Every year the same readings. Fair enough, they are important. Fair enough, it’s Easter tide and the whole church is reading from the Book of Acts, the whole church is hearing the Gospel reading , ‘I am the Good shepherd’. But for all except these 7 Sundays after Easter we get a choice. Years A, B and C roll around precisely so we don’t get the same readings every year. We can choose to use the Old Testament or the New. But we’re not given any such choice today! Acts it is. John chapter 10: ‘Good shepherd Sunday in time for lambing’. I’ve had enough – no more, 30+ years of the same sermon material. Time to down tools. I’m on strike along with everyone else.
Strike over. ACAS have recommended a compromise – choose the psalm, preach on the psalm. We didn’t read it but we have just sung it: Psalm 23. We know it but let’s spend some time with it. Calm down: deep breath.
‘The LORD is my shepherd I shall not want’. Not ‘God (whichever God that might be) is my shepherd’, not ‘the Almighty’ – but the LORD. We skip over it but here is a statement of faith that only a Jew could make (and we the inheritors of the covenant). In your bibles Lord isn’t just given a capital L. No the L, O R & D are all capital letters and this matters. Why? Because it is the translator’s way of showing that this God, this Lord is not just any god (small g) but Israel’s God (big G). LORD here is Yahweh or Jehovah. LORD here is the God who revealed Himself to Moses as ‘I am who I am’. This is God’s sacred name, a name so sacred that Jews will not even say it.
The ancient world held any numbers of gods. Think of the Greek or Roman pantheons, think of the gods of Egypt but the people of God believed in only one God: the LORD who was Lord of heaven and earth, the only LORD. By using this name the writer of the psalm recognises this LORD as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God reveals Himself to Abram and has a purpose for His people. This God redeems Israel from Egypt to enable that purpose to continue to be carried out. This God has shown a compassion for the slave, the poor, a concern for righteousness and morality. This God, this LORD has desired a relationship with His people. This is the LORD who is my shepherd – not just ‘our’ shepherd, ‘my shepherd’. Our writer (the scriptures tell us that this is one of David’s Psalms) is not just at peace with the universe (whatever that might mean) but is in some sort of relationship with the Source of all life and being within the Universe: the LORD is my shepherd.
‘I shall not want. He makes me lie down in pastures green, he leads me beside still waters’. This LORD, who guides and shepherds each one of us wants the best for us. Did you know (can you begin to grasp) that God has a purpose for you? God desires your flourishing. ‘I came that they might have life in all its fulness’ says the Good Shepherd, Jesus. He leads us beside still waters. He gives us the ‘bread of life’ and ‘living water’ welling up to eternal life. This God, this LORD overflows with ‘Gift’ – it is of His nature, He cannot help it. Which is why a mark of true Christian Community is generosity…and kindness…and mercy and forgiveness. Where you find these things you know you have found people who have been found, been shepherded by the Good Shepherd who gives Himself for us.
‘He restores my soul and leads me in right paths for His name’s sake’. Here in Barnard Castle where the grass is green, we can see the hills and hear the birds there is much that can restore our souls but it is still so easy to overlook the harshness of some people’s lives. Human beings are ‘souls ‘ who reveal their nature through their minds and bodies: we are body mind and soul together. The diseases of poverty, mental illness, loneliness, abuse, overwork, addiction and anxiety crush the life out of too many. Existence is not the same as ‘living’. We all, in some way need restoration or healing and the LORD offers it. ‘He restores my soul’: in the quiet (if we can find it) of our homes (or sat here in church) when we can take a few deep breaths and let our souls catch up with the frenetic pace of our lives…Or as we listen to a piece of music or appreciate the company of friends ( a coffee and some conversation)…as we spend time in a museum or at the cinema, ‘He restores my soul’. God is at work in and through these things (they are part of His gift to us) Libraries and public parks and culture, music, theatre and sport – these things are great gifts that lift us from the dust and enable us to stand on two feet as fully human beings. They aren’t optional extras: they are gifts from God to bring healing to body mind and soul. Most especially at a time of foodbanks and hardships they are not to become the preserve of the wealthy alone they are for all God’s precious people.
He restores my soul and leads me in the paths of righteousness. ‘How shall a young man live?’ asked the writer of the Book of Proverbs. ‘Seek wisdom’ comes the answer. And there is wisdom galore in our communities of faith. There is wisdom to be found in the teaching of scripture and the words of Jesus. ‘I am the way’, ‘follow me’, he says. ‘Take my yoke upon you’ – model your life on mine and you won’t go far wrong. Can we do it? No. Can we try? with God’s help? Yes.
And then those words that speak into our darkest places. ‘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 staff comfort me’. Faith offers us no insurance against misfortune – we know this. There are people in this congregation who have carried the heaviest of burdens, you may not even have been aware of them… I am humbled to even think of how you have managed (and continue to manage). But these words give us a clue: God is with us. There is no place where He is not. No darkness where His light cannot shine. ‘Behold, I am with you to the end of the world’ – yes, this is what we need. ‘Nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. With this all things are possible. ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’
And that rod and staff? I had always assumed these were one and same thing but not so. The staff guides and directs. The rod is a weapon. This is the LORD fighting our corner: this is the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep facing up to the wolves and all that might destroy or pull us down. Our forbears prayed an awful lot about their ‘adversaries’, (perhaps at the time of the Reformation everything felt uncertain and dangerous) but Christians around the world live in fear of their lives now– we know this. Here we are reassured that ‘nothing can snatch us from His hand’ – not even death can overpower this LORD. We are His, always, forever.
And then the psalm ends with a table spread, a cup filled (in presence of my foes) and a welcome given as oil anoints the believer’s head. We’re no longer in the fields with the sheep, we are inside a house at a feast. The prodigal is home. The lost sheep found. The lost coin restored to its rightful place. The LORD waits on table – astounding. The LORD anoints our heads with oil. No wonder Christians see Jesus here. Jesus, kneeling to wash his disciples’ feet: ‘unless I wash you, you have no part in me’. Jesus, who said, ‘I am among you as a servant’. Jesus, the One who so often was ‘unwelcome’, (not treated with honour or respect) opens wide his arms for us and welcomes us as his brothers and sisters. And those enemies, those foes? Perhaps their presence is a pointer towards vindication. The journey of faith is by no means a given for the world: it attracts scepticism, sometimes derision and contempt…but those who have shown these things must look on as God upturns their worldview and finds blessing for the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…indeed, those who seek to follow Jesus, the Good shepherd, the servant King.
Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life – what a thought – and I will dwell in the house of the LORD, forever.
The Good Shepherd always with me: How do we sing it?
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Always and forever. Amen, so be it, and Amen again.
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