I was laying in bed and thinking about today's sermon along about the middle of the week... I thought it seems like a difficult thing to preach on the most well-known passage in the bible. Most from my generation and older have Psalm 23 memorized. It is read at most funerals as a comfort and promise of God's care. There are no surprises here... or are there? We often associate this picture of the shepherd in the psalm as being Jesus. But David wrote this a thousand years before Jesus came on the scene. Of course, Jesus is there as in today's reading he claimed the mantle as the good shepherd. Why a shepherd? Let's look and see a bit more about this familiar passage.
Jesus told his listeners that he is the good shepherd which would certainly remind his listeners of Psalm 23. And the words of Jesus and the psalm sound safe and warm and comforting. But in context, Jesus was in a heated conversation with the religious authorities. John 9 was where Jesus healed a man born blind and the leaders questioned his authority to heal on the Sabbath. They kicked the healed man out of the synagogue and had this exchange with Jesus, “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
This lead Jesus into a discussion of shepherds and contrasted his care for the sheep of the fold with those leaders, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” This is not a safe and warm and comforting passage; not for the Scribes and Pharisees. It is condemnation for their lack of care for the flock. This confrontation ended with an attempt to stone Jesus for his “blasphemy”.
The discourse also reveals the personal costs for a good shepherd in caring for their sheep. The leaders were watching out for their own, personal concerns. The good shepherd has the safety and care of the sheep foremost on their minds. The contrast between the thieves and bandits with the true shepherd is the contrast between Jesus and his love for the sheep and the selfish concerns of the synagogue leaders. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And I don't have to explain how that played out for Jesus. Five times in these nine verses Jesus speaks of the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep.
Last week I talked about our relationship with Jesus and the fact that the salvation journey is not all about the sweet by and by. Salvation begins with relationship. And the 23rd psalm's Lord as our shepherd is a metaphor of relationship. Again, David did not specifically write this about Jesus—but Jesus claimed this mantle when he said “I AM the good shepherd.”
Again, why shepherd? What are the tasks of the shepherd? I want to look at some of the things listed in the psalm, but I won't be taking them in order so please bear with me. David wrote of anointing his head with oil. For sheep, this anointing with oil would usually be done because of flies or other pests attacking the moist tissues of the face, eyes, nose, mouth. Oil would protect the sheep from these pests. Humanly speaking, anointing with oil was done either for for dressing wounds or for setting someone apart for a sacred task. When Nathan came to set David aside as king, the anointing with oil was the outward sign of God's choosing David.
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” The shepherd's rod, according to my sources, was an oak club about two feet long that was used to defend the flock against vicious wild animals. Shepherd's took their sheep to unpopulated areas; wild animals would be a danger to the sheep as well as to the shepherd. Using David as an example again, he'd had to defend the sheep. Before David fought Goliath, he explained, “you know why I can fight Goliath? Because the same God that gave me power over lions and bears will give me power over any Giant…” (1 Samuel 17:37). The rod brings comfort to us as sheep because we trust God's power to prevail against the dangers and toils of this world. Not that troubles won't come our way, but that God will work good in all things (Romans 8: 28)
And the shepherd's staff? This is the shepherd's crook that is hooked on one end and used to prod the sheep in the right direction. It was also used to untangle a sheep that had become caught in a bush or had fallen into a hole. (video?) Jesus as the good shepherd is our savior, untangling us from the snares of sin and our failures. But I want to focus more on its use to guide or prod us in the right direction. Jesus through the Holy Spirit is with us to guide us in the right paths. The Psalm put it this way, he “leads me beside still waters; He leads me in right paths,” and beside the still waters. I focus here because it suggests a journey. Our walk with God is a journey. Faith is not a one and done decision; it is a path we choose. Our guide on this path is Jesus, our good shepherd. And the path is not always straight and easy. So on this journey, the rod and staff protects us and directs us toward God's perfect will for our lives.
Our journeys include times of quiet rest beside the still waters; times to recharge our batteries and find strength in the presence of God and with fellow journeyers. The journey also brings times where we travel through the valley of the shadow of death. Death touches all of our lives; the death of loved ones; the specter of our own death as we grow older. But we never travel that path alone. The good shepherd, Jesus, has gone before us to open paradise. And Jesus guides us through the valley as we look to him in our fears and sorrows and doubts.
Our psalm suggests two companions for our journeys, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Where is our source of goodness and mercy? It is Jesus. It isn't the perfect analogy for David says follow instead of accompany, but the idea of Jesus with us with his goodness and mercy is surely here.
And the psalm also indicates our destination, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As I said, it is a journey with an eternal destination at the end of that path. And not to get too technical but I found that the word for this path the shepherd leads could be translated tracks or even ruts. And that brought to my mind the sign along an Alaskan highway that reads, "Choose your rut carefully.....You'll be in it for the next 150 miles." We are independent human beings. We can choose the path we follow. We are encouraged to choose our path, our rut, wisely; the path of the Good Shepherd.
What does your faith journey “rut” look like? If it only encounters the Good shepherd for an hour on Sunday morning, maybe you need to spend more time choosing time with Jesus. Look back on your life. Most of us have lived more than half our lifetime. Does the rut you've been in follow paths of righteousness? Does it travel along the still waters? Or have storms and fears and doubts been your signposts? Are there tracks through green pastures where your soul is restored? These are the places the Good Shepherd leads if we choose to follow. See, the shepherd doesn't drag sheep onto the right paths, the shepherd leads and the sheep follow. (children's sermon) And following does not mean we'll have no problems for the path will always lead sooner or later through the valley of the shadow of death. Whether or not you're on your path with Jesus, you will face these valleys. Jesus invites us, pleads with us to follow his path of righteousness. Today, may we take a look at the path we are on. Ask yourself, am I following Jesus or am I wandering my own path and just checking in once in awhile? I said that most of my generation has memorized the 23rd psalm. I challenge us all to memorize, recite, and then use this psalm as a constant reminder of the presence of Jesus in our lives and the promise that he leads us in the right paths if we just choose to follow. To help with that, this whole psalm will be our verse of the month for May. Rest, refreshment, comfort, mercy, goodness, hope all wrapped up in this picture of a shepherd. And then fulfilled by Jesus who calls us to follow.
Hymn: Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us