Text: Psalm 23
Today, traditionally, is Good Shepherd Sunday. On this fourth Sunday in Easter many churches around the globe will read Psalm 23 or a passage from John 10 where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.
This morning, I have accepted the daunting challenge of preaching from perhaps the most familiar text in the entire Bible, Psalm 23. It is frequently read at funerals, recited in church, and memorized by students. I remember there was even a small scholarship at my college if you could memorize and recite it. Psalm 23 has been immortalized in centuries of art and poetry, and is perhaps one passage of scripture that will never be able to transcend the King James Version—No matter how many new translations come out, it will always be “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
So what can I say about a passage of scripture that familiar, that “near & dear” to us?…a passage of scripture that usually ranks above the Ten Commandments on lists of “most famous Bible verses”?
Maybe something; maybe nothing. But I do believe God is guiding us this morning to see and hear it anew. And to do that, we will have to journey together.
But before we journey, we have to pack. And packing, in this case, involves opening up the Psalm for a closer inspection: examining a few words and phrases whose meanings are significant for the journey we are taking. So for the next few minutes, we are going to work through the psalm, wrestling for a few moments with some of those words and phrases that are already so intimately familiar to us. Once we have worked through the images presented in Psalm 23, we will begin our journey.
Our packing begins with the image of the shepherd. Shepherds are foreign to most of us, in our western, urban environment. Most of our common knowledge of shepherds and sheep comes from the Bible and well-intentioned preachers.
- Our Bible is saturated with stories of shepherds, starting with the second son of the first couple: Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted by the God who snubbed his brother’s.
- Abraham, through whom a covenant with God was initiated, owned many herds, and we often think of him as a shepherd.
- His grandson Jacob worked as a shepherd for fourteen years before he was able to marry the girl of his dreams and return home.
- Moses was a shepherd who kept his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks, before encountering the Burning Bush.
- And let us not forget David, the iconic shepherd for many of us, the boy in the fields who was considered too young to go to war or to become king.
- We remember the prophet Amos, who was a shepherd around Tekoa.
- And no nativity scene would be complete without a few shepherds and various livestock visiting the infant Jesus.
- The same Jesus who would one day refer to himself as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep.
But shepherding was not all blue skies and wildflowers. Their labor was dangerous and menial, as they faced threats from wild animals, bandits, and the worst that Mother Nature had to offer. Shepherds were on the margins of society and rough around the edges, and so Jesus’ self-identification as a shepherd was (in fact) an edgy statement. When Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10, he admits identifying with the margins of society, he acknowledges something dangerous about his ministry, and he stresses the lengths to which he will go to protect us.
It is of course through Jesus that we encounter Psalm 23, a psalm Jesus himself would have known and perhaps prayed. And Jesus comes to Psalm 23 through Ezekiel 34:10-16, where God assumes the roles of the shepherd—the one who will rescue, lead, guide, feed, protect, and seek the lost sheep. But in the process of seeing God as shepherd, we have to see God through this adjusted lens as well—a little rough around the edges and relentless in pursuit of us.
Place of Plenty
Next, the Psalm continues with a vividly poetic depiction of a place of plenty. It is a location characterized by provision, care, guidance, and restoration. The Hebrew here suggests a stillness in the sense of peace and tranquility, both within creation and within the psalmist’s very being.
Notice that the plenty here is not merely for our benefit as sheep. It is for God’s benefit as well, for in leading and providing for us, the Name of God is glorified in all the earth.
Adversity & Fear
The “valley of the shadow of death” is immediately ominous and foreboding, however one reads it. This is perhaps the easiest symbol to translate into our own lives, as it takes only a moment before we remember such dark valleys and the ominous approach of death that we have experienced. We know from our own experiences that the imminent approach of death is often just as foreboding in anticipation as is death in its finality.
One of the gifts of Psalm 23, however, is its communication of the antidote for fear. The most powerful antidote of fear—we read in verse 4—is presence. This truth has been affirmed by my experience, whether sitting in the shadow of death with a newly widowed 99-year-old or a mother who just lost a five-day-old infant. The promise of presence given by Jesus Christ (“Lo, I am with you always”) is lived out in us, as we accompany those we meet throughout the valleys and shadow places of this life.
Rod & Staff
If any of the symbols of Psalm 23 are misunderstood, they are surely the rod and staff of the shepherd. In the psalm, the rod and staff are sources of comfort to the psalmist as she traverses the “dark valley” and faces “evil.” We tend to see these objects as weapons to be used for defensive or offensive means, as dictated by the situation. It is with these weapons that evil is warded off, that our safety is secured for another day.
Since we see these objects as weapons, some of us sheep begin to fear the Shepherd, afraid the Shepherd will turn them against us if we do not follow close enough.
And while it is true that the rod and staff of the Shepherd were at times used defensively, that was never their primary purpose. Their primary purpose was to prod, direct, and guide the sheep in the direction they needed to go. As such, these objects represent the presence and leadership of the LORD in the life of the psalmist. And remember—even when used as weapons, the rod and staff were used to passionately defend us!
Anointing & Table
With the introduction of the Table metaphor in verse 5, the speaker and hearer transform from metaphorical sheep into full human beings. For the close listener, we can hear echoes of Psalm 78 where it is suggested that God prepared a table in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. We cannot ignore the familiarity of this image that seems to automatically draw us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, hearing its echoes of lavish hospitality.
The anointing described here has no messianic connotations. Rather than refer to commissioning and kingship, this term undergirds the image of hospitality. In the ancient world, the good and proper host would anoint honored guests before partaking of the prepared feast. In this way—in this psalm—God affirms our special status in God’s eyes and invites us to accept the hospitality of God.
Don’t Call Me “Shirley”!
The psalm concludes with an expression of confidence in the Shepherd. On account of the first five verses, the psalmist pledges faithfulness to the One who “pursues” him with goodness and mercy. This is the actual image being used—that of the psalmist being “chased down” by the goodness and mercy of the Shepherd.
Pastor Gary Simpson talks about being “sandwiched between the goodness of God in front and the mercy of God behind”:
The goodness of God [—he says—] is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place… The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut…
Mercy is made necessary and nonnegotiable soon after the human is created. Prone to both mistakes and missteps, sometimes deviously yet strategically placed, at other times just because of circumstances and surroundings, we need mercy… We need mercy behind us, sweeping up the refuse we have inadvertently left in our wake; we need mercy to erase even the memory of our sins as God casts our sins as far as the east is from the west. Shutting doors that no one can open. (Feasting, 440)
Faced with the relentless pursuit of such goodness and mercy, we—like the psalmist—can do nothing but express gratitude and commitment to the One who is so committed to us.
Journeying: We Depart
Now that we’ve packed, let’s take a journey together—a real journey……and a symbolic one. You are already familiar with this journey. In fact, you know it intimately. Because it is your journey……and it is mine.
At the beginning of the journey, there is a God. Your needs are met. You are in a place of plenty, a place of wholeness. The paths that you traverse are wide and open, clearly marked. It is obvious where you are to go. God is good, for life is good.
But somewhere along the way, the journey becomes less comfortable, less familiar. It doesn’t happen abruptly, but you begin to notice that the trail has narrowed, that the grasses and weeds along the side of the trail have begun to encroach upon the trail itself. Journeying along becomes more difficult as the loamy soil gives way to rocky terrain. These progressively larger rocks, combined with the appearance of increasingly treacherous climbs and descents, slows your forward movement. Stopping to catch your breath, you become conscious of the fact that it is darker here: clouds have moved in and darkened; mountains and trees filter out light from the once-blue sky. The rain begins to fall.
Some of us become disoriented and lost in this dark valley. The going is hard. We can’t find the path. We struggle to remember when we last saw our Guide. Surely we’ve made a wrong turn. Surely we have wandered from God’s good place and grace. Our maps and the directions we were given by others don’t seem to get us anywhere. We have stumbled off the map, into a place of darkness, futility, hardship, and despair. If we remain in this valley for long, we begin to experience symptoms similar to Stockholm syndrome: we embrace the valley and the darkness, never daring to believe we can experience anything different.
But if we are diligent, we will begin to recognize the artifacts of God’s guidance—symbols of God’s presence: nothing tangible, perhaps; nothing provable; but small gifts of grace. At first, they are hard to see and easy to misinterpret. In the midst of the darkness and adversity of our journey, we are more apt to identify them as symbols of punishment than guidance. But once recognized, these gifts of grace begin to strengthen us and provide confidence to face adversity.
At some point—before the adversity is over—you begin to understand how God has been with you, seeking to prepare for a thousand possibilities, chasing you down with God’s goodness and mercy, working to redeem the adversity of your life for good. You see how God has provided you a feast—even when you lacked so much. You begin to see that you are loved by a God who thinks you are special. And you are humbled by God’s abundant provision.
God in God’s goodness and mercy has been providing for you throughout your life—in the time of plenty and the time of darkness. And you know in this moment that God in God’s goodness and mercy will continue to provide for you and redeem your life for good.
So you respond in the only way you can: pledging faithfulness to the God who had been faithful to you.
“The LORD is my Shepherd.”
Your journey……my journey……our journey is Psalm 23, over and over again. And as we read it and encounter it anew, we reflect on our lives: our expectations and realities, our dreams and dashed hopes, our light and shadows, our life and death.
Sometimes the only way to “green pastures” and “still waters” is to traverse the “valley of the shadow of death.”
Is the LORD our Shepherd? What shadows edge out the light in our lives? What kind of dangers threaten this community? If we are in a valley right now, what do we fear? Where might we see our Shepherd’s rod and staff, emblems of guidance and protection? Where do we find presence? Where might we provide presence? How might God be chasing us down with God’s goodness and mercy?
Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd is gathering the sheep. He calls to them and they hear his voice. In Christ, God’s relentless pursuit of us reaches its climax, as Jesus “lays down his life for the sheep” and is empowered to “take it up again” (John 10:11, 18).
Is the LORD your shepherd? Do you know the comfort of God’s presence, which dispels fear, restores our humanity, and guides us to the feast prepared for us?
The Shepherd is calling. Do you recognize his voice?