From The Message
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
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 and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
“God is my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” As in, “I lack for nothing,” or “I’m satisfied.” Those are some pretty heady statements…and to a person who always seems to be in need something, it sounds absolutely heavenly.
The translation that I read to you of this 23rd Psalm is from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson. For most of my life I have always heard the more traditional version: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” I like both versions in different ways and at different times. Regardless of who’s doing the translating though, in times of deepest sorrow, Psalm 23 is the number one go to scripture, and even non-Christians have no trouble recognizing the first couple of lines. It speaks powerfully to and for God’s people in troubled times, and it infuses Christian art, liturgy, music, stories and most importantly, imaginations. Why does this particular Psalm speak to us, and why do its words go down into the deepest places in our hearts? What is it about this short poem that resonates within us, at our time of greatest need? It is really very profound – the power of this psalm.
During my time in seminary I was fortunate enough to be able to take a Psalm class under the direction of Dr. Clint McCann, a well-known and widely respected Old Testament professor and interpreter. So I am a little bit of a Psalms geek because Clint McCann is a teacher who makes his students fall in love with whatever topic he happens to be speaking on.
In seminary they say context is everything, and so some things to know about Psalm 23 are that in biblical times, sheep were the dominant herd animals in the ancient near east, and the role of the shepherd was to provide for the flock and protect it from harm. The sheep were the sole responsibility of the shepherd; it was the shepherd and the shepherd alone who was accountable for their welfare and safety. This responsibility was so great that the title “shepherd” came to have specific connections with royalty, and the rod and the staff were the signs of office. The imagery of God as shepherd was intended to communicate that humans have everything they need because God provides.
Psalm 23 expresses a longing to live as sheep with a shepherd God who knows where all the green pastures are and who will surely lead the sheep to all the best spots. It expresses, a yearning to just relax and stop struggling, secure in the knowledge that God will provide – even when things look pretty bleak. But it’s difficult to rest secure. Everything in our world tells us that the only way to have anything is to work hard and to struggle. Life is hard; people are hard, and it’s not always readily apparent that this so-called Shepherd is leading us to green pastures, or any pastures at all for that matter.
Beginning with the wilderness journey between Egypt and the Promised Land, humans have struggled with learning how to gather up only enough manna for one day. Everything inside us screams: “grab all you can get…who knows what tomorrow will look like.” Oftentimes we find ourselves wandering off in pursuit of greener pastures that appear to have more to offer, but usually land us in trouble begging for God’s mercy. There are a lot of the psalms in fact that describe the churning, disruptive experience of being scared, lost, found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back. It is all a part of this human experience and what better way to portray it than the high drama of a God who pursues lost sheep?
In today’s world, we usually turn to Psalm 23 in times of sorrow, but as inspiration goes, it’s a whole lot harder to make the shepherd connection work in this day and age. For starters, we no longer rely on kings to provide for the welfare of the kingdom…we rely on the government. Fences have replaced sheep herders, but more than anything else, we live in a world where individualism is king…where we are the kings – providing for our own personal kingdoms. Sheep flock together; they aren’t particularly smart; they’re stubborn and willful; they scare easily; they do what they’re told to do; they don’t lead, they follow, and if they don’t follow, a dog nearby keeps them in line. Who wants to take on the identity of a sheep? It’s one thing to call “God my Shepherd,” but there is no way I want to be thought of as just another sheep. And while I like the idea of God providing everything I need, there was nothing in my training that taught me that it’s okay to sit around waiting for it. My pride makes it very difficult for me to just sit around waiting for God to provide. Besides, if I can make it to the green pastures on my own, why trouble God? Surely God has plenty of sheep to worry about already… Does your brain work like that? I know my brain sometimes drives me crazy with nonsense like that.
The pastures we lead ourselves to are never quite green enough and someone else’s pastures always look better, bigger and greener, so we work harder; we go into debt deeper, and every day we live in terror that we will never measure up because we live in a world where no matter how green your pasture is, someone else’s are greener. The marketplace thrives on our desire for greener pastures; we are trained from day one to want greener pastures. Think about it…we are literally being consumed by our wanting. We want love and prosperity; we want good health and a long life; and while we’re at it, we also want to have the most and the best stuff.
But this verse, this psalm, serves to remind us that our lives are not about what we want, but about already having God. A wise man once said that there are two ways to be rich: have lots or want little. Our relationship with God and the love and guidance of our shepherd provide us with what we really need, and then helps us to be satisfied with all the rest.
For most of us here today, including myself, it is hard to believe that we are lost or in need of protection. We haven’t fallen through society’s cracks into homelessness and poverty. We aren’t in jail or strung out on drugs; we are not mentally unbalanced. Why on earth would we need a shepherd? Of course we do live in a violent world with threats to our safety being a normal part of everyday life – school shootings, bombings, war, evil, danger and natural disasters; but we don’t turn to a shepherd; we tighten our security. We tighten up our immigration laws and beef up law-enforcement by giving them combat gear and war-zone tactics. We give everyone unrestricted access to firearms, including criminals and the mentally unbalanced, and if innocent bystanders suffer for it, we lament and we mourn, but then we move on. Why on earth do we need a shepherd? And even when the threat does hit too close to home, there is always the comfort of food or booze or shopping or Netflix streaming to numb and protect us. We are sheep in wolves’ clothing. Trying to be cool, trying to sneak away from the rest of the herd so that we can appear to be in charge and independent. Who are we trying to impress? Other sheep? Do we think that wandering off from the herd makes us cool? Actually, it makes us dinner. Smart sheep stay close to the shepherd.
How much joy do we miss, how much time do we waste, trying to prove to ourselves and each other that we’re not really sheep, and we don’t need help? It seems that something dreadful always has to happen before we finally come to the understanding that we are not in charge; that circumstances are not always subject to our control, and if we want to truly thrive then we need to nestle in to the arms of the shepherd. Deep down we know that we are “lost” in this big mysterious universe without our shepherd to navigate us. It’s not a matter of shame…it’s a matter of perspective. The psalmist and Jesus often described humans as lost sheep, but it wasn’t to shame or judge us; it was to help us understand that our salvation lies in our weakness. For some strange reason God’s strength comes into its own in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12).
Psalm 23 was written long before Jesus, but Christians have come to identify him as the greatest shepherd there ever was or will be. Others are called shepherds—pastors, advisors, counselors and rulers. But they are only shepherds in how they resemble him. So what would be the main characteristics of this Good Shepherd? For one thing care. God cares. God doesn’t have to care. God could have given up on us a long time ago…but God has never stopped caring about us. Not once in human history has God ever abandoned us. God cares so much in fact, that God even took on our flesh, grew in it, faced temptation in it and died in the most extraordinary act of love in human history—not just for the sheep who have always stuck around, but for each and every one who ever wandered off. And then the ones that do wander off aren’t beaten or scolded when they return; no, God lays the wanderer across God’s shoulders, brings them home and then throws a party. And then there’s trust — whether we’re talking about ancient trust or contemporary trust – a good shepherd is completely trustworthy. The promise to the ancient psalmist was simple. “I am with you and I am going to take care of you.” In response, the psalmist confesses, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” I may be surrounded by enemies, but “you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” What a holy, and sacred trust between the psalmist and his God.
This Psalm is not just for funerals or sadness or for desperate measures. It is a way of life. It is an affirmation of the loving care of a God who wants to lead us in our lives and who wants to bless us in our lives. As Clint McCann pointed out in one of his commentaries, “at every turn Psalm 23 promises us God’s providence and provision of everything we need in this life. So how do we learn to let go of all our “needs,” and instead claim and share the abundance of God’s blessings? Here is a challenge for you this week. It won’t take long so I hope that you will try it. At some point during this coming week, I invite you to write down in one column of a sheet of paper the ten things for which you are most grateful in your life. In the other column, write down the ten things you want the most right now. Once this is done, consider this question: Which would have a greater impact, losing all the things for which you are grateful or gaining all the things you currently want? Today, right now, we are invited to rise above a culture shaped by its incessant wanting and be transformed instead into a community that is marked by our trust in God’s blessing. Will we accept this invitation?