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Sermon blog: A song for the Shepherd

October 20, 2016


Psalm 23

The passage we have read this morning is probably regarded as one of the high points of the Bible, with its poetry, it’s imagery and the comfort and strength that it has brought to so many down the centuries.

It is often read at funerals, as indeed it was recently when I attended a friend’s thanksgiving service. But this is more than just a psalm about death. It is a psalm about life, under the protection and care of God.

The psalm is written by the great singer songwriter of his day, King David of Israel, as were many of the psalms. He was truly gifted and prolific. And his songs became part of his nation’s worship.

David was chosen by God, to lead his chosen people, after the failure of the inaugural King Saul. David was anointed while a youngster and had to bide his time before his moment would come. His relationship with Saul was, to put it mildly, difficult, but he always utterly respected Saul in spite of his evil behaviour towards him.

David uses terminology that he knew from his own background.

When God told Samuel to choose a King from the sons of Jesse, there were many who looked the part, but there was one who God chose because of his heart for God. Youngest son David was out in the fields caring for the sheep when God’s prophet arrived.

It was not perhaps a task which carried much prestige or status, being given to the youngest in the family on this occasion, but people like Jesse had large flocks and so it was an important role. Often people regarded shepherds in those days with some contempt.

But there were shepherds and shepherds. There were those sometimes called ‘hired hands’ who had no direct connection with the sheep, but it was a job. When danger came, they would be off like a shot.

A shepherd worth his salt had a job to do, and needed to be courageous. David probably had no equal.

When David stood before King Saul, preparing to fight the Philistine blaspheming giant Goliath, it was not his skills as a soldier that he relied upon.

Or the king’s armour.

It was his experience gained as a shepherd. If he could face the things that he faced there, and protect the flock, then in his mind he had nothing to worry about sorting out this 9 foot 6 heathen.

In 1 Samuel 17 we read that David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

He was quite a shepherd! But as he speaks to Saul he gives an insight into his success, that it was not just his bravery, skill and good fortune, but it was his God who had saved him and so helped him to save his woolly charges.

David was a shepherd of sheep but as a King he still considered himself a shepherd – to the people of Israel. On one occasion when David had got things wrong, he said:

“I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong”. As he pleaded with God to punish him and not the sheep of Israel.

So it’s with that occupation in mind, that David begins this Psalm.

For David may well be a shepherd, but he too needed a shepherd. He too was a sheep. He too was prone to wander off. He would find himself in danger. He would stare death in the face. There were some things that even he could not do.

But as he had made clear when he stood to face Goliath, he shouted loudly that the Lord Almighty was with him.

He was a shepherd who sought protection from a greater shepherd.

He would be a King who would show allegiance to a greater King.

And so in the opening verses of this psalm, he goes back to his early days, and talks about the things he knows about. The sheep, the care, the dangers, and that hero the shepherd.

In that simple opening statement he sets the tone. He makes it plain where his confidence is.

“The LORD is my shepherd”.

He is totally dependant upon God.

As shepherd God is his guide, his protector, his provider.

In God, David’s life was complete. He says “I shall not be in want” or “I don’t need a thing”.

There was nothing he could want when God was supplying all his needs.

There was nothing he would need that he would not trust his God to provide.

David was a shepherd and he himself needed a shepherd. And as the Jewish people and ourselves take these words on our lips, we acknowledge that we need a shepherd. And he is God.

So when Jesus comes and announces himself as the good shepherd this would surely have struck a chord with his listeners.

For the prophet Micah had promised another shepherd, you may recognise his words: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” So there was prophecy fulfilled.

But I suspect too many would have thought of Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. In announcing himself as the Good Shepherd it seems to me this is another one of Jesus’ not so secret claims to deity. And as he said elsewhere “who is good except God?”

So I believe in a very real sense as Christians we can read Jesus the shepherd back into this psalm. And many of the things Jesus had to say about his role as shepherd are in line with the shepherd psalm.

Matthew in his gospel tells us that “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

And as he would teach, he would be that shepherd.

It may be this morning that as you look at yourself, you see yourself as a sheep without a shepherd. Harassed by circumstances and those around you and helpless in the face of dangers, alone and lost with nowhere to call home. Nowhere to find rest.

Then know the compassion of Jesus this morning. He knows your need and you can fully trust him.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”

When life was frantic, as it often was, when the pace was relentless, and the dangers very real, David was able to find a place of rest and restoration. In the care of his shepherd. Whatever was going on around him, somehow God was able to take him away from all that at least for a while.

To quote the Message version, “ you have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word you let me catch my breath”.

God is good. He provides the best pasture, refreshing water. Somehow there is a sense of peace and tranquility in all this.

That can be our experience too as we follow Jesus the promised shepherd, the perfect shepherd. In the midst of turmoil there can be times of peace.

And when life still becomes too much the ultimate eternal promise of John’s Revelation is “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Those times of safety and peace now are a glimpse of a perfect future where there is perfect rest that no one or nothing can ever take away.

Verse 3 continues, “he guides me in paths of righteousness”. Sheep need a guide. Left to their own devices they will wander off. They will get stranded. They need to hear a voice.

David recognised his need of a guide when it would have been easy to try to take his destiny into his own hands.

We need a guide. In a world where we hear so many competing voices we need to hear the voice of Jesus calling us, leading us on.

So many voices compete for our attention. We can fill our eyes and minds and ears with so many things. So much “wisdom” that people have to offer, from friends to politicians, from counsellors to clairvoyants.

But we need to be tuned to the voice of Jesus.

In John 10 Jesus taught his listeners “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”.

Earlier he said of himself “and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

I used to wonder how true that was.

A few years ago my family had a holiday in mid Wales. I’m from South Wales myself so I always thought it was such a cliche when people talked about Wales and sheep.

It was true though! There were crowds of them everywhere!

Every time we went for a walk we walked through fields of them. When I went in the shop I expected to be served by one!

And I thought “do sheep really recognise voices?”

As soon as I entered a field they rumbled me. They were off. When I tried to reassure them they kept running. They weren’t listening to me.

One sheep was alone, obviously in the wrong field. I held the gate open for ages and encouraged him to join his friends in the next field. He was never going to move. He knew I was not the shepherd.

‭And now as Jesus lives in his followers by his Holy Spirit, we too as his sheep can know his voice, seeking his guidance, chiefly through his word, but surely as God the Spirit works in our lives to teach us and to make us more like Jesus.

If it all sounds a little too idyllic, David acknowledges that following God the shepherd does not exempt him from experiencing the dark side of life. Contrary to what some Christians would try to tell you, following Jesus is no guarantee of a perfect life.

There are times of danger, but David stares the darkest of times in the face. We know there were many times when his very life was in danger, especially from jealous King Saul.

Verse 4 brings this home to us “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..” Most of us have probably not got an angry King trying to pin us against the wall with a spear, or actively planning our downfall.

But death is a reality for us and for those around us. These experiences are certain, but David’s confidence is absolute.

“I will fear no evil”.

He is unwavering.

Why?

“For you are with me”.

Even in the darkest of times, the Shepherd is there, walking at his side.

There is security in that knowledge. The shepherd’s crook is there to promise safety at the worst of times.

In face of death Jesus and his love for us, and his work of salvation for us, are a reality.

I recently attended a friend’s funeral. Although it was not called a funeral.

It was a thanksgiving service.

It was a time of mourning. But amongst that was one of the most exhilarating times of worship I can remember in a long time.

In one song we sang:

“And on that day

When my strength is failing

The end draws near

And my time has come

Still my soul will

Sing Your praise unending”

In another we declared:

“No guilt in life, no fear in death,

This is the power of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,

Can ever pluck me from His hand:

Till He returns or calls me home,

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

For my friend had known that to be true.

And through their tears his family knew it be true.

And many of his friends knew it to be true.

That Jesus walks in the valley of the shadow of death.

But there is so much more.

Jesus told the parable of the shepherd with 99 sheep. Well actually he had 100, and his greatest concern was for the one who got away. The wanderer. The lost sheep. And so he went to find him and brought him home on his shoulders rejoicing.

And that is how he views you and me. Lost and helpless. Sheep without a shepherd, but his mission is to find us, and bring us home with singing.

And of course that goes far beyond carrying out a thorough search. For the good shepherd goes further than that. He goes further than any sensible shepherd would ever consider going for a silly animal.

To return to John, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Elsewhere he says to his critics “ the Son of Man came to seek the lost”.

No. He went further than that.

He came to “seek and to SAVE the lost”.

He goes so much further.

Through trust in him we can know a confidence in Death Valley.

Because Jesus went their first.

Because Jesus died for you and me.

And because through his resurrection he has blown death apart!

And though the pain is real he has taken away death’s victory.

What a good shepherd!!

As the Psalm continues the imagery seems to change. Instead of giving his followers the best pastures, he is now laying a table.

Instead of giving us grass he is preparing us a feast.

As the Message puts it “ you serve me with a six course dinner – right in front of my enemies.”

Jesus love for us is lavish.

So wide.

So high.

So deep.

His provision for us is equally extravagant, as he blesses us with every spiritual blessing.

As his death and resurrection make everything possible for us!

In the presence of our enemies?

For the sheep, the wolves and lions could look on, but they were safe with the shepherd.

David certainly had his enemies. But they would not overcome God’s chosen shepherd King.

Now, in Christ, we are treated like royalty.

Feasting.

Anointed.

With a cup that overflows. With the goodness of God.

Goodness and love will follow us through all our lives.

For Jesus is the good shepherd, who never lets us out of his sight, even when we take our eyes off him. He is there.

And his love, his mercy, is as without measure as it is undeserved.

Whether in good times or bad, in darkness or light, life or death, we need not fear, for his goodness and love follow us.

And that love is not just so abundant. It is eternal.

Unfathomable.

Never ending.

For the promise to those who love him is this.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

What a privilege for lost sheep like you and me to be found and to find ourselves at home in the house of the Lord.

And not just as house guests, but making our home there FOREVER.

As Peter wrote “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.

Is he yours?

That’s what he offers to us all.

A closing blessing:

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

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From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. Amen! I recently wrote a book on this precious Psalm and you have touched on many of the same points and I am blessed by your sharing.

    Where His Life is honoured there is peace and life.

    Blessings
    Brian

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