Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 23 The Lord's My Shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd. These are probably the most famous words in the whole Bible. That one, simple, little phrase speaks volumes about the relationship we can have with God. And that one, simple, little phrase is the one that is used at most funerals - either said or sung. But this is more than just a funeral day psalm - this is an everyday psalm, one that we can come back to day after day.

Just consider exactly what David is saying when he says The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD (in capital letters) is the covenant name of God. It was the name that was given at the burning bush, as Moses met with the living God. It means ‘I am that I am’. The God who is, the I AM, the God of the universe. And David says that this all-mighty, all-powerful God is a shepherd. No, he goes further, and says that this Lord is ‘my’ shepherd.

I must confess that I don’t know much about shepherding and sheep. I know that they’re nice to look at as you drive along the road, and I know that lambs taste nice, but that’s about as far as it goes. If you’d asked me, I might have thought that being a shepherd was all about cuddling fluffy sheep. I wouldn’t have a notion about how to be a real life shepherd. But David knew what it was all about.

Do you remember whenever King Saul had rejected God, and so God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the new king? He comes to Bethlehem, to the home of Jesse, and after seven sons, all of whom look like fine fellows, Saul asks if there are any other sons? Just one, but he’s out minding the sheep, not even thought of. The youngest son was made to look after the sheep, such was the lot of the poor shepherd.

And yet David, the shepherd boy, says that the Lord is his shepherd. And because the Lord is his shepherd, he has three words of testimony - three benefits of knowing the Lord as his shepherd. Let’s look at them in turn.

The first one comes in the very first verse. And this was always one that puzzled me when I was wee. You see, we’d sing the Scottish metrical version we’ve just sung, and it left me wondering why you wouldn’t want the Lord to be your shepherd? ‘The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want.’ But that’s not what David is saying here! It’s not that he doesn’t want the shepherd Lord; it’s that when the Lord is your shepherd, you’ll not be in want - a very different thing altogether! As our first hymn version put it: ‘I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.’

When the LORD is your shepherd, then you can say ‘I shall not want.’ This is a word of provision - every need taken care of. Just look at how each line begins in verses 2&3 - ‘He’. Here’s how the Lord provides, as he does all these shepherding things for his sheep: He makes me lie down in green pastures - there is rest here. He leads me beside still waters - there is refreshment here. He restores my soul - there is restoration here. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The shepherd takes care of the sheep, in leading them in the right way, to get the things they need at the right time. Have you experienced this provision of the Lord? Have you been able to look back and see how the Lord has ordered things along the way? Will you trust that he will continue to provide for you?

The first thing that David can say is ‘I shall not want.’ But that doesn’t mean that everything is always easy and straightforward. You see, as we follow the paths of righteousness, we can find ourselves in the valley of deep darkness, a scary, shady place, where dangers can lurk.

And we might be tempted to think that we’re left to our own devices when we’re passing through the valley. The Lord might have been with us in the green pastures and by the still waters, but what about here, in the valley? And look at how the valley is described - the shadow of death. Are we all alone when we come under death’s shadow as we mourn for loved ones? Will we be abandoned when we enter that valley ourselves?

Once again, David can speak out, and declare that there is blessing for the one who knows the shepherd. Do you see what he says in verse 4? ‘I will fear no evil.’ There might well be things to be afraid of, but David will not fear. And why is that? Well, look how he continues. ‘For you are with me.’

Notice that he moves from speaking about the Lord as ‘he’ (v2-3), to now ‘you’ (v4&5). He’s emphasising the nearness of the Lord who is with him. It’s a bit like walking home at night. You want someone with you, someone who will scare off anyone tempted to attack you. But look at what it is in particular that brings comfort. When you think of things to comfort you, you might think of a child’s teddy bear, or a comfort blanket, something nice and cuddly to cling to - but that’s not what brings comfort here, in the valley. Do you see what it is?

‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The rod was the shepherd’s attacking / defensive weapon. And David knew how to use it in his shepherding days. In 1 Samuel 17, as David prepares to fight against Goliath, he says this: ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.’ The rod was for protection. And the staff - think of a bishop’s crook - was for correction, for keeping the sheep in line.

Even in the darkest days, we do not need to fear any evil, when the Lord is our shepherd, and we have his protection.

The final benefit that comes from having the Lord as our shepherd - after provision and protection - is promise. We can have a sure and secure future. Along the way, the Lord prepares a table, to give us strength for the journey, a table in the presence of our enemies. He makes it possible for us to make it home - food, oil, an overflowing cup. At college, one of the tricks to play was to pour out the water at the dinner table, and to fill the glasses to the very, very brim, so that if you didn’t have a steady hand, you’d end up getting soaked. But this speaks of more than enough, plentiful supply.

But more than that, we have the promise of verse 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The commentators suggest that this isn’t a casual following, but more like a chasing - if you can imagine goodness and mercy like two sheepdogs snapping at your heels, keeping you going, guiding you every day of your life.

To where? Well, the Psalm comes to the final word, this word of promise: ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ The wandering days are over. We’ll be at home with the Lord. And not just for a day or two, but for ever. Holidays are great. You’re somewhere nice, you can have a good time, but then comes the last night, the last morning, and you’re back on the plane or back in the car and they’re over, just like that. The promise is that we are at home with the Lord for ever. Always. Never ending.

Psalm 23 speaks to us of provision - ‘I shall not want’; protection - ‘I will fear no evil’; and promise - ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord.’ David the shepherd boy knew that the Lord was his shepherd. But we see each of these themes so much clearer as we follow the Lord Jesus, who declares in John 10 ‘I am the good shepherd.’

Jesus the good shepherd provides - ‘I came they they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10). Jesus the good shepherd protects - ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:15). Jesus the good shepherd makes a promise - ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (Jn 10:28).

These blessings of provision, protection, and promise are for those who can confidently say, ‘The Lord is MY shepherd.’ As you come to his table today, come in confidence as you remind yourself of his blessings. Listen to his voice, calling you, keeping you close, as he leads you to his eternal home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

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