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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

A Fearless Flock

I went for a walk this week and I entered a field full of cows. Although I’ve grown up in the countryside, I still get a bit disturbed by cows. So, I was wary as I went through the gate into the field. 2-3m in, the worst possible thing happened, the whole herd started moving in my direction. I turned on my heels and ran for the gate. And that’s why I’m nervous about cows; they are too inquisitive for my liking. They see me and they want to know more. Sheep on the other hand, they are more my kind of livestock. Sheep are essentially timid; they get their heads down. Sheep concern themselves with the one square meter of grass in front of them and are essentially uninterested with the rest of the world. I’m safe in a field of sheep.

Verse 32 of this passage has Jesus referring to his disciples as a little flock of sheep. That means, that he’s speaking to them as their shepherd. Jesus often used metaphors in his teaching to convey characteristics of himself or his followers that are simply easier to understand that way. So, when we hear him using a metaphor here instead of plain language, know for sure that he’s telling us something about ourselves. We are not sheep. The disciples were not sheep. But we are and they were, like sheep. Also, we can be sure, that if Jesus was here today, he would call us ‘little flock’ too.

Peter exhorts the leaders of the churches to shepherd God’s flock – members of the churches. So, we’re God’s flock too. And Peter refers to the elders as shepherds, and he refers to Jesus as the chief shepherd (1 Pet 5:4). Even during this lockdown experience when there is no formal gathering together of all the Lord’s people for worship, there is still a flock, and there is still a chief shepherd. There are probably lots of reasons why the Lord Jesus refers to his followers as sheep, but for our purposes this morning I want us to focus on one, that is, sheep have this tendency to be unaware of the bigger picture. That’s the reason I like them. If I come into their field, they’re oblivious. They don’t get their heads up out of the grass. They don’t have perspective. They are chiefly concerned with insignificant things. When a sheep has its head down in the grass you can virtually walk right up to it without it lifting its head. No wonder then that sheep are a wolves’ choice prey. They are easy pickings.

In verse 32, the shepherd – that is Jesus - says to his little flock, don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious. Why would the little flock be afraid? Jesus has in mind some reason that the disciples might be afraid. Is there a clue in these verses why they might be afraid? And the answer is yes. The reason is both profoundly unsettling and gloriously liberating for us. In verse 33 Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”.

Put yourselves in the disciple’s shoes for a minute. All of them have become travellers. They’ve given up their livelihoods – fishing, tax collecting, trading. They’ve given up their homes; they’ve given up their families. In fact, Matthew tells us that Peter once said this very thing to Jesus, “We’ve left everything to follow you!” And here, Jesus is saying, sell what you’ve got left – your few possessions - and give the proceeds to the poor. Now what kind of fears might that have induced in this little flock? Might they not have thought to themselves: “What will we eat? How will we clothe ourselves? Where will we find shelter?

These are the fundamental things that sustain our lives, without them we will surely die.”

I think they had listened to Jesus talking this way for a while and it was becoming more and more apparent to them as time went on, that to be a follower of Jesus would be a very uncomfortable sort of life. That to be a follower of Jesus would mean hard work, simplistic living, uncertainty of food, and shelter and clothing. And all of these thoughts were filling them with dread of what a future with Jesus might look like. They were afraid. And not surprisingly so. I’m afraid of all kinds of things – not least cows in fields – and I have a consistent source of income. I have a sure source of food, shelter and clothing – even, might I add, in the middle of a pandemic.

That’s how rich I am! So, I think I would have been afraid too, if I’d have been in their shoes. And now to hear Jesus say, “you need to have some cash in-hand to give away to the poor, so you’d better go sell some of your possessions so you’ve got something to give”, must have been overwhelming. Maybe, their possessions were the kind that were personal; precious; that reminded them of home or family. Maybe they had more than monetary value. Nevertheless, the poor were in need and Jesus said they must give of what they had.

It’s a valuable lesson about giving. I think we can often over think helping needy people we meet. I’ve done this.

“They might miss-spend the money I give them. They might abuse themselves with it. Wouldn’t it be better to get them off the streets?” Often those situations are more complex than the help we can offer in the moment. If there’s an opportunity to make a significant and big difference in someone’s life by doing more than simply giving them some money, then of course do it. Do it with all your heart. But, if all you can do is give some money to the poor soul right there and then, you have a Christ-given mandate to do it. And then pray; pray earnestly, that they wouldn’t drink it away, or inject it away.

We could make a mistake here. I don’t think Jesus is telling us or the disciples that having possessions is wrong, but he is assuredly saying if you don’t have anything to give to the poor, sell a possession and get something you can give. Now, Jesus knows that we are inclined to respond to the impulse of fear, over and against the impulse of command. If you have an intense fear of heights and I strap a parachute to your back and say fly of the edge of that cliff, in all likelihood you’re not going to do it. Jesus knows that to say to the disciples, sell the little you’ve got left in all the world and give the money to the poor, is a command that is reasonable and good. But neither of those things are compelling enough to induce the disciples to overcome their fears of nakedness, hunger and exposure to do it.

And that’s where the rest of all the words in these verses come in. Jesus is giving the disciples – us – some unbelievably attractive reasons to live lives that are the opposite of what our culture thinks is attractive. He’s telling us why it’s better to forsake the pursuit of riches in this world. He’s telling us why it’s better to live simple, uncomplicated lives and to give our lives away here on earth. He’s showing us what awaits us if we seek first his fame and his glory and not better houses, or cars, or clothes. He’s compelling us with unbelievable promises, what it will mean for us if we live counter-cultural lives for Jesus – for his cause and for his glory. The big overarching foundational reason for not being afraid even when Jesus is calling us to let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also – as Martin Luther puts it – is in verse 32. “Do not be afraid, little flock” – why? –“for” – here’s the reason, -“your Father” – we might insert “heavenly” “your heavenly Father has been pleased to” what? You have a heavenly Father, with a father’s heart; a loving heart; a tender heart and out of this tender heartedness he’s giving you something – freely; there’s no charge; he’s not expecting anything back. And, he’s giving it willingly; not under compulsion; not with a heavy heart; not reluctantly, but eagerly; he wants you to have this. What is it? Will it be small and rustic and parochial?

Will it be little, like little flocks are accustomed to? Not a bit of it! He’s going to give you his kingdom!

The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth once, and he turned them down. Why? Because his kingdom is bigger than all of them, put together! And it’s yours – you blood bought sheep. He confers it on you. He makes you not just an heir, but a fellow heir with Jesus – the divine son of God. You’re a fellow heir with the Son, of the whole Kingdom of God.

Listen, lest you have an earthly view of what this kingdom is going to be like: No eye has seen. No ear has heard. No mind has even begun to conceive of what God has prepared for his people. There isn’t vibrant enough language to describe its beauty. (1 Cor 2:9). Its lustre is never going to fade, like the lustre of everything new on earth does. It’s going to be always tantalising, always exciting, always joyous, always exquisite. It’ll never spoil. It’ll never turn sour. It’ll never decay. It’ll never tire or wear out. It’ll never end. It’ll never perish. (1 Pet 1:4). It will include new bodies with capacities to enjoy it forever. Bodies that never get sick, that never tire. Bodies that are utterly imperishable. (1 Cor 15:52). The wolf and the lamb will lie down next to each other. (Isa 65:25). There will be no need for the sun for God’s glory will be light enough. (Rev 21:23). There will be no more war (Isa 2:4), no more suffering, no more sadness. All things will be new (Rev 21:1). And we could go on.

This is your inheritance, and in our bibles, we don’t even start to see what it will be like, because the book would be too long to read in our lifetimes if we did.

Oh, the glory of the kingdom we will inherit! So, with that modest reason, don’t be anxious when Jesus says, spend and be spent for the poor. Be prepared to lose your life on earth in hard work, in simple living, in nakedness and peril in order to do exploits for the glory of God. You’re worried you won’t have much in this life, but you’re going to inherit the whole world in glorious rejuvenated splendour. You’re never poor in Jesus, you’re always rich! And, about the basics of life, we certainly don’t need to worry, Jesus has promised that if he clothes the lilies of the field, then he will certainly clothe us. He has promised that if he feeds the ravens of the air, then he will certainly feed us.

So, this calls for faith. Do we trust the promises of Jesus so implicitly that we’re freed up to use our lives more productively for the heralding of his name, than we ever could have been by investing in this life like the culture we live in does?

Then comes these exhortations in verse 33. Provide purses for yourselves. Get treasure. Purses on earth wear out and the money falls onto the ground and others pick it up. That’s a metaphor for death. We spend our lives gathering money and then we die and someone else takes it. Treasure is liable to be stolen if it’s non-perishable, and moth-eaten if it’s perishable. Have you ever noticed how quickly clothes wear out? Yet we spend hundreds, maybe thousands every year on clothing. Getting all het up in the process about what looks good and not. We’re like sheep with our heads down. We’re so taken up with inconsequential things. Listen, there are heavenly purses that don’t wear out and heavenly treasures that can’t be stolen or eaten. Therefore, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Do things on earth that make no sense in the world you live in. Do things that look like you don’t treasure much in this world. Do things that make an eternal difference in people’s lives.

Have the poor over dinner Jesus says. Why? Because, great will be your reward in heaven.

Think through; strategise, about how the resources God has put at your disposal: time, energy, skills, words, opportunities, money, possessions, job, vision, can be best used to advance his cause here on earth, to magnify his worth, to reach the nations, to share the gospel, to glorify his name. These verses are telling us that if we do that consistently and effectively, we’ll most likely be a poor and tired little flock, but we’ll have imperishable treasure in heaven that we’ll enjoy forever. Two things to finish up with. A great threat and a great thrill.

Verse 34 says, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – earth or heaven. Jesus said, you can’t love God and money. You will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

Here’s the warning: sheep that don’t get their heads up out of the grass, get eaten by wolves. The shepherd’s voice says, be on your guard against the love of things. No treasure in heaven, will mean no kingdom inheritance. Jesus said, on that day, not all who say Lord Lord will enter the kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father. So be on your guard against a love for the world. And lastly, the thrill is this, treating this world the way everyone else does, tells people that our treasure is the same as their treasure. But that’s a lie. Our treasure is Jesus. How can Jesus’ worth be seen in this world? By his sheep showing they find him more valuable, more compelling, more appealing than anything this world has to offer.

So, when we live this way, God’s glory goes on display. Not only is that how people are saved, but it’s what we were made for. Our earthly purpose is fulfilled when we become mirrors of God’s glory on the earth. And, what a thrill to fulfil our purpose: people called by his name, created for his glory, who he formed and made (Isa 43:7).

So, little flock. Don’t be afraid to lose your life for Jesus. They who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will gain it, with an everlasting kingdom to boot! May the Lord bless this word to us. Amen.


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