The Lord Is My Shepherd
Easter 4B Psalm 23
Chances are, you were in second or third grade when you first learned it, and then you promptly forgot it, even if you may have recited it in front of the whole Sunday School. Chances are, the second time you learned it was during seventh grade confirmation, and then you forgot it immediately after the test. And, chances are that, as you grew older, you heard it nearly every time that you attended a Christian funeral. And, chances are, you would have learned it by memory in the year 250 AD in the land of England. People didn’t have any Bibles then; the Bible itself would not be translated into the English language for another five hundred years; but key portions of the Bible were memorized such as the passage from the Bible for today. It was one of the two or three great Biblical passages that was memorized among the ancient English people.
It has become a personal symbol, living deeply in our individual psyches. It also has become a historical symbol, living through the centuries. It speaks deeply within our personal souls and also deeply within the soul of history.
It goes like this: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will feel no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You anoint me head with oil. My cups overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The 23rd psalm has become a symbol, woven into the psyches of the centuries, woven into our personal subconciousness and into our historical subconsciousness.
The 23rd psalm was written by King David, some three thousand years ago. The 23rd psalm is the most famous of his psalms and it is still a classic from the Bible today.
The following is a story about the 23rd psalm that illustrates the power of the 23rd psalm. I received a telephone call from Joyce to go and visit her mother at Valley General Hospital in Kent, and so I went right over to see her mother. I was told she was a devout Christian. Her mom was comatose I didn’t know her mom and she didn’t know me. I came into this room and she was about eighty years old, with thick glasses and hearing aid. I reached down to her bed to touch her and said to her, “Can you hear me? I am Joyce’s pastor.” No, she couldn’t hear me. She seemed a little disoriented, so I spoke loudly right into her ear. That is what I was taught to do when I was at the seminary so many years ago; chose the 23rd psalm and speak it loudly in the ear. It could penetrate a coma. So, my lips were about three inches from her ear and hearing aid, speaking as slowly and distinctly as possible. I almost shouted, “The Lord is my shepherd, I still not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” I recited the whole psalm, so close to her, my lips and loud voice right up to her ear. Slowly she quieted down and I sensed that she was hearing me. Slowly, her arm came up from the bed and blindly reached for my face, that was so close to her ear. She pulled my face to her lips, kissed me and said, “I love you, Bob. I love you my son.” There was a moment, a pause, and then I left, having shared that special moment with her, she thinking I was her son. … Well, the next day, I came back to the hospital and I knew instantly her mind was clear as I walked into her room. I introduced myself and spoke very loudly, knowing she couldn’t hear very well. “Martha, I am Pastor Markquart, Joyce’s pastor, and I saw you the other day and I recite the 23rd psalm into your ear. Do you remember?” “I remember.” We talked more. I eventually asked her, “Would you like to recite the 23rd psalm together?” We did. A few days later, she died.
Once again, the 23rd psalm demonstrated its powerful presence and I saw those sacred words penetrate a coma of an elderly woman.
I would like to walk through the primary phrases of the 23rd psalm with you today.
The Lord is my shepherd. Intuitively, all of us know that shepherds are good, kind and gentle. Even in a technological society and having never met a shepherd face to face, we all know that shepherds are gentle and kind. Even the children know that, as was demonstrated in the children’s sermon. All the children had never met a shepherd, but as a group, they unanimously and spontaneously said that shepherds were good, kind and gentle. The children have been taught that by Bible stories. They have been taught in Bible pictures. They have seen the picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, caressing a lamb in his arms. By seeing that picture of Jesus holding the sheep, every child knows that Jesus loves children and is a very good shepherd, a person to be trusted.
A symbol of a shepherd is not a whip where God whips us into obedience. One time, my family and I went to San Diego and we saw an animal show and we saw a trainer who had a whip that whipped all those elephants into obedience. He snapped the whip. He snapped it. He snapped it again. And those elephants got right up. And then we watched the lion show with the same trainer. He had that whip and he snapped it. He snapped it again and those lions got up and stood on their haunches. Whips don’t work on lambs. God does not whip you into fear. God knows you are a sheep and whips don’t work on sheep. And then we went to Universal Studios and we saw a dog-training act. Those dogs were well trained. The trainers didn’t use whips. They gave those dogs biscuits and those dogs would jump over a hoop for a biscuit. Those dogs would do anything for a biscuit and many people have that concept of God. If you do something good, God will give you a dog biscuit. I you do things bad, God will withhold the dog biscuit from you. And so you learn to do the right tricks in order to get the dog biscuits. Do you know what? Biscuits don’t work on sheep. … The symbol of a shepherd is not a whip and not a dog biscuit. We are sheep; and fear does not motivate us, and neither do spiritual biscuits.
There are two symbols of a shepherd. The first symbol of a shepherd is the staff, like the shepherds staff that I am holding in my hand. A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole. And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help you.” It must be clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as panthers and lions. The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good shepherd.
The second symbol of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice, and it is difficult to draw or symbolize a voice. But the voice is important to the shepherd. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. I ask you a question: what is the life span of a sheep? Yes, some twenty to twenty-five years. The sheep of the Bible were not raised for their meat, not for mutton but they were raised for their wool. The sheep lived as part of the family for twenty to twenty-five years. The sheep were treated like pets and became part of the family. The sheep had names such as Tammy Lammy, Sally Sheepy. The point is, sheep had identities and were known by the shepherd. And likewise with you, the Bible guarantees us that we have a name and that God knows our name. God is the good shepherd, who knows our very name. … Over time, the deeper the relationship, the sheep and the shepherd know the voice of one another. We understand this because we talk on the telephone and recognize certain voices. The closer we are to people, the more we know the sound of their voice. They don’t have to tell their name on the telephone; we know their name because we know the tone of their voice. If you are my very own child, I know the sound of your voice on the telephone. You don’t have to tell me your name. And so it is with God; God knows our voice because we have called on God often. He hears our voice and knows our voice by its very sound. And we know the sound of God’s voice, the voice of God in the Bible, the voice of God in prayer. By experience, we learn to know the sound of our Lord’s voice.
In the Old Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to God. In the New Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to Jesus. Who is our shepherd? God? Jesus? Both are referred to as Lord. We know that both the Lord God and the Lord Jesus are good and that our Lord is the good shepherd. The phrase, “good shepherd” helps us to understand God and how God works with our lives. The Lord Jesus, the Lord God is my shepherd.
Let’s go onto the next phrase. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. I shall not be “in want.” An Old Testament scholar by the name of Delitsch said that this proved that King David was an old man when he wrote this psalm; that he was old man; that he was no longer wanting for anything. As a young man, King David would have wanted our equivalent to cars, boats, houses, computers; he wanted all the latest junk of his time in history. That’s the way it is, isn’t it? You get a house and you fill it up with junk and then more junk. How many of you have enough room in your storage area in your house? How many of you have enough room in your cupboards? Enough space in your closets? In your garages? You spend the primary portion of your life stuffing yourself, your closets, and your cupboards with things. Then you reach an apex to your life and then move to another house, a smaller house and you sell half of your junk. They call them garage sales but they are really junk sales and you are glad to unload your junk to get rid of your stuff. You make another move into a smaller apartment. And perhaps another move into one room. Your kids then perhaps sell off your stuff when you are no longer around to watch the garage sell; they sell your stuff and then give all the rest away or take the leftovers to the garbage dump. By the end of your life, you don’t have very much stuff at all. The only thing that you have left is the hospital gown that you have on, and then you die. And the wealth that you have around you is not material things but the wealth of love from your husband or wife, kids, grandkids, friends, loved ones who are standing gathered around your death bed. You have finally learned that God’s wealth is the wealth of love of people around you … This is what you eventually learn from life: the happiness of life does not come from material things but from human relationships. Happiness does not come from the accumulation of pile of things but happiness comes from the depth of relationships. The psalmist says it well: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … more material things. We all learn that lesson, eventually.
The next phrase is: He makes me. I like that phrase. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters and thereby restores me soul. The first thing the shepherd does for us is that he makes us to be quiet. He makes us to be quiet and thereby our spirits, our souls, our inner selves can be restored. … I ask you: how many of you rushed to get to church today? You get up and rush to church; rush home to eat; rush out to a soccer game; rush home to meet someone. You rush to this and you rush to that. You rush all weekend and fall into bed exhausted tonight at 10:00 on Sunday night, trying to get it all in. Thank heavens for Monday so you can go back to work and get a little rest. It is the frenetic rat race that goes round and round and found in a fast paced frenetic flurry. Now, the antidote for a frenetic, fast paced life is this: God make you to lie down in green pastures; God leads you beside still, still waters. And God restores your soul in the stillness of water and the stillness of life. … In America, over time, our souls have shriveled up because we lead such a fast paced life. Of this I am sure: over time, a fast paced life will shrivel up the soul inside of you. The children of this generation, whose lives are so busy, whose lives are run, run, run, from morning until night; sometimes I wonder of the soul is developing inside of the children of today. … There is something incredibly wonderful to stillness. With bodies not moving. With minds not moving. With energy not moving. Stillness. Stillness doesn’t have many “takers” today. What is wrong with you if you are being still? Stillness is a waste of time. Can’t do anything when you are still. … A philosopher once said: we are so busy dusty plastic flowers that we don’t have time to smell the roses. We don’t have time to cultivate the roses and watch them grow. Especially the younger generation. Therefore God, and this is the first thing that the good shepherd does, will make you to lie down and be quiet. God will lead you beside the still waters. God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” That is why God wants us to be still: so that we know that God is God. Thereby, God restores our inner soul. … In this stillness, we feed in the green pastures; we eat and absorb the food for the soul, the Scriptures, the holy words of God. In this stillness, we drink the water, the water of God’s Spirit.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake. God leads me in the paths, in the ways of right relationships, of right values, of right choices. God always leads us down a right path, a narrow path. The word, path, implies narrow, like one person can walk on it. The word, road, refers to a wider path with room enough for a wagon pulled by animals. The word, path, connotes narrowness, and God needs to keep me his sheep on that narrow path of right relationships. …Now, everybody that raises sheep or has raised sheep always says that sheep are dumb animals. If you ask Ingrid in our parish, who raises many kinds of animals, she will tell you that horses are smart; that dogs are smarter; but that sheep are the dumbest animal she knows. Keith Sanderson in our church, as a boy, raised about two thousand sheep and Keith will tell you that from his vast experience with sheep as a boy, sheep are dumb animals. Now, God compares us to sheep. What does that mean? Human beings are by far the most intelligent creatures that God ever made; we are the crowns of God’s intelligent creation; so why are we referred to as sheep? Not because we are intellectual idiots but because we make dumb choices. God puts out for us a narrow path and God says that he will lead us on this narrow path of right relationships. I will lead you on this narrow path, and you, like a dumb fool, will make these dumb choices whereby you hurt yourself and other people. For example, I chatted with a neighbor boy the other day and said, “Monty, why are you smoking that cigarette? It is so dumb. I may bury you early some day.” “I don’t know” was his grumbling reply. We make dumb choices in the way we use our body, how we use time, how we treat family and friends, how we don’t have time for God in our busy lives. We are very, very intelligent creatures, but we make such incredibly dumb choices with our lives. God says: I will lead you on the paths of right relationships, right values, right choices. I will lead you on the paths of right goodness, and because you are so dumb about these things, you need my help.
For his name’s sake. For decades, I did not understand what this verse meant but now I do. In the book of Acts, the reference to Jesus’ name is synonymous with his powerful presence. Acts 4:7 says, “By what power do you do this? By what name do you do this?” Name is synonymous with powerful presence. In the twenty-third psalm, it sounds like this: You lead me in the paths of right relationships that please your Power Presence. That is true. When you have right relationships with people, that pleases God’s Powerful Presence. I have memorized the twenty-third psalm and it is deep within me, including these words: you lead me in the paths of right relationships that please your powerful presence.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Your rod and your staff will comfort and strengthen me. Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The word, death, is too narrow of a translation. That Hebrew should be translated, deep darkness. Otherwise, if the word is translated valley of death, this psalm only relates to funerals. That is not true. We all walk through valleys of deep darkness so very often during our lives. We all walk through times of great pain and tragedy. One thing I know about this congregation: if I know your life, and many of your lives I know very well because I have been here nearly thirty years, I know you have experienced deep tragedy. I look out across this congregation, if I add up all the tragedies as I look across your faces, of this I am sure; it is inevitable that every person here will have pain and tragedy in life. That’s just the way it is. … But the key to this verse is the preposition, through. Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I will be with you. God will not leave you in the midst of the valley. There is always sorrow and pain in your life, but there is an end to it. Of this you can be sure, the pain that you are experiencing, no matter how enormous, that pain will pass. … And God says, when you are in that valley of deep darkness, I will be there to strengthen and to comfort you. Now, to comfort you, this does not mean that God is going to go into a “pity party” and say, “Now, now there. Don’t feel so badly.” The word, comfort, does not mean “pity party,” but com in Latin means with; fort means strength. God is there to be with you to strengthen you. Is it not true that God has strengthened you in the sorrow of life? Yes, that is true. God has made you stronger and the people around you stronger than you ever imagined that you could be…because God’s strength is in you. I have known so many strong Christians in my day and they are strong when they walk through the inevitable valleys of deep darkness.
Then, in the psalm, come four lines that are all connected. “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Sure goodness and mercy shall live with me all the days of my life.” David had an overwhelming positive spirit within him through out his life, and that spirit is revealed here in these words. David always had enemies like King Saul and others who were trying to kill him. And it was a divine joke that God always gave him food, right in front of his enemies, preparing a meal for David. Also, David felt like a pitcher of olive oil was poured over his head; he felt glorious. Our contemporary culture doesn’t do this; drench your head and hair with olive oil in order to announce you are a king, but such was the life of David. We put a dab of olive oil on our heads at baptism and announce we are part of a royal family. But with king David, they poured the whole pitcher of olive oil on his head. What a celebration. He said that his cup was overflowing; that goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life. You see, there is an overflowing optimism in David. There is this overwhelming sense that your cup is running over, is overflowing. In America, we discuss whether the cup is half empty or half full, and your choice reveals whether you are essentially a pessimist or an optimist. The Bible doesn’t talk about cups that are half full or half empty; the Bible talks about cups that are full and overflowing with blessings. There is an overwhelming sense of thanksgiving to God inside of you. And so it is with us Christians today. Did you notice the rhododendrons outside there? When you look in the mirror, you are alive today. When you look at your flower boxes, you are alive today. When you look at your family, you are reminded that you are alive today. When you look at the beautiful children seated before me in the front pew, how can you not be happy? … Some of you may feel, “Yes, but I am feeling rotten today and I don’t feel my cup is running over. My cup feels rather empty today.” Such feelings will change. Of this I am sure, joy will be restored to your cup. My cup is running over with the abundance of God. … At my daughter and son in laws wedding, I had a communion cup, a communion chalice, as a sermon prop, and I kept on raising that communion chalice up high, saying their cup is running over today with the happiness and goodness of God. “Fill to the brim my cup of blessing” is what David declares elsewhere. And that is what marriage is to be: fill to the brim our cup of blessing. That is what God wants us to feel inside; that is the way that God wired us; that our joy would be restored and that our cup of life will overflow with love for other people and God.
The last line: I shall live in the house of the Lord….forever. That last word is a good one, forever. The word, forever, is a favorite word of King David. He uses it often. God will love you forever. You will live forever in God’s house. When you die, nothing can snatch you from the Father’s hand. In the drama for today, you could see that there was nothing that could snap the little sheep from the shepherd’s hand. And when you die, there is nothing that can snatch you from the Father’s hands.
I would like to tell you my favorite 23rd psalm story. I tell this story as part of my seventh grade confirmation curriculum when we study the 23rd psalm. It goes like this. You have to be able to know how to tell the 23rd psalm. You have to know how to say the first line. The way you say the first line is the key to knowing how to recite the 23rd psalm. If you say, the Lord is my shepherd, you miss it. You need to say the first line correctly, like this: the Lord is … my… shepherd. You have to say it correctly, and using the fingers of your left hand and saying with each finger, the Lord is … MY …on the fourth finger…shepherd. Let’s all say it correctly together, using our fingers of our left hand. The Lord is … my… shepherd. And you grab the finger when you say the word, my. … Now, this is the story. It was about 1850, March, snow flurries, frozen ground, a log cabin, and in that little log cabin on the prairie was a boy by the name of Timmy, who was dying of diphtheria. The pastor who came to that log cabin that day was a Methodist circuit rider; that is, he rode his horse hundreds of miles to cabins and churches, visiting them every two months or so. This pastor came into the cabin and inquired about Timmy, whom he had heard was sick. The pastor was ushered through an opening in the curtain to a back room where Timmy was sick in bed. The pastor said, “Timmy, do you know how to say the 23rd psalm?” “O yes, I learned it when I was in second grade, in Sunday School. It goes like this. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Timmy rattled the 23rd psalm off rapidly. “No Timmy, that is not the way to say it.” “Ok, pastor, I will say it more slowly.” “Timmy,” the pastor said, “I want to teach you how to say the 23rd psalm. As you begin the first sentence, you count your fingers and when you get to the fourth word, the word, “my,” you grab that finger. A wedding ring is one the fourth finger of your mother’s and father’s hand. It is the finger of love. Say the words of the first sentence as you count your fingers, and then grab the fourth finger when you say the word, my. That will remind you that Jesus is always your personal shepherd, my personal shepherd. OK?” So Timmy practiced saying the first sentence of the psalm. The pastor was satisfied. They said their goodbyes and the pastor left. The pastor returned to the log cab two months later and it was now spring. The snow was gone and as he approached the log cabin, he saw a little mound of dirt near the cabin with a cross on it. He knew Timmy had died. The pastor went into the log cabin and they talked. They talked about Timmy; they talked about his death; and finally the mother asked. “You know pastor, something strange happened when Timmy died. We kissed him goodnight. In the morning, first thing, we went through the curtain to see him and he was gone; he had died. But it was so strange. His right hand was still wrapped around the finger of his left hand. Do you know what that means, pastor?”
When you say the 23rd psalm, you need to know how to say the first line: the Lord is … my … shepherd. Amen.
Children’s sermon. The pastor has a shepherd crook with him. The pastor asks the children to guess what it is. A pool cue? A question mark? A walking stick? What is this thing called? The children guess. Finally, they guess that it is a shepherd’s staff. … It was used to pull a sheep who was in a hole or crevasse out. Can a child volunteer to be a sheep in a hole and I will pull you out? (Do that.) Jesus gently pulls us out of our holes in life, ever so gently. … Using the other end of the shepherd staff, the pointed end, the shepherd uses the staff as a weapon, to fight off lions and bobcats. God always fights off the evil around us. … The shepherd never uses the staff as a club, to club the sheep into obedience, as a stick to beat the sheep with. God never does that. … Ask the children: is a shepherd good, kind and gentle? The children will all answer “yes” in unison. Have you children ever met a shepherd? None of them will have. Not one. Then ask the question: how then do you know that a shepherd is good, kind and gentle, if you have never know one? The children guess. Finally, an answer will emerge. Jesus is our shepherd, and Jesus was good, kind and loving and so shepherds must be also.
Skit between two people who are lambs: One lamb is an older grandmother. The second lamb is a younger child who has a bag in which are all the items to be pulled out for the skit. This skit was written by Darlene Swanson Malmo. This play is a take-off from the story, “Runaway Rabbit.”
- If you run away, I will find you. You are my little lamb.
- If you come to find me, I will become a fish and swim away from you. (fish)
- If you become a fish, I will become a fisherman and reel you in.
2 If you reel me in like a fish, I will become like a rock, way high on a mountain.
- If you become a rock, I will become a mountain climber and climb to where you are.
- Then, I will become a rose and hide behind sharp, sharp thorns. (rose)
- If you become a rose, I will become a gardener and find you, even if you hide behind the thorns.
- Then I will become a bird and fly, fly away. (toy bird)
- If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will become a tree that you come home to.
- If you become a tree that I come home to, then I will become a boat and sail far away from you. (toy boat)
- If you become a boat, I will become a rudder and guide you to where it is safe.
- Then I will become a circus performer and swing on a flying trapeze.
- If you are in a circus and are flying on a trapeze, I will be the one who catches you when you jump. (cape like in a circus)
- Then, if you are the one who catches me when I jump, I will become a little girl and run into a house.
- If you become a little girl and run into a house, I will become your grandmother and you will be in Grandmother’s house and nothing will snatch you out of my hands. (a doll)
- I think we should go and find the other sheep grandchildren. Baaaa.
1) OK. Baaaa.
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