Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 10th chapter of John, beginning with the 1st verse, “Christ the shepherd,” and from Psalm 23, “God our shepherd.”
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, 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. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:1-10)
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. (Psalm 23)
Lord, help us approach the gate of this sheepfold with confidence. Let us walk through from our fears and doubts to lands of hope and peace, trusting in the Shepherd who seeks us, guides us, and cares for us. In so many of our ways, we are stubborn; yet you gently call our names, reminding us of your eternal love. As we have placed the names of those near and dear to us before you seeking your healing grace, help us remember that we also stand in need of your healing mercies. Help us place our trust in you. Help us reach out to others in confidence because of your love for us. For we ask this in Christ’s name. Amen.
We all have the need to think and talk about God in a more or less concrete way. Considering that God is a mystery deeper than the deepest ocean and vaster than the universe, that is quite a challenge, to say the least. And honestly speaking, it may not be very helpful to philosophize about aspects of God that go far beyond human understanding.
The Bible provides us with metaphors or images of God that have concrete meaning for us that apply to God as he appears to us and reveals himself to us and as we relate to him. For example, God is described as creator, king, judge, and father. The metaphor used also defines where we stand in relation to God: as creature, as subject, as defendant, and as child.
Different metaphors may appeal to us at different times of our lives and in different situations. That is what we see people doing in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
King David used many metaphors to describe his understanding of God and his relationship with him. In many of his Psalms, he says, “The Lord is my …”—and then comes a metaphor:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer. (Psalm 18:2)
The Lord is my light and my salvation. (Psalm 27:1)
The Lord is my strength and my shield. (Psalm 28:7)
God is my help. (Psalm 54:4)
God is my King. (Psalm 74:12)
And here in Psalm 23:1: The LORD is my Shepherd.
Where did David get these metaphors? And what did he want to express about his relationship with God through these metaphors?
First, he was taught from early childhood about who God is and what He has done. Even though there was no Holy Scripture in writing, the great narrative of God and his people Israel was taught in homes, public meetings, evenings around the campfire, and during the great festivals. Fathers told their children how God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation. They told about Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, to wander in the wilderness for forty years, and then, under the leadership of Joshua, to conquer the Promised Land. They told about the times of the judges when God gave his people over to their enemies when they had disobeyed him but delivered them again when they turned back to their God. That teaching made up the framework for what David knew about God.
Secondly, David had quite some personal experience with God. As a young teenager, he had taken care of the sheep of his father’s flock. He had been a good shepherd to them, leading them to places where they were safe and had plenty to eat and drink. At night, he had looked at the starry sky in amazement and composed songs like Psalm 8:
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants, you have established a stronghold against your enemies to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1-4)
He had mountain-top experiences with God. One of them was the moment when he was chosen and anointed to become king of Israel. Sometime later, God empowered him to fight and kill the giant Philistine warrior Goliath. And after quite some years, David rose to the throne to become one of the mightiest rulers in the Middle East.
But he also had his share of deep-and-dark valley experiences. For years he was haunted and pursued by king Saul, who was determined to kill David. Once he became king, David had to fight enemies around him and enemies from within his kingdom—and even from within his family.
All these experiences shaped how David felt about God—how he saw him.
And thirdly, there were hopes and expectations. There were God’s promises to Abraham to make Israel into a great nation that would be a blessing to the whole world. And there were many personal promises that David had received from God. And last but not least, God had promised that his throne would be established forever and that one of his descendants would sit on it and rule Israel as a mighty and independent nation.
In Psalm 23, this teaching, these experiences, and these hopes and expectations boil down to two distinct metaphors. First, in verses 1–4, he describes God as a Shepherd. And then, in verse 5, the image changes—almost unnoticeably—into that of God as a Host.
Perhaps these two metaphors describe two different stages in the life of David: the time before and during his reign as king of Israel. Or maybe David thought of life on earth and life after death. That is how we often read and understand this Psalm today. That is why it is used so often in funerals because it contrasts the plight of this life with the blessing of heaven.
It does not really matter which of the two views we support, or perhaps a third one. The point is that David uses these two metaphors to describe the reality of life with God. They speak about his relationship with God. They are not so much the answer to the question: “What or who is God?” They don’t define him. Instead, they answer the question: “What or who is God to you?” They define the relationship between God and David.
There are three points in this Psalm that I would like to draw your attention to. The first comes right in the opening line: “The LORD is my Shepherd.”
David uses the name that God gave to Moses in the burning bush: “YHWH” or Jehovah. The name means: “I AM.” It is translated as “the LORD” because God’s actual name was considered so holy that, when reading the Scriptures, the Jews would replace the name with Adonai, which means Lord.
And what does he say about his relationship with this God of Israel? “He is my Shepherd.” In the Old Testament, God is often described as the Shepherd of his people Israel. They are his flock, so to say. But David does not say: “The LORD is our Shepherd,” but “my Shepherd.” He takes God very personally, so to say. In the original Hebrew poetry, it sounds like this: “Yahweh Ro’–i–, lo echsar.” In this line, the stress is on the fourth syllable: “my.” David wants to emphasize that he is not just one of the flock. He has a personal one-to-one relationship with God.
It is easy to explain this individualistic streak. After all, David was king of Israel, not just an Israelite. He had a special position as God’s chosen and anointed representative—“a man after God’s own heart.” As a king, he was, in a sense, the shepherd of Israel. So that should qualify him to make a personal statement like this and single himself out from the rest of the flock.
But that is not the whole truth. In the New Testament—in John 10—Jesus, the Son of God, calls himself the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows each and every sheep of his flock by name. He knows his sheep personally, and the sheep know his voice and listen when their name is called out. That was a reality in sheep farming in those days, before the industrialization of sheep farming and the introduction of ear tags with barcodes. It is still a reality in many parts of the world.
Jesus wants us to recognize him both as our Shepherd and as my Shepherd. We should not become so individualistic in our faith as to ignore the rest of the flock. As Christians, we are called into a community of believers, the family of God, and the kingdom of heaven. We belong together. But that does not give us an excuse to hide anonymously in the flock or to delegate our Christian faith and calling to the church as a community or institution. Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with each one of us. Each and every one of us counts. Jesus is your Shepherd and mine. I am not his only sheep, but he is my only Shepherd.
The second point in this psalm is that life is a journey. Psalm 23 is a psalm of comfort and assurance. It looks like it promises an easy and lazy life of comfort and abundance for the sheep of God’s flock. But that’s not what David is saying here. The tense of the verbs used in verses 1–4 does not express a matter-of-fact statement of what life is like every day. Instead, they express purpose or assurance. They look into the future and see where the Lord is leading. Older translations said: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” That understanding turns the picture into a very realistic one. Those of you, who know sheep farming in an African or Middle East context, will have no trouble seeing this.
In Israel, the dry season can be relatively long and hot. Much of the countryside is dried out completely. Shepherds have to lead their flocks over long distances through rough places to bring them to plains with freshwater and green grass. There are dangerous stretches on the way, and shepherds have to be careful in choosing the right path. There are dark valleys that provide relatively safe passage through dangerous mountain ridges. But for sheep to be ready to enter the darkness, the shepherd has to go in front. They trust the route only if the shepherd, whose voice they knew, was going ahead of them.
Often, life reminds us more of dried-out plains with virtually nothing to eat than of green pastures and refreshing streams of water. We often feel like we live in deep darkness rather than bright daylight. Faith in God does not make life any easier. Following the Good Shepherd does not solve our problems once and for all. But what we do know is that when we follow Christ, we are going on the right path. We are moving in the right direction. Our future will be one of abundance and peace. God’s goodness and love will pursue us as we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. It is worth the troublesome journey because we trust God to bring us to that perfect destination, where we will be guests of honor of God the Mighty Host.
And that brings us to our third point. Looking at the psalm as Hebrew poetry, we find that the structure is like a mountain. Its climax is not, as we often think, in the closing verses, even though they promise us a happy ending. The climax is right in the middle. The center phrase—the message that David wants to leave us with—is in verse 4: “You are with me.” It is great to know that we are on a journey toward a bright and glorious future where there will be no tears, or pain, or grief, or lack of the essentials. But already now—as we journey over dry and miserable plains and through deep and dark valleys—God is with us. As long as we follow the Shepherd, we are not alone.
We can find a powerful illustration of what this means in Exodus 33. The people of Israel are on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land through the wilderness. God is shepherding his flock through his servant Moses. Pretty much the same picture that the first part of Psalm 23 sketches for us. But the people are rebellious and turn against God and Moses. Moses is meeting with God on the holy mountain to receive the covenant tablets with the Ten Commandments. But in the meantime, the people down in the valley force his brother Aaron to make a golden calf for them so that they can worship their god in their own way. And then God gets really angry. But what he says is actually quite amazing.
God could have threatened to destroy his people. In fact, he is so furious that it might very well happen if they are not careful. But God says, I allow you to go to the Promised Land and conquer it. But… I will not go with you. I have had enough.
And how does Moses react? He says: No way! If you don’t come with us, there is no way we could go and conquer the land. There is no joy, no fulfillment in moving to the Promised Land if we must live there without you. And so Moses twists God’s arm, so to say, to make him come with his people after all.
If the Shepherd of Israel had left his people, they would have never made it to the Promised Land. They would have had no chance of conquering the fortified cities and driving out or destroying the original tribes of Canaan. The promises given to Abraham would come true only if the people followed their Great Shepherd in obedience.
In the same way, if we don’t follow God’s guidance in our lives, if we don’t listen to his voice and stay close to him, we may well find ourselves separated from him and wandering in the wilderness of life without knowing where to go—a lost sheep. Only if we follow and listen to his voice can we be assured of his presence with us. And when he is with us, we are safe, whatever the circumstances.
David was not much of a saint. He did many things that caused God great distress. But God loved him. David was a man after God’s heart, so the Bible says. And that is why God never left him.
We may not be saints, either. There are many things in our lives, too, that makes God sad. We should repent of those and seek God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. God gave Israel the promise: “Return to me, and I will return to you.” That same promise and that same call to repentance God addresses to us through Jesus, the Good Shepherd. If we answer that call and claim that promise, we can have that same assurance that David had: “You are with me.”
Let us pray: Merciful and loving God, you call us your beloved ones and seek to protect us, but we love to take risks emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Call out to us again. Help us to hear your voice. Give us hearts of love and compassion for all our dear ones who suffer illness and any adversity. Be with those who travel, having no home to which to return, no land they can call theirs, and no sense of ever being a community again. They truly hunger and thirst in every way, and you have called us to meet those needs—not to turn them away because they might be different. You always accepted us, so let us accept others, realizing that your sheep of your pasture are awash with the diversity of spirit and origin. Let us celebrate and learn from those wonderful gifts, for we ask this in the name of the Good shepherd. Amen.
Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Rev. Hans Krause.
God is our Shepherd; we are the sheep of his flock. Psalm 23 contains great promises for where we are going when life on earth is over. But it also gives a tremendous promise of comfort: On our journey, God is always with us.
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