Jesus ring all the more louder: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus is saying we need to develop an appetite that won’t be satisfied by this world. Jesus wants the stomach of our soul to rumble.

Jesus wants our lives to be so changed, so controlled, and so dictated by a hunger and thirst for more of God. To the point where our reflex-reaction is to show people undeserved mercy, and to spill over with blood-bought purity and peacemaking. And it is to that calibre of people, Jesus promises to bless with eternal satisfaction.

Namely, more of himself.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO ARE PERSECUTED

The world says those who are secure are blessed, Jesus says blessed are those who risk everything for his sake.

If the others haven’t blown you away, this one will.

Jesus says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Craziness! Nobody in their right mind considers being killed a blessing. Our image of the good life doesn’t usually include death. In fact, hundreds of surveys all come back with the same result – our greatest fear is death.

Yet, God welcomes us to be fearless in death.

How could Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after standing against the Nazi party and sentenced to the gallows, say with his last words “this is the end – and for me, the beginning of life.” How did Obadiah Holmes, arrested and whipped 30 times for holding a church service, turn around to his executioner and say “you have struck me as with roses.”

What made John Cardmaker, sentenced to death for his faith, walk up to the stake on which he was to be burned and kiss it. How did Kayla Mueller – after getting captured, tortured, sexually abused and killed (by ISIS) for defending the lives of children – say in her last letter “by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

Holding tight the words of Jesus, these people experienced death as gain.

This is what sets Christians apart from the world. We are blessed because through Jesus, the power of death is no more. Nothing can shake this. Not persecution, poverty, danger or death itself (Rom 8:35). And so we shout “Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55) Because death doesn’t steal our joy.

It only advances it.

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THE MARCHING ORDERS

Our ability to say we are blessed should be primarily predicated on what God is to us. Not what God gives to us.

So go on. Use the blessed hashtag.

But Christian, make sure the world hears you loud and clear. We march to a different drum. We preach a different creed. It goes like this: Jesus is the root of my ability to say I am blessed. And so we count all else as loss except for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Jesus said it in the most explicit way possible. He wants us to desire heaven infinitely more than we desire earth. More than all of life’s riches. Higher than any vain satisfaction in this life. Greater than personal security. Worthy of our whole lives. 

So let the world hear it. Our hope is not in this world. Our hope is in the resurrection of Jesus. And so we live to advocate serious joy in Christ at all costs. We might face poverty, famine, or even death. But Jesus remains the strength of our hearts and our portion forever (Psalm 73:25-26).

Life uncertain. Hope secure. Blessed always.

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Just the rubber band

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Each day looks very different for me. Take a few weeks ago as an example.

I (just) finished 3 assignments and sat an exam for university. That took up most of my week. But I also worked in a fruit stall at my local markets. I helped lead at youth group. I caught up with my church. I worked as a dishy in a restaurant. I went for a few bike rides. I went hiking with one mate, had coffee with another friend, and saw another mate in hospital.

But it’s so easy to forget God in the chaos. With so much going on, I regularly need to be reminded and encouraged of my purpose here on earth. Each day looks vastly different, but I need the same reminder each day to keep me on track.

And I use a rubber band on my wrist as this reminder.

Why?

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Rubber bands hold and contain things. Often I find rubber bands lying at the foot of letterboxes. They are most often used to hold a bunch of letters, pamphlets or magazines together until they reach the destination (letterbox).

Breaking news, I know.

However, the rubber band has almost no value. Heck, a whole bag of these rubber bands only costs a couple of dollars. Once used, they’re discarded onto the ground. Most people walk past or on them without noticing. They’re pretty insignificant.

What makes the band significant is the message it helped deliver.

We as Christians are the rubber band. Like the rubber band, we hold and contain an awesome message to tell the world. We are called to share the awesome message of complete and utter forgiveness, unfailing love and ridiculous joy through Jesus. Eternity and perfect community with him and his people.

But like the rubber band, we aren’t very valuable in ourselves. Sure, you and I are OK at some things. But we aren’t hugely significant in the global context of things. In the history of the world, our lives aren’t exactly bookmarked.

However, we take on tremendous value because of the message we carry.

‘God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them…’ – 1 Corinthians 1:28

So when others point out our flaws and failings, we can confidently agree with them. In fact we can boast in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The creator of the universe chose us, insignificant and flawed, to contain and proclaim to the world his message of hope. His strength where we are weak – now that’s something to boast about.

All glory to him.

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“I did not come with eloquence or wisdom… I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” – Paul [1 Corinthians 2:1-3]

Paul understood being a rubber band well. He told everyone he wasn’t a crash-hot speaker. He let everyone know that he didn’t have amazing wisdom. In fact, he told the crowds that he was weak and scared.

Paul realised he wasn’t significant to the message he was giving.

All he really understood was that he had to deliver the message he possessed. Nothing would stop him. He understood the significance of what he contained, and despite knowing all his weaknesses and failings, put pride aside for its delivery. God worked through the flawed, weak, not particularly intelligent man that was Paul – and did amazing things through his life.

What a testimony.

Maybe we should take a leaf out of his booklet. Our identity with Christ and his message of hope is what gives our lives meaning beyond the grave. Nothing else. May we never lose sight of the significance to this message we contain.

I leave one challenge to all the rubber bands reading this:

In humility, stretch yourself

The Good Shepherd

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“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me.” – Jesus

One of Jesus’ most famous sayings.

If you’ve had a Christian upbringing of sorts, it is likely you have heard this story in some form before. In truth, this story encompasses many ideas, much of which has been analysed and picked-apart by people heaps smarter than myself.

Even so, in my experience of people attempting to explain this story, often they look into the ‘dumbness’ of a sheep, and apply it to our need to be guided in life. I don’t disagree with this, don’t get me wrong. Sheep are pretty dumb animals in the eyes of humans. They’re out and out stupid. And similarly, us humans are pretty small when in comparison to an all knowing and loving creator. I agree – we don’t stack up well.

However, I do believe this passage really emphasises that Jesus is the good shepherd. It doesn’t talk about the bad qualities of sheep, rather the good qualities of the shepherd. So that is where our focus will be coming from.

In keeping to this focus, it is important we ask a few questions:

  • What did Jesus mean when he called himself the good shepherd?
  • What were the implications of it, and how can we apply it to our own lives?

Time to unpack this a little.

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In the book Step by Step (Keeys), it says ‘shepherds 2000 years ago were near the bottom of the social ladder’…’they [shepherds] were rarely religious Jews as they could not keep all the laws whilst shepherding sheep.’ [1]

“shepherds…were near the bottom of the social ladder”

So for Jesus to come out and make this statement that he is our shepherd was massive. The people at the time didn’t take (or understand) this analogy very well, as the Bible records some in the crowd saying “he’s demon possessed and out of his mind. Why listen to a man like that?” (John 10:20).

I mean, you can’t blame them in a sense. Here’s a man claiming to be the son of God. He’s claiming creation of everything and everyone in existence. And now he’s also claiming to be..yep, you guessed it. A shepherd.

Jesus was obviously trying to make a point – he was putting himself out there.

So, what was he trying to say to us? Why does Jesus – who claims to be our creator and saviour – also claim to be our good shepherd?

Let’s break it down further.

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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SHEPHERD

A shepherd’s life 2000 years ago  was not easy. It was more than an occupation, rather, a lifestyle.

A shepherd’s name, literally translated, is a combination of the words ‘sheep’ and ‘herd’. And that is exactly what they did – herd and protect their sheep.

Many shepherds lived on their own (nomads), away from other people and society. There was never a set beginning/end to a shepherds work. Safety of the flock was at risk through the day and night. Because of this, some shepherds had (small) huts which they shared with sheep. But most often the shepherds would just sleep in the same fields that the sheep were in each night.

A shepherd was responsible for the daily needs of the sheep, and would regularly lead the flock to places with water supply and adequate grass.

As mentioned earlier, shepherds were often languishing low on the ‘social ladder’. They were the outcasts, somewhat disregarded by the higher authorities and people of status, or power.

If other animals came to attack the flock, it was the shepherds’ responsibility to protect them. A shepherd from before Jesus’ time on earth, David, said that ‘when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, [David] went out after him and attacked him.’ (1 Samuel 17:34-35).

It’s important to note that, when a predator such as a wolf came, sheep were completely useless. Without a shepherd, they’d just be torn apart. In extreme cases, a shepherd would die trying to protect the sheep. However, often the shepherd would run away, as they were usually not the owners of the sheep – just the ‘hired hands’ (John 10:12-13).

A genuine care for the flock was developed by shepherds, many said to have named each of their sheep [2]. The sheep would grow fond of the shepherd too.

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THE MAIN IDEA

Jesus is the good shepherd.

Jesus, translated as ‘Yehoshua’ in Hebrew, is a combination of the words ‘God’ and ‘save’ [3]. And that is exactly what Jesus set out to do – save his people..his sheep.

Jesus pulled himself from heaven’s ‘society’ and placed himself amongst us, his own flock. He didn’t stay far from us, out of love he came right down into our mess. Jesus took up residence with us, in order to save us. Not only that, Jesus claims he has prepared a place for us in heaven (John 14:2).

Jesus provides for us. Just like a shepherd leads their flock to grasslands and water, so too Jesus promises to give to us our daily needs. In Matthew 6:26, Jesus explains how he provides even to the daily needs of birds. And we are far more valuable to him than the birds! We don’t have to worry, for our shepherd knows all our needs (Matthew 6:31-32).

Jesus came to us in ultimate humility. His own people despised and rejected him – turned backs on him and looked the other way (Isaiah 53:3).

Jesus protects us from the enemy, Satan. When all forms of attacks came, Jesus – out of intense, passionate love – willingly sacrificed himself for our sake. He gave up his own life for us – his flock (John 10:15). But it didn’t end there. He overcame death and was brought back to life, giving us a hope and reason for eternity (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:5-6).

So that whenever the enemy come again, we have intense confidence our shepherd will protect us – for even death didn’t stop him. We are not scared of the enemy, for our God is far more powerful.

And if our God is for us, who can ever be against us? (Romans 8:31)

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SOMETHING TO GRAZE ON

“Feed my sheep” – Jesus

In 1 Peter 5:2, it says we are to ‘be shepherds of God’s flock that is under [our] care, serving as overseers’.

For the Christians out there: we have a responsibility to build each other up and encourage one another in our faith. We have a responsibility to look after the church (‘the flock’). We have a responsibility to look out for the lost sheep, and bring them back to the good shepherd. If we truly love Jesus, we will continue the work on earth which he started.

And in this, we are to display humility as Jesus did to us. To consider others more important than ourselves – and willingly go low in service to our God.

What a tall order.

But through it all we can know and understand this – that Jesus’ passionate love and genuine care for us brought him into our stuffed up, complicated mess. And he provided the solution – himself in our place.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me…” – Psalm 23

Jesus sends us out as sheep among wolves in this life (Matthew 10:16). We aren’t guaranteed a free-pass in life, void of all pain and suffering. Quite the opposite.

But we find strength in our shepherd – who put even death to shame.

Safe in his flock.

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REFERENCES

[1] Keeys, C 2011, Step by Step, Walk Through The Bible, Australia, accessed 12 March 2016, <http://www.amazon.com.au/Step-Cliff-Keeys-ebook/dp/B004RJ8MR8&gt;.

[2] Farfaglia, J 2014, What It Means that Jesus Is the Good Shepherd, Aleteia, accessed 12 March 2016, <http://aleteia.org/2014/05/10/what-it-means-that-jesus-is-the-good-shepherd/2/&gt;.

[3]Hebrew Meaning of “Jesus” n.d., Hebrew-streams.org, accessed 12 March 2016, <http://www.hebrew-streams.org/frontstuff/jesus-yeshua.html&gt;.

[4] Christian Leadership: The Good Shepherd 2015, Illustration, Christian Leadership, accessed 23 March 2016, <http://hebrews4.com/2015/10/10/goodshepherd/&gt;.[5] tons of Bible verses

[5] tons of Bible verses