We are at the letter "E," the first of two letter "E’s" actually, in our series on Jesus as our Shepherd, using "S-H-E-P-H-E-R-D" as an acronym for characteristics of Jesus…and a call to us as Shepherd of the Hills to strive for these characteristics in our own lives and to be a shepherd for someone around us. A few of you have mentioned you’re starting to try and guess what characteristics or titles we’re going to choose throughout this series. You’ll surely hit on most of them, though there are many we could have chosen. Today’s first "E" for example stands for "Equipper," but we could have just as easily chosen "Encourager," or "Eternal," or "Example," and so on. But today, it’s "Equipper" and our Scripture reading is just one verse, Philippians 4:13. "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength."
In 1934 the National Football League was a new and growing enterprise. That year the NFL held its second championship game, a game played at the old Polo Grounds in New York between the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears. The game became legendary in NFL lore, not so much because of the score, who won, or a particular great play someone made. The game became legendary because of an equipment change made in the middle of the game. Do some of you know this story? I bet Burt Emory does, New York Giants fan that he is.
An icy rain struck New York the night before the game, turning the Polo Grounds into more of an ice rink than a football field. The first half was played with players slipping and sliding on the turf, their football cleats unable to get a grip through the icy grass. The Giants managed a field goal in the first quarter, but after that they struggled, giving up 10 points to the Bears in the 2nd quarter so that the Giants trailed at halftime 10-3. A Giants player, unnamed in the legendary story that remains, suggested to Giants coach, Steve Owen, that tennis shoes might provide better traction for the players. Willing to try just about anything at that point, Owen sent the Giants equipment manager, Abe Cohen, out to buy some tennis shoes. Well, this was 1934 on a Sunday and no stores were open. However, Cohen, being a resourceful person, managed to get a hold of someone at Manhattan College and subsequently borrowed eight pairs of sneakers from the men’s basketball team. By the time Cohen arrived with the sneakers the Bears had increased their lead to 13-3. Key players on the Giants team—I’m assuming they were what we call "skill positions" today, offensive backs,wide receivers, perhaps some defensive backs—replaced their cleated football shoes with the sneakers and returned to action. At the point, nearing the end of the third quarter and down 13-3, the Giants offense began to click. In the fourth quarter the Giants scored 27 points and won the game 30-13. All because of an equipment change.
All of us could cite other examples. Imagine a baseball game where one team had to use their bare hands in the field while the other team used modern ballgloves. In the back of my mind there are commercials currently running about being properly equipped—certainly automobile ads encourage such a thing, apparently our lives are at risk if we don’t have Onstar in our cars. I’m thinking of an ad that’s been running, I believe it’s for an investment company, where a man is telling a psychiatrist about the deepest wounds in his life when the psychiatrist looks at him and begins speaking a different language. There’s other ads with the same theme, the point being why would you entrust your investments to anyone else any more than you would see a psychiatrist who doesn’t speak your language. You must be properly equipped—whether it’s investing your money, driving a car, or playing a championship football game on an icy field.
Why would we, then, not want to be equipped for our life’s journey with the proper equipment supplied by the Good Shepherd, the Great Equipment Manager, Jesus Christ? Jesus seeks to equip us for life. Jesus seeks to equip us with the resources, the temperament, the attitude, the faith, even the circumstances to help us in our journey through life. Jesus, as our Good Shepherd, seeks to lead us to still waters where we can drink from Living Waters, to lead us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake and for our benefit, works at equipping us to travel through the dark valley of the shadow of death when our life’s journey brings us to such a valley. Jesus is a constant presence to equip us with the insight, the wisdom, the discernment and the guidance to journey through the slippery slope, the icy field of life.
Let me give you an example, a bit of a silly one perhaps, but an example from my life this past week that reminded me of Jesus’ constant, equipping presence.
Tuesday, of course, was Election Day. Like most of you, probably all of you, Kim and I pondered how we would vote, not only in the choices we would make on candidates and amendments, but, literally, how we would vote because of the anticipated large crowds and long lines—whether or not we would get a mail-in ballot, vote early, or go ahead and brave the long lines at our polling place on the 4th. For two months, at least, we wondered how we would vote. We talked about getting a mail-in ballot but eventually decided we didn’t want to do that because…there’s just something about going to the polls and casting your vote. It feels more participatory. We did explore early voting. In fact on Friday afternoon we met at the motor vehicle location on 20th and Wadsworth. Our plan was to have a late lunch, go over our sample ballots one more time and then go cast our vote. Except for two things: One, the deli we’ve eaten at before in that strip mall is no longer there, and, two, there was a pretty long line for early voting! So, we decided to have lunch elsewhere and vote on Tuesday at a time that should be a slow time—10:00 in the morning.
Tuesday morning arrived (finally!) and we began getting ready for our day. The TV was on, per usual when we’re getting ready, tuned to a local news show. Now usually, the TV is mostly background noise as we’re getting ready—maybe a news story or two catches our attention for a moment, but mostly it’s background noise. All of the stories on Tuesday, of course, were related to the election and we were half listening—we’d heard enough by that point! However, I happened to walk by the TV when they were showing an interview with an election official who was talking about the addition of more polling places to handle the anticipated voter volume and encouraging people to check their polling place because it might have changed. "Hmm," I thought, "maybe I better do that." So I went to the computer, got online with Jefferson County’s website, put in the appropriate information and my name, address and "active" voter registration information came up. However, next to the line for our polling place it said, "N/A, mail-in ballot requested and sent." And below that it gave verifying information as to the date a mail-in ballot was requested, when the ballot was sent out and, finally, the fact, "Mail-in ballot not received." "Kim," I said (actually, I kind of hollered), "did you request mail-in ballots for us?" "I don’t think so," she answered. Neither one of us could remember requesting mail-in ballots. We talked about it, but thought we decided to go and "cast" our vote—even if in early voting. I pulled out my "Voting" file (yes, I actually have a "Voting" file!)…no mail-in ballots there. I did find an absentee ballot application for the 2006 election—I need to purge my files more often—but no mail-in ballots. What were we to do? Would we even be allowed to vote in this important election? The polling place would have the same information—they weren’t going to let us cast a ballot there.
I called the number listed for the election office, wondering if anyone would be there at 6:45 in the morning and, thankfully, someone answered. I explained our dilemma and she said we would have to come to the election office—located in the "taj mahal"—in order to vote. I assumed we would cast a "provisional ballot" which feels worse to me than a mail-in ballot. We went back to getting ready, but my mood had definitely soured. I wasn’t sure I would even bother. But then I thought, "Before we leave we need to scour this place looking for those mail-in ballots, just in case," even though neither one of us remembered receiving them.
Now, along with my files I also have piles. I’m about half organized. Usually there’s a pile or two on my desk and elsewhere, both at my office here and at my "home" office, of stuff waiting to be filed. It’s kind of like an archaeological dig—you know the date of something by what level it’s at in the stack! And wouldn’t you know it, there in one of my stacks was our mail-in ballots.
A second phone call to the county election office—it’s not a good thing when they know your name at the election office on Election Day—and we were relieved to know we could vote. All we needed to do was fill out the ballot as if we were going to mail it in—signed, secrecy sleeve, the whole routine, but rather than mailing it we were to take it to one of the drop off sites for mail in ballots. At the Allison Parkway site they even had a drive through—we didn’t have to get out of the car! Not the same as going to our polling place and casting our ballot—not the photo op Barak Obama or John McCain would want—but participating in the election nonetheless.
Now, I tell you that story in a sermon about an equipping Good Shepherd because later in the day I began to think about the whole experience. "Thank God," I thought, "I happened to walk by the TV and hear that story about checking on your polling place. Thank God I determined to do that even though I was certain our polling place hadn’t changed (we didn’t receive any notice of it and there was nothing in my "Voting" file about it!). Thank God there was someone at the election office at 6:45 in the morning. And thank God that somehow, obviously without thinking about it very much, I had placed those mail-in ballots somewhere where we would find them." Literally, I began thanking God for all those things. Some people would say it was just coincidence that I happened to pay attention to that particular story. Some would suggest it’s to be expected someone would answer the phone at the county election office at 6:45 a.m. on Election Day. And some would suggest putting the ballots at least in a pile somewhere if not in a file was my regular routine. But I don’t. I don’t believe in coincidence, but I do believe in Equipping Providence. I think it was my equipping Good Shepherd who led me to hear that story that morning that set into motion that entire chain of events leading to our casting a ballot. Jesus "equipped" me to vote that day—and saved us from a whole lot of headache at the polling place later.
I don’t mean to suggest that following Jesus as your Good Shepherd means that every needed teaching or message will be heard, every necessary action will be taken, every lost thing will be found—but I am suggesting we can be equipped for whatever life brings if we are seeking and following the Good Shepherd.
Now, you might ask just how does the Good Shepherd equip us. What equipment does He give us for the journey through life? Well, it’s pretty basic. It’s what we’ve stated repeatedly over the years.
First of all, He equips us through His Word. This (the Bible) is the Good Shepherd’s owner’s manual that He equips us with for the journey. You know, I’m not a big techno savvy guy. There’s a lot of things in my life that I know, at best, about 1/10 of all it can do for me…unless I read the owner’s manual. My combination cell phone and palm pilot, for example. I got this a couple of weeks ago and I can make it do the basics for me. I can make a call. I can receive a call. I can schedule an appointment. I probably use about 1/10 of what it can do because I haven’t consulted the owner’s manual yet. There’s a few things I’d like to do with it but haven’t figured it out yet, and probably won’t until I consult the owner’s manual. The Bible is God’s owner’s manual and if we don’t consult it regularly we’re probably equipped for about 1/10 of what life is going to bring. The Good Shepherd equips us, first of all, through His Word.
Then, the Good Shepherd equips us through His Spirit. As I mentioned last week, we are made holy through what the Good Shepherd did for us on the cross, and we live more and more holier in this life as we are guided by His Spirit. Jesus’ Spirit prompts us ("pay attention to this interview"), Jesus’ Spirit directs us ("go online and check it out for you") and Jesus’ Spirit guides us ("did you look in this pile over here"). I’m not suggesting to you that I heard an audible voice telling me those things. I didn’t. But I truly believe Jesus was directing me through that. And, later in the day, I joyfully thanked Him for that. Listen to me—we cultivate our ability to discern the prompting of Jesus’ Spirit in our lives through prayer. Jesus is not bound by the amount of prayer in our lives, but prayer helps us grow in recognition of and response to His Spirit’s prompting in our lives. The Good Shepherd equips in life through His Spirit’s prompting, directing, and guiding—and, like sheep, the more time we spend in the presence of the Good Shepherd the more we recognize and trust His guidance.
With what does the Good Shepherd equip us? Galatians, chapter 6, gives a good description of the equipment God gives to us. It’s known as the "armor of God" passage and I close with it as an encouragement to you:
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God…so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then,
-with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,
-with the breastplate of righteousness in place,
-and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
In addition to all this,
-take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
-Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Followers of Jesus Christ, sheep in need of a shepherd, there is your equipment provided for you by the Good Shepherd. Now, suit up…and go into the world fully equipped.
Let’s take a moment of silent reflection to consider where we are in putting on the full armor of God.