Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd” (Psalm 23)
April 22, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today is one of my favorite Sundays of the year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, when we are reminded that even though each of us tries to be our own shepherd, which often does not work out very well, it is actually Jesus Christ who is our shepherd, as Jesus proclaimed in today’s gospel passage, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
Scripture not only identifies Jesus Christ is our shepherd, but also identifies you and me as sheep. Scripture does not depict us sheep as strong, self-sufficient, and powerful—but as lost, harassed, and helpless. Sheep need a shepherd, a good shepherd who will find them when they are lost and give them grace when they are harassed and helpless. In the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) and in the New Testament Matthew wrote, “When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Today I am preaching on the best known and most beloved psalm in the world, Psalm 23, a psalm often memorized in Sunday School and often read at funerals. Psalm 23 reminds us with no uncertainty that even though each of us tries to be our own shepherd, the Lord is our actual shepherd, which is very good news for lost, harassed, helpless sheep. Psalm 23 points us to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd and reveals specific ways our Good Shepherd looks out for his sheep, including you and me.
Psalm 23 is believed to have been written by David, the prototypical warrior-poet, the greatest king in the history of Israel. David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, the rejected son who was tasked with staying alone in the wilderness tending sheep. Scripture tells us when the Jesse hosted a gathering for the prophet Samuel, that all of sons were invited but David, the rejected son, the rejected shepherd (1 Samuel 16:1-11).
But although David was rejected by his family, he was never rejected by the Good Shepherd—and so Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). Shepherds lived outside with their sheep, exposed to the elements, making sure their sheep were fed and watered during the day and, and as scripture tells us about the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Jesus your Good Shepherd remains with you throughout the undulating circumstances of your life, and never stops looking out for you. In today’s passage Jesus put it this way, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away” (John 10:12). Jesus is not a hired hand. Jesus never runs away from his sheep—he runs toward them.
David continues, “I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23:1). Jesus knows your needs before you ask, and Jesus promises provision for his sheep, as he preached in his Sermon on the Mount: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…your heavenly father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:25, 32). To be honest with you I am prone to worry—I worry about being “in want” in one way or another personally or with my family or with Christ Church—and yet again and again the Lord provides, again and again the Lord proves that indeed “I shall not be in want.” When Steph and I were newlyweds we lived hand to mouth as seniors in college and both worked at grocery stores. As a bagboy I used to pray for tips so I could buy food at the end of my shift, and the Lord answered that prayer every time. And since then I have experienced the gracious provision of our Good Shepherd many times and learned the truth of what Tom Petty sang, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway” (from “Crawling Back to You” on his 1994 album Wildflowers). But I still worry sometimes, and you probably do too.
Psalm 23 continues, “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake” (Psalm 23:2-3). In my life I have occasionally found myself in a desolate place, longing for new life, thirsting for God’s presence—and rather than giving myself a break or giving myself some rest, it has been the Lord who in one way or another has made me lie down “in green pastures” and led me “beside still waters.” It has been the Lord who has revived my soul and shown me which way to go when at a crossroads in my life.
What about you? How green are the pastures in your life right now? Do you think other pastures have to be greener? How still are the waters in your life? Do you need the Lord to revive your soul or give you clarity about the path of your life? If so, you are in the right place today because your Good Shepherd is the only one who can revive your soul and guide you in the right pathway for his Name’s sake. Jesus is your bread of life (John 6:35). Jesus gives you living water (John 4:10). Jesus is your way and truth and life (John 14:6).
Psalm 23 continues, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). The valley of the shadow of death is a big valley isn’t it? It is a valley through which you have walked with others, and a valley through which you will one day walk for yourself. But you are never alone in the valley of the shadow of death, far from it. Your Good Shepherd is right there with you. I have done many deathbed visits over the years and have often sensed the peace and comfort of the Holy Spirit even at death’s doorstep because of the presence of the Good Shepherd is always with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”…The shepherd uses a staff to rescue sheep in trouble, and believe me, there are a lot of sheep in trouble. A longtime friend of mine, Tim Laniak, spent a year living in in the wilderness of the Middle East with Bedouin shepherds, and later wrote a powerful book called While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, in which he writes this about a shepherd’s staff:
Like sheep, people get stuck…We all can get trapped and need to be rescued…When we get hung up, our only hope is for someone with sincere interest and gentle persistence to reach over the gap with a staff, to reach out and rescue us…The most subtle use of the staff is to “be in touch” with someone who may just need a word of encouragement or a hug. These are ways of saying, “Everything will be OK” or “I’m right beside you.” These statements echo two of the most common messages God speaks to people in the Bible: “Do not be afraid” and “I am with you” (98).
You need not fear evil because the Good Shepherd is with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death to comfort you with his presence. He is right beside you. Everything will be OK. This is often manifested in the church, the Body of Christ.
David continues, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over” (Psalm 23:5). David actually experienced this. Again, when the prophet Samuel visited Jesse’s home in Bethlehem to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel, David was not invited. One by one Jesse presented his sons to Samuel, eldest to youngest, but as Samuel told Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel then asked Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And Jesse replied dismissively, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” Jesse would not even say David’s name. Samuel, however, told Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here” and when David arrived the Lord told Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” and “Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:10-13).
David’s head was anointed with oil in the presence of those who troubled him, his family. Who are the ones who trouble you in your life? Jesus, your Good Shepherd, spreads a table for you anyway, the table of Holy Communion, and anoints you with the oil of the Holy Spirit to remind you that regardless of those who trouble you, you are a beloved, forgiven, child of God. Your Good Shepherd gives you more grace than you can imagine. Your cup is running over.
Psalm 23 concludes with beautiful assurance of the Lord’s presence throughout your earthly life and on into eternity: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Have you ever been driving and you notice in your rearview mirror that there is police car behind you. Even if the lights are not on it can make you uncomfortable being followed by the law, and there is always relief when they turn or pass you. When it comes to your life, when you look in the rearview mirror you are not being followed by the law, but by grace, grace personified in your Good Shepherd, who gives you “mercy and goodness all the days of (your) life.”
And not only that, your Good Shepherd has personally prepared a place for you in heaven, where you “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” At the Last Supper the Good Shepherd promised: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And that is exactly what happened on Good Friday, when Jesus the Good Shepherd became a sheep, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). On the cross Jesus, the rejected servant, bore the “iniquity of us all” and rescued us with his staff from the kingdom of darkness.
One more illustration and then I’ll close…In the moving 2017 film Wonder Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie Pullman, whose was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, which means his facial bones did not form properly, leaving his face very disfigured, even after multiple reconstruction surgeries. At the beginning of the film Auggie refuses to go out in public without wearing his astronaut helmet, not just because he dreamed of going to the stars, but because he was embarrassed by his disfigured face and the ridicule it inevitably drew.
But Auggie is courageous and perseveres through an entire difficult school year, and as his father Nate, played by Owen Wilson, helps him get ready for the end of the school year assembly, there is a beautiful moment of grace. Nate is tying Auggie’s tie and says, “You’ve come a long way, huh?” “Yeah,” Auggie replies. “I am proud of you for sticking it out.” Auggie grins, “You didn’t think I would, did you?” Nate lies, “Of course I did,” but after seeing Auggie’s dubious expression continues, “Okay, well, come on, when you started you were still wearing the astronaut helmet in public.”
“I love that helmet,” Auggie says, “I wish I knew where it was.” Nate pauses and looks Auggie in the eye, “It’s in my office.” Auggie is furious, “What?!” “Auggie,” Nate pleas, “Please don’t be mad. You gotta understand, you were wearing it all the time. I never got to see you anymore. I missed your face. I know you don’t always like it, but I love it. It’s my son’s face. I wanna see it. Do you forgive me?” Auggie says, “No…yes” and then asks, “Does mom know?” “No, heck no,” Nate replies, “She’d kill me, but I can maybe find it if you need it back.” But Auggie responds, “That’s okay” and Nate hugs Auggie and then gazes proudly into his beloved son’s face.
The love of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd for you is like that, which is why the gospel is such good news for lost, harassed, helpless sheep.