Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easte at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Psalm 23, 1 John 3:26-24, John 10:11-18
The Twenty-third psalm is certainly one of the jewels of Scripture. It is an expression of ultimate trust in the One we call the Good Shepherd.
We know little or nothing of sheep and shepherds, not, at least, in this part of the world. But it is enough to know that sheep are entirely dependent on the shepherd for their well-being. Sheep cannot take care of themselves.
So this psalm is one of absolute dependence on God. This means that the words are not only comforting, they are difficult, because, by and large, we believe we are self-made people who are better off dependent on no one.
But the psalm knows this about us and offers us a different way, the truth that we need God and that we can trust God for our well-being.
Psalm 23 is a script for life, a set of coping skills, a framework for facing reality and living through it.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
We want all the time. Most of what we want we do not actually need, so the psalm first wants us to be clear-eyed in sorting that out. What is it that I actually need for well-being?
We have those needs. They are real. Some of them are purely physical, some are emotional and spiritual. We have, most of all, the deep need to be loved.
The psalm wants us to be assured of that love, as does Jesus in his use of this image. He calls us, his sheep, “my own,” a term of endearment.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.
God loves us and this love is a love of loyalty. The shepherd can be depended on. The shepherd isn’t going anywhere, even in times of danger. In fact, God has shown us that it is precisely in the time of danger that he is most there for us. The writer of First John says
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us…
The good shepherd will risk—will give—his life for the sheep. It is the Christian story that God literally gave his life for us, was loyal to us even in the precise moment that we were most disloyal to him.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want for love. Sometimes, of course, we feel that we do. Sometimes we ache for love. The psalm tells us that God is there to give it and ultimately we can only depend on God for the love that will last, last even our own undoing of it and even our own death.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
The divine shepherd is my guide to well-being. His ultimate desire is my well-being. I must trust that I am being led to green pastures, still waters, a restored soul along a path of justice.
This trust does not come easy, because of the next line of the psalm, where reality sets in.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
My path to green pastures and still waters leads me through troubled places, the valley of the shadow of death. And there is no way to skip these places, they must, as the psalm says, be gone through.
We hurt sometimes, our hearts are broken, we despair of love or of well-being. We are threatened by forces that seem to be able to take away all that is dear to us. All these things are true, yet the psalm makes this bold assertion in the face of all this truth: I will fear no evil.
Why? Because God is with me. I will not be abandoned, no matter what. The valley of the shadow of death—even death itself—is not a place I have to be alone. Ever. I walk through it with someone, the Comforter, the One who has been there before, knows the depths of these shadows and can see me through to new life, a trail he has blazed before.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
The shepherd is a God of justice and of well-being. The image of a head anointed with oil is especially important here. It is a symbol that is mostly lost on us. In ancient Israel it was a sign of divine favor: kings and priests were anointed as a sign that God was with them in their vocation. The psalmist claims this sign for everyone. Everyone is favored by God.
This says to me in particular that we must look to God alone for our sense of self-worth. The world around us, even those we dearly love, will disappoint us and we will disappoint ourselves, deeply sometimes. But in those moments of our lack of self-worth, God wishes to anoint our head with oil, God wishes us to know that we are his beloved no matter what.
It is my observation and experience that our sense of self-worth is under attack pretty much all the time. It is the nature of the world in which we live. We desperately need to learn that we are worthy because God has made us so. The writer of First John says
By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit he has given us.
We believe this Spirit is all grace, it is a pure gift that we have done nothing to earn and that we cannot control. It just is. As we Christians put it, it is the gift of our baptism.
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Here is my ultimate hope. There is a home for me, an everlasting home that cannot be taken away. It is the home of God, and it is my home, for ever.
Probably because of these last words we often associate Psalm 23 with death. It is a psalm frequently sung or said at funerals. This is, of course, absolutely fitting, because it is at such a time that we who have been left behind, need to be reminded of and trust in our ultimate hope.
Yet Psalm 23 is primarily a psalm for living, a psalm that gives us the words to keep on keepin’ on, to pick ourselves up when things have gotten rough and trust again in God’s desire for our well-being. It is a song we need when we are in need of comfort, of courage and of hope.
I want us to close by singing a hymn, a metrical version of Psalm 23. Let us sing it in trust in the Good Shepherd. It is Hymn 664 in The Hymnal 1982.
My Shepherd will supply my need,
Jehovah is his Name;
in pastures fresh he makes me feed
beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
when I forsake his ways,
and leads me, for his mercy’s sake,
in paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death,
thy presence is my stay;
one word of thy supporting breath
drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
doth still me table spread;
my cup with blessings overflows,
thy oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days;
oh, may thy house be mine abode
and all my works be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger or a guest,
but like a child at home. (Isaac Watts)