"The Lord is My Shepherd"

Often read or written on cards of remembrance, Psalm 23 is a popular scripture quoted at funerals, and it's probably the most familiar Psalm to many people. As a matter of fact I've never gone to a funeral where this Psalm has not been read or provided in some kind of written form to those attending. Why is this? What is it about Psalm 23 that lends itself to times of hurt and sadness, and more specifically when we experience the death of a loved one? And secondly what can we learn from Psalm 23 today that we can take with us and use in our everyday lives, not just in times of death or sadness?

In the context of a funeral Psalm 23 is a powerful reminder of God's comforting grace in the midst of death and dying. However, this psalm is also about living, so it's nice to read it and talk about it at a time other than a funeral or memorial service.

The 23rd Psalm puts the daily and somewhat routine activities of eating, drinking, and seeking security, in a God-centric perspective, which in turn serves to challenge our thinking sometimes. You see Psalm 23 calls us to not simply claim individual assurance, but to also take our place with others in the household of God.

Now in our consumer driven world it's often times difficult to hear the simple but challenging message of Psalm 23, which is succinctly stated, "God is the only necessity of life." And yet for many of us it seems we can hardly imagine having only the necessities of life - but this is the message of Psalm 23: having the necessities of food, drink, shelter or protection.

Clever advertisers have convinced us that what were considered luxuries in past generations are now basic necessities. In advertisements we see and hear the word "new" used all the time, which is a word that causes us to look harder at a product and begins to plant the seed in our minds of wanting that so called "new product." It seems we are consitioned to respond to the word "new."

But honestly how many variations are there for things like soap, how many different ways can you eat a hamburger, how many cup holders do you need in a car? Yet if we're honest many folks are moved to explore the so-called "new" product. And if it's new we just have to have it, we NEED it. So for many to even consider, if only for a minute, God being the only necessity, and will provide for our needs, is very, very difficult. It's difficult for us is it not?

Now as we consider the psalm again, and what message it conveys to us for today we have to consider the author of the psalm, who had to not only be a shepherd, but a good shepherd. The psalmist knew exactly what his sheep needed, and he showed a deep loving concern for them.

You see the shepherd's job was to provide for the sheep's need and to protect them from harm. If the shepherd were a good shepherd, then the sheep would not "want." The sheep needs would have been taken care of completely.

The good shepherd caused his sheep to "lie down in green pastures," where the new tender grasses were growing. He led the sheep to the "still waters" where they could easily drink. The good shepherd made sure that he led his sheep in the right paths, keeping them from getting lost, or attacked.

Now to aid him the shepherd also carried two very important tools: a rod and a staff. The rod for protecting the sheep, and the staff for guiding wayward sheep back to the right path.

As Christians, and as we read this psalm through our Christian lens, it's completely appropriate for us to understand that the "right paths" include the "paths of righteousness," and the "darkest valley" to be the "valley of the shadow of death." As Christians we understand that Jesus our Lord, who himself is the Good Shepherd as stated in the Gospel of John (10:14), is our guide and our comfort in all of life. If we follow him, we will stay on the path of righteousness; and he will see us through the valley of death.

But notice also that this psalm does not say we will never experience hardship. The psalmist didn't expect to venture down paths without shadows, but stated he would "fear no evil" because he understood God was always with him.

Likewise Jesus doesn't promise us that our paths will always be lighted; he doesn't guarantee we will always be walking down the path of righteousness. But what he does promise is that he will always be there to guide us, to protect us, and to sustain us, as we walk.

This past week Susan and I went to a local wildlife preserve in Mt. Airy to walk the trails and enjoy creation as I mentioned last week we all ought to do more often. When we arrived we picked up a map of the trails and proceeded down the appropriate path.

At some point in our walk it became clear we strayed from the prescribed path as we began to encounter these bushes with sharp thorns and big holes where all the Mt. Airy groundhogs must live. As we walked along I also realized I was no longer focused on all that was around me, but had become distracted by the thorn bushes and holes, making sure I avoided them as I walked. But the good news is after a short time we eventually made our way back to the right path and continued on using the map like a shepherd uses a staff to guide his sheep.

Now the 23rd Psalm has another implication we must consider. Sheep are entirely dependent on the shepherd for their safe return to the fold. You know sheep aren't the smartest animals in the kingdom, so left to themselves, sheep wonder off, get lost, and open themselves up to all kinds of danger. And you know what, you and I often times are no better. There are times when we aren't the sharpest tacks in the pack either. We wander off the "right paths" too. We get spiritually lost, and we expose ourselves to all kinds of danger, or at the very least we get distracted by the thorns and holes we encounter along our journey to the point we don't see the light, missing the goodness and mercy of the Lord. And yet during these times because the shepherd leads us, we need not "fear evil."

Notice too that the psalmist says it was the shepherd's rod and staff that brought him comfort. The rod is easy enough to understand it was the shepherd's weapon for fighting off the wild beasts. But the shepherd used his staff to guide and discipline the sheep. The sheep could sometimes be stubborn in their insistence on going their own way, which often times was the wrong way. And though a good shepherd would try to be as gentle as possible in correcting his sheep, there were times when he had to use his staff with force.

It was the staff, the psalmist said, that brought him comfort, because he understood that like sheep, he too had gone astray at one time or another. The shepherd knew that without the shepherd's staff, like the sheep, he would never make it to the promised "green pastures." Without the trail map Susan and I might be stuck in a ground hog hole to this day.

So what about us? Well Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is speaking to the Jews. They want Jesus to plainly tell them whether he is the Christ or not. And Jesus responds, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." This is a strong message but one we still need to hear today. To be the Good Shepherd's sheep we need to listen and believe.

Just as a shepherd protects his sheep, Jesus protects his people from eternal harm. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, our Good Shepherd. If we listen to his teachings, if we follow his leadings through the Holy Spirit, if we trust that he will provide for our needs, we will walk down the paths of righteousness, and we need not fear evil.

While we can expect to experience difficulties on earth and perhaps even suffer, Satan can't harm us or take away eternal life with God. Through Christ we have the promise of everlasting safety.

When we allow God our shepherd to guide us, we have contentment. Conversely when we choose to sin, we go our own way and can't blame God for the problems we get ourselves into. Our shepherd knows the "green pastures" and "still waters" that will restore us. But we will only reach these places by following him.

Know that Jesus prepares a table for us right in front of our enemies and this morning we will gather around that table as we celebrate the Lord's Supper together. He revives our hurting soul, and fills us with blessing to overflowing. Our Good Shepherd's love chases after us everyday of our lives, and one day we will dwell with him forever. Thanks be to God!


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