Journeying with the Good Shepherd
Rev. Virginia Reynolds
This morning’s passage could be designated as an American cultural icon because of its familiarity. Often it is heard in the midst of death and dying, but I invite you to hear it anew that it might challenge our usual way of thinking and lead us to a restored life.
Psalm 23 (NRSV)
The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters;
3 he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5 You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
6 Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD’s house as long as I live.
A few years after my husband I were married, friends invited us to stay at their beach front condo. As time drew close for our week away, we had lists of items to pack (beach towels, sunscreen, flashlights) and a set of very special directions. These were special, because they were not like the expected I-40 or Hwy 74 to the beach directions. No, our friends had provided us with their well-worn, back roads path that was sure to get us to our desired destination as quickly as possible, avoiding the beach traffic. The only catch was you had to pay close attention. Leaving town was easy enough, but mid-way through our trip the directions began to read “once you pass the yellow painted house with the shell gas station next door, take the first right. When you encounter a fork in the road, turn right... it will only be a dirt road for 1⁄4 mile. If you get to the house with a picket fence, you went too far so go back until you see the Coca-Cola machine, and remember to turn left over the railroad tracks when you see the farmer selling watermelons out of the back of the 18-wheeler.”
You see, our friend was so familiar with this path that he was able to guide us off the beaten path and away from busy traffic danger. He had pointed to our basic needs within the directions – gas, soft drinks and watermelon–and he had directed us to our final destination–a virtual paradise for a couple of newlyweds.
Our text today is also about a journey. Amidst the poetic metaphors and imagery there are very important directions which are guaranteed to clearly point us to our final destination. But like our directions to the beach, this text may need a little deciphering to recognize the important landmarks along the way.
Understanding Sheep & Shepherds
Attributed to David, this Psalm is written in a poetic format reflective of a distant time where sheep and shepherds were familiar characters. In New Testament days, sheep were part of most households, providing milk, wool, meat and leather. Local shepherds knew the land well and would take the sheep out to the fields to graze, carrying their personal food items along with a rod and staff. And shepherds would safely lead the sheep through the winding mountain passes, out to the grazing lands by using their voice.
A friend visiting the Holy Land described watching multiple shepherds at a watering hole. The flocks dispersed, and the herds were all mixed as they went for the water. But when a shepherd called out or sang a familiar tune, his flock would pull away and follow. The sheep recognized and followed only the voice of their own shepherd.
Sheep are considered ruminants, which means they have a special digestive system. They eat quickly out in the open “feeding grounds,” then retreat to a resting spot to chew their cud. It is an exhaustive process, and they must lie down and rest which makes them vulnerable to wolves or thieves or other predators. The terrain between the “feeding grounds” and the “resting places” often had limited passage ways and sheep traveled through steep, narrow paths strewn with large boulders which cast deep shadows right where the sheep must traverse. These dark shadows may obscure dangerous cliff edges or predators lying in wait and thus, literally become shadows of death. It would not be unusual for a sheep to wander off or be separated from the flock around the narrow passage ways and quickly be in danger and in need of the shepherd.
It should not be difficult to identify our place in the metaphoric image; we are the sheep. But who is the Shepherd? The Psalm itself points to “the LORD,” a name used for God, and in in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, Jesus himself answers the question more clearly,
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. ... Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus is The Good Shepherd. It is his voice that calls us, leads us, and provides for us. It is by the sacrifice of this Shepherd in which we receive life. How well do we know this Shepherd? How much do we trust our whole lives to his guidance? And how well are we attuned to the Shepherd’s voice so that we can be led to abundant life?
The Shepherd meets our needs
David, a former shepherd and now a king, is not only familiar with the life of sheep and shepherd but also aware of the heart and lives of God’s people. The Psalmist clearly addresses the various difficulties which humanity encounters and then points to where and how God faithfully interacts and intervenes until all are dwelling in the house of the Lord. As we examine this Psalm closely, imagine it as describing a life-long journey of a Shepherd and his sheep.
We have basic needs
The first area the Psalmist addresses is the basic need for sustenance–food, water, and life. I think he addresses this first because these are the necessities for life to exist, and until these are met nothing else matters. We as sheep are apt to worry about some of the basics, so the Psalmist puts our fears aside. The poetic language speaks directly of a shepherd who is intimately acquainted with the needs of the sheep and fully able to provide for their needs. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep on a journey where there are periods of sabbath for chewing the cud and respite and when the flock is on the move to water, to green grass, away from danger and working their way home. We often take our daily provisions for granted, but the Psalmist reminds us that the sheep lack nothing, because the Shepherd provides the basic necessities of life. God is engaged in the details of our lives, even when we have forgotten or don’t take notice.
We need a leader
It is easy to read this Psalm and think only from the perspective of the sheep and our needs, but the Psalm also tells us that the Shepherd leads us in the “right paths for the sake of the Lord’s name." But what does the Lord’s reputation have to do with us as proverbial “sheep?”
Well, first of all, we wander a lot. We put our trust in our own wisdom and earthly desires, and we wander away from the wise Shepherd. At other times, we are enticed by the latest religious fad or self-help book and invest our time and treasure in the things of this world. But if we look closely at the text, the word “paths” used in this Psalm is ma’galim which in Hebrew is translated as “tracks” or “ruts” like those made by the wheels of an ox- cart. Thus, the “paths of righteousness” are more like ruts in the ground from following a well-worn path that leads to righteous living. As sheep in God’s fold, we listen for the Shepherd’s voice and become disciples by daily following Christ until our patterns of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self- control become like well-worn ruts in our lives. When we travel these right paths, we are able to give life to relationships with those around us and especially with God – and to live this way glorifies the name and reputation of God.
We need protection
Notice that this right path living does not mean that God’s people would never face painful, “dark valley” experiences. In fact, it is assumed that such times will come. Unexpected cliffs in unstable employment, or disintegrating relationships, or illness can threaten our sense of survival. We get off track or lost when the Shepherd’s voice is drowned out by entertainment or self-serving, idolatrous practices, and they separate us from the flock and Shepherd. The value the psalmists saw in trusting God lay not in being able to avoid pain and sadness, but in having God with us even in the darkest of times. Sheep recognize their vulnerability and find comfort in their Shepherd who preserves their life. We recognize that in the face of danger, even death, we live with confidence in God’s unfailing and protective love.
The rod and staff are interesting tools of the Shepherd. The “rod,” a symbol of authority, wisdom and provision, was often given to a new king as a part of their office (think scepter). Our Good Shepherd is King over all. The “staff” had a hook which could pull the sheep in close and away from danger. It symbolized the protection and strength of the shepherd. While the rod was used to lead the flock outward into the world, the staff was utilized in drawing the sheep into a closer position and relationship.
If you are in need, the Shepherd will provide. If you are attacked, God will defend you. If you are injured, he will bind your wounds, and if you are lost, he will come to find you and celebrate when you are found.
We need hope
In the final two verses of our passage, the Psalmist addresses our great need for hope. As a shepherd, David knew the long hours of being on watch, constantly on the move, and away from security. He personally knew the hope of coming home to a place of comfort. God provides and protects us, leads us and calls us to dinner even in the presence of our enemies. But who are our enemies? There may not be any people in our lives directly seeking our demise, but there are forces for evil. Our enemy maybe fear, grief, disillusionment or even circumstances beyond our control. Do we respond by cowardly hiding or shying away from life, or do we approach the Shepherd’s table seeking life abundantly? The Psalmist again portraits God actively engaged in our lives providing not only physical nourishment but the blessing of being one of the King’s children lavished with overflowing grace.
As we examine the beginning of the last verse, we encounter the word “radaph” which is traditionally translated as “follow” but may be better translated counter-intuitively as “pursue.” It’s not the enemies in hot pursuit, instead, it is God’s goodness and mercy which chases us down. Think about it. When we are in trouble, disillusioned with life or feeling distant from God, it is God who pursues us,comes after us with crook in hand ready to pull us close.
The imagery of the final line of the psalm (v. 6b) provides a picture of an unending bliss in the house of the Lord. The word shuv as “dwell” here is interpreted by some scholars to be understood not as a stagnant state, like sitting in a rocker on the front porch of God’s house, but rather as an action of constantly “returning.” Therefore, just as the shepherd continually guides the sheep back home, it is appropriate to read the last line as: “I will continually return to God’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus, the journey with God does not end at the conclusion of our mortal lives, but rather it begins in this life and continues for all eternity.
The Shepherd and the Sheep
Regardless of where you find yourself today–safely in the mist of the flock, sitting atop a large precipice, or dangling dangerously near destruction–the Good Shepherd wants to journey with you. Are you listening for the Shepherd’s voice in your life through faithful Bible study and prayer? Are you trusting that God’s provision and leading will not only be sufficient but will fill your cup to overflowing? Jesus–Good Shepherd–gives us life, restores it, protects it and provides an eternal place for us when it is time to come home. We can trust that when we are hungry, he will feed us; when we are lost, he will find us; and when we journey with Christ, his banquet of grace will be sufficient for all eternity. The Lord is indeed our Shepherd, and we shall not want. Amen!
1) What does it mean for you to have the LORD as your "Shepherd" on your life journey?
2) In what ways do you think God might call you to be a "Shepherd" to others on God's behalf.
3) Read Mark 6:30-44. What similarities of Psalm 23 are within this story? What does that tell you about the Good Shepherd?