Memoirs of a Shepherd

This was Pastor Natsis’ message for church on Wednesday Evening, December 18, 2019. Follow along with an audio recording of the message if you are able:

I could hardly believe my eyes. At first I thought I was dreaming. I’d never seen anything like it before. I had spent so many nights in the fields, ever since I was a young boy. My family lived in Bethlehem, but when you’re a shepherd, your home is less a home and more a place you happen to sleep at occasionally. Most nights were out with the sheep. Most nights were dark. Most nights were cold. Most nights were boring.

The boring nights were the good nights, though, typically. Exciting nights were not a good thing, because for a shepherd excitement means fighting off predators or thieves. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before, but sheep are not smart. They have almost no sense of self-preservation. When your source of income, your entire livelihood, is wrapped up in the well-being of a group of creatures that will occasionally jump off of cliffs, things can be a little tricky. We always tried to be thankful for the boring nights.

And this was a boring night. For a while. I can’t remember if it was my turn to be on watch or my turn to sleep, but all I know is that when that light flashed in the sky, my only choice was to be at full attention. I got my staff ready to fight, but I’m not even sure what it was I thought I was fighting.  What predator could make the sky light up? What thief looked like it had the glory of God surrounding him? This night went from very boring to very interesting—and very terrifying—very quickly.

Have you ever seen an angel before? I have now, ever since that night in the fields near Bethlehem, but I can hardly describe it. All I can tell you is what he said: “Do not be afraid.” Are you kidding me? A messenger from God himself bursts into my life, ripping the night sky with a light I can barely explain, and his first words are “Do not be afraid?” But as crazy as it sounds, that greeting…put my mind at ease. It was calming, even though I wasn’t even sure if I was dreaming or not.

The angel kept talking: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” So many thoughts and emotions began to race through my mind. This is clearly a message from God. This is clearly amazing. And the content of that message is almost unbelievable—the Messiah is here? The one who was prophesied has arrived? Is this real? Is this true?

I doubted it. Shame on me, in the middle of all this amazingness, I doubted it. The thing that kept me from really believing it was…well, myself. Why in all the world would an angel be announcing this to us? To me? Shepherds aren’t important. We’re nobodies. People hardly give us the time of day. We’re out in our fields doing our thing, and society doesn’t much care for our way of life. And even more than that, why this group of shepherds? I know these guys. They’re rough. They’re hardened. I’m one of them, and I know the things I’ve said and done in my life. Coming face-to-face with the glory of God really makes you do a gut-check. My heart wasn’t ready for this. I was not prepared. The coming of the Messiah? I think you’ve got the wrong audience, Mr. Angel. I can’t do anything with this message. That Savior has to be for someone else. I’m not ready.

Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

My thoughts were cut off. My doubts were silenced. My fears were replaced with wonder and amazement. I thought the one angel was glorious…and boy, did I not understand what I was in for. And all of a sudden, it made sense. This message isn’t about me. This message isn’t about how ready I am or how prepared I am. This message is about this Messiah. It’s about God’s glory. It’s about the entirety of my religion reaching its apex as the Promised One to Come actually came. A Savior—to save. A message of good news of great joy that will be for…all the people. Us included. Me included. I’m not prepared—I’ll never fully be prepared—but God sent these messengers to prepare us.

Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. Let’s greet the Savior. Let’s worship the newborn king. Glory to God in the highest!

JWN

On Changing the World

This past weekend, for the first time in my life, my attention was drawn to a football game between Harvard and Yale. Though, I suppose, that’s not entirely accurate, because I didn’t watch a minute of the game itself. What I saw was the story that the game was delayed by a student protest of the two universities’ being “complicit in climate injustice.” I know very little about Harvard or Yale’s climate change policies, or lack thereof, but I admire the students standing up (or, I suppose, sitting down) for the cause.

An endless amount has been written on generational differences, but something that I notice across multiple studies is that younger generations strongly believe they can change the world. That core belief then goes on to affect their day-to-day lives and decisions. How can I make an impact? How can I play my part? You may have rolled your eyes at people declining to use plastic straws or opting for tofurkeys this Thanksgiving, but individuals’ decisions to do these things, like lower their use of plastics or cut meat from their diet, are decisions often borne out of a spirit of activism, a desire to change the world.

This change-the-world desire is so deeply embedded in people that it practically creates a total impasse between those “in” and those “out” of the mindset. World-changers will wonder, “Why aren’t people more conscious of their personal impact on the world?” The less concerned will wonder, “Why are people so conscious of their personal impact on the world?” It’s an idea so fundamental that it becomes hard to explain.

It’s not just young people that want to change the world, though, and it’s not just activists and protesters. Think of your Facebook feed and the political posts and statuses you see shared and written (unless you’ve hid all of them, like I’ve tried to). There are tons of people trying to change the world, thousands of people that think their opinion or political platform will change things. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists–everyone would like to elect their favorite candidate so they can change the world, and they’re all attempting to do so at the same time, and loudly.

Personally speaking, I’ve got a bit of the “change the world” fire lit under me. Some of that may have to do with my youth, or maybe my youth combined with my new position as pastor of a church. I’m a greenhorn pastor fresh out of seminary who would really love to get out into greater Nashville and change the world. What’s more, I have something in my arsenal that truly can change the world–my primary tool, the Word of God, is the very power of the Almighty Lord to effect change in people’s hearts and lives. I sit here wondering, “Why wouldn’t I want to change the world?”

But the world is a big place. And I’m just one person. Even with the power of God and his Word on my side, I’m a human being limited to one place and one space in time. I can maximize my influence or expand my sphere of influence, but none of that will necessarily change the world. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone who wants to change the world, but I believe the daunting nature of the task can cause a certain amount of stress and anxiety. I want to change the world, but how is that even possible? I want to change the world, but what can someone as small as I am possibly do? I want to change the world. I want to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. But the world is really, really, really big.

To my fellow Christian world-changers out there, to people who want to share Jesus and in doing so change the world, I have this piece of advice:

Narrow the scope.

If you want to change the world, support your friends with the love of Christ.

If you want to change the world, raise your family on a strong Christian foundation.

If you want to change the world, reflect God’s love to strangers online and on the street.

If you want to change the world, volunteer in your church.

If you want to change the world, preach the powerful Gospel to the people in your life.

It’s a difficult task to change the world outside of your own sphere of influence. Not everyone is up to it. And you know what? That’s totally fine. Instead, identify your own sphere of influence…and influence it. Perhaps focus less on changing the world and more on how you can changing your world.

I might not be able to take greater Nashville by storm, but I can continue to preach God’s powerful Word to the people in my pews on Sunday. I might not preach to thousands of people a month, but I can focus on making my sermons the best they can be for the 100-or-so that will hear me. I might not get the entire North Side to join my membership registry, but I can take extra effort to follow up with individual visitors and friends and family members with connections to my people. The gospel will change my world; God’s Word does not return to him empty. And I pray that he uses me effectively to accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sends it.

God has changed you, and he gives you his Spirit and a mission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. You might not be able to get to all creation by yourself, but you can get to the creation around you. Pray for the strength to do what you can. Be confident that God is working through you and many others. Change the world!

JWN

We Don’t Say “I Forgive You” Enough

“It’s OK” just doesn’t quite cut it

When is the last time you heard someone in your life say the words, “I forgive you?” My guess is that it has been a while. You may have heard plenty of people respond to an apology with “It’s OK,” or “You’re fine,” but to actually string together the phrase “I forgive you” has become so unused that it almost sounds awkward to say. It almost sounds too formal, too stilted. Maybe it even sounds plain weird to hear, or it feels weird to say.

I encourage you to push past the awkwardness and re-introduce the phrase into your vocabulary.

I usually don’t like to argue over idioms in everyday conversation. I once saw an article that claimed that younger people are entitled because their response to “Thank you” is “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.” The article claimed that saying “No problem” indicates that person is burdened by the thank-er and is choosing not to acknowledge it, whereas the expression “You’re welcome” indicates that the speaker owes the thank-er whatever favor was asked. In other words, saying “no problem” implies that helping others should normally be a problem, while “you’re welcome” implies that by helping you just did what was expected of you.

The only problem with this entire thing is that saying “no problem” or “you’re welcome” doesn’t make even the slightest difference in what is being conveyed pragmatically. Both phrases are simply a response to thanks, and nothing more. Both phrases are meant to satisfy a gap in the conversation and bring the thank-er/thank-ee relationship to a close. This gap can also be closed with “No worries,” or “Forget it,” or “My pleasure” for the Chick-Fil-A fans. (Besides, “young people” are not the only ones who say “No problem”–in Spanish, the default way of responding to thanks regardless of age is “de nada,” which word-for-word means “it’s nothing.” Many Spanish textbooks, however, will list “de nada” as meaning…you guessed it…”you’re welcome.”)

For as much as that article bugged me, you’d think I wouldn’t care if someone says “I forgive you” vs. “It’s OK.” Isn’t the same thing being conveyed pragmatically? Aren’t both of those phrases just a way for the offended party to satisfy an apology? Isn’t there forgiveness in both cases? I think the answer is yes, on its surface. “It’s OK” has become the default way of forgiving someone. When someone says “It’s OK,” they truly do mean to forgive. But I have an issue with the phrase we’ve come to make the default, and here it is:

Whether or not something is OK isn’t the deciding factor in forgiveness.

In fact, the most impactful instances of forgiveness are those times when it’s decidedly not OK.

If I punch you in the face as hard as I can and do it on purpose, that is absolutely not an OK thing to do. And even if I sincerely apologize, you telling me “It’s OK” will not actually make punching you in the face an OK thing to have done. You’re intending to forgive me by saying “It’s OK,” but in a sense, what you just did was validate my action of punching you in the face. That’s not an OK thing to do. So why tell me that it is?

Now imagine the same scenario, but with “I forgive you” instead. You can still be upset and in physical pain in that moment, in the aftermath of that absolutely-not-OK thing, and have the courage and strength to actually give forgiveness to the person who punched you. That’s different. That means more. You’re not erasing what that person did; you’re willingly choosing to look past it.

Another reason to re-introduce “I forgive you” into parlance is because it’s a whole lot harder to be sarcastic with it. I have to fight my sarcastic tendencies often (and I unfortunately lose that battle with frequency), and I know that sometimes the words “It’s OK” or “It’s fine” can be said or typed with absolute insincerity. You know the tone: “It’s fiiiiine.” Maybe accompanied by an “ugh” or a sigh. But try saying “I forgive you” with a sarcastic tone. It’s…a lot harder. You have to deliberately spit each of those words out, and it’s all meaningful.

I–the one whom you hurt, the one who received an apology, the one who doesn’t owe my offender anything, the one who was affected by my offender’s words or actions…

Forgive–absolve, excuse, acquit, overlook, remit, grant pardon of an offense…

You–the one who hurt me, the one who offended me, the one who insulted me, the one who damaged me and my reputation, the one who doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

I forgive you.

This isn’t intended to make you feel bad for saying “It’s OK,” by the way. I do it all the time. But I’ve made a deliberate effort to bring back “I forgive you” lately, and I think there’s merit to it.

Because we don’t only forgive when something is OK. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul says. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Think about what that means. Think about what God’s forgiveness entails. In fact, why don’t we let Paul tell us with the words of Romans 5: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus didn’t forgive us because it was OK. Jesus didn’t forgive us because he owed us anything. Jesus didn’t forgive us because we earned it. Jesus came to earth, lived perfectly, and died innocently precisely because things were not OK. And he came to make things OK. Better than OK, in fact–he came to re-establish true peace between the eternal, holy God, and all of humanity of all time. God died for the ungodly, and that’s what it took to forgive us. Jesus is the only one who truly has the power to make our offenses OK. But he said more than “It’s OK.” He said “It is finished.”

Next time someone hurts you, harms you, or damages your reputation, keep this in mind. Next time someone apologizes and makes themselves vulnerable to you, putting their pride and past decisions on the line for you to absolve or condemn, remember the state you were in when Jesus laid his life on the line for you. Things weren’t OK, but Jesus forgave you. Is what your offender did OK? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be for you to forgive.

I forgive you.

It’s hard to say.

That’s why we need to start saying it more.

JWN