Texts: Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
What I know about sheep I learned from the only two sheep I have ever known. They were a part of our little farm at a camp I worked at in New York State. Cute and fluffy, sure. But they were skittish and always running away from us. What I’ve learned about sheep since then has lead me to the conclusion that one of the main reasons they behaved this way was because they had no shepherd. They saw dozens of different campers every week and had at least six or seven staff feeding them and caring for them. There was no one singular person they could trust and look to for leadership. I would imagine that we too, if we had no shepherd, would also be fearful and skittish and jumpy.
Verse One. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” There’s a lot wrapped up in that little four letter word ‘want”. We are bombarded with advertisements – on tv, radio, internet, billboards – all trying to convince us that their product is something that we desperately need, something that will make us desperately happy. Well, it won’t. Sure, maybe our latest toy will provide some joy and excitement in the moment, but it won’t create lasting happiness.
Yet there are other things that want, things that are deeply important. Healing from illness, a broken relationship repaired, a job to be able to provide for our family. And it is okay for us to want and hope for things that will make our lives better, for God wants good things for us.
And so this verse prods us, it asks - that thing you want, how important is it really? It tells us - Do not forget the blessings in your life you already have. And it reminds us of something we will never want for – the presence of God. With the Lord as our Shepherd, we are never alone.
Verse 2 starts out – “The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures”
Did you know a sheep will just keep eating, mindlessly? That’s how they get lost. They don’t simply wander off because of curiosity or boredom, the wander off because they want to keep eating, and if that grass over there looks better, well, then over there I will go. And soon enough, they are all alone. And so the shepherd makes them lie down, in the midst of plenty of good food. For the shepherd knows what the sheep needs, knows what is best for the sheep.
God knows what is best for us. So in the midst of distractions, God tells us, rest. In the midst of chaos this world has created, God tells us, stop. There is no need to mindlessly consume, to be overly busy, to live with that much stress, God says keep the Sabbath, take care, rest.
Verse two continues, “and leads me beside still waters.”
A sheep will not drink from a running stream, but only from a still pool of water. The shepherd knows the needs of the sheep. He leads the sheep to a place where they can be nourished and unafraid. Like the shepherd, God knows what we need and can lead us there.
Verse 3 – “guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake”
How shepherds lead sheep is important. In Biblical times, and still today in many places, a shepherd’s work is based on trust. The sheep know the voice of a shepherd. For examples, - If many different shepherds come together at a water source for example, their sheep get all mixed up and mingled. And while it may seem that they will never get sorted out, all they shepherds need to do is call out and those sheep know exactly whom to go with, whom to follow. There is no coercion or trickery, violence or fear involved in the way that the shepherd cares for and leads the sheep.
And so, with God as our shepherd we are lead by someone we trust, who calls us with a voice we know, a voice we can hear in so many ways – in Scripture, in Jesus, in prayer, in conversation and relationship with other faithful people. God uses voice and presence to guide us, not violence or fear.
Verse 4 – “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me. “
When shepherds and their sheep were too far from “home base” at the end of the day and needed to find a place to rest, the shepherd would find a cave. But instead of simply herding all the sheep into the cave at one time, he would first fill most of the mouth of the cave with large branches, twigs and other things to block most of the entrance, leaving just enough space for the shepherd to stand with his legs spread apart. And then, calling to the sheep, he would allow them into the cave one at a time, through his legs. And as they passed through, he was able to run his hands over each sheep, checking each one for new cuts, scrapes or injuries. For he knew each sheep, knew which injures were new, knew what was healing well.
So when the shepherd is “with” the sheep, it is much more than being around the sheep or in the immediate vicinity of the sheep. The shepherd knows the sheep well, better than anyone else. This, too, is that way that God is with us. Not simply hanging out nearby, but actively involved and caring for us, the flock.
The phrase “for you are with me”, comes right in the middle of this Psalm – in it’s original Hebrew there are 26 words before it and 26 words after. The presence of God, God being with us, is at the center, at the core, and we are assured of God’s presence with us.
This phrase also marks a shift in the Psalm from speaking of God as “the Lord” to “you”, it gets more personal, more intimate. From ‘the lord is my shepherd” to “You are with me”…and the joy and personal connection continues through the rest of the psalm…you comfort me, you prepare a table, you anoint my head. We hear words of abundance – cups overflowing, goodness and mercy part of our lives every day, dwelling with the Lord every day of our lives.
Those sheep at the farm at the camp where I worked…they were taken care of: feed and sheltered, admired and watched over. And most of us gathered in this space today, most of us probably don’t have to worry about where the next meal will come from, or where we will sleep tonight. But like those sheep, we long for more. And without a shepherd, we are fearful and on edge.
So who is our shepherd? In this world, we have a lot of options: there are many voices competing for our attention, voices that call out to make their cause most important – the voices of consumerism and busy-ness, competition and self-doubt, those voices are loud – and we can’t let them win.
But there is the voice of another shepherd, always there, even when we get distracted by those other voices– and that shepherd is the Good Shepherd. And the voice of our shepherd says– I am with you, I love you just as you are, and I am willing to lay down my life for you, no matter how broken you are, because you are mine. Do not fear for I am with you, and I know you, rest in me.