Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Lord is My Shepherd (Psalm 23.1)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 18, 2016
Text: Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-15

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Your Grace is Enough (Maher)
Song of Praise: Psalm 23 (Townend)
Offering of Music: The King of Love My Shepherd Is (Beck)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: He Leadeth Me (HE LEADETH ME)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we are beginning a series on the 23rd Psalm. It is well known to many and often heard or recited at funerals or the graveside. But it’s comforting imagery and promises are far broader. In this Psalm, God is portrayed as a Good Shepherd who provides, protects, leads, and feeds us. Part way through the Psalm the imagery shifts to that of a Good Host, with God as Host setting a table of provision, protection, and blessing for us. There is so much in this Psalm that I want to move through it slowly and soak in each image and phrase to help us understand better who God is and just how expansive His care for us is. Today we will look at the image of a Good Shepherd, which we will unpack further over the next few weeks. I hope you will find encouragement here, both in life and in faith.

The image of a shepherd is culturally far from the experience of most of us. But once we are reminded of the character and role of a good shepherd, I think we will quickly find meaningful connections. I think we can all figure out that a shepherd took care of sheep, but let’s break out some of what that meant. A shepherd provided, protected, and led the flock. So also God provides, protects, and leads us if we belong to Him.

Provider

The passage we heard as the call to worship also describes God as Shepherd. It is just one of many places in scripture to do so. In that passage from Ezekiel we read that God says to Israel three times (and I’ve mentioned before how the Hebrew people used repetition to emphasize things):
  • I will feed them in a good pasture and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. (v. 14a)
  • There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (v. 14b)
  • I will feed my flock and I will lead them to rest. (v. 15)
In Genesis, when God provided a ram for sacrifice in place of Isaac, Abraham named the place Jehovah-Jireh, which means “the Lord will provide.”

In Exodus I think of the stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and God providing water to drink and manna to eat.

I think of the story of Naomi and Ruth, widowed and returned home with no family, food, or money and God providing all three through the kindness of Boaz and God’s laws about the kinsman-redeemer.

I think of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray and give thanks for daily bread, providing bread and fish for a crowd from a boy’s small lunch, then going much further in telling the crowd that he was himself the Bread of Life (John 6), a greater miracle than the manna was in Moses’ day.

Going back to the Ezekiel passage, I appreciate that provision is described not only in terms of food (and water), but also rest. There are only a few basic human needs, but water, food, and sleep/rest are among the most essential. The only other one I can think of at that level is air. Without those things, we die.

When we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we are acknowledging that God is our provider. Said another way, it means that we look to God as the source of our most essential needs. Beyond our immediate physical needs, it is also true that God is the source and provider of our most essential spiritual needs.

Protector

A good shepherd is also a protector. When the young shepherd, David, was preparing to fight Goliath, King Saul questioned whether he had any ability to fight such a warrior. David replied that when he was tending his father’s sheep and a lion or bear came to take a lamb form the flock, David went out after him and fought the lion and bear in order to save the lamb. (1 Samuel 17:33-36) So it would be with Goliath. So it is with the Good Shepherd, defending his flock from enemies and the evil one.

In Psalm 23, the sheep can lie down in green pastures because the Good Shepherd is guarding and protecting them. Even in the face of death, there is no fear because the Good Shepherd is there, with rod and staff to protect and defend.

I think of John 17, when Jesus was praying just before his arrest and crucifixion. He prayed for his disciples, that God would not take them out of the world nor allow them to become “of the world”; he prayed that God would go with them INTO the world and protect them from the evil one.

When we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we acknowledge that God is provider and protector. It does not mean that God makes us bullet-proof. Christians are still hurt, robbed, attacked, and more. But God is with us and guards us against the evil one. And it is appropriate to pray and ask for God’s help and protection.

Guide (and finder of lost sheep!)

A good shepherd is also a guide to the sheep. It is the Good Shepherd who LEADS the sheep to food, water, and rest. It’s not just provision and protection where they are, but leading them to the places of provision and safety.

Throughout the Bible God leads His people. When they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, God led them through the wilderness with a cloud by day and fire by night. God also led them through His holy Word.

When Jesus began calling his first disciples, he said, “Come, follow me.” The very life of a Christian or follower of Christ is one of following Christ where he leads us.

But the Shepherd’s guidance goes beyond leading us. It includes FINDING us when we are lost. Jesus told a memorable parable of the Good Shepherd going to look for one lost sheep and leaving the 99 safely behind. That is one of the most compelling parts of the biblical story to me – that God doesn’t just take care of the faithful (as if any of us are perfectly faithful!); but God goes looking for the lost. Jesus told more than a few parables about this, about God seeking and finding, looking for the lost to bring them home.

That is one of the chief functions of a shepherd, because sheep are prone to wandering and prone to entanglement. But the Shepherd keeps an eye out for the flock and goes to rescue and deliver the lost. That’s salvation language; that’s what God has done with us. He’s come after us to find us, rescue us, and bring us home.

So when we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we acknowledge God as interested, active, seeking, and finding God. We acknowledge that God has found us and will come after us. We also acknowledge that God is the one we follow; He is our guide and part of belonging to Him is following Him with our lives.

The Lord is My Shepherd

In the coming weeks we will dig into these qualities of the Good Shepherd and also look at the imagery of God as welcoming Host. But for today, it is plenty to acknowledge with Psalm 23 that “The Lord is my Shepherd” and that in saying that we recognize that God is provider, protector, and guide.

I wonder how that image – that reality – intersects with your life and the stuff you are facing. What are your lions? What are your giants? What are your brambles or lost places? What would it mean for you for God to provide? protect? find you and lead you home? Do you need to be restored? Do you need to find a place of quiet rest?

Psalm 23 reminds us that God is the source of those things. Would you join your hearts to mine as I pray and ask God to meet us, find us, guard us, and provide for us?