The Good Shepherd
A Homily for Trinity 12
August 19, 2018
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Psalm 23
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen,
As I was preparing for preaching this morning, I realized that I wandered a bit from what I initially said this sermon would be about. I think, however, the 23rd Psalm is an incredibly important handbook for the Christian in all times, but especially for those of us who are living in profoundly secular times as ours. What I mean by the term secular is that a division exists, even in the heart of the church and her members, between the religious realm and everything else. Our culture, and even us at times, think that it is all fine and good to have religion, so long as you keep that segmented from how you live the rest of your life.
We see this in how we approach our struggles, how we approach our interacting with the world, and even how we approach interacting with those we deem our enemies. The 23rd Psalm does not leave room for us to segregate our lives. Rather, it tells us to live holistically and it effects how we live, how we die, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our souls, and how we love. That is to say – the completeness of how we live matters. The 23rd Psalm challenges us to live fully dependent upon God, who is our shepherd in every realm of our lives.
As we approach the 23rd Psalm we are familiar with picturesque images of sheep in the field and a shepherd standing by. We perhaps have taken a great comfort in this Psalm in our grief and this comfort is a good thing, But the Psalm is so much deeper than a temporary comfort, it points us towards our eternal hope, and the promise of God’s providential care for his sheep. The 23rd Psalm reminds us to live as ones who are totally dependent upon God in all we do. We do not segment our lives, having a little section for faith, another section for politics, another for sports, and work, and family. No, the Christian life is lived holistically, allowing our Faith in Christ permeate it all.
As Christians, as we have established, at the center of all we do is the desire to glorify God, to let our light shine before all, that they would see our works and glorify our Father in heaven. Out of that flows our profound sense of our failure in doing this. We see our own sin in light of the magnitude of God’s glory and we may find ourselves faltering. We are then reminded of God’s mercy. How in His mercy he is a good shepherd, how he is bringing us out of the tumult of a life without of him into the peace of the His presence.
As we turn to the 23rd Psalm we want to keep the glory of God, and His merciful and providential care for us in mind. In addition to this, we remember how the Psalm 23 lies in between Psalm 22, which we looked at in light of the crucifixion last week and Psalm 24 in which we are reminded that God is the king of Glory and Jesus is not only the prophet and the perfect priest, but is this king.
Christ, while he is our shepherd, first went under the care of the Father as His shepherd, we take heart in this truth and trust Him. As we head into the Psalm we are invited into the imagery of a near eastern shepherd at work. His relationship with his sheep was such that he was their leader, provider, and protector, and would know each animal.
On top of this proclamation of God as shepherd, that tends and cares for the body and soul of his sheep, we also want to understand that in the ancient Near Eastern leaders and kings often took upon themselves the title of shepherd. So, when we proclaim the Lord our shepherd we are reminded that He is our king as well.
We have been put under the total care of the Lord, and God cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep or a good king for his people, therefore we lack nothing. There is nothing that we can want. We are called to forsake trusting in ourselves, and throw all our care upon the Lord. Or in the words of St. Augustine: “when you say ‘the Lord is my shepherd,’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.”
Now that we have established that the Lord is the shepherd of our souls, the Psalmist goes on to establish what that means and how he guides us. We return for a moment to our vision of the shepherd and his sheep. When we see paintings of this Psalm – the field is open and grassy and could be somewhere in the Midwest or perhaps Ireland. The green pastures are rich and unending. However, before we look at the second verse we need to revise the pastoral scene we conjure up in our head. Instead of the whole pasture being green, imagine something like Skull Valley, the next valley over from our own, or perhaps even our own valley. The surrounding area is generally arid, and then as you come into the valley where a river sometimes runs through, we see green. The green has come because there is a water source. When we imagine the second verse of the 23rd Psalm, imagine an island of green surrounded by the harshness of an arid land.
The sheep would travel under the direction of their shepherd and come eventually to an oasis with shade, grass, and water. Here, the sheep could get all they need – grass to eat, shade in which to rest, and water to drink. If the shepherd drove his sheep too hard they would die. He had to be aware and know where each green oasis was for the sake of his sheep.
We don’t often think of the world being a wild and dangerous place, but it is, isn’t it? Each week brings news of death and destruction, of how the nations rage and things fall apart - we are regularly reminded of the fragility of life. We do not know the hour of our death or whether injury will come to us and this can be a frightening thing too. J.R. Tolkein puts this more eloquently in the Lord of the Rings - “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, (says the wizard) going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Despite the ominous feelings that can arise from life, we take assurance in the fact that God will care for our whole person, he cares for our soul, our body, and the entirety of our wellbeing. The Lord will shepherd us to what we need most and having arrived at each oasis our focus returns to that eternal feast that we will enjoy with Him.
We get to the third verse – and the prayer book’s translation reads “he shall convert my soul.” A better reading for our modern ears is that he will revive the soul, our quicken it. We often find in the race that we are running that we grow weary, that we grow tired of fighting the good fight, worn from loving others, and avoiding the sin that so often plagues us can become tiresome, and we feel as though we simply cannot go on.
Here. we are reminded of the Lord’s commandment to keep Holy the Sabbath, and of Christ’s comment that the sabbath was created for us and not us for the sabbath. We come to an understanding that as humans we need to rest, we need refreshment. However, if that refreshment isn’t in the Lord, if we aren’t seeking our strength and well-being from the Lord our rest will be of naught, and even after a day of resting we will still be tired. Instead, we turn our eyes to Jesus, and we learn what it is to trust in Him more fully every day. We trust him to guide us, to refresh us, and to strengthen us in our resistance of sin. It is when we come to understand that He is truly our shepherd that we will be feeling our refreshment in Him.
The path of righteousness is exactly what it sounds like, it is the right path, the good path, the path that continues us on the journey towards His heavenly presence. This can be both a deeper understanding of our vocation, and living in a good and proper manner. When we come to Christ He places in us the Holy Spirit who not only acts to comfort us, but to continually correct us on this path.
In the same way we learn of this right path through living the Christian life, which is acted out in prayer, reading scripture, public and private worship, the partaking of the sacraments, and fellowship with other believers. Through these things we receive guidance, correction, and comfort.
Our growth in Christ glorifies His name, but now we need to return to our middle eastern shepherd for a moment. For him, it would have been a dishonor to have lost even a single sheep. Not only is a life lived in Christ glorifying to Him, it is equally glorifying that the Lord will not lose us, and in fact we know that he will track us down, he will leave the 99 before He lets one of His precious sheep perish.
We now come to that famous verse that has comforted so many in times of trouble: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.”
We find ourselves here on the door of death. We first read this in the mystery that is the end of life and we can imagine for a moment Christ’s disciples who were left in confusion of Christ’s death and burial. For the burial was just that, the messiah was supposed to come, was supposed to drive out the Romans, and return Jerusalem to its glory and now the one they had hoped in was dead, laid in the tomb all life had gone out of Him.
There are various theories as to what happened to Christ in those hours between His death and His resurrection. The 39 – Articles of Religion, the Anglican confessional statement affirm that he descended into hell which we reaffirm when we recite the Apostles Creed. We have a hard time imagining what this would be like – the perfect Lord in hell, and it might trouble us but in this we are reminded that Christ is the great high-priest who can empathize with us perfectly, there is nothing in the human experience that he does not understand better than us.
Perhaps, we can understand the disciples’ pain and confusion better for we do know the pain of losing one we love, the pain of losing one who we put our hope in, for there are very few who have not experienced such heartbreak. In the mystery of Christ’s death, we are reminded that God is with us. He is with us in the mysteries and heartache of this life. He is ever drawing us closer and closer to Him and He understands the difficult times which we travel through.
We also want to look at this verse in the light of the entirety of the Psalm. As we read it we are reminded of God’s providential care for us. For, although it is easy to remember that God cares for us and directs us when things are going well, we can take comfort that He is still beside us as we go through the darkness of this life, the hard times that we will inevitably pass through.
The Lord is not far off in these times but he is walking with us. For as we read this verse we see that he goes from leading to accompanying. This shift in our mindset is important – in the times that are the most difficult, most painful, the Lord is closest, walking beside us. It is in the shadow of death, our deepest heartaches that we learn to depend more deeply upon Christ.
Finally, in the valley of death we are reminded that God alone can shepherd us through death. Although a plethora of worldviews exist, numerous hobbies entertain us, and there are uncountable distractions that might bring us a moment of relief in this life – only one person has passed through death and seen the resurrection and that is Christ. Christ alone will walk with us through death and into life. We learn to put our trust in Him. For it is in Him that we are being made alive in this life, and in Him is the hope of an eternal life. One commentator summarized this particularly well - only the Lord can lead a man through death; all other guides turn back, and the traveler must go on alone.
As we reach the fifth and sixth verse we have a shift from this view of the Lord as a shepherd to the Lord as a host. The Lord is not merely a shepherd that brings us wandering through the wilderness of life but He is bringing us to a destination. The final verses show us the destination, the final great, heavenly banquet.
We get a taste of this banquet when we come to the Lord’s table and partake in Holy Communion. For we know that we mystically experience Christ in this time tasting the future of our eternal life of communion with God. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we are reminded that God provides for us fully, and we get a little taste of the heavenly promise. The banquet where we will experience God as the perfect host, where we will have no other desire but to enjoy Him forever. The Psalm finishes as a reminder of this eternal dwelling place, the place that Christ has gone to prepare for us. That though we wander through the desert, the good shepherd’s care leads us to this final resting place where, we will finally be completely satisfied in Him.
The 23rd Psalm teaches and reminds us how Christ works in our life. For Christ is the good shepherd who brings us to the green pasture, where we rest, where we find our sustenance, and hydration in the desert that can be this life. But even when we walk through the heartache, and the mysteries of life, we are reminded that God walks alongside of us. Finally, we are reminded that Christ our good shepherd has gone through death, and will come through with us when we meet the end of this life, and He will shepherd us into the eternity that we look forward to – shepherd us through to the final great banquet, and an eternity of enjoying the glory of God.
Let us be mindful of how God works in the entirety of our life, that when we walk with Him there is no secular portion and religious portion, but rather we are called to commit to glorifying Him in all we do. He gives us all that we need and asks nothing less than our total allegiance. Let us take heart, remembering that He is our good shepherd, that in Him we will persevere to the end of our days, trusting in God, and seeking to glorify him in all we do.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.