Title from a James Russell Lowell Poem, "King Retro," stanza 30.
Psalm 23 & Revelation 7:9-17
I love the 23rd Psalm.
It’s filled with beauty.
Beauty longing to be born within us.
An inborn beauty.
To shape our soul and bend our mind.
To the things of God.
Let’s get right to it, shall we?
The LORD is my shepherd …
A gracious and gentle image … or is it?
I don’t think there’s anything gentle about a shepherd … let’s think back to ancient Palestine, and what a shepherd does.
In the rough and tumble countryside, keeping watch over a flock of sheep …
A lot of work to be a shepherd.
Danger at every turn.
Predators skulk around, looking for a meal.
Bad water to sicken and kill a sheep.
Dangerous paths and rocky cliffs – one slip away from a broken leg or sudden death.
Birth in the springtime and springtime sheering.
Dealing with brokers to sell the sheep for the Temple sacrifices.
And always the constant search for good grass and safe places.
A lot of work to run a business and tend a herd of sheep.
Which reminds me –
A teacher asked little Johnnie:
"If there are twenty sheep in a field, and one gets out through a hole in the fence, how many sheep are left in the field?"
Johnny answered: “None!”
"Johnny,” said the teacher, “there are still nineteen sheep left in the field. Obviously you don't know arithmetic."
"Sorry, teacher, but I do know arithmetic. Obviously you don't know sheep."
I think shepherds are a tough lot … I don’t think we’d want to mess with a shepherd.
The Psalmist wants us to know that the LORD God is tough enough for the job.
God has muscles and God has experience.
God is up to the task.
The LORD God is no wimp, says the Psalmist.
The LORD is my shepherd, says he.
Here, in my hand.
An olive-wood carving … a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders … a stout rod in his hand, sturdy legs, calloused hands and dirty feet … a man accustomed to stones and thorns, harsh winds and a hot sun …
The LORD is my shepherd! I shall not want.
But if the LORD is our shepherd, what does that make us?
I think there’s a bit of a wink in the poet’s words.
If the Lord is our shepherd … we’re the sheep.
And sheep ain’t the smartest critters to be found.
But so it is, as the Psalmist intends.
With a bit of a wink and a wry smile.
Maybe we are like sheep.
We bleat when we’re hungry.
And bawl when we’re tired.
We wander off nibbling our grass.
We’re vulnerable to predators.
We get into trouble and we need to be saved.
The Psalm offers no compliment by comparing us to sheep.
We might learn something here.
Call it humility.
Maybe we’re not the smartest critter around, after all.
Maybe we need more care than we think.
Maybe we get lost more often then we know.
And we don’t even know half the time that God is leading us, guiding us, guarding us …
Bedding us down for the night in green pastures.
Taking us to good water.
Leading us along safe paths.
The Psalmist adds, for his name’s sake.
Interesting – not for our sake, but the shepherd’s sake.
The shepherd is in business.
Every sheep a shekel.
No loss can be written off.
Good milk and fine wool are highly prized.
The shepherd has a reputation to maintain.
A business to keep up.
It’s not about us.
It’s all about the shepherd.
Getting that straight is a bit of challenge for the sheep.
That it should be about God and not us!
To move from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.
To lift our eyes from the grass and the water to see what’s really at stake.
To love God with all of our heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
To know that we exist for the honor and the glory of God.
The creator who fashioned us.
The artist who formed us out of the dust of the earth.
Who gives us our breath.
Our daily bread.
For his name’s sake!
The Psalm changes pace at this point … from green pastures and still water …
To danger and darkness.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley … the valley of the shadow of death.
Shepherds and their herds lived in tough places.
The best places were for wheat and barley and olives and dates … you don’t put sheep and goats on farmland …
But in the rough and tumble countryside of Palestine … narrow cuts and twisted canyons, sparse grass and hidden water … lots of shadows and dark places.
But the shepherd is right there, beside us, with us … calling us.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me!
A rod to ward off predators.
A staff to guide us when we wander off course.
I will fear no evil, for your rod and your staff comfort me.
I am the good shepherd, says Jesus.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
On this side of Easter.
We look back to the cross.
Our Shepherd walked through the darkest of all places.
Crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell.
No greater love than this.
The death of the shepherd for the sheep.
And when the terrible work was done, God raised the Shepherd up on the third day.
And the story goes on.
The shepherd lives.
The Psalm shifts again.
Like a swiftly moving dream.
From rugged countryside to a well-set table.
Sit on down.
Make yourself comfortable.
Come on in, says God, I see you have had a hard time of it.
There before us, a Table.
The food is ready.
The cup is full.
Generous and overflowing.
But life is not all sweetness and sunshine.
If there are dark places for the sheep, there are enemies for us:
In the presence of my enemies.
Fear and anger.
Grudge-holding and pride.
Hurt feelings and disappointment.
Stubbornness and perversity.
Bitterness of spirit.
Ill-tempers and aggression.
Small-mindedness and intellectual laziness.
Spiritual pride and shallow religion.
Prejudice and bigotry.
Strife and greed.
Wars and rumors of war.
Poverty and pestilence.
Hunger and disease.
And always the last enemy.
The enemy called death!
Plenty of enemies … nearby and close at hand.
The Psalmist is a realist.
Enemies are real.
They rip and tear the soul apart.
They keep us awake at night and forge terrible thoughts in our minds and hideous feelings in our soul.
But … the divine but … the moment of faith:
Pay attention to the Table.
Keep your eyes on Christ.
Look at the Table.
Fix your eyes on God!
The food, the drink.
Keep your eyes on the Table.
We can face tomorrow because we’ve been at the Table today!
The Psalm sweeps us to a glorious conclusion
Goodness and mercy, follow us.
Cleaning up after us … picking up the pieces … putting it all together.
The power of faith, if you will.
The love of God at work in all things for good.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD.
My whole life long.
Here and now.
Then and there.
I am with you always, says Jesus.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
I am going on ahead of you to prepare a place for you.
And I shall come again and take you to myself.
You will be with me forever!
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.