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Of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter, it is number 23 that the vast majority of us know the best and call our favorite and can probably know by heart. Parents who have already taught their little children to recite the 10 Commandments, Lord’s Prayer and Apostles Creed will probably move next to the 23rd Psalm. It serves as an excellent prayer to be prayed together at the dinner table or at bedtime… no matter how young or old you may be.
The image of the Lord as ‘Good Shepherd’ is an easy one for us to embrace. It took a long time for the Christian church to warm up to the crucifix as the icon of its faith and hope. Before sanctuaries were adorned with crosses, the eyes of the Congregation were directed to images of a Shepherd carrying lamb on his shoulders. And very often the lamb was terribly oversized and out of proportion, almost as big as the Shepherd Himself, not because they didn’t know the proper relationship of lamb to Shepherd, but because they wanted to show the enormous weight that the Good Shepherd must bear to bring His straying sheep back to the flock.
A. The Lord is my Shepherd
“The Lord is my Shepherd.” The first and foremost thing to always keep in mind, not only with this Psalm but with the 149 others as well is that this is “God’s Word.” This is “God’s Word” that He gives to us to speak. And so we speak these words to the Lord as if to say, “According to Your own Word, I am one of your little Lambs and You are my Shepherd. I belong to Your flock. Shepherd me according to Your promise.”
This is the same thing that we do at the beginning of every Divine Service when we “invoke” the Name of God that was given to us by God in our Baptism, as it was just given to Anderson, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We come before the Triune God saying, “According to Your own Word, we are your people and You are our God. We have come to the house of the Lord to receive the precious gifts that you have prepared to give to Your people.”
“The Lord is my Shepherd.” What a remarkable privilege to be blessed to make such a statement. The Lord has made us one of His sheep. It is certainly not that we choose Him to be or Shepherd. Sheep do not choose their Shepherd. He chose us. And the choosing took place in our baptism, just as it did for Anderson today. As of today and for the first time, Anderson can pray the Lord’s Prayer, and join his voice to ours saying “Our Father.” As of today and for the first time, he can pray the 23rd Psalm and say, “the Lord is my shepherd.”
What a blessed privilege and gracious gift this is.
B. I shall not want
That this Shepherd who is MY Shepherd is none other than the Lord of heaven and earth of course means that “I shall not want.” Or to put it in the positive, “I shall have all that I need.”
Actually, the whole rest of this Psalm is simply a list of all that the Lord provides for His Sheep. He leads me; He feeds me; He comforts me; He anoints my head; He prepares a banquet table for me; He fills my cup to overflowing; and He chases me through this life and wherever I go with His goodness and mercy.
Let me remind you again that this is the “Word of God.” And the Word of God never fails to do exactly what it says, it never fails. And so when we use this Word of God, we are confessing both to God and to our own hearts and minds, and to one another what is most certainly true. We have all that we need. We lack nothing.
And isn’t just at this point in our favorite Psalm, before we even get past the 1st verse, that something doesn’t feel quite right. These words which God has given us and put into our mouth, are not really in harmony with our actions or our desires are they? We speak back to God the very Word that He has given us, “I shall not want.” But we do, and so we use God’s Word to lie back to God. We tell ourselves that “the Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” But we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, because we do, don’t we?
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” But we’re convinced that the grass is greener someplace else. In fact, almost any place else than where He has brought me.
“He leads me beside still waters.” But what He calls ‘still’ we call ‘stale.’ There’s a hundred other bubbling springs out there, more exciting, more thrilling that I’d rather drink from.
“He restores my soul.” But frankly, I’m not interested in ‘restoration.’ I think I’m just fine the way that I am. Sure I’ve got a few rough spots that could use some touching up, but nothing serious.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” But really, I’m much more interested in making a name for myself. I want to choose my own path and whatever it is, I’ll call it ‘righteous.’
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” But not because “you are with me.” In fact, now that I think about it, if You were really are leading me like You say You are, why am I in this valley in the first place? I expect that if You are going to be MY SHEPHERD that you would steer me away from these valleys and not let me wander into them.
Which of us can speak the words of our favorite Psalm without having these precious words turn against us to condemn us? We say with our lips, “The Lord is my shepherd,” but in our hearts we know that we also follow other shepherds because we love the sound of their voice and we are enticed by their promises.
When we say, “the Lord is my Shepherd,” shouldn’t we also say, “and we all like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way”? (Isaiah 53:6) Or sing as we just did, “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed….”
C. My sheep hear my voice
Why then do we love this Psalm so much when what it really shows us is what ungrateful people we really are and how unworthy we are to be a part of this flock and to call the Lord, my Shepherd?
Maybe we should let our Good Shepherd answer that question for us, after all, He’s the One who has given us this Word to speak. He says, “My sheep hear my voice.” (John 10:27). Not like the ‘voices’ we sometimes hear in our head or on the Web. His voice is heard in Holy Baptism and in the Holy Scriptures and in Holy Communion. Those who are not His sheep do not hear His voice simply because they aren’t there.
But His sheep know the sound of His voice when they hear it. It is the sound of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and acceptance and reunion and joy, all rolled together into one voice.
His voice goes out to the ears of His sheep and they hear it. It says, “All you like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid your iniquity on ME.” “All you like sheep were being led to the slaughter but I humbled Myself and become a Lamb and was led to the slaughter IN YOUR PLACE.”
“That was MY BLOOD that was painted over the doorframe of your houses so that the angel of death would pass over you.” “That was MY BLOOD that was sacrificed and poured out over the altar in the Temple that atoned for all of your sin.” “That was MY BLOOD that washed your filthy rags and turned them into white robes.”
“My sheep hear my voice.” “I do not say that you must pay for all of your sins. I say to you, I forgive you all of your sins.”
“And all of this I say to you, not because you were good or worthy or better than the rest. But because I choose you, and I gave you My Word, and My Word cannot be broken.” “I will be your Shepherd and you shall be my sheep,” “and no one will pluck you out of my hand.” “My sheep hear my voice.”
D. The Comfort of this Psalm
Isn’t this why we love this Psalm so much? Knowing in our heart that we have jumped the fence countless times for greener pastures, God gives us His Word, both to hear and to speak. It is a Word that is filled with forgiveness and acceptance. Now, to say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” becomes a confession of faith that My Shepherd has taken away my guilt and RESTORED MY SOUL and I SHALL NOT WANT.
No matter how far down those thousand paths of unrighteousness that we have wandered, we never go so far that we cannot hear His voice, ‘repent and believe the Gospel,’ and turn and follow Him who “leads me in paths of righteousness.”
When trials and troubles and even death itself casts a deep shadow over us; God gives His Sheep His Word that we may HEAR IT and BELIEVE IT. “YOU ARE WITH ME.” Remind me that this is only a ‘shadow,’ for you have overcome this evil by Your cross. And you have conquered this death by Your resurrection from the dead. Strengthen my faith so that as walk through this valley “I will fear no evil.” Let “your rod and your staff,” Your Word and Sacraments, that blessed ‘table that you have prepared for me,” comfort me.”
And as if all of these ‘temporal’ blessings in this ‘earthly’ life were not enough for ignorant and thankless sheep, this beloved Psalm concludes with the promise of eternal life. In our Gospel this morning, we heard the Lord our Shepherd say, for all of His sheep to hear, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish.”
In our Epistle reading from Revelation of St. John, the curtain was lifted and we saw the holy flock, an uncountable number, led by the Good Shepherd out of the Great Tribulation and who “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
All of the wandering and going astray is over forever. ‘They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in His temple.”
All of the hunger and thirst for forbidden fruit is gone forever. The scorching heat of hell can no longer threaten them. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” “If you say so Lord. If you say so.”