The Lord is my Shepherd 2018
Sermon preached at Enmore, The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 22nd. April 2018
Readings: Psalm 23; John 10.1–10
Writing in the late nineteenth century, Henry Ward Beecher, the famous American preacher and social activist was moved to write this about the 23rd. Psalm:
The Twenty Third Psalm is the nightingale of the Psalms. It is small of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive…….it has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows than there are sands on the seashore…..It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their grief, of orphans in their loneliness…….Nor is its work done. It will go on singing to your children and my children, and to their children through all the generations of time;
Today, of course, is Shepherd Sunday when we focus our thoughts on the image of God as our shepherd, expressed in particular through Psalm 23 and John chapter 10 where Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of the sheep. I want to spend a few moments this morning reflecting on the Psalm because although it is so familiar it is not always fully appreciated. I would like to rescue it from being a Psalm we just associate with funerals!
The Psalm opens with the confident personal statement, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The rest of the Psalm is composed as an exposition of that line. ‘The shepherd’ was a rich and complex idea in Israel’s culture and history. Sheep and shepherds were familiar sights. We have to rid ourselves of the images familiar to us of flocks of hundreds of sheep being driven across paddocks by men and women on bikes or driving utes. Middle Eastern flocks were small- a farmer with one hundred sheep was the exception. A shepherd knew his flock by name and the sheep followed him to the pastures. The sheep were his responsibility: he was accountable for their welfare and safety. But to be a shepherd had much broader meaning as well. In Israel the title ‘shepherd’ carried royal connotation. In the Hebrew Scriptures the image of shepherd was most frequently used of Israel’s leaders. So in Numbers when Moses is nearing the end of his life he prays: ‘Let the Lord appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ The term was also used of God himself: in narrative, song and prophecy the Lord is called the shepherd of Israel his flock. (Gen. 49.24, Pss. 28.9, 74.1, 100.3, Micah 7.14) The Lord also made David the shepherd boy into the shepherd of Israel. The writer of Psalm 78 declares that ‘with upright heart he (David) tended them and guided them with skilful hand.’ All of these images pastoral, political and theological are brought together in those five words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is a personal and intimate statement. God calls us into a community, a flock, but he also cares for us as individuals. This shepherd knows all his sheep by name.
The second part of the opening sentence is: “I shall not want” or as some modern versions render it, “I lack nothing.” Here the Psalmist expresses his confidence that the shepherd will provide all his needs. Jesus picked up that imagery when he told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin’, yet, he added, ‘Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’ We tend to divide the world into the material and spiritual, thinking it’s our job to look after our material needs and God hopefully will meet our spiritual needs- the Scriptures do not know that kind of dualism. God is the one who promises to meet all our needs. That thought is both challenging and comforting. Challenging, because our society constantly tells us that we need more things. The advertisers would have us believe that a new purchase, be it a computer, iphone, car or lounge suite will somehow enhance one’s quality of life and make us feel better about ourselves. Perhaps, ‘The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want’, is a verse to take with us every time we go to the shopping centre.
The next two verses continue the shepherd theme- we are led to green pastures, and to places of rest and refreshment. Again we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be yours as well.” Our Shepherd knows what we need; he knows our need of refreshment, of companionship, and our need to be fed physically and spiritually. Furthermore the shepherd stays with us in good times and bad. Even in the darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd is there. Countless believers through the centuries have taken comfort from those words in their final hours and have found them to be true.
Verse 5 appears to change the metaphor from shepherd to host but the shepherd image is really still there. Psalm 78 declares that God “prepared a table for Israel” in the wilderness. Jesus as the good shepherd also prepared a table in the wilderness when he fed the five thousand. He gave them food to eat even though the disciples declared you would need a year’s wages to feed that many people. Jesus continues to feed his people. We gather each week to receive the symbolic meal that he ordained and gave to us as a perpetual reminder of his love and his continuing presence. We feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving and are sustained and strengthened to continue the journey.
The Psalms frequently make reference to enemies- a fact which we may find troubling especially when the Psalmist asks God to punish them. But this awareness of enemies reflects the fact that Israel was (and still is) a little country surrounded by hostile forces determined to destroy her independence. In the midst of these enemies Israel was to learn to trust in God’s care and not to rely on their own resources or military might.
The Psalm concludes with the verse, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, mercy is often rendered ‘steadfast love’ and frequently refers to God’s faithfulness to his covenant-his refusal to give up on his people despite their unfaithfulness. Goodness and mercy are two of God’s defining characteristics. As one of our Prayer Book Collects puts it, ‘God displays his power chiefly in showing mercy.’ The Hebrew words translated ‘will follow me’ are more literally rendered as ‘will pursue me’. To be pursued is usually a frightening experience but here the image is turned around. Wherever we find ourselves, no matter how desperate our circumstances- the goodness and steadfast love of God come chasing after us.
The ‘house of the Lord’ is often interpreted as a picture of heaven and certainly the Psalmist is confident of God’s presence in life and in death but the ‘house of the Lord’ is a much richer concept. Sometimes in the Old Testament, the ‘house of the Lord’ was a reference to the temple- the place where God chose to dwell. – “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go the house of the Lord” is one notable verse in that connection. But Israel was often reminded that God did not need a house to dwell in- he could not be confined in a building or in a particular time and place. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”, another Psalmist proclaims. Jesus introduced a whole new thought regarding God’s dwelling place when he promised his disciples that ‘those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.” So, no matter where we are in life or in death we have a home in God’s presence. Sometimes the awareness of God’s presence can be found in unexpected places. Henri Nouwen found it while living in one of Jean Vanier’s Communities for severely handicapped people. Nouwen was a celebrated writer and teacher who had taught at both Yale and Harvard but who experienced a period of depression and spiritual barrenness which led to his joining a L’Arche community for a time. While there he wrote:
Writing this book at the L’Arche community for handicapped people in France, I have become more convinced than ever that the spiritual life- a life in God’s house- is not meant for far- away places and times but for here and now. Only thus can it hold promise for the future. It is the presence of Jesus among us, real and concrete that gives us hope. It is eating and drinking here that creates the desire for the heavenly banquet, it is finding a home now that makes us long for the Father’s house with its many dwelling places.
In that community Nouwen discovered that Jesus was truly present among them and that we already have a home even while we are still on a journey.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” May that be our testimony as well. Philip Bradford