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The Lord is My shepherd

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