Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.
When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”
Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”
We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.
Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.
Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.
When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”
One Sunday morning Matthew Bryce set out for a morning’s surfing off the Argyll coast of Scotland. When he failed to return home, his family reported him missing and a major search and rescue operation was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and a rescue helicopter based in Prestwick. Matthew, who is 22, was finally spotted in the Irish Sea by a rescue helicopter from Belfast on Monday at 7.30pm, 13 miles off the north Antrim coast. He had spent 32 hours in the Irish Sea. The Coastguard believe Matthew’s surfing knowledge and thick neoprene wetsuit saved his life.
Speaking from The Ulster Hospital, where he was recovering from his ordeal, Matthew said he had been helpless as changing currents and strong winds swept him out to sea. He said, “It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective, but I did it to keep myself warm.” Fear really set in as night fell, “It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was nothing – just waves. I hadn’t seen any helicopters. I thought I was going to die – I was almost convinced. I didn’t think I would see sunrise.” Fighting back tears he continued, “I knew I had, maybe, three hours and was watching the sunset when a helicopter flew right over. So, I jumped off the surfboard, lifted it up and waved it; I thought they’d missed me. Then they turned around … and saved my life. I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes.”
One day when Jesus was teaching a group of people who knew they had made a mess of their lives, he told a parable about a shepherd who realised he had lost one of his 100 sheep. Jesus said, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Jesus came into the world to seek and to save those who are lost. Just as Matthew’s rescuers and family were overjoyed when they found him alive, so there is great rejoicing in heaven when any of us realises our need to know God and turns to him.
Luke Shambrook is 11 and has autism. Over the Easter weekend he and his family went on a camping holiday at Devil Cove, a bay near Melbourne. On Good Friday morning Luke went missing and an intensive search operation was launched involving the police, rescue authorities and more than 120 volunteer holidaymakers. They used motorcycles, sniffer dogs, horses, four-wheel drives, jet-skis and aircraft to search through the thick scrub and eucalyptus trees of the unforgiving Australian bush. At times thick cloud hampered the search reducing visibility to less than 30 feet. After 4 days and nights Luke had not been found and hopes were fading.
Then just before midday on Tuesday morning Brad Pascoe, on one of the search helicopters, spotted a little flash of something in the bush on the side of a peak. They turned the helicopter round and trained their camera on what Brad had seen. It was Luke! Everyone was overjoyed! Some of his police rescuers were close to tears of relief and joy, as were his family when they were reunited with Luke. Luke was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia and was taken to hospital. He probably would not have survived another night in the bush. On behalf of the family Luke’s uncle thanked all the rescuers and volunteers and said, “We’re thankful to live in a society that puts a lot of effort into finding children who go missing.”
This story reminds us of a parable Jesus told about a shepherd who had 100 sheep and one of them went missing. He left the 99 other sheep in the open countryside and went in search of the lost sheep until he found it. He joyfully put the sheep on his shoulders and brought it home. Then he called together his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him. Jesus said, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.”
As we look at our own lives, and the lives of so many in our world today, we can understand why Jesus said we are “lost”. Like little Luke, we have wandered away from the God who created us and loves us and have lost our bearings in life. Jesus came into the world to seek and save us. One hymn writer wrote, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”
Lambing Live is a popular programme. This year it has focused on a family farm, with more than 1000 sheep, on the Scottish borders, set in the wild beauty of the Pentland Hills. Lambing Live shows the tender care of the farmers as they monitor every aspect of their ewes giving birth. The lambing season is a major annual event for the 77000 sheep farmers. It is anticipated that 16 million lambs will be born in just a few weeks.
The Bible teaches important truths through the theme of shepherd and sheep. In Psalm 23 David speaks of his personal relationship with God, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For David, God is not remote and mysterious. The Lord is with him every moment, in all the experiences of his life. He leads him to green pastures and beside quiet waters and continually restores his innermost being. He guides and protects him, and even takes away the fear of death by his loving presence. David affirms, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One day he realised that one was missing, so he left the 99 sheep and went to search for the one that was lost. He kept searching until he found it and then returned home rejoicing, with the sheep on his shoulders. His neighbours and friends rejoiced with him. Jesus said, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” Isn’t it amazing to realise that in an impersonal world of more than 7 billion people each of us is precious to God.
The love of God is seen most clearly in the coming of Jesus into the world. He came to be a Saviour, by dying on the cross. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are many and serious. We have all accumulated a great debt to God which we can never pay. So Jesus, like a perfect, spotless lamb, died in our place and paid the debt. One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God, he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” When we experience this amazing love we can say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd!”
The Bible is a source of comfort and strength to people all over the world. In the Bible God speaks to us. He reveals his own heart and character and speaks to our hearts. Psalm 23 was written by David and is one of the best known passages in the Bible. It has been a help to people in many of the experiences of life. As a young boy, before he became king, David was a shepherd. He looked after his father’s sheep and knew times of great personal danger. At those times he experienced God’s care and protection even from lions and bears.
In the psalm David affirms his personal relationship with the Lord – “the Lord is my shepherd.” He rejoices in God’s love for him and responds with all his heart in love for God. Every day of his life he walked in conscious trust in the Lord, his God. He knew that the Lord would supply all his needs – “I shall not want.” The Lord guided him and provided food and water and peace and tranquillity – “he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” David’s deepest needs and longings were fully met – “he restores my soul.” The Lord led David in righteous and godly ways, keeping him from sin and wickedness – “he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Even in the darkest experiences of life, including the approach of death, David knew that the Lord would be with him. David was a courageous soldier. His life was often in danger as he fought battles against his enemies, yet he knew that God was with him in life and in death. There was nothing to fear because the Lord was always with him – “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The Lord gave David great victories, brought him through every trial, and abundantly blessed him – “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” The Lord blessed David every day of his life and also guaranteed his eternal future – “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What a wonderful thing it is that we, like David, can say “the Lord is my shepherd.”