Heavenly Father, into your loving care we surrender our hearts, minds and souls and all our strength, May we feel your presence and hear the word that you have for us – Amen
This morning, the forth Sunday in the Easter season is Shepherd Sunday
And the readings all have some illusion to our Lord as the Shepherd
Now in ancient times a Shepherd had mixed attributes
In general the shepherd was the one that tended to the animals, mostly sheep and sometimes goats
The Jewish lands were unforgiving lands, very hilly, and rocky
The shepherd was responsible to keep the sheep, safe from bandits and wild animals
They would often live their entire days outdoors, including sleeping outdoors
This lifestyle meant that they were generally not part of society, they were outcasts and loners and they were hard men
And by appearances often very scary looking individuals
And yet they were the last and only line of defence to care and watch over sheep
a vulnerable and weak animal – to give you some idea of what sheep are - when their wool is full and if they get wet from rain or heavy morning dew, they can tip over from the weight and not be able to get back up by themselves – a very vulnerable animal to predators
Without human intervention and protection, sheep would not have made it through the evolutionary process
So shepherds were a living paradox that were caring nurturing yet also hard and scary, social outcasts
Shepherds, in ancient worlds, were also symbolic leaders
Some say this is steaming from King David, Israel’s greatest king and once a lowly shepherd himself
The royal shepherd was given the attributes of a watchful leader that cared and did his best for a people that needed his strength and guidance
And so this, the forth Sunday in the season of Easter, the season which we most closely celebrate the resurrection, we celebrate the role that our Lord has taken as the Shepherd
Jesus occupies both of the ancient known understandings of shepherd
He is the caring, loving shepherd that is also an outsider and marginalized by His society – as John writes in the 1st chapter of the gospel
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.(John 1:10-11)
He was also praised as the Messiah and Rabbi – teaching and leading His people with gentle loving care and a leadership vision beyond what they could see
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15)
Into this day we are blessed with Psalm 23 – easily the most well known Psalm of them all
For many this is well known because it is so often chosen for funerals
But you might be interested to know that in most parts of the world outside North America, this is not the case.
However because it is the case for us, it is very fitting because in funerals one of the things that we are doing is sharing in the celebration of the resurrection both of our Lord Jesus, and of the loved one that has gone home to the Lord
We read it, as is our practice here with the psalm of the day as the “Call to worship”
And we read it in the version most known and most loved from the King James Version
Where for many pieces of scripture we can adapt, and often preferred to adapt to more modern or contemporary language – this Psalm stands alone as one that most people like to hold onto the traditional language
It is filled with rich images that bring us immediately to a place of comfort and safety
For many of us when we hear of green pastures and still waters we are transported both in our minds and our hearts
Where our soul is restored and we are made right in the name of our Lord
And yet the Psalm travels to a dark place – a place of death and the threat of death
It is selected, at least in North America, for funerals often because of verse four, where the Psalmist speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death,
Here, reminded of our fragility, reminded in a funeral setting of possibly a loved one that is lying motionless only a few feet away - our Good Shepherd is there
Where: I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me
And the all important ending with the concluding image of the Psalm is that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
Psalm 23, this short six verse psalm, (for many) is filled with messages of deep and abiding comfort
A comfort that transcends death and the threat of death
And promises us that we will live in God’s house for all eternity
For those faced with the finality of an earthly end – this is a very comforting thought and promise
We are blessed with abiding comfort, safety and protection
But it doesn’t end there – the images of God’s provision continue beyond a guardian angel but move to the extravagant
We are at a banquet where we are lavishly catered in the presence of our enemies with over-flowing graciousness
The image that comes to mind for me is of a marginalized school kid, the kind of kid that was picked on or bullied – sitting in the center of a lunch room, not with his regular pack lunch but with elaborate food of all varieties made just for them, and seated protectively by them is the most self-secure popular and famous person imaginable – all of this – right in the middle of all the bullies that picked on them
Now Craig Barnes writes: The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd,
but their life was hard. And they were too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them.
So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods,
Which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God.
Then they would return to worship, where this story was told and retold.
And we are not that different from the ancient Hebrews – we will be lifted up by this and other times of worship
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord for a time and be fed by powerfully comforting messages like psalm 23
But we will also stray like lost sheep – we will select the consolation of lesser quick fix, do it on our own solutions
And God we keep calling us back – God will keep being the Good Shepherd with a rod and staff
So into these wonderful images – into this deep sense of the Lord’s provision – it is no mystery as to why this psalm is selected for our Easter season
We, Christians, are Easter people
We are grafted into God’s family by our Lord Jesus Christ – that died for each one of us – and then achieved the greatest victory of all – defeating death and all that is death by rising from the grave
And achieving for each of us that follow Jesus the Christ and call ourselves Christians, achieving a oneness with God – and so we are Easter people
Psalm 23, even though it was written hundreds of years before Easter, is an Easter Psalm
Jesus himself walked in the valley of the shadow of death
And went into death
When we walk in the dark scary places of our life we know that our Lord - both went there - and is with us through those times
This psalm is important because of its message of trust
Trust in the Lord’s protection and provision is thus not only something that the psalmist can speak about at a distance; they are part of their personal experience.
They emanate from an intimate, personal relationship with the Lord.
The surpassing peace and trust that the psalmist knows stand against the threats implied behind the scenes of shepherd care.
There is here a trust that allows the psalmist not to fear.
And here is a fascinating item: in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, "Thou art with me."
Perhaps the psalmist was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.
Psalm 23 is a wonderful small snapshot from scripture that brings the vulnerable places of our lives and shows us that our Lord is right there with us
It tells us the Gospel message that Jesus came as one of us – lived like us and understands us
That Jesus himself humbled himself, to the point of even death, so that He can understand our pain and times of suffering – and He is walking right there beside us
Nowhere are we to be confused in thinking that difficult times won’t happen to us – but we are to be reassured that in the midst of them our Lord is there with us
Protecting us with His shepherd’s rod and staff
Tools of protection and tools of discipline to lift us out of the holes that we fall into and to draw us into obedience to follow His leading
The gospel message told in the psalm is also a message that is overflowing with hope – we are presented with eternal life where graciousness and abundance is promised
Easter, being the season of fulfilled hope, has a Good Shepherd
For each of us followers of that shepherd – Christ..ians we are given promises to hold onto
Hold on to the promise that the Lord is with you in the dark times
Hold on to the promise that the Lord is serving you an overflowing cup in a banquet in the presence of your enemies
Hold on to the promise of that you have a share in eternal life
Hold on to the promise that …
The Lord is my shepherd… I shall not want
Let us pray.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the Good Shepherd of your people, grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads, through which you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God forever and ever. Amen.