Easter 4B Psalm 23, John 10:11-18
Our Psalm for today is one of the most familiar pieces of scripture in the whole bible. How many of us memorized this as a child? In my memory it is in the King James version, not necessarily because that was the version I had to memorize but because it is what my grandmother recited.
What a beautiful and comforting scene it is. Fields of fresh green grass, cool stream of gentle water, happy little sheep grazing, drinking and resting in safety in this ideal landscape for sheep. A shepherd standing by, watching over them. In my adolescent and early teen years, I used to think of this scene as being a little sickly sweet, a little to nursery rhyme like for my taste, and the shepherd seemed a little lazy just standing around in this safe valley. But now, as an adult, as a person living in this broken and sometimes scary world who sees a lot of dark valleys, the psalm seems a lot more vital and the shepherd a good deal more active.
There is great comfort to be found in this psalm, particularly in times when life is frightening and it feels like we are all alone. When we are in pain or when others we love are suffering, the truth that this scripture imparts is better than anything wise or comforting words we could come up with on our own. Knowing that the Lord is the shepherd of us all can be immeasurably reassuring.
The People of God have had times when they, when we, have turned to this psalm when we were in need of comfort. During the time of exile, when the Israelites were taken into captivity in a strange land, life was frightening and it may have been easy for them to feel as if God had left them entirely. They were far from home and life was different from how it had ever been. There were lots of dark shadows, lots of enemies, and a deep need to know that God was still with them in the wilderness of their exile. Surely then, the need for a good shepherd and passage to green pastures of rest and safety were truly longed for and the knowledge that God was walking with them through dark valleys was essential.
This psalm was written as a song of praise to God as a shepherd of God’s people, but a shepherd meant much more than a herder of animals. During the time of its writing, the people looked to their rulers to lead and shepherd them. Not necessarily very different from today or from what we often expect of most of our leaders even if we don’t really like to think of it that way. We see those who are good leaders as responsible, wise in the ways of the world, wary of the attack of those who would harm us, willing and able to protect us and compassionate to lead us into a time of comfort, safety and prosperity. Back then, rulers were often called shepherds and their job was to guide and protect the people in the same way a shepherd would guide and protect their flock. So, when the writer said, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ it was not so much ‘I am a sheep’ but ‘the Lord is my king, my ruler, the one who leads, guides and protects me.’
‘I shall not want or lack for anything. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures, by still waters, restores my soul.’ The Lord is my leader, my king. With him, I have all that I need: food, water, life itself and because of my king, the Lord, I fear nothing. This Shepherd is more than just a leader of people in the simplest sense. This Shepherd is the source of everything.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is called Shepherd Sunday and every year, we hear scriptures about the Good Shepherd. There is mention of a shepherd in another place besides the psalm in our readings for today. In the gospel of John, Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” and specifically, in the section we heard today, Jesus says:
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus uses the images of sheep, good shepherds, and hired hands who tend but do not deeply care for the sheep. He speaks of sheep hearing and knowing his voice and of laying down his life for the sheep. This good shepherd gives everything to protect, care for, be in relationship with and gather up together the sheep.
Since the early days of the Christian church, followers of Christ have read the 23rd psalm in light of Jesus’ words about himself. Even though the writer of the Psalm probably was not thinking about this man, Jesus, who would not be born for over a thousand years after its composition, it is because Jesus calls himself our Good Shepherd that when we say the Lord is my shepherd, we are speaking of Jesus.
Jesus is our shepherd, our king, and with him we lack nothing and need fear nothing. That may be the key phrase around which the psalm revolves: despite dark valleys, fear is not needed.
He also takes this shepherd image another step forward. Jesus, as the leader, protector and guider, is the leader, protector and guider of more than just us gathered here in this little flock, but others as well. There are other sheep that will ultimately be gathered into one flock. One humanity that is lead, protected and guided by one good shepherd. The image and qualities of a good shepherd are a good measurement of what a leader of integrity looks like, but in the end there is One Good Shepherd who saves.
This first section in the 23rd psalm is wonderful and comforting and is only the beginning. Following the lead of the early church and Jesus’ intentional connection of these images we can say that the Lord, Jesus, prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. In the very face of all that could harm us, he prepares for us a feast. Who are our enemies? There are a lot of candidates for this. Pain, loss, fear, anger, loneliness. And yet, whatever we perceive to be our enemies, our Lord, our shepherd, comes to us in the presence of the reality of these, our enemies, and tells us: Rejoice! For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of My People, and YOU are my beloved children. I am the Good Shepherd and you are my sheep. I laid down my very life for love of you. I brought you out of your slavery to these enemies. I brought you through the troubled waters and oceans of tears. And now, even more than all these things, I bring you through death into life and I, the King of the Universe, prepare for you a banquet. I have defeated your enemies and claimed you as my own. I bind up the broken hearted. I wipe away every tear from your eyes and I make all things new!
There are many places in scripture where God, where Jesus, is speaking to a whole group of people, to entire communities, even to the whole of creation, and we may mistakenly think it is a personal message to just us. But it is no mistake to take this personally. This image of the Good Shepherd definitely includes the potential of and God’s hope for a flock containing the whole of humanity, but these remarkable images in the 23rd psalm are very personal for each of us. It is one sheep’s song about her good shepherd and we are meant to hear these things as for YOU for ME.
The Lord anoints our heads with oil as was the custom for kings and queens. Our enemy death, who gave us crowns of ashes mere weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, has been overturned in the resurrection of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, on Easter Sunday and now we walk crowned with God’s grace. We sit at the great banquet prepared for us, not merely with adequate food, not merely with earthly food, but with cups running over with living water. The banquet table is overflowing with all goodness. And who sits at the head of this table but Jesus himself—our Lord, our king, Our Shepherd, the one who gives us his very body and blood here on the altar today in the bread and the wine.
With all this, goodness and mercy truly will follow us all the days of our lives. In fact, the Hebrew literally says that they pursue us just like a hound on the hunt. Goodness and mercy are inescapable with Jesus. He gives us ALL that he is and frees us from the fear of any enemy that could harm us.
So what does this mean for us? The Good Shepherd, our Lord and King, has laid down his life for his sheep. Who are his sheep; the sheep that Jesus says know his voice? You are. I am. We are. We are well fed, cared for, and safe! Is that the end of the story for us? When we look at the whole story of scripture we can see that God is always saving and setting free so that something can be done. Freedom from fear, being saved from all that could harm us always has a purpose. This psalm itself is about this saving, but in the context of scripture, it is for a purpose.
Because of all this goodness and mercy that is inescapable with Jesus, we can follow the Good Shepherd out into the world. Remember a few Sundays ago, we heard Jesus say, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you”? It’s time to follow the Good Shepherd where we are sent. Out to find those who lack—those who hunger and thirst—those who fear—those whose enemies still haunt them. There are dark, sunless valleys to walk through, dark with fear, death and pain, and sometimes that may be our pain as well, but we do not need to make our home inside the fear because the Good Shepherd is with us.
Are there sunless valleys right outside our doors? Are there hungry, thirsty, frightened people right in our neighborhood? Are there those who have no one to tell them that the Lord is their Shepherd? If you are uncertain of the answers to those questions, I can tell you it is “yes”. There are women who need a fresh start, who are fearful of domestic violence and are disempowered to help themselves. There are African Americans and Native Americans who face struggles every day because of their skin color and ancestry and white Americans who want to help but feel helpless and unable to do so because they do not know how. There are children who are lonely and abandoned, adults with no home and no family. There are enumerable ways our world is broken, both outside and inside our doors, and deeply in need of the good news in word and action of our Good Shepherd.
Where is the good shepherd leading us? Where is our Lord and King leading you and me? Because he has given us everything, we can lay down our fear and go freely, to follow him into the shadowy valleys to reach out to those who walk there in fear.
Whatever pasture we are in, still water we drink from or dark valley we must traverse, we can remember Jesus truly is Lord of All. The psalmist reminds us that he is also your good shepherd and my good shepherd. Jesus is, indeed, King of the Universe, but in that, he has not forgotten each of his sheep. Each of us, you and I, need not fear because of who he is. We can walk the dark and sunless valleys with others and not fear evil. Because he prepares a banquet for us, we can freely share our overflowing gifts. Because he has defeated death by laying down his life for us and picking it up again, along with our lives too, we can follow our resurrected Good Shepherd, Jesus, wherever he leads us without fear.