Earlier this week I recalled to one of you an early childhood memory. I was very young, in Sunday School class, waiting for the teacher to ask me to recite Psalm 23. I’d learned it already by rote, and was confident I could meet the challenge. I recited it without tripping up. Maybe that was the first indication that I should choose the vocational path I later did. But at that time, I was happy just to have earned a gold star after my name.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The lessons for today, appropriately enough, are about the shepherd and his sheep. By far, our first lesson, Psalm 23, is the most familiar of all the Psalms. Indeed, we could even make the case that it’s the most familiar of all the passages of the Bible. How many of us, when prompted, can recite lines from this Psalm, if not the entire thing? Even in an age that is characterized by growing biblical illiteracy, it occurs even in popular culture. In the movie Titanic, a priest recites it as the ship is sinking. Kanye West, U2 and Pink Floyd refer to Psalm 23 in their songs.
And that seems remarkable when we consider how far removed pastoral scenes are from our daily lives. Very few of us, if any, have ever met a shepherd. And even fewer have spent time in the pasture with sheep, tending and protecting them.
And yet the image persists; it has not lost its appeal. Why is this? Is it because in the collective psyche of mankind there exists a longing for One bigger, stronger and wiser to tend and protect us? Or is it because the image corresponds to the deepest insight into who we are as frail and vulnerable creatures in a world inhospitable to our survival, not to mention our flourishing? These together constitute the two sides of the same question.
However we answer this question, the Lord is our shepherd. That’s the Psalmist’s experience, and that’s his witness to us. God cares no less for the Psalmist than does a shepherd for his sheep. According to tradition, the Psalmist here is David, who tended his father’s sheep before becoming king of Israel. So he knows something about caring for sheep, and can speak with authority on what it takes to be a good shepherd.
The Lord as our shepherd shows tender love towards us, his sheep. The shepherd is gentle with his sheep, watching vigilantly that no evil or harm befall the flock. Therefore, the sheep find comfort and peace and rest in his presence. At a special service I helped organize at St. Francis Church in Holland on Monday of Holy Week, we sang a very beautiful song. “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. He who has God nothing lacks.”
There is in this song an explicit reference to the first verse of Psalm 23. That the Lord is our shepherd means that we “shall not want.” Contemporary versions of the Bible render the phrase: “will lack nothing.” This is a statement of faith. We affirm that God supplies all our needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus, according to the Apostle Paul (Philippian 4:19). We know we are not to set our hearts on wealth, which is so uncertain, but on God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17).
But this is difficult. We do not always translate what we believe into how we live. In this world we enter competitively in the struggle for survival. We learn at an early age to be shrewd in our bid for money and resources, with the assumption that these are scarce, and that we all live at each other’s expense.
But God does want us to strive, but to rest. He commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath. The word means rest. Obedience to the command to rest is an act of faith. It’s an acknowledgment that God ultimately provides for our needs. Moses reminds the people of Israel to remember how God provided for them in the wilderness. Otherwise, they might say in their hearts: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember, Moses warns, that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm the covenant he made with your forefathers (Deut. 8:17:18).
Resting gives us the mental space to contemplate what God is doing for us and around us. When we slow down, we are able to reflect on how God has been working, and find reasons to give him thanks. That’s why we devote one day a week to cease from our ordinary activities to meet in this sanctuary to worship. We come here to rest, to lay down our worries and cares, to rediscover the God who knows about them and is faithful to provide and care for us, as a shepherd does his sheep.
The author Alan Noble, in his profound book You Are Not Your Own, asks us if our churches are places where people feast, prodigally delighting in God’s good gifts with gratitude. He could have asked the same question in these words: Are our churches places where people’s souls are restored? Rested, contented sheep are healthy and happy sheep. Our souls then overflow in praise and thanksgiving. And we find our energy renewed for the tasks that face us in the six days that follow our day of rest.
Author Christine Wyrtzen observes that the life of sheep illustrate the rhythm of the Christian’s life. There is resting, grazing and working. God gives us rest. He gives us abundant spiritual nourishment in Word and sacrament. Well-rested and strengthened by this nourishment, we work in those arenas to which God has called us.
We can rest, because the shepherd spares no effort in finding rich pasture and cool water for the sheep.
When we toured Israel in early 2020, only two weeks before the global pandemic, our guide one day pointed out to us a Bedouin shepherd on a hillside. She began to explain to us what he must do to care for his sheep in the rugged hill country. Water is scarce, and when it is found, it flows in fast moving streams. Sheep will not drink moving water. Therefore, the shepherd must dig a trench to divert the water from the stream into a shallow pool. Then the sheep will come and drink.
This is a good example of how dependent sheep are on the shepherd. They are quite helpless; they do not know how to find on their own what they need to survive and grow. But the shepherd knows. David trusts his God to lead him like a shepherd, and he is not disappointed. He arrives at a place where his needs are satisfied.
Do we trust that God will lead us on right paths to the place where our needs will be satisfied? It is not always so easy to trust. We think we know better.
John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and pioneer of the national parks movement, was a shepherd when he was a young man. Early in the summer he would lead his flock higher and higher into the Sierras to bring it to fresh green pasture. At some places the trail between the pasture in Yosemite Valley and that in the Tuolumne Meadows was terrifying to the sheep. They hesitated to follow him along the treacherous path.
Is this not often how it is with us and God? God does not always lead us along smooth paths over gentle terrain. And so we hesitate to trust him enough to follow him. Fear overcomes our faith. And we will not move. Or in our fear we make rash and impulsive choices that lead us along paths that our shepherd has not chosen for us. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we all have known this experience.
But David overcame his fear and proved God’s faithfulness. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he discovered that God did not leave him. He found comfort in the shepherd’s rod, his staff.
The shepherd carries a rod, which doubles as his walking staff. When it is a rod, he uses it to ward off predators that attack the sheep, even at the risk of his own life. David was a skilled warrior, because he first honed those skills in protecting his flock against the lion and the bear. The sheep come to recognize the rod. When they see the shepherd with it, they relax.
They can relax because they know that he cares for each of them personally. When one is injured, he binds up its wounds. When another is lost, he goes out in search of it. For he knows that a lost sheep gets so distressed that it will lie down and refuse to budge. He will have to bend down, pick it up, and carry it on his shoulders to a place where it feels safe. And when a ewe is in labor, he assists in delivering the lamb. Here we can see that the shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters not only to provide sustenance for them. It is also to care for them in their distress. For a sheep this may mean restoring it to health. For us it may mean restoring our fragmented souls to wholeness through loving care.
David trusted his Lord to guide him. In submitting himself to God’s guidance, he found rich pasture, cool waters, protection, a table prepared for him in the presence of his enemies, and royal honor—the satisfaction of his needs and more.
Reflecting on God’s generous provision, David uses a figure of speech that we still use today when we want to express how abundant the blessings have been in our lives. “My cup runneth over.” On the basis of God’s goodness to him in the past, David is confident about going into his future. He is convinced that goodness and mercy will follow him all the days of his life. And afterward he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There is no equivalent word in the Psalm for the phrase eternal life, which we find in our Gospel. But it is possible that Jesus has the conclusion of Psalm 23 in mind when he says that he will give to his sheep eternal life. We may assume that without Jesus the meaning of the Psalm for us is not fulfilled. In the valley of the shadow of death, we do not have to fear evil, because Jesus entered death ahead of us in order to clear a path to eternal life.
Today on Good Shepherd Sunday we have been invited to reflect on the Lord as our shepherd. But is it possible to entertain the idea that the image of a shepherd cradling a baby ewe lamb evokes also motherhood? And if motherhood, then also God’s care for the one she holds in her arms?
We will want to point this out on this special day in the civil calendar, a day we know as Mother’s Day. Many will attest that the love of a mother for her child is an apt analogy of the love of God for his people. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” God asks his exiled people in Isaiah, “though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15-16).
But we will also want to point this out on this special day in the life of this congregation, a day on which we welcome into the church Lylyth Anne through the sacrament of baptism. God’s care for both mother and child among his covenant people is found another memorable passage from Isaiah: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).
May we dwell on these images on this day when we acknowledge God’s special gift to us of mothers and of their children. For they speak to us of the tender care that God gives to God’s people. Let us entrust ourselves to this care, as we continue in our journey of faith. Amen.