Today we begin on a journey in the sermons that will take us to—I hesitate to say this word because I know you’re not ready to hear it—a journey that will take us to…Christmas. I know, I know, you’re thinking, "Christmas! Come on, Ron, can’t we at least make it through Halloween before we start talking of Christmas?" You’re thinking that you haven’t yet seen one ad on TV advertizing for Christmas, but honestly, that’s only because we’re in the midst of a political campaign and all the ads until November 4th are going to be political. You watch…the Christmas ads will start coming fast and furious on November 5th.
So get over it, we are starting a sermon series journey that will take us to…Christmas. The distance of that journey is based upon the word "Shepherd," for we will be using that word as an acronym in describing Jesus: "S" for today, for example, stands for Shepherd…and for Savior. Jesus is our Shepherd and our Savior. Next Sunday, the "H" in Shepherd stands for Holy, we will explore the characteristic of holiness in Jesus. And so on until we reach Christmas and the celebration of the One who is all these things in our lives.
Furthermore, it seems to me if we’re going to carry the name "Shepherd of the Hills" we ought to have a good idea of what that means to be a shepherd, how Christ models the characteristics of a shepherd in our lives and how we might fulfill our mission to carry on the task of shepherding to those around us who desperately need it. So, this journey in exploring who Jesus is as our Shepherd and what it means to follow him.
Serving as our guide along the way will be the 23rd Psalm which famously references the Lord as our Shepherd. Today we’re going to read the 23rd Psalm—we won’t do that every Sunday on this journey but it will serve as background for the entire series. Also, we’ll be reading from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Listen now to the word of God. (Read Psalm 23 and John 10:11-16)
To confess "the Lord is my shepherd" is quite a confession. To begin with, it acknowledges that the Lord has rule over my life. As we’ll see in a moment, the shepherd is in charge and the fate of his flock is totally dependent upon him. Totally dependent. So, it is quite a confession to say, "the Lord is my shepherd."
It’s quite an admission in another way also, and that is that we are admitting to being sheep. It’s not particularly popular or inspiring to admit to being sheep. It’s a funny word to begin with; is "sheep" singular or plural? Or both? Do we say "a sheep?" Or, if you are "a sheep" are you either lamb, ewe, or ram? Sheep is a funny word to begin with. More disconcerting than that, however, is that sheep and the qualities of sheep are not particularly inspiring or valued. I know of no sport mascot called the Sheep. Rams, yes, for their stubbornness and butting of heads, but not Sheep. No Ewes that I’m aware of. The female athletic teams at Colorado State University don’t carry the name Ewes, do they? I think they go by "Lady Rams" which is technically an oxymoron but sounds more inspiring than Ewes, a funny word in itself. And I know of only one athletic team that uses the lamb as a mascot and that is Ft. Collins High, trying, I would guess, to connect themselves to the university and its Ram mascot. Somehow, Ft. Collins High and its athletic teams have survived years being known as the Lambkins…which is a testament to their fortitude! Sheep do not particularly inspire strength and toughness.
Also, we do not have any heroic tales about sheep. There’s no TV show, "Lassie, the wonder sheep." I recall a Law and Order episode starring Robin Williams in which Williams’ character had lost his wife and son in a tragic childbirth incident and he felt part of the blame was his failure to be more assertive with the doctor. So, the whole premise of the show was Williams’ troubling antics to get people to "stop being sheep!" There are no movies I’m aware of about heroic sheep. They did make a movie about a pig that herded…sheep, which should tell you something. No heroic tales about sheep that I’m aware of.
The honest truth is this: If there is one animal in all of creation that is in need of a shepherd, it is sheep. Without a shepherd, quite frankly, sheep would die. They would either be attacked and killed by much stronger and more wily predators, or they would eat or drink something harmful to them and die, or they would eat up all the forage around them until there was no more and they would starve to death. Sheep need a shepherd.
To admit to being sheep and in need of a shepherd is really quite a remarkable admission. But one that is very true and relevant to the human condition…as much as we would like to not admit it. And David, himself a shepherd once in his lifetime and the author of Psalm 23, understood this. So did other writers in the Bible—there are lots of references to the people as sheep—including Isaiah. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way," (Isaiah 53:6a). No, it is not flattering to be compared to sheep. But, truth be told, it is an accurate comparison. Consider the comparison through the words of the 23rd Psalm—and for this I must give credit to Phillip Keller and his book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 from which I learned much about the nature of sheep. Consider the comparison and then contemplate our need for a shepherd.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. Sheep will not lie down unless they are freed from several distractions. They must be free of fear. They must be free of conflicts within the flock. They must be free from the irritations of pests. And they must be free from hunger. Any of those concerns exist and they will not lie down, they will not rest. They need a shepherd to free them from such things. In fact, they will not lie down unless the shepherd is present providing even in his mere presence some comfort. In comparison, what might we identify as fears, tensions, aggravations or hungers that make us restless, unable to find comfort? Left on our own we will seek some source of comfort from such things, often searching in the wrong places. Only in Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd can we find freedom from such distractions.
He leads me beside still waters. All living things need water to survive. Sheep and humans are no different in that. Sheep need a shepherd, however, because they will seek out and drink from just about any source of water they find. It might be stagnant, putrid water full of parasites and the like that will harm and likely kill any sheep that drink from it. Or it might be swift water of a river that will sweep away to its death any sheep that seeks to drink from it. Doesn’t matter. Sheep will drink from it…unless they are led to safe water, still water by a shepherd. We need, for spiritual sustenance, the living water Jesus speaks of with the Samaritan woman in John, chapter four. Yet, like sheep, we will seek it out most anywhere and drink from the strangest of sources no matter how potentially harmful they might be—some false god that promises more than it can deliver, some spiritual guru whose "living water" is full of contaminants. Only Jesus, the Good Shepherd, can lead us to such living water.
He restores my soul. I found Keller’s words about this particularly enlightening. Did you know sheep are susceptible to a dangerous condition of being "cast?" Basically, it means they have ended up on their backs and cannot get back up. Shepherds constantly have to be on the lookout for a sheep that is cast. Such sheep will thrash about until exhausted and eventually die unless they are helped, "restored," by their shepherd. Sheep can become cast for several reasons, some of which are 1) they lie down in a soft spot that gives way and turns them more and more to their back; 2) they have too much wool and it weighs them down and hinders their getting to their feet, 3) or they’re too fat! We humans can find ourselves in similar places—our souls "cast down" because we’ve laid down too long in a soft place, or we have too much of something and our dependence upon it weighs us down, or our faith has become fat and sluggish. We need the Good Shepherd to "restore our soul." As the psalmist says in the 42nd Psalm, "Why, O soul, are you cast down? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God," (Psalm 42:11).
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. There are two issues here for sheep…and for human beings. One, sheep will wander of on their own, oftentimes in search of water as we mentioned earlier, or for greener pastures. Conversely, the other problem with sheep is they are creatures of habit and if left too long in one place, one pasture, they will over graze the land, wiping it out of any sustenance whatsoever. They need a shepherd to lead them to good water, first of all, but then also to move them on paths that lead to new, lush pastureland. We’ve already talked about our search for living water. What "creature of habit grazing place" are you lingering over too long and are in need of moving on? If we allow him to be our shepherd, Jesus will take us to new and exiting places of rich and lush pastureland.
Then, perhaps the most familiar verse from the 23rd Psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." In moving to new pastureland, the shepherd often moves the flock upward to higher mountain pastureland. Traveling to such a place requires journeying through the dark shadows of a valley—much like our highway system follows the valleys through the mountains. For sheep, in the valleys is where the water is for the journey and, consequently, where the most forage is for eating. Yet, it can also be a dangerous place for predators lurk in the crevices and shadows of the valley. Only with a shepherd can the sheep make it safely through. We, as human beings, resonate so much with this verse because we readily know of dark valleys we have passed through in life. Broken dreams. Unmet expectations. Lost hope. The dark shadow of serious illness. The shadow of death in the loss of a loved one. Perhaps you can look back at such times in your life and identify where it was only through the leading of the Good Shepherd that you were able to "walk through" such a dark valley. Perhaps you can also identify how such moments turned into moments of the most spiritual growth in your life. And it goes without saying that other journeys through the dark valley of the shadow of death are to come. Life is like that. And we need a shepherd for such times. And the people around us need a shepherd for such times in their lives as well. Therein lies the importance of our fulfilling our name—being a shepherd on the hill that leads others to discover the Good Shepherd that is found only in Jesus Christ.
Well, there is a bit more to the 23rd Psalm but time limits how much more we can say. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies relates back to the shepherd preparing to take his flock to the high pastures—and connects with David’s experience of worshiping the Lord even during difficult times when enemies were closing in on him. Anointing the head with oil is something shepherds do to protect the sheep from flies—and, of course, was David’s experience when Samuel anointed him to be the next king.
The conclusion of the 23rd Psalm speaks to a life lived with the Lord as our shepherd, the result of truly following Jesus as the guiding force in our lives. Follow Jesus as shepherd and goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever—in this life and in the life to come.
Earlier, we referred to the words of the prophet Isaiah, We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way. The verse then concludes with these words, and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all. The verse is in the midst of a section of Isaiah known as the Suffering Servant—a prophetic look ahead at the saving ministry of the Messiah, of what makes Jesus our Savior. When you think of it, we are like sheep, each of us turning to our own way, a way that leads to loss of life—the loss of all that God intends for good in life. When lost in the midst of sin, our iniquity from turning to our own way, we are in need of a Savior and a Shepherd to lead us. Not a hired hand who cares little for us, but the true Shepherd willing to lay down his life for us, the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who in fact laid down his life for us, but rose from the dead that we might know goodness and mercy and dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let’s take a moment for silent reflection on how we might more truly follow the Lord Jesus Christ as our Shepherd.