I wonder if anyone else struggled to maintain a clear head and a trusting heart in 2020? It would be great to be able to look into a crystal ball and see a peaceful and prosperous 2021 on the horizon, but unfortunately we have no such guarantee!
Seven hundred years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, the prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the suffering Servant who will eventually restore his people. Judah still had 100 years of trouble before Jerusalem would fall, then 70 more years of exile. Their times were turbulent like ours, but God tells Isaiah to speak tenderly and to comfort Jerusalem, describing God as a shepherd, gently caring for and guiding his sheep, especially the most vulnerable and defenceless members of his flock:
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus calls himself the good shepherd (John 10:11;14). He is also referred to as the great Shepherd (Heb 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd of his people (1 Peter 5:4). As believers going into 2021, this image of the Lord as our Shepherd is a powerful one. Whatever the year may bring, Jesus owns us and is committed to his flock. Christ is our only protector.
The wrecking ball of 2020.
This time last year, most of us were in a very different position than today. It feels like an eternity since March 2020, when news first broke about the spread of the Coronovirus. Since then, most people across the globe have felt its effects: Job losses and deaths; masks, online church and study; illness, fear and social isolation; corruption, PPE fraud and fake news, social activism, not to mention the tragic increase in depression, anxiety, suicides and suicidal ideation around the world.
As momentum picked up, 2020 was marked by enmity, hostility, suspicion, grievance and despair. Alienation is the word that comes to mind when I think of last year– Alienation from God, from each other and from self. 2020 has been a spotlight on our true alienation as sinful human beings, bringing it into sharper focus. We are like scattered sheep, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa 53:6).
The events of 2020 did not create, but merely pulled back the curtain to expose this reality. Without Christ, we are ultimately lost and divided because of our sin. We are without direction, without purpose and without protection against the vicissitudes of life and ultimately against the judgment of God when we die. Jesus is the only truly Good Shepherd that God himself provided. Without Christ, we are all sheep without a shepherd.
2020 has been a year which has also tested and exposed the shallow, me-centred spirituality which, in better times, passes for Christianity. By August, the fuel of self-help, self-empowerment and self–actualisation ran out for those running on self rather than God. It’s clear that DIY spirituality proved to be a useless fuel source, judging by the stats on depression and anxiety. Cultural gurus and self-help experts are strangely impotent to lead people in a real crisis.
2020 has been a wrecking ball to many fake gospels and false human shepherds about whom New Testament writers like Jude forewarned us: “Shepherds feeding only themselves; waterless clouds swept along by winds, wandering stars, grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires, loud-mouthed boasters” (Jude 12-14; 16).
2020 has been a wrecking ball to the false gospel that proclaims that a child of God should be healthy and wealthy if we have enough faith, and that we should not expect suffering or difficulties in this life.
It strikes me as amazing that not one of the self-appointed Christian prophets predicted the chaos of 2020. Instead, only two months before disaster struck, there was a plethora of the usual optimistic forecasts of a prosperous year for God’s people…especially if we sowed a seed into their ministries! These church leaders remind me of the false prophets of the Old Testament who filled God’s people with false hopes, speaking visions from their own minds, rather than from the mouth of the Lord, saying,
“The Lord says: You will have peace” And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, “No harm will come to you…” (Jeremiah 23:16-32). Really? No mention of Jerusalem’s coming destruction and being carried off as slaves into Babylon.
The marks of today’s false shepherds are no different to those in Ezekiel’s day: They are self-serving and neglectful of the sheep given to their care; they do not disturb their own comfort by searching for the lost or strengthening the weak (Ezek 34:4); they scatter instead of gathering the flock; they muddy the waters by raising unnecessary doubts and teaching false ideas (Ezek 34:18-19). They do not take care to spiritually nourish the sheep with God’s word, even destroying their food source by twisting God’s word (Ezek 34:8). No word about sin, judgment and repentance, just endless affirmation. No warning about suffering for Christ’s sake. Just an inspirational gospel which assures you that Jesus wants you to be happy, you are enough just the way you are, and you have the inner strength to conquer another day.
I wonder if anyone has questioned those Bible teachers who extracted Isaiah 26:20 from its context to assure Christians to “take refuge in their homes for a little while,” and all would be well, while Coronavirus passed us by. Passover was supposed to be the great reset button to get us back to normal, but April came and went with only harsher lockdown measures. In spite of those who bound and burned the evil spirit of Coronavirus, we face the realities of another year beset by Covid. Yet, no one holds these false teachers to account for their presumptuous words.
Let’s hope that these exposures of 2020 have made us less tolerant of false shepherds. Let’s hope that 2020 has woken us up to the reality that the Bible is not a collection of spiritual pick-me-ups focused on ourselves, but God’s story of salvation history which should be studied for what it is—the word of God.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
The reality is that many of God’s people are stumbling over the threshold of 2021 grieving over what we have lost, fearful and uncertain of what is to come. We are perplexed to hear of the sexual misconduct of yet another Christian leader, whom we have respected for many years. Our souls groan under the curse of creation.
But as we start a new year, let’s remember that Jesus is our Shepherd in the here and now. Let’s remind ourselves of the simple truths of the gospel which Christ himself laid out for us so tenderly in John 10.
In John 10, Jesus proclaimed himself as the good Shepherd promised in Ezekiel 34:23: “the one shepherd, my servant David, (who) shall feed them and be their shepherd.” However disappointing human leaders may be, Jesus is the true Shepherd who laid down his own life for his sheep (John 10:11, 14). He is not a hired hand, but the owner of his sheep. If we have responded to his voice in repentance and faith, he allows us access to his sheep pen and remains committed to us, no matter what (John 10:12-13). He knows his own sheep personally and intimately, and we are branded as his forever (John 10:14). Instead of dividing and scattering, Jesus is in the process of gathering his sheep from every nation into one fold (John 10:16). Neither Satan, nor his ravenous wolves have the power to snatch us from his flock, nor rob us of his love and eternal life (John 10:1-21). The Lord is our Shepherd, and in him we have everything we need (Ps 23:1).
The cross and the resurrection are proof that Jesus is our Shepherd in life and death, even in the final chapter of God’s big story—Restoration Day. May the apostle John’s future hope profoundly affect our lives in the coming year, whatever 2021 may bring. A blessed New Year to you and yours!
“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
He will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”—Revelation 7:17.