I shared this message on 4/17/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.
Psalm 23 is probably one of the best known and most beloved Psalms and passage of Scripture. Both Psalm 23 and John 10 portray Jesus as our Shepherd. It’s a popular, bucolic, and wonderful image of Jesus several places in the Bible. But I wonder how many of us have deeply delved into what this really means for us?
If Jesus is the Shepherd, what does that make us? Sheep.
I don’t know a lot about farming and cattle, but what I can tell you is being compared to sheep is not a compliment; in fact it’s a bit of a slam. This is not your ego-boosting-you-are-a-marvelous–creature-the-crown-of-creation-kind-of-image.
For starters, sheep are dumb. They’re not the sharpest tool in the shed. They’re a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.
• Sheep get lost easily. They find a yummy patch of grass and just keep eating and eating their way along and pretty soon their separated from the flock and out there all by themselves, vulnerable to wolves and other predators.
• Some sheep, especially in England have strong herding instincts, but others will forget that there’s safety in numbers and just go astray.
• Sometimes, sheep don’t know to move along to fresh grass and will overgraze the patch they’re standing on.
• Sheep do not have the good sense to get out of the elements—the barn could be right there next to them, but they will stand outside in the rain and the cold in the middle of the storm, unless the shepherd comes and shows them the way to protection.
But wait! There’s more! Sheep are weak; they’re not very strong at all.
• They have little or no protection, other than the flock against their predators. That phrase there’s safety in numbers? This probably was made up for sheep.
• They can’t run away from a wolf like an antelope or a deer can;
• They can’t camouflage themselves like stick bugs, butterflies, lizards, chameleons and so many other creatures can;
• They can’t fight back, spray, or poke like others animals—goats, geese, skunks, porcupines—caterpillars even have more defenses then sheep.
So they are very vulnerable. The really strong sheep with a herding instinct work their way to the middle of the flock since that is the safest place, but they don’t get much to eat there because it’s so mashed down and overgrazed, since everyone forgets to move. So once again, they are dependent on the shepherd to fight off their predators and move them along to fresh grazing grounds.
But wait, there’s more! Sheep are also stubborn, so stubborn that sometimes it’s hard to get them moving. Without herding dogs, a shepherd might use small rocks, tossing them at the sheep from behind to get them moving.
So what have we got here? Sheep are dumb, weak and stubborn. Sheep need to be shown everything—they need to be shown what, when, where and how to do just about everything to keep them healthy, safe and fed.
Now how do you like being called a sheep? The Bible might as well say that for the human creature, we are a few cards short of a deck; we’re a few bricks short of a load. How many ways can we say this? They light is on, but nobody’s home.
What’s so surprising to me about Psalm 23 is that it was written by David—King David of the Old Testament who grew up being a shepherd. So why does someone who knows how dumb, weak and stubborn sheep are, compare himself to one in this Psalm? He could have written about God as rock, fortress, mother, creator, fountain, protector, source of life, father—and all the other hundreds of images we can use for God.
But no, David was a shepherd himself, so he knew more than anyone what sheep were like. He knew more than anyone, what he was like, how much he needed a shepherd, how much he was like a sheep. For wasn’t David the youngest and the smallest of Jesse’s sons? And didn’t David lose his way as king and commit adultery with Bathsheeba? And didn’t David put Bathseeba’s husband, Uriah, at the front lines of battle so he would be killed? That’s pretty dumb and lost, pretty weak and stubborn. And didn’t David need Nathan to throw a stone at his behind to get him moving in a different direction? David knew he was a sheep more than he ever was a shepherd.
And isn’t that true for us when we’re really honest with ourselves? Sometimes, we’re dumb. Sometimes we lose ourselves in pursuit of greener grass and unawares, we munch ourselves away from our community.
It could be in the pursuit of our career, earning more money, or gaining recognition and popularity. Not that these things in and of themselves are necessarily bad, but then we look up and notice that we’re out there all alone, and have alienated ourselves from friends, family, church and community.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to get lost and we’re too weak to find our way back. Who among us have not wandered off at one time or another in our life, forgetting where we belong? Grief and loneliness, confusion about the direction our life is should take, or being overwhelmed by the demands that surrounds us can cause us to isolate ourselves. We stand in the storm alone when a barn full of friends, family and church members are right there ready to help us. All we have to do is go inside. All we have to do is ask. All we have to do is open our mouth.
But sometimes we don’t have the good sense to take care of ourselves, to ask for what we need, to exercise regularly, to sleep when we’re tired, to eat when we’re hungry and stop eating when we’re full. Instead we overgraze the pasture, hoping this aching tiredness and stress will go away. We leave ourselves exposed to dangerous elements, pumping our body with caffeine to keep going, and later alcohol to relax and wonder why we feel so unsatisfied, and can’t get a good nights’ sleep.
Other times we need help just to get moving. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, stubborn in our own self-righteousness and someone needs to toss a pebble at our behind to push and prod to get us moving in the right direction.
So when you think about it, being compared to sheep is not too off-base, is it? Jesus came because we do need to be shown everything— where, what, when and how to live.
And the good news is, given the way the shepherd takes care of the sheep, given the way our Lord takes care of us—it’s really not such a bad comparison after all. King David also knew how much God did for him, how much God does for all of us!
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd provides everything we need—the what, when, how and where for our life. Just like a shepherd tending sheep, our Lord provides for us food, shelter, clothing, protections, family and community. When the Lord is our shepherd, we may not get everything we want, but we have what we need.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. God gives us rest and nourishment. When we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, God makes us like down in a restful place without anxiety, without fears, without dreams that wake us with a start—without worry about kids or family or money, but long rest that restores not only the body but the mind as well. Then we can come to a Lutheran potluck for the nourishment of the green pastures. God leads us beside still waters—it’s hard to drink from rushing waters, you can’t take a sip from fire hydrant. The Shepherd leads us to still, quiet waters that refresh us. Psalm 46 says, be still and know that I am God. Drink deeply of the cool refreshment, of the complete and constant presence of God. This kind of care revives us in body, mind and spirit. We can take the next right step with hope.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Jesus leads us in the right way so that we do not go astray, so we don’t munch our way out of the flock. Right paths are well-worn paths. They are the crevices from the wheels of a cart or like the wagons that headed west on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails. Jesus, the Good Shepherd guides us along right paths that have been traveled by him first and then by the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. All we have to do is look to him for guidance and listen for his voice, and get our wheels set into the track of faith.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me. We live in a fallen world, and God doesn’t promise to take us out, but instead he enters into this world with us! Christianity is a “down” religion—God comes down to us, we do not have to earn our way up to God. So when evil stalks around and tempts us to do that which is not godly, when we experience death and loss, and illness, when we struggle with the challenges of this life—we fear nothing—for the Lord, the Shepherd walks with us. We never walk alone.
The Shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. For this reason, the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd—there could be multiple herds in one area, but the sheep will always recognize the voice of their shepherd. So Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. No one and nothing can take us away from Jesus! Jesus protects us from all predators, even the predator of death, taking us through death and into eternal life.
Your rod and your staff—they comfort me. The rod is what the Shepherd uses to keep the sheep in line—for us that is the Bible—the Word of God to guide us in the way of righteousness and grace. The staff is what the Shepherd uses to hook the sheep and bring them back in when they are wandering off—for us the staff is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter—who leads us back when we have wandered off.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Even when we are beset by troubles, God provides for us. We can even celebrate God’s goodness, God’s healing, and God’s abundance in the midst of difficulty (this is why we have funeral lunches with good food, laughter and sometimes music!).
I need God to do all of these things for me! Don’t you?! Well, the truth is, you can call me a dumb, weak, stubborn sheep every day of the week, if all of this is what it means to have the Lord as my shepherd. For with the Lord as our shepherd, surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life and we shall live in the house of the Lord, forever!