Preached Sunday, June 23, 2013
Text: Psalm 23:1-3a
We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks about change… and we’ve been through some of the more unfamiliar passages of the Bible, especially the Old Testament… it is time for some “comfort food.” Something familiar to anchor us. And what could be more familiar than Psalm 23?
As familiar as this “shepherd Psalm” is, though, most of us aren’t all that familiar with its central image of sheep and shepherd. Have any of you raised sheep, or been around sheep herds?
I haven’t, which is why I especially appreciate the insights of Phillip Keller’s book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” Keller grew up in East Africa, surrounded by native herders, and worked as a sheep rancher himself in his young adult years. He writes about the 23rd Psalm from the perspective of one who knows sheep and understands the ways of a shepherd.
Keller begins his study of the Psalm by considering what it means to say that the Lord is our shepherd. For most of us, those words bring comfort beyond expression; the emotion they carry runs deep within us. “The Lord is my shepherd,” means I am cared for, wanted, protected, guided. I am safe.
All of that is true because of the nature of our shepherd. The wellbeing of a sheep depends entirely, Keller says, on the type of man who owns it (17). We are safe in the Lord’s care because he is a shepherd who lays down his life for us, his sheep. We are protected because our shepherd puts our needs above his own.
To say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is an affirmation of faith, a creed of sorts. It is a statement that we trust this shepherd, that we believe he will provide for our needs. It is also a promise that we will go where he leads, and a commitment to listen to God’s voice above all the others that clamor for our attention.
It is a statement of trust, and also of humility. The Psalmist recognizes his reliance on God – there is no false sense of independence here! Rather, the familiar Psalm assumes submissiveness and obedience to the shepherd.
Living in obedience, Phillip Keller says, leads to contentment and rest. “I shall not want,” speaks to God’s provision, of course, but also to the sheep’s contentment with whatever God provides. Sheep do not strain and stress over what they need or want. They simply assume that the shepherd will provide it, and that it will be enough, whatever it is.
When my children were toddlers, just learning to walk and run and jump, Rob and I marveled at the depth of their trust in us. They would leap from a chair into our arms without any warning at all, just assuming that we would catch them. Or, before mastering stairs, would step off into midair, believing completely that because they held our finger in their little hand, they would be kept safe. Their trust was absolute – almost foolish! – so certain were they that we would protect them.
That is the kind of trust that the Psalmist speaks of: not worrying about what might happen, not anxiously taking stock of what could go wrong – just believing that the shepherd will provide for their needs, and their job is simply to follow.
It is only that kind of absolute trust that would allow a sheep to “lie down in green pastures.” Keller describes sheep as naturally timid, anxious creatures. They are vulnerable and easily spooked; they are often agitated by other sheep; they are bothered by flies and parasites; they become frantic when they feel hungry. Sheep are not, by nature, calm and contented.
For a sheep to lie down in green pastures – rather than chomping frantically, or running away from a real or imagined enemy – requires the sheep to be free from fear, from tension, from aggravation and hunger. And this freedom is a direct result of the presence of the shepherd.
When the shepherd is near, the sheep naturally feel safe from predators. But beyond that, they feel safe from one another. Keller describes a fierce “butting order” within flocks, with older or bigger ewes defending their position by head-butting younger ones, and adolescent sheep butting one another to get ahead or stand up for themselves.
Keller contrasts this sort of “standing up” – defending our own rights, getting ahead, one-upping another – with the Psalm’s image of “lying down in green pastures.” Lying down implies humility – not grasping for what is deserved, but believing that the Shepherd will intervene when necessary to prevent oppression and correct injustice.
This sort of humble and trusting “lying down” is modeled by Jesus and described in Philippians 2:6-7. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (Phil 2:6-7). Jesus trusted his Shepherd (after all, Psalm 23 would have been among the Scriptures that Jesus read and prayed!) to lift him up. “Therefore,” Philippians tells us, “God exalted him to the highest place” (Phil 2:9). The Shepherd set things straight and brought justice.
As sheep, we can trust the same shepherd to act on our behalf; we need only lie down in green pastures, and be at peace.
That same shepherd also “leads us beside the still waters.” The image is a tranquil one: a gentle brook running through lush green fields.
The truth is, though, that getting to those streams usually requires the shepherd to herd a flock along muddy paths cleared by many other animals coming and going to the water’s edge.
If the sheep follow the shepherd, they will be rewarded by the cool, clear water of the watering hole. But many sheep don’t follow the shepherd all the way. Keller explains that many sheep are distracted, instead, by the small muddy puddles along the path. They can find water there in those puddles, but it is polluted water. It may satisfy their immediate thirst, but in the long run it makes them sickly and rundown.
In our opening prayer today, we read a line that comes from St. Augustine: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” That often quoted line speaks of our longing for meaning, significance and purpose. God our Shepherd offers us all of those things – but how often are we distracted like sheep who drink from the puddles? How often do we search for meaning and purpose in our possessions, or our addictions, or our busyness, rather than going right to the source – to God.
To say with the Psalmist “he leads me beside still waters” requires us to walk past the puddles, recognizing that they will not ultimately satisfy us.
Walking past the puddles – continuing to search for God until our hearts find rest – takes practice. It asks us to shape the kinds of habits and disciplines that keep us focused on God. Traditional spiritual disciplines like prayer and Scripture reading, fasting, confession, Sabbath keeping – these disciplines keep focused on God, so that our appetites and desires don’t distract us like puddles.
Sheep learn, in time, that the best water – the most refreshing, most nourishing – is the water the shepherd shows them. They learn to trust the shepherd, and let the puddles be. In time, with practice, we learn the same. We learn that our identity, our purpose and meaning, come from God rather than from anything we do or have.
That’s not an easy lesson to learn – to rest in God and God’s love for us, rather than depending on our own merits. But there is good news for the sheep that drinks deep from the puddle and finds herself heartbroken or disenchanted or desperate.
“He restores my soul.” When following our own plans and seeking our own purposes knocks us to the ground, God is the shepherd who lifts us and puts us on our feet again. A “cast sheep” – one who has fallen over and can’t get its feet to the ground again – is a desperate, struggling, frantic creature. It is easy prey for predators, and quickly left behind by the flock. It is completely dependent on the shepherd to lift it up, steady its legs, and restore its health.
The Psalmist knows this kind of restoration – when God lifts us up and makes our life right again. Peter knew this kind of restoration when he met the risen Christ after his denial, and Jesus restored and affirmed him: “Feed my sheep, Peter.” We know this kind of restoration when God brings healing to broken relationships, or leads us out of addiction, or opens our hearts to forgiveness. God “restores our souls” when we cannot.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. ~Psalm 23:1-3a
Thanks be to God!