About 6 weeks ago, my family and I went camping for a week for vacation. It’s the first time in about 4 or 5 years that we’ve been able to go camping together and when we were planning it, we decided we wanted to be in the mountains and we wanted there to be a lake so we could go swimming and boating. We wanted to be near water. When we got to our campground we saw that there was also a creek right across the road from our site. So we got bonus water. I’ve noticed that lots of people like to vacation near water. Pastor Leonard and his family are camping in Maine this week and he posted a photo over the weekend of the water there. On Facebook, people have been posting pictures at the pool, at the beach, at a swimming hole in the mountains. And you know in the city, there’s always the option to open the hydrant. The other week someone had opened the hydrant on our block. We like to play in and around water in the summer. It refreshes us.
One of the first things we are told in Psalm 23 is that the Lord leads us beside quiet waters. I’ve heard that sheep won’t drink from a stream that’s moving. They will only drink from a place where the water is still. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I would imagine, if one is a sheep, it would feel safer to drink from still water rather than running water. The picture here in Psalm 23 of the sheep lying down in green pastures and being lead beside quiet waters is a tranquil picture. It’s one of safety and rest. In fact the next line after the quiet waters one says “he refreshes my soul.” When we read the first few verses of Psalm 23, it’s like taking a drink of cold water on a hot day. It’s soothing and refreshing. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
The image of God as Shepherd is gentle and kind and yet also strong and capable. At Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church, where I also pastor, there is a huge stained glass window behind the pulpit with the picture of Jesus as Shepherd, holding the lamb in his arms and he’s looking out over the congregation with, what I think, is a very stern look on his face. We have jokingly referred to that picture as “evil Jesus” because he’s got such a mean look on his face, like he’s watching the congregation to see who is going to fall asleep or check their phone or something and then he’s going to smack them with his staff. But one of the members told me one time that they find the picture comforting because Jesus looks so protective of the sheep, like he is guarding them and woe to any enemy that may try to harm his sheep. To the sheep, the Shepherd is loving, kind, gentle, comforting, providing all that is needed. But to the enemy, the Shepherd is dangerous, vigilant, strong, and scary.
Psalm 23 is attributed to David whose first job was to watch his father’s sheep. In 1 Samuel 17, when David volunteers to fight the giant Goliath, he tells King Saul that when he was guarding his father’s sheep and a lion or a bear would come and carry off one of the flock, he would follow the animal, hit it and rescue the sheep from its mouth. And then when the animal would turn on him, he would seize it by the hair, hit it and kill it. David was just a teenager but he had already killed the lion and the bear and so he thought he was perfectly capable of killing a giant as well. David was a little crazy. His protective instincts were off the chart. No one I know would willingly run after a wild lion or bear, grab it by the hair and then hit it in order to get a sheep back. Most of us would just consider the sheep a loss and we’d move the flock somewhere where there were no lions or bears. But the problem with a lion or bear or any animal that preys on livestock, is that once they’ve eaten of your stock, they know where to find food. They will come back looking for more. David had to get rid of the enemy of his sheep or they would just come back for seconds.
Psalm 23 says the Lord is our Shepherd. When there is an enemy preying on His people, the Lord will deal with it. Because, like David, the Lord’s protective instincts, when it comes to His people, are off the chart. In Deuteronomy 23, the Lord is giving instructions to the Israelites when they are in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and he tells them to make a latrine outside the camp. They are not to leave their bodily wastes laying on the ground in the camp. And the reason he gives is this: “For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy…” God Himself patrolled their camp to keep His people safe in the wilderness. And He watched out for their enemies, to deliver them into His people’s hands.
Psalm 91 speaks a great deal about the protection of the Lord, that he is a refuge and fortress, a strong and safe place. He saves his people from the snare and from deadly disease. His faithfulness is a shield to his people. He rescues and protects those who call on His name. In John 17, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays for his disciples and for all who will believe in him. He tells the Father that he has protected his disciples by the power of his name while he was with them, but now He is going back to the Father and He asks that the Father now protect His people by that same power, the power of His name.
In John 10 Jesus tells his disciples that he is the good Shepherd and he lays down his life for the sheep. He protects them from all enemies. The hired man who watches the sheep would run away if an enemy like a wolf would come to steal a sheep. But the Good Shepherd doesn’t run away. Like David, He faces the enemy and overcomes it. It is in this context that Jesus speaks of the enemy of His people and says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Our shepherd watches over our lives, protecting us from all enemies, laying down his own life so that we might be safe. He doesn’t abandon us.
Psalm 23 goes on in verses 4 and 5 to focus more on the dangers that surround the sheep. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death) I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” I remember when I was a preschooler, I was afraid of the dark. I hated going into a dark room. It terrified me to think of what might be waiting there in the dark. Even now I get a little uncomfortable going down into our basement if all the lights are off, because it’s just creepy in the dark.
Last month Bethannie and I were house sitting for friends and we were staying overnight at their house, watching their cat. We had been out on their back porch and I had come in first to go to bed and I checked the front door to make sure it was locked. But Bethannie was still out back so I left it up to her to lock up the back door. Well in the middle of the night when it was good and dark, I heard a noise in the house that woke me up. My first thought was, did the back door get locked. Was someone in the house? Then I realized I had left my cell phone in the living room so I couldn’t call 911. We’re out in Abington and I’m thinking “the serial killers all live in the suburbs!” Turns out it was just their cat running around. The point is, it gets scary in the dark. When we find ourselves walking in the dark, whether literally or figuratively, it gets scary. It’s hard when we are in a situation and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or what we are going to do. Our Shepherd walks with us. When we hear scary things in the dark – news reports of violence and war, news that there’s not enough money to provide for our children’s education, news that our jobs might be in jeopardy, news that our health is in jeopardy, news that our child is in trouble or our parent is sick – we have to be reminded that our Shepherd walks with us. His rod and staff are there to protect and to comfort. He’s strong enough to face whatever is going bump in the night. Even when we face death, He is with us to bring comfort.
He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. This is a powerful picture of reconciliation. The table is the place where people come together to meet a basic need. We all have to eat. There is something equalizing about being at the table. We use this image in talking about inclusion. Everyone has a place at the table. The Lord our Shepherd prepares a table where we and our enemies can come together, a place of reconciliation where healing can happen. The anointing of the head with oil is a picture of healing as well as a picture of the blessing of the Lord.
This image of the table reminds me of the table where Jesus was with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. In John 13 Jesus and his disciples were sitting at the table to eat the evening meal. John tells us right at the beginning that Judas was there and was already planning to betray Jesus. Jesus was at the table with his enemy but he got up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples, including the feet of Judas. Jesus knows what it’s like to have a relationship break. He knows what it’s like to have an enemy. He knows what it takes to seek healing and reconciliation in that situation. He understands the level to which a person must humble themselves and how hard it can be to let go of the injustice that one has suffered in order to write off the debt that is owed when we’ve been wronged. He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies and invites us to take a seat at that table.
One of the things that they teach us at seminary is to look at the context of any passage that you preach from. We tend to think of Psalm 23 or any of the psalms as being their own context. Each one is its own individual song or poem. But the truth is that the Psalms are placed in relationship to one another. So this week I read Psalms 22 and 24 to get a better idea of the context of Psalm 23. Psalm 22 starts out with the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And it goes on as the psalmist says that he has cried out to God day and night and yet God seems so far from him. We recognize these first words as the cry of Jesus from the cross.
In verses 7 and 8 the psalmist says “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. He trusts in the Lord, they say, let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Further on in verses 14 and following it says “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me, they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments.” We recognized this as a description of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Psalm 22 sets the context for Psalm 23. The Lord our Shepherd is the one who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. He is the one who has prepared the table with his own body and blood. On the night he was betrayed he took the bread and broke it and said “This is my body which is broken for you.” And then he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.” In John 6 Jesus said “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” We are all in need of this real food. At the table the Lord has prepared, all are included because all are equally in need.
The title for this sermon is “More than a Shepherd” because we see that Jesus, our Lord, is our Good Shepherd but he is also much more than that. He makes us lie down in green pastures – a place of rest and peace – and He Himself is our peace who has broken down the walls of hostility that separate us from God and from one another. He leads us beside quiet waters and He gives us living water that becomes a spring of water within us welling up to eternal life and refreshing our souls. He guides us along the right paths and He himself is the way, the truth and the life. He is with us even in the darkest places and His very name is Emmanuel- God with us. He became what we are, laying aside His glory and taking on human flesh in order to be with us. As I said earlier, He prepares the table before us in the presence of our enemies and He is the bread and the cup that we take. He anoints our head with oil. Oil is a symbol of the Spirit of God whom Jesus has sent to be with us, to be our comforter and our teacher and to fill us with power to witness and live as disciples of Jesus.
This is good stuff! We can take comfort when we read Psalm 23 knowing that our God is our Shepherd but He is also so much more. But in a little bit we are going to leave this place of worship. Tomorrow, or maybe later today for some of you, we go back to our jobs. In a little bit we leave here and go back to our neighborhoods and homes. We go back to relationships that may be strained or broken. We go back to the scary places in our lives. What about when we go back to the dark?
I got together with a group of ladies this past week and one of them had just come back from a trip to Rwanda and Tanzania. She was on a learning trip to Rwanda and heard from people who had been through the genocide and people who were working with survivors to bring healing and she said it was just incredible hearing stories and being with people there. After that she went to Tanzania on safari and she said she really needed that break after the intensity of experiences in Rwanda. And so she’s on safari riding in a big truck with a group of people through the Serengeti and they are taking pictures of lions and giraffes and all these wild animals and the animals are just right there, with nothing separating them from you. Then they get to this camp where they are spending the night and she realizes it doesn’t have any walls around it. So she says to the guide, “so you have someone patrolling through the camp at night right?” As we read earlier in Deuteronomy, even Israel had God patrolling their camp at night. But the guide just laughs at her and says “No, this is camp at your own risk.” So then she asks if she can sleep in the truck but he just laughs again and says that’s where he’s sleeping. So she reconciles herself to the fact that she will be sleeping in this little tent in the middle of wild animal country, and that people had slept here the night before and no one was eaten. But then in the middle of the night, when it’s all dark and scary, she hears this noise, like a purring sound. She realizes there’s an animal outside her tent. She tries to ignore it and be still and go back to sleep but it keeps getting louder. I think she was probably praying by this point as this purring sound is not going away. Suddenly something nudges her through the tent wall and that’s when she loses it and screams, waking up everyone. Turns out it was not lions purring in anticipation of a snack. It was 3 zebras that had wandered into camp. So after everything settled down, she texted a friend in the US and said, “This isn’t fun anymore.”
I’m telling you this story because that’s how many of us probably feel. It’s great when we come together on Sunday morning, we worship, we learn, we pray, we fellowship. But then when we go back home and there’s a shooting a few houses down from us, as what happened on Freeman and Naomi’s block this week, it’s not fun anymore. When we hear cop cars in the neighborhood and a helicopter is spotlighting on our block because there’s been a home invasion, as happened over near several of our families in Northwood this past week, then it’s not fun anymore. When an SUV is carjacked and plows into a fruit stand killing 3 kids and putting their mother in the hospital and it turns out one of the perpetrators lives on your block, as is true of one of our families, then it’s not fun anymore. When our kids are participating as campers and workers at our summer camp program, and a youth counselor is jumped right here on our property and injured, as happened just on the other side of this wall on Thursday afternoon, then it’s not fun anymore.
When we leave this worship space, we go back into a scary dark world and it’s not fun. It wears us down. We face real enemies, real problems, real worries that are way bigger than we are. We realize we are just as helpless as sheep and we need our Shepherd. I’ve made the observation the last few weeks to several people and they’ve agreed with me, that people seem to just be tired. It wears us down walking through dark places all the time, dealing with enemies in the dark. It tires us out dealing with the craziness in the world around us. We need our Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures and to lead us beside still waters and to restore our souls. We need to know He’s patrolling through our camp, watching over us in the darkness, keeping us safe, delivering our enemies into our hands. We need to sit at the table He has prepared for us and eat the food He sets before us. We need the living water welling up within us each day, refreshing us and giving us life. Our Shepherd provides all that we need but we have to reach out and take it.
He leads us beside quiet waters, he gives us living water to drink to refresh our souls. We need refreshing don’t we? We need to be filled with the Spirit of God and with the water of life if we are going to be able to face the darkness and the valleys that are waiting for us this week. We need the water that washes us clean and purifies us of our own sin. Ask God to fill you with the living water that refreshes our souls and to give you the rest and renewal you need to face this next week.