The Lord is My Shepherd
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Easter. But in recent years it’s become known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
The image of the good shepherd had great weight in early Christianity. In the nineteenth century, archaeologists began to discover the Christian catacombs in Rome. Beneath the city there’s a network of tunnels and rooms with recesses dug out for graves. These are called catacombs. The world was fascinated with what the archaeologists found painted on the walls. Depictions of fish, the vine, and the good shepherd abound. Of course, the fish has multiple associations in the New Testament. It’s interesting, however, that it became a symbol for Christ himself. The word for “fish” in Greek is ixthus, which is an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The image of the vine comes from John 15, where we read that Christ is the true vine, in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit. But it was the image of the good shepherd that caught the eye of most people. One writer asked: why was the image of the good shepherd so popular among the first Christians? The kindness, courage, grace and love of Jesus were embodied in the image of the good shepherd. In him all that is essential to what they sought and needed in a Savior is found.
We would be hard pressed to argue against the early Christians on this point. The good shepherd provides for all we need. He rescues us from all danger. He’s always with us to comfort and to guide, from our earliest youth onward. And at the end of our lives, he’s there to welcome us home. These are only a few of the statements that can easily be multiplied. If this is who Jesus Christ truly is, it’s for good reason the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism is cherished by many even yet today. “What is your only comfort in life and death?” “That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
The scripture lessons designated for this Lord’s Day afford us the opportunity to reflect on these few statements made this morning. Let us then devote the next several minutes to this task. Our hope is that we emerge from our reflection with a renewed appreciation for the treasures that we have in our God and Savior, as they are presented to us in our lessons this morning.
I can say now what I could not say on Good Shepherd Sunday last year. I have been to the holy land. I saw the terrain on which the Bedouin shepherds tend their sheep. The pastureland extends from the North, above the Dead Sea, West of the Jordan River, to the South, in the Negev, in the vicinity of Beersheba and beyond. Most of the terrain is harsh. Our guide pointed out the little tufts of grass growing between the rocks in these open trackless wastes. “That is pasture,” she said. We looked at her in disbelief. But the shepherd walks a long distance to bring the sheep to this pasture. For it, he has to endure dust storms, loose rocks, and intense heat. There is also danger from wild animals, poisonous snakes, and thieves. But without hesitation, the sheep follow him, knowing that with him in the lead, all will be well; they do not need to worry. In a dangerous world, the Lord is my shepherd. He always watches over me. In him is my deepest security. I have only to follow him, trusting that he knows the way. The rest of the Psalm unfolds what is implicit in this opening verse.
Without fail, the shepherd leads the sheep to pasture. The Psalmist therefore declares, “I shall not want.” More recent translations read: “I will lack nothing.” For most of mankind’s history, human beings saw their ultimate good in natural forms of well-being: health, wealth, fertility, and long life. But biblical faith contests the claim that our ultimate good consists only in these forms. To be sure, they are good things, for which we ought always to give thanks to God if he has blessed us with them. But they are not enough. The Psalmist does include food, drink, and shelter. These are basic, but to these he adds freedom from fear of evil, God’s own presence, and an expectation of a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. This is what gives true contentment to the Psalmist. And it should give us true contentment too.
The theme of contentment extends into the next verse. He leads me besides still waters, and makes me lie down in green pastures. Let me share what else I learned in Israel. Our guide told us that sheep are afraid to drink from running water even when it is shallow. That’s why the shepherd will dig a channel away from the stream in order to create a pool for the water, so his sheep can drink. Also, no one can make a sheep lie down. He lies down only when he is well-watered, well-fed and secure from all threat. The image of a sheep lying down in a shady place while digesting his food is a symbol of tranquility. David affirms that the Lord, his Shepherd, provides all these things for him. We too can rest content in David’s Shepherd.
He restores my soul. It’s a beautiful turn of phrase, which we owe to the King James translators. But it isn’t exactly accurate. The original means: “he brings me back.” The image here is that of a lost sheep. When I was in Israel, our guide told us that when a sheep is lost, he tries to hide under a bush or a rock. He then begins trembling and bleating. But that only attracts predators, which will kill and eat him, unless the shepherd finds him first. When he does find him, the sheep is usually too traumatized to walk and must be carried by the shepherd back to the flock.
The Psalmist knew how prone he was to wander and lose his way. That applies to all of us. At the end of the day, our only hope lies in the good shepherd, who will come after us, find us, pick us up, and then put us back down on the right path. It is a very comforting image.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Valleys here refer to paths that lie between mountains where there are dark shadows and deep gorges. When our tour went to the En Gedi nature reserve, our guide wanted to bring us down to the wadis, so we could see up close the beautiful waterways in the canyons. But the authorities forbid us, because the waters were high and the currents were too strong. Tourists in fact had been swept away and lost earlier in the season. Evil and death are real and must be faced. But fear of them can be paralyzing, preventing us from truly living. Often the fear experienced in the valley of death is a kind of death itself, because it destroys the joy of living. And a life devoid of all joy is truly a living death.
But the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, according to John 10:11. Bible students are right in assuming that this is a veiled reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. The good shepherd shared our humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held captive by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-5). For their part, the sheep do not fear. They follow the shepherd and pass through the darkness. The shepherd will lead them safely home, to their own sheep pen.
In our lesson in the Gospel of John, we heard Jesus to declare: “I am the gate for the sheep.” When we in our time read this text about one who watches or guards the gate, we cannot help but think of one of the most disturbing novels of the modern age. We refer here to Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. In the chapter titled “Before the Law,” there stands a doorkeeper before a man in a small waiting room. This is a parable about how people due to fear and a bad conscience are denied access to abundant life. No matter what they do, they’re always wrong. That’s why there’s always someone who explains to them that entering through the door is impossible, as does the doorkeeper in Kafka’s parable. How old do we have to be before overcoming this phantom? Kafka’s parable shows us that we will die in the small waiting room, as long as fear and a bad conscience have power over us. In the end the doorkeeper tells the man that indeed he has been at the right door, but that the door only opens from the inside, and therefore he has only himself to blame.
That cannot happen to the one who has Jesus as his or her shepherd. Jesus wants us to have access. He is our gate. Whoever enters by him will be saved. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Jesus understand his role as our shepherd in just this way. He accompanies each of us until we reach the threshold of the house. And we find him already there. He stands at the gate, and in fact is the gate. He is the entryway into the house of God.
Today, if it were not for the coronavirus, we would be celebrating communion together. There is a eucharistic reference in the Psalm, which we consider here in conclusion. Our good shepherd has prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. On our video on Good Friday we spoke of the significance of the words “it is finished,” which Jesus announced from the cross before he died. What is finished? Finished is the hostility between God and man. It was crucified with Christ. Finished is the hostility that divides us from our enemies. It too was put to death on the cross. When we celebrate communion together, we announce and anticipate this peace as the destiny that God has in store for us in Christ. Until then may we trust our shepherd. For he will bring us to this destiny. Amen.