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
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
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
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
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
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!
Read other messages by Pastor Wade