Our Eternal Shepherd

Sermon for April 30, 2023      “Our Eternal Shepherd”    Psalm 23, John 10:1-10    Pastor Teddie McConnell
Many of us memorized the 23rd Psalm as children. When the teacher of my third grade Sunday school class asked us to do that, she promised a set of brand-new colored markers to the first student to recite it. Boy, that got the attention of this budding artist! As we drove to church the next Sunday, I suddenly remembered the assignment and asked my parents if they knew the Psalm. They taught me some verses, which I proudly repeated to my teacher. “What about the rest of it?” she asked. “There’s more?” I said, surprised.
The next Sunday, I made sure I knew all the words and won the markers. But the psalm itself was just that to me, only words. How does an eight-year-old understand the idea of “I shall not want” – so much for having a Christmas list- or of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, or of being comforted by a large stick?
Unfortunately, we adults know this psalm so well and hear it so often during funerals and hard times that the words can lose their original meaning. I invite you to revisit it with me and try to hear it afresh.
Let’s go through the psalm verse by verse. Verse 1: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Here the Hebrew word “want” can also be translated “lack,” as in I shall not lack. There are no qualifiers like “because,” as in “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” It’s stated as a fact. David was saying that God being our shepherd equals having exactly what we need. Not everything we want, but everything we need. God’s supply is a given when we allow ourselves to be adopted into the fold.
The writers of the Old Testament used shepherds as a metaphor for good rulers several times. Conversely, people without leaders were described as sheep without a shepherd. We live in a time when few people have even seen domestic sheep except in petting zoos, so it’s hard for us to grasp the full analogy here. We don’t understand how disorganized and vulnerable these creatures are, how one will get frightened over nothing and start the rest running around in a panic, even into danger; or how helpless they are against predators, especially the young and the weak. They must have a shepherd to guide, doctor, and protect them. The idea that God sees us as resembling wooly livestock isn’t very flattering, but the metaphor tells us more about the overwhelming love of God than about our likeness to sheep. God loves us tenderly and protectively in spite of our relatively simple nature, wanting to guide us to the best food and the sweetest water, to safety and community with the Holy Spirit and with each other.
Honestly, left to our own devices, we’re not much better than sheep. We can go running off on our own without the wisdom of a plan or anyone to guide us unless and until we learn to ask for help from God.
God liked the way the old-time shepherds took care of the animals they guarded. Unlike high government officials such as emperors or kings, shepherds knew all their charges by name and as individuals, knew their personalities and quirks, needs and wants.
In John 10:1-10, Jesus said that he is the sheep gate, the shepherd who sleeps across the opening of the pen instead of a piece of fencing, blocking the way with his body so that no sheep can wander out. He also stops any thieves or hungry predators from getting in, even if it means risking his life. The shepherd is the person the sheep know and love. He is completely devoted to them, unlike a hired hand who might run off in the face of danger. Jesus laid down his life to give us a safe place to live and a way out of this life into the joy of heaven. This is laying down your life for your friends, whether they deserve it or not. This is grace.
Verses 2-3: He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Unlike cattle, which have to be driven, sheep like to be led by shepherd. Instead of letting us sheep run amok, God gives us direction and the security and freedom to lie down and rest, eat good food, and drink from waters that don’t bubble up and get in our noses. Even better: God restores our souls by loving us and being right here with us, by being all we need. Despite going through hard times, we can endure the present moment because we know we have hope and a future. God leads us in the right paths to keep us out of trouble, restores us to the flock when we stray, and revives our confidence that He is our provider.
God leads us in right paths not just for our sake, but FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE, so others will see that God’s name is great and God’s love is boundless, and they will want to join us in the green pastures, to have what we have. Everyone needs a shepherd, although not everyone wants to admit it. Thank God we have one.
Verse 4: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
Here the psalm makes an interesting shift from speaking of God in the third person, “the Lord is my shepherd,” to speaking to God directly. “You are with me.” This brings the emphasis to the personal, loving relationship between us and God, much more than that between an overseer and sheep. It’s even more than a deep friendship. It’s a caring family.
Yes, God brings us to the green meadows and still waters, but this life also goes through dark valleys. The “Valley of the Shadow of Death” was a real place in the desert in Judah. It was a short cut on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, twisting, deep, and shadowed, with a reputation for hiding thieves and robbers around every corner. No sane person walked through it without a lot of other people for mutual protection. As adults, we understand the hard places of life.
We have enemies, people who want to scam us or treat us badly. We have mortal bodies that break down and fail us. We know we’re all going to die. We go through times of loss, grief, and hardship. But God restores our souls, our faith.
The rod and staff are the same thing as the shepherd’s crook. Its curved end was developed especially for sheep, to be hooked around the neck and redirect them without hurting them. If a tap on the side won’t get that sheep’s attention, a jerk around the neck will work. God uses that big stick to beat off predators, guide us along and remind us that someone bigger and wiser than we are is protecting us. What a comforting thought!
Verses 5-6: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
God acts as our gracious host and supplies our needs, even when we feel hemmed in by bad circumstances or by people who mean us harm. Anointing the head with oil is symbolic of healing and grace, while God fills our cup to overflowing, not just supplying what we need but adding even more in abundant measure.
Often, we look at scarcity rather than seeing God’s abundance, like Eve focusing on the one fruit she wasn’t allowed to have rather than on the many other fruits in the lush garden of Eden. Having been a professional photographer, I know that where you focus your camera determines what people see when they look at your photograph. Do I focus on the object or person in front of me or on something behind it? As a church, do we focus on declining membership and money or on the abundant potential we have to help those around us, because God supplies our needs? Do we focus on the evil in the world or on the goodness of God? Where is your focus? Do you trust the voice of the eternal shepherd?
Let’s talk about something Jesus gave us that puts a new perspective on this psalm. I’m talking about the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, a constant companion and guide who lives inside us as close as our next prayer. I think of the Spirit as our internal eternal shepherd. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul summarized the gifts of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It's not just one fruit, it’s a whole basket!
Psalm 23 begins by saying we lack nothing with the Lord as our Shepherd and ends by saying God is generous until our cup overflows. When we need basic food and water, God leads us to it, but there is so much more! Because Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit, we don’t just have our physical needs met. Our spiritual needs for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are generously met as well, along with the power to use them for God’s glory. I find that the cup referred to in this psalm can be my heart, and God fills it with love and the rest of Holy Spirits’ gifts until they overflow onto others, bringing them closer to God too.
When we find ourselves short on love or joy or the other fruits, we can ask the Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts to supply us from God’s endless well of these things.
Feeling grumpy? Ask the Spirit for peace. In a hurry and wound up to the point where you might make a mistake, have an accident, say something you’ll regret? Ask the Spirit for patience, kindness, and self-control. Pray for that jerk, I mean person, who cut you off in traffic.
Feeling lost, depressed, grief-stricken? I can tell you from experience that Jesus wants you to ask others for help, and the Holy Spirit will lead you to people who have the caring hearts and the training to help you work through your pain and find joy again. Pray, ask, listen for answers, and then make the effort to act on them. Don’t worry about what others might think. God’s love is there for you. Have faith that the shepherd will guide you when you feel lost in the shadows and can’t see around the next corner to the way out.
Jesus made possible the deep and lasting connection between God and humanity that is the Holy Spirit, who gives us the freedom and grace to live in God’s flock our whole lives. We don’t have to get through this life alone or by the skin of our teeth. We don’t have to rely on our own strength, an American ideal we take way too far. We have a shepherd, not just beside us, but INSIDE us, directing us to the best possible path for us and for those around us.
King David wrote a psalm full of gratitude despite being surrounded by enemies. He believed that goodness and mercy, not thieves and robbers, not evil or want, would follow him. I find that if I thank God for what I have, for the Shepherd leading me, instead of focusing on what is wrong in my life or worrying about what might be gaining on me, God restores my soul. God brings me safely back to the peaceful herd that follows the Good Shepherd.
Will you pray with me? God, please refresh the Holy Spirit in each and every one of us, that we may be led by our eternal Shepherd, dwell in your house our whole lives long, and lead others into your family. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”


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