By now many of you have heard me share that the church staff had a going away party for Beth and me before we left for our sabbatical journey. That night each member of the staff gave me a Scripture that was their hope and prayer for me. I used these passages to define my personal devotions for the summer. Among those passages were two that I dealt with back to back. They made a wonderful pairing because together caste new light on one another. Equally important, our English context gave me a fresh appreciation for what these passages was trying to convey.
The first passage is the first three verses of Psalm 100. It reads; Psalm 100: 1Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. In Psalm 100 has always been one of my favorite calls to worship. It calls us to God with joy and passion. It reminds us that God is God and it is God that made us and calls us his own. The picture the Psalmist uses is that “we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. I grew up as a city boy with concrete flowing through my veins. The only context I had for understanding the relationship between sheep and shepherd was my annual trek to the state fair where I saw a rather undecipherable process of the sorting and judging of sheep in the farm animal area. In Southeast Asia we small a few scattered collections of sheep and goats. But, in England we witnessed huge flocks of sheep seemingly at every turn. The sheep in England are more than just animals; they are at the heart of a way of life. They are valued and cared for. “Shepherds” invest great energy to make sure that the sheep have good fields, good water, and safety. The relationship between the sheep and the “shepherd” is defining. These experiences helped me claim a fresh understanding that the Psalms were written to a people where sheep were a central part of their life story. The pronouncement that they were the sheep in God’s pasture described a relationship of ownership, protection, and provision.
We hear that same worldview echoed my study companion passage that serves as this morning’s focal passage. It is the David Swenson gave me, Psalm 23, verse 3. In this verse David brought me a promise and prayer for the renewal and restoration of my soul. But in this moment, like in my time at the desk at Woodstock, I could not stop with verse 3. I had to claim the whole of Psalm 23. We hear this great Psalm read predominately at funerals as a source of comfort. While it is good and right to hear words of comfort from this psalm, it offers us much, much more. But it invites us to not only to find comfort from God but to follow the way of God with absolute trust. We could spend considerable time looking at each line of this great psalm, but in this morning’s service I want us to hear it in a way that summons us to the table.
You have heard this great Psalm sung earlier in our service. Let’s take a closer look, hearing it from the King James Version – the way I learned this psalm as a child. It begins; The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The psalmist begins with a rather bold statement that God is our shepherd and that we will not be in want. Our temptation is to think about this in economic terms. It reminds us of the words of Jesus when he promises to give us life abundant. What we discover is that the psalmist is not talking about what we can claim for ourselves, but rather who claims us. We are God’s. We are his people, the sheep of His pasture, and He is our shepherd. We belong to God and God will meet our needs.
The Psalm continues; 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. My family is surprised that I have not talked about the rock walls we saw all across the country. While I was in England I would go on and on about these rock walls, laid one stone at a time, held together by weight and gravity rather than mortar. The reason I was so impressed by these walls was not their scale or unique beauty. It was because they would run up hills that seemed almost impossible to scale. They would run along the edges of rocky cliffs and create boundaries between the pasture and the lifeless rocky hillsides. I came to realize that many, many of these walls were built, one stone at a time, to provide a safe place – a green pasture with still waters for a shepherd’s sheep. As I read this passage with these images floating in my mind I could not help but think that if we trust God and God’s way God leads us to green pastures where we can flourish and still clean waters where we can be nourished. The psalmist is talking about a walk with God where our soul is restored; where our brokenness finds redemption and our shame is replaced with forgiveness and grace. The psalmist is talking about a walk with God where God leads us to a pathway – a life way – that is right and that honors God.
The psalmist sings out; 4 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 they comfort me. It is this verse that offers comfort in the midst of grief. But we do not only walk in the valley of the shadow of death when we taste the pain of loss. The psalmist pairs the image of the valley with the promise that we do not have to fear. Fear draws us into the valley of the shadows. It is tempting to feel alone in the valley of the shadows. The bright light of hope and love can seem far away. Sometimes it is the fear defined by uncertainty – worrying about what might happen to us or what might lie ahead. For some it is the fear is the fear of failure, for other it is the fear of rejection, still for others it is the fear of isolation; and for others it is the fear of having to depend on others. Hear me, fear is not from God. The psalmist reminds us that we do not have to fear. God is with us to protect us and direct us. We are not alone in the valley. God is there, waiting to show us the way home.
We hear the psalm proclaim;5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I love this picture. God has prepared a table for us. It is a spiritual banquet. We will know God’s blessing. God's way leads us to the place where God has prepared a table for us- where mercy and grace overflows.
One of the things I learned about sheep while in England is that sheep are willful, stubborn, and have a great tendency to wander off. It is a good and right image of who we are in our relationship with God. It is so easy to try to do it ourselves. It is so easy to dig our heels in. It is so easy to wander off on any path that captures our eye for the moment. But, when we try to do life on our own we find that we stumble and fall. When we dig in our heels we find ourselves in all the wrong places. And when we wander off, we find ourselves lost and in real need of the Shepherd. We are his people and the sheep of His pasture and we cannot make it on our own.
God’s way promises us that God is with us, protecting us, providing for us and leading us toward home. The table the psalmist dreamed of is laid out before us. At His table mercy and grace overflows. At this table we hear Jesus tell us that the bread is the symbol of his body, given and broken for each of us. At this table we remember Jesus’ pronouncement that he is the bread of life. At this table we hear Jesus tell us that the wine is the symbol of his blood, shed for the forgiveness of the many – for my forgiveness – and for yours. This is a spiritual banquet where we are invited as the children of God to come and take and remember so that we might follow the way of God all of our lives and dwell in the house of God forever. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. The Lord is our shepherd who leads us to green pastures, beside the still waters. The Lord in our shepherd, who leads us through the valley of fear and the very shadow of death and will not abandoned us or forsake us. The Lord is our shepherd, who invites us to the table he has prepared for us – where mercy and grace – forgiveness and love – overflows. Come to the Shepherd. Come to the Savior. Come to the table. Let nothing stand in your way.