Every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, the focus of the church’s attention and worship is its Lord – which is no different than every other Sunday during the year – and every day for that matter. But on the 4th Sunday of Easter, the image of our Lord that occupies the ‘center stage’ of our mind – is that of the Good Shepherd.
Having now spent the first three Sundays of Easter focused on the Day of Resurrection… from the two Marys who find the stone rolled away from the tomb and hear the announcement of the angel and hold the nail pierced feet of the risen Lord…. to the visitation of the risen Jesus to His disciples where He gives them His peace… to the evening encounter with two disciples on the Emmaus Road and the breaking of the bread where their eyes were opened… the Church now steps back and reflects on the wonderful implications for the one who believes all of this in the rich imagery of The Good Shepherd.
This image of our Lord as The Good Shepherd runs through the Psalms and the Prophets of the Old Testament like a stream fed by tributaries that grows wider and runs deeper as it goes – until it comes to its destination and goal – our risen Lord – who declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
The text for our consideration on this Good Shepherd Sunday is the spring from which this wonderful image of our Lord begins in the Scriptures – the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
The image of the Lord as ‘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. Long before sanctuaries were adorned with crosses, the eyes of the Congregation were directed to images of a Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. And very often the lamb was terribly oversized and out of proportion. Sometimes the sheep was actually bigger than the Shepherd Himself, not because the artist didn’t know the proper relationship of sheep to Shepherd, but because they wanted to show the enormous weight that the Good Shepherd has borne to bring His straying sheep back to the flock.
That’s the idea we should have in our mind when we make the words of this 23rd Psalm our own. The One who has heard the bleating of His sheep who have ALL gone astray, each to its own way, has come to them to rescue them from all harm and danger and bring them home.
Doesn’t that just highlight that little possessive pronoun ‘my.’ THIS ONE is MY Shepard. He has done this FOR ME and I am forever grateful that I may call Him, ‘my shepherd.’
I Shall Not Want
There is tremendous ‘security’ in those words – and in those who make those words their own. ‘I shall not want.’ No kidding. If He has overcome the world and rescued me from hell and the wolf from hell, even at the cost of His own life – how will He not also graciously give me all things?
But isn’t it right here, as we make these words our own, that we feel them rubbing us the wrong way. If I really believed this, why aren’t I more ‘content’ with my life than I am?
• He makes me lie down in green pastures – but I see greener pastures on the other side of the fence and I’d rather lie down in them.
• He leads me beside still waters – but I have a thirst to drink from other springs that promise that if I will only drink of them, they will “restore my soul.”
• He leads me in paths of righteousness – but I don’t like to follow or be told what to do. I want to choose my own direction in life.
• All this He does for His own names sake – but I want to make a name for myself. I want others to envy me, be jealous of me, secretly covet who I am and what I have.
• He leads me through the valley of the shadow of death and I fear no evil. Why? Because I trust in own abilities and goodness, that’s why.
So, when we MAKE THESE WORDS OUR OWN, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” aren’t we on the one hand, confessing the basis for our security in this world, while simultaneously confessing our guilt in not being content with all that our Good Shepherd has done for us and will continue to do for us? We haven’t gotten past the first verse of our favorite Psalm and it has already clearly identified us as one of those lost sheep, whom the Good Shepherd has come to find and rescue and carry home.
A good way to hear the remainder of this Psalm is to hear it as the Lord’s response to our doubts about our security under His care and His reasons for why, “I shall not want.”
“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”
Food and water – the basic necessities of life. When Paul writes to Timothy, he says “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim. 6:8). I’m sure we could add a few more things onto Paul’s list of basic necessities, but as we make these words our own, we ought to listen to what is said here. The Good Shepherd provides His sheep with all the basic necessities of life – food and water. Even to the point that the sheep lie down –that is, they’re so full that they quit grazing and searching for the next patch of grass.
They drink all the water their belly can hold from “still waters,” literally ‘waters of rest’ or ‘waters that give rest.’
I know that we could ‘theologize’ and ‘spiritualize’ on these words a lot as they relate to the sacraments, and I know I’ve done plenty of that in the past, but today, when we don’t have the Lord’s Supper to connect to, and when we are all pretty frustrated with what we ‘lack,’ it might be good for us to let these wonderful words remind us of how much we ought to appreciate the way that our Lord supplies us with the basic essentials for living in this world. And rather than griping and complaining about all lack and would like to have and feel a bit cheated because we don’t have, how thankful we ought to be for the basic necessities of the body that our Lord supplies us in such abundance.
If we appreciated our food and water and basic necessities of life as from the Lord as we should, we could the more easily say, “I shall not want.”
“He restores my soul.”
Literally, the Hebrew here reads, “He makes my soul to repent.” The word ‘restore’ is the Hebrew word “shuv” which is often translated as ‘repent,’ or ‘return,’ as when the prophet Jeremiah says “Return, O faithless sons, and I will heal your faithlessness.” (Jer. 3:22).
The Lord is the Good Shepherd who knows what we need – and He knows the way we should go. So when we ‘go astray’ as all sheep do, He comes and ‘repents’ us. “He leads me in paths of righteousness…” Or, He “returns” me to the “right way.” What a loving and gracious shepherd He is.
“Even 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.”
Here’s a verse that always hits home, but especially in these days when it feels like we’re living right in the heart of death valley. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” makes it sound like we choose to walk this path. But who would do that? This is the kind of stuff that horror movies are made of. Evil and danger and the devil himself lurking in the shadows just waiting to inflict death on us.
But what if there were a sign at the entrance to this valley that read, “Now entering the valley of ‘No Fear.’” And in fact, that’s just the sign the Psalmist sees. As he “walks” through this place where “death” overshadows everything, he says, “I will fear no evil.”
This is the defiant taunt of the prophet Hosea that the apostle Paul proclaims, “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting.” (1 Cor. 15:55).
But what is the source of the Psalmists courage and the Apostle’s boast in the face of man’s greatest enemy? It’s the fact that “you are with me.” I do not walk through this valley alone. “The Lord is my Shepherd” and He leads me through it. He “leads” me through it. He goes before me and enters into the most gruesome death and the deepest bowels of hell itself, and on the third day, the shadows are cleared and the sun is shining and the angels are singing and the LORD IS RISEN and He has led us through – safely. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Here we are in this valley overshadowed by a death that has a name – ‘corona.’ We’re not being told to deny the facts, as if this were just a horror movie but not reality. How good it is to be able to be honest and acknowledge that I am in this valley where I can’t see what lies around the corner or what tomorrow might bring and my imagination sometimes gets the best of me and I start to see things and fear things that aren’t actually there. How good it is to hear this word and make it my own – “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
This is the center of the 23rd Psalm and the point around which everything else revolves. In the Hebrew, Psalm 23 has 55 words in total. This short phrase, “you are with me,” stands right in the center. There are 26 words before it and 26 after it. The abiding presence of the Good Shepherd, who is MY LORD, that is the beating heart of this Psalm. “You are with me.”
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Up to this point in the Psalm, the imagery has been closely connected to the reality of the relationship between sheep and shepherds. But now, the Psalmist quits all that sheep/shepherd analogy. Sheep do not sit at tables, nor do shepherds anoint the head of their sheep with oil. And obviously, sheep do not drink from cups.
So, what’s this about? First, let’s be sure to understand that there is nothing here that has told us that we are not STILL IN THIS VALLEY OF DEATH. There is no reason to assume that the Good Shepherd has led His sheep out of death valley and onto the island of pure bliss. We know that one day, on that day that He calls “the last day,” He WILL do just this. But until that day comes, we live and move and have our being in ‘death valley.’
But it is right here, in the ‘shadowlands,’ that our Lord, our Good Shepherd celebrates His victory with us and invites us to celebrate with Him – “in the presence of our enemies.” Our Lord MOCKS our enemies by holding this ‘feast of victory’ right in their presence, which they can do nothing but watch in utter humiliation and with gnashing teeth.
And as for all who are seated at that table, dripping with His oil of gladness, drinking from the overflowing cup of His love – what is this but our own defiant taunt. “If God is for us, who can be against us… Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us…” (Rom. 8)
Even as we live our days in the ‘shadow of death,’ we may live without fear because the Good Shepherd who is MY LORD has shown me… that it’s just a ‘shadow.’
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
You’ve got to wonder, who are these words being spoken to? Is this what that ‘communion of saints’ gathered around the banquet table, is proclaiming to their enemies – already reviling in the outcome that their GOOD SHEPHERD has accomplished and that THEY CANNOT PRVENT?
Or are they joining their voices with the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven who now “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” and with whom they are ready to join at any time? Or is it both?
It’s those words, ‘shall follow me” that we want to be sure to hear rightly. The Hebrew word here is, “radaph”. It means, ‘to chase after,’ ‘to pursue.’ We could say, ‘to hunt down.’ The ‘goodness and mercy of God’ doesn’t ‘follow’ us like a good little puppy following us on its leash. No, the Good Shepherd ‘chases after’ us; ‘pursues’ us; ‘hunts us down.’
Because we belong to Him. We are the sheep of His pasture and “for His own name’s sake” He ‘hunts us down’ until He has us safely resting on His shoulders or in His arms and brings us to His Father’s house and says, “Dear Father, I have lost none of all that you have given me.”
“The Lord is my Shepard. I shall not want.” No, you shall have it all.