The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 3, 2020
As with many of you, Jesus is my best friend; and the only indispensable one at that. Though I have some wonderful friends, no one else blesses me as much!
Dallas Willard – a Christian writer, USC philosophy professor and member of our Mark Wiley’s doctoral dissertation committee – felt that way about Jesus too.
Gary Moon wrote a biography of Willard. In it Moon describes the last moments of Dallas’ life. At 4:30 a.m. on May 8, 2013, a nurse entered Dallas’ hospital room to turn him in his bed. Her visit awakened his friend Gary Black who was keeping vigil with him that night. Gary took Dallas’ hand. Dallas turned to him and told him to tell his loved ones how much he was blessed by them and how much he appreciated them. Then Dallas leaned his head back slightly, closed his eyes, smiled and said with a clearer voice than Gary had heard in days, “Thank you.” Gary knew Dallas wasn’t talking to him, but to an invisible Someone Else in the room to whom he was relating first and foremost. His final words were spoken, with heart-felt gratitude, to a God who was very present and alive for him.
People are tempted to reduce the Christian faith to a list of do’s and don’ts. For some, the list consists of practices of personal piety; for others, efforts for social justice; but both miss the center of it all: the Son of God reaching out to them for friendship.
In today’s scripture Jesus compares us to sheep, creatures very prone to getting lost; and Himself to a shepherd – one who’s kind, caring, constant, competent and self-sacrificially dedicated to our well-being.
This shepherd does not sneak up on the sheep like someone meaning them harm, but enters by the gate to make obvious His trustworthiness. He values each of them as individuals, and greets them by name. He does not drive them; but He does lead them by going ahead of them to draw them along, by the heartstrings of love, to good places they could never arrive at on their own: to green pastures, sweet waters and a safe and secure home in their fold at the end of the day.
To protect them, he lays down his life for them. At night he even sleeps across the gate of the fold to defend them against predators. This shepherd is in fact the gate himself through whose reality they pass to reach comfort and rest and through whose reality they reach the highest and best in this big world.
Jesus, this faithful shepherd, wants to be our indispensable friend through whom we “have life and have it abundantly”. By close and continual interaction with Him, we gain life to the max!
For some of us, Jesus is but a long-past figure of ancient history; for others, an abstraction, the model of the human ideal; for still others, a perplexing, mysterious character just beyond grasp. But for many of us, He is the most important Person we know, the indispensable Friend who most enriches our life.
So how can we relate to Him person-to-person, and both strike up and keep up a friendship with Him? Let’s think some more about what He says in today’s scripture – bearing in mind that, unlike sheep, we make decisions that determine the possibilities.
Jesus, even if He really is there and really does care, only has a chance to show Himself to us if we give Him one. Will we invite Him into our fold, into our private life where we make our home and are our true selves; and into our pastures beyond, into our public life where we work, play and make a contribution to society at large? Will we let Him make Himself known even in the places where we don’t expect it, and keep an eye peeled should He show up?
If, for the sake of this experimental exploration, we spend time in the Bible in prayer and meditation, or we participate in the life of a body of believers, we do ourselves a favor; but the one necessity is being open, paying attention and finding out firsthand if God is there for us.
Eugene Peterson told of how, when he was teaching at Regent University, Julie – a Ph.D. student and mother of several kids – lamented to him how in her busyness she’d lost any sense of Jesus’ presence or involvement with her. But, given her deadline on the dissertation and the extra responsibilities of caring for a newborn with special needs, she had no more time to give in seeking God than she already was. Taking on even one more spiritual discipline was an impossibility. In response, Peterson asked if there was some “non-spiritual” discipline already embedded in her life. She then told him how baby Iona’s disease nailed Julie to the couch for hours each day. Because Iona kept throwing up her food, Julie had to feed her over and over to get some nutrition into her. Julie’s long nursing of Iona was the one constant in her life. Peterson thought that over and then said in effect, “Well, then, there’s your discipline for connecting with Jesus. As you tend to Iona, be present to the moment and on the lookout. As you wait on that little girl, wait on the Lord. As you care for her, expect the God who made her and cares about her – and see what happens.”
While Julie had been viewing her motherly duties as an obstacle to connecting with Jesus, they became the means by which she met with Him and came to know Him as her Friend as never before.
On a sagging couch with a fussing child, she heard Jesus calling her to follow Him by just staying put and there discover how much He could be to her. In watching for Jesus while watching over Iona, she experienced the wonders of God’s grace.
Will you wonder and watch? If you give Him just that, you’ll encounter the living, indispensable Friend!