“The LORD Is Our Shepherd Indeed”
By Rev. Jennifer Christenson
For Christus Lutheran Church, Greenville, Wis.
April 21, 2013
Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2023,%20John%2010:22-30&version=NIV
It’s been quite a week, if you are one who happens to follow the news. There’s been too much horror and sadness and anguish on a national and now international scale, with the news of the earthquake in China. And, more likely than not, there’s been plenty of sadness and anguish on a local scale too.
Which makes it fortuitous that the prescribed psalm for this week happens to be the 23rd Psalm. It’s a good week to have the soothing words of this psalm wash over us as we gather here together very much in need of a good word, in need of the reminder of God’s faithfulness to humankind, despite our sinfulness and folly. It is good to let the words of this ancient poem fill our hearts and ears with words of promise and comfort. It’s good to hear once again about the Lord who is our shepherd, and about the green pastures (which, this spring seem like a sight we’re NEVER going to see), and the still waters, and about goodness and mercy following us around.
Perhaps what makes Psalm 23 such a good fit right now and in any time of sorrow, confusion, or tragedy, is not just the pleasant peaceful imagery, but that danger is noted too. There are green pastures and still waters, and yet there is also a dark valley. There’s mention of a fabulous, abundant feast, but it’s one that is held in in the presence of those who would seek to do us harm.
Meaning, the world of Psalm 23 is the real world. It isn’t an idyllic snow globe scene, it’s not a fairytale land where nothing goes wrong, it’s our world, the one we live in.
It’s our scary world where things blow up due to human hatred and by accident and by the whims of nature. The world of Psalm 23 is our world. Our scary world that nonetheless is guarded and kept and tended to by the one we call the Good Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, we cry out in fear, in hope. And it is a fearful, hopeful, bold statement of profound trust if there ever was one. For what this psalmist says, and what we say, is that the Lord, the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, the author of life and existence, the Alpha and Omega, the great “I AM”, is MY shepherd…is your shepherd.
This great Lord, in charge of the universe and all it contains, nonetheless tends to, cares about, the little ones such as you and me and the little ones the world over.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I shall not want. It’s easy to turn the second half of the opening line of the psalm into something it’s not. It is all too easy to turn “I shall not want” into a commandment of sorts. If I truly believe that God cares for me and is my shepherd, then I’m not allowed to want anything – even the basics like food and clothing and shelter. But that’s not quite right.
What this statement truly is, is a confession of faith. God, the maker of all, is my shepherd, therefore no lack, no want of any kind can harm me in an ultimate sense. The Lord is my shepherd, therefore my life is in God’s hands. My life is in God’s hands, the very hands that Jesus promises in our gospel reading that the sheep can’t be stolen out of. That’s a good place to be.
The Lord is my shepherd, I’m taken care of. The Lord will, somehow, some way lead me to green pastures and still waters to feed and nourish me.
And, beyond basic needs, the Lord will also lead me on right paths, for his name’s sake. Meaning, that God will show us the path to faithful living, will lead us down that path, will – in Christ – be that path, because that’s just who God is. It is in God’s steadfastly loving nature to tend to his sheep and to keep them from wandering off to places from which there is no return.
So that’s the pretty part of the psalm – the peaceful part, the hopeful and loving part. But the dark, shadowy valley looms too.
And truly, I’m not sure if it’s the peaceful part or the scary part that makes this psalm so beloved for so many. Probably it’s both because, again, that’s the world we live in: beautiful and frightening all at the same time.
For even following our shepherd as closely as we can, we can still find ourselves in dark and shadowy places, whether we stumble into them, are pushed, or just end up there by circumstances well beyond our control.
For example: We might be those who were cheering on a loved one about to finish a race he or she had trained for years to qualify for and compete in…only to find ourselves hurled to the ground and into the valley of the shadow of death by a fiery blast.
We might be those in the dark valley outside the smoldering inferno wondering if our loved ones are among the missing or dead.
We might be those who receive the dreaded call from the doctor’s office that the cancer has returned, the tests showed something concerning, we need to be seen right away.
We might be those who stumble around in a dark valley of our own making – through our poor choices, or our addictions, or our selfish acts, our unkindness toward others or ourselves, and more.
Dark valleys are things that some of us know even better than we do the green pastures and still waters. And how we end up there, in that place of shadows and fear, once we’re there doesn’t really seem to matter all that much.
What does matter is who goes with us through that valley. In an even deeper, and more profound confession of faith than “I shall not want” the psalm-writer also boldly says, “I will fear no evil”. Even though I’m surrounded by darkness and suffering and hurt, I fear no evil. And so we can say too: I fear no evil, no hurt, no harm, no act of terror, no bully, no diagnosis. I fear none of that.
We can say, proclaim, I fear no evil because you are with me, my Lord and my Shepherd. You are with me: before me, leading me through; behind me, keeping me safe; beside me, so I know that I am not alone.
Even though I walk, crawl, am stuck fast in the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.
This is the psalm-writer’s confession of faith and this is also our confession of faith as Easter people. For what is this season of Easter but seven weeks of rejoicing that there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere we have to go as God’s people, God’s flock, not even through death itself… There is nowhere we have to go where Christ our Good Shepherd has not already been.
We walk through the dark, frightening places this world holds for us, both the literal and figurative ones, confident that God will not let the powers of evil overcome us in the end. Confident that not even death can tear us from his hand, or separate us from his love, his green pastures and still waters. Confident, too, that God will never let us stray so far that we are out of his reach.
The promise regarding that last piece, the not straying too far piece, comes at the end of the psalm, where the psalm-writer affirms the hope that he or she will be chased, pursued relentlessly, NOT by enemies or evil, but by God’s goodness and mercy. Will be chased by God’s “chesed” in Hebrew, the word meaning God’s everlasting, steadfast, always there love.
And it is chased. “Follow” as it is commonly translated doesn’t capture the intensity of that verb. Pursue is a better fit. Goodness and mercy are in “hot pursuit” of you and me. Surely goodness and mercy will pursue us.
So, we’ll be led by the Lord on paths of righteousness…and accompanied by the Lord through deep, dark valleys…and, should we stray or wander off for any reason, in any way… Should we stray, God’s sheepdogs known as Goodness and Steadfast Love will chase after us, nipping at our heels, nudging us, and if need be chomping at our ankles to get us back to the flock, to the fold, to the verdant green pastures of the Lord.
The Lord is my shepherd, your shepherd, we shall not want. The Lord is with us in the peaceful places of rest and bliss. The Lord is with us in the dark valleys of turmoil and pain. The Lord provides for us in abundance – our cups overflow. The Lord chases after us with his steadfast love and mercy and goodness, always. The Lord promises that we will dwell in his house forever.
And this is good news for us indeed, not just at the end of a tumultuous week, but at the beginning, middle and end of any week. The Lord is our shepherd. Thanks be to God. Amen