April 17, 2016
Focus: Jesus, the Good Shepherd
Function: Listener will understand that Jesus watches, guides and cares for us
Psalm 23 is very familiar, both inside the church and out. We hear it on Sundays at least once a year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, and often at both weddings and funerals. If you were listening to pop music in the 90’s you heard the rapper Coolio quote from it. Sunday School children present plays based on it. You’ve probably all heard the story of the 2nd grader who was struggling with learning it before his spring Sunday School program. He couldn’t get past the first verse, so his teacher said just do the best you can. When the day came for the kids to recite the Psalm, he was so nervous, he stepped up to the microphone and said, “The Lord is my Shepherd…and that’s all I need to know!”
The boy got that right. But what else do we know about this Psalm? What was the background story? Why did David write it? I don’t think you have to look far to get the answer. Go back one Psalm to number 22 and I think you’ll find the reason. David wrote that Psalm, too, and it began with the words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now that’s the cry of someone travelling through the valley of the shadow of death. David had walked that road several times, with the death of one son, betrayal by another, exile, wars and a plague that devastated his royal city – he had seen some pretty rough times. He might have penned Psalm 22 when he entered one of those shadows. And then written Psalm 23 when he found that he was not alone in the darkness.
That’s the draw of this Psalm. It has been a help for so many people in their times of darkness. A Lutheran seminary surveyed folks on what they knew about the Bible. They were asked the question: “Is there a Bible text that is important for you in difficult times?” Over a quarter of the people said they found comfort in the book of Psalms, and most of those pointed to this one, Psalm 23, in particular. When life gets dark, when sickness and sorrow, conflict and weariness drag us down, it is reassuring to be reminded about a place where God will wipe our tears away, where the green pastures and the still waters will be ours. That’s what makes this Psalm so helpful and memorable.
So this morning I want to do something a little different. I want us to take a few moments to go through this Psalm one verse at a time, and take a closer look at what it’s got to say. This morning let’s find the comfort that David found in his Good Shepherd.
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
This Psalm was written by a fellow who knew a lot about shepherding. Our first glimpse of David (in 1 Samuel) was as a young man out in a field, tending the family flock of sheep. That was his full-time job, since all his older brothers were off fighting in the Army. Out there he learned a lot about sheep and a lot about shepherding. He no doubt discovered that while sheep are not dumb, they can be “high needs” animals. They required a fair amount of care. They wandered off and needed to be hunted down. They had no real defenses and were pretty vulnerable to attack. David found out that being a shepherd was a lot of work.
So when he wrote “the Lord is my shepherd”, David was saying a couple of things. First, he was saying that he was like a sheep. This was likely not a compliment. He was admitting that there were times when he was high maintenance, or times when he wandered off the good path God has set him on, and times when he just flat out needed someone to keep him safe as he traveled through life.
We’re no different from David. When we read that first verse, we’re confessing that we can’t make it on our own. Whether it is the world, our flesh or the devil that drives us down, we can’t right ourselves by ourselves. We are sheep in need of a Good Shepherd who will seek us out, protect us and set us right-side up.
And that’s leads us to the second thing David said with that first verse. Our Lord is the one we need. Jesus is a really good shepherd. He cares for our needs. We can give all our “wants” and “needs” to Him because He knows what He is doing. We know that because He spared no expense for us – not even His own life for the sake of this wayward flock. So certainly, we will lack nothing in His care.
Actually, this is all we need to know. The rest of the Psalm just fills in some details. Like the second verse:
2He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
A shepherd’s care begins with food and drink, the main concerns of sheep and the basic elements of life. Sheep are like us men; they are pretty indiscriminate about what they feed on and they need help to be pointed to the right stuff to keep them healthy. They require still, quiet waters for drink. Rushing streams will spook them and leave them thirsty. Did I mention that they can be high maintenance animals? (The sheep – not us guys. OK maybe us guys too.)
This verse begins to describe Jesus’ shepherding work. It tells us that He is active and present today. He starts by pointing us to the right stuff for life. He leads us past the peril and towards the places of nourishment. He puts the Scriptures in our hands. He sends us to our family, to our church, where we can hear His words of forgiveness and love, and so find comfort on our day of need. He brings us to quiet places where we can be safe. And it doesn’t stop there. His work continues in the third verse:
3He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
There we go again: another confession. “He restores my soul.” With those words we’re saying that our lives are not as perfect as we’d like them to be. We mess up. Our souls get dragged down. Our life sometimes need to be salvaged.
That’s what our Good Shepherd does. He forgives our sin and restores us. He sets us back on the path that we were meant to tread. He leads us to righteous places, places where His intent for our lives can be lived. He gives us the ability to experience real joy, perhaps in a loving marriage or in the friendships we share. He puts us in places where we can live and grow as people of integrity and service.
And He does all this is for His name’s sake. That is, He is not saving us because we are so valuable or so good. He does this all for His own name’s sake; He does this because that is just the sort of God He is. The Good Shepherd lovse us, He cares for us, sometimes despite ourselves. We hear more about His love in the fourth verse:
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The shepherd’s rod and staff comforted the flock because they fended off the predators. But they were also used to pull errant sheep back into line or drag them away from deadly drops. They were even used to deliver a whack where it might do a bit of good, reminding the sheep who is in charge. Both were part of herding the flock through dangerous areas.
The same goes for us. Sometimes we will feel His hand keeping us safe, like a pastor friend whose life was spared when a slow store clerk delayed him for a few minutes, keeping him off the road and out of a terrible highway accident that might have cost him and his family dearly. How many times does that sort of thing happen and we don’t even realize it?
Other times the tender care of our Good Shepherd might leave us a little tender. We might not initially perceive His discipline as “good times”. But in retrospect, we sheep will see that this, too, was God’s love being demonstrated in our lives. Both are part of Jesus guiding us through evil times.
Most important, though, is knowing that on our last day, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of our death, we will not be alone. Jesus has already walked that road. He knows every pot hole and every hazard. He will hold our hand even when we are too weak to hold His. We will fear no evil on that day because we know He will be right there.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
After the valley of death, is the feast of triumph. The filled table and overflowing cup speak of a regal victory over a foe. The Good Shepherd has prevailed over sin, death and the devil, and now He becomes our Lord and King, offering us abundant life.
God has prepared a table before our eyes today, in the presence of both enemies and friends. Death lurks, age creeps, but today we get to dine at the altar with saints and sing with angels. Our heads are anointed with the holy oil of heaven. We are given the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood – forgiveness and strength. We are abundantly blessed. Our lives are not merely full, they overflow. We have gifts to spare and gifts to give.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
This is the grand finale. We are shepherded by Jesus – now and forever. Goodness and mercy follow us; they will pursue us always. There is no place we can go where God cannot bless us. And there is no sin we commit which will not be met with His mercy. Jesus is our Good Shepherd.
In our baptism, He made a promise to you and me to watch, keep, feed, nourish, and protect us. Throughout our lives He will guide us. The Lord is our shepherd and that’s all we need to know. Amen.