A sermon by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Fourth Sunday of Easter—May 11, 2003
Text: Psalm 23
Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beloved passages in the Bible. No doubt many of you learned it as a child in Sunday school, and can still recite it by heart. Quite possibly it’s part of your prayers at bedtime or on waking, or perhaps in times of fear, doubt or trouble. If you haven’t got it memorized, I would be willing to bet that it’s still familiar to you, just the same, and it brings a smile to your face and a peace to your soul when you hear it read.
Even people outside the church have picked up on this sheep and shepherd language. Jesus taught his followers to beware wolves who come in the appearance of sheep, and now hardly a person in town wouldn’t know what you meant if you called someone a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” We might talk about our manager separating the sheep from the goats at work, whether or not we remember that Jesus first used this image to describe the great day of judgment. Although most of us—especially those who grew up in larger towns or cities, as I did—don’t even know a shepherd personally, something about the image still rings true in powerful ways.
Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep. The psalmist wrote about God leading him like a shepherd. Let’s spend some time with the psalm this morning, always keeping Jesus and his shepherd’s love in mind.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
When I was young, I used to be bothered by this very first line of the Shepherd Psalm. “I shall not want?” What’s wrong with wanting, I wondered. Am I not allowed to want things? Why does God forbid wanting? Anyway, it didn’t really matter, since I could hardly keep from wanting in the first place. If God was opposed to wanting, he shouldn’t have invented the JCPenney Christmas catalog.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized this verse wasn’t a commandment like it sounded. We’re so used to “thou shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments that it’s hard not to hear “I shall not want” as anything but the law being laid down on us. But this is nothing but a sweet promise to us, if we only understand it! The problem comes with the word “want.” The way we use it most of the time, it means to desire something: “I want this! I want that!” But the word “want” can also mean to lack something, to not have something we need. That’s how it’s being used here. Some newer translations of the Bible make this verse, “I have everything I need,” and that’s closer to the point. But it’s really not strong enough yet. “I shall not want” looks ahead to the future, so it’s not just that my shepherd makes sure I have everything I need right now, but he’s also going to make sure I never lack the things I need. “The Lord is my shepherd, and he will always provide for me”—that’s how I hear this verse now.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
If you’re a sheep, there are really only three things that you probably want: grass to eat, water to drink, and peace and comfort to live out your life. Any shepherd worth his wages will provide those things for his sheep, but a good shepherd goes a step farther. He makes sure that the grass is green and tasty. There are some pastures of brown, scrubby-looking, chewed-over grass out there, and a good shepherd makes knows where the good stuff is hidden and how to lead his sheep there. And a good shepherd knows that still water is the best for drinking. A fast-moving stream is dangerous and unpleasant to drink out of, and so he finds calm pools to nourish his sheep. And a good shepherd knows how to care for his sheep when they are hurt or ill or scared, touching them with loving, healing hands until they find peace and comfort again.
That’s how Jesus is for us. He knows what our needs are and he sees that they are met. Not only that, but he gives us the good stuff. He doesn’t only feed us with scrubby-looking stuff, he gives us a feast of bread and wine and his own words, along with the food we need for each day. He doesn’t just give us water to drink, he leads us to life-giving pools where he washes our feet and claims us as God’s own children. And he restores our souls, tending them like a shepherd looking after a sick sheep, so that he can heal our hurt, our anger, and our sin, until we live in peace and comfort again under his care.
“He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
Sheep don’t know where they should go; on their own they will wander. They count on a shepherd to lead them down the right paths to get them out to pasture and back to the fold again safely. And the shepherd’s reputation depends on his ability to lead that flock. If he walks out in front and waves and hollers, but can’t get his sheep to follow, he won’t last long as a shepherd, and his name will become a joke in the whole country. And if he gets the sheep to follow but leads them off a cliff or into a wolf’s den, he’ll become worse than a bad joke.
God’s reputation depends on how he cares for his people, and like a good shepherd, Jesus makes helps us to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the good roads. We don’t need to know where the road goes, because our shepherd has a good reputation around the town: he knows where he’s going and how to get there, and he knows better than to lead us off cliffs or into deadly danger. His good name depends on getting us there in one piece, and he hasn’t ever, ever failed his sheep.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”
Just because a shepherd has a good name and knows the good paths doesn’t mean the road isn’t sometimes going to be scary for his sheep. Some roads are more dangerous than others, and the good shepherd is wise enough to know which are the best to take. But there’s always some danger any time you set out from the fold with your flock into the wild country. That’s where the rod and staff come in. A staff is used for the sheep. Its hook can guide them gently along the path, or nudge them when they’re feeling unsure. It can hook a stray sheep and rescue it from an unsafe place, if need be. It’s a sign to the sheep of their shepherd’s guidance.
The rod, on the other hand, is not for the sheep. It is for anything and anyone that might try to harm the sheep or to steel them away. Jesus is right when he points out that hired hands do little more than run for their lives when a lion or wolf challenges them and attacks the flock, but a good shepherd will reach for his rod and protect his sheep, even if it is the death of him.
Jesus cares for us with both the rod and the staff. He protects us from scary and powerful things that would like to have us for lunch, and at the same time he encourages us and gently prods us along, to keep us moving down the road he’s chosen. He knows that even the best roads are scary for us sometimes, and he’s there to comfort us on our way.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
All of a sudden the psalmist is talking directly to God, his shepherd: “You prepare; you anoint.” What was just a moment ago a song about God has now turned into a heartfelt prayer.
The image changes here, too. Sheep don’t eat at tables, and they don’t drink from cups. Nobody pours oil over a sheep’s head to anoint it, and sheep certainly don’t have enemies other than their natural predators. What’s going on here?
Call it the power of the Spirit. God is big and awesome, and it’s hard to stick with any one image of God for a long time without coming up short. In fact, it’s hard to think about God’s love and kindness for long without being moved to grateful prayer like this. The Spirit moves us this way, and it’s good and natural. We should always allow God’s Spirit to move in our hearts and inspire wonder and gratitude and joy at the great things he does for us.
It’s not good to get so caught up in our images for God that we end up liking the images better than God himself! The Spirit keeps us from this, moving us as it did the psalmist, to see in new and exciting ways how God is caring for us, and then moving us to pray in thanksgiving to God.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
That’s the long and short of it, right there. Because Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us his sheep, we will enjoy long and happy lives with him. Very long lives, as a matter of fact. Eternal ones. Just as long as he himself is alive, we’ll be there by his side. We’ll enjoy his company and delight in his love. We’ll dine and be filled. We’ll rest and be renewed. We’ll laugh and bleat for joy like sheep, because we are sheep. We are his sheep, and he is our shepherd, and what a deep blessing it is to be part of his flock. Amen.