Sermon: The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is My Shepherd
Psalm 23
May 1, 2016 RUMC

A first grade teacher once gave all of her students the following assignment:  Each child was to stand up in front of the class and give a short talk on “What do you want to be when you grow up and why?”  And as expected, each child got up and some said they wanted to be police & firemen, airline pilots & stewardesses, nurses, teachers, librarians, bus drivers, baseball players and veterinarians.  And they all gave their reasons.  But there was one boy, who stood up and said, “I am going to be a lion tamer and have lots of fierce lions.  I will walk into the cage and they will roar.”  He then paused for a moment and said, “But of course, I’ll have my mommy with me.”

What he said was kind of humorous, but not so outrageous.  We live in a world where many fear for the future or are anxious about what could happen.

My scripture text is the 23rd Psalm.  These six short verses teach us that, with God in our lives, we can handle at least the pressures of life that come our way.  This morning we will use Responsive Reading #754 from our United Methodist hymnal.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures,
Leads me beside the still waters, restores my life.
Leads me in right paths for the sake of the Lord’s name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I 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.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live.

The 23rd Psalm is perhaps the most familiar passage in all of the Bible; its 118 words continue to bring strength and comfort to believers everywhere.

When David wrote this psalm, he was already the king of Israel, but many years prior he was a shepherd boy; he understood the needs of sheep and the responsibilities of a shepherd.  As an adult, he could look through spiritual eyes and see that the people were like sheep and God was more like a shepherd.  That is why he could say in verse one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

In my Christian walk I have had to learn, and I am still learning, that the Lord is the one who ultimately controls all the details and circumstances of my life.  This is one area where I struggle; it has not always been easy for me to trust in God in difficult situations, but I think the Apostle Paul puts it in the right perspective when he penned the words of Romans 8:28.

And we know that in all things God, works for the good of those who love him. 

This is similar to the experience of the first grader who wanted to be a lion tamer, only if his mother were nearby.  As long as we have Christ with us in the lion cages of life, we can face those proverbial lions.

As a shepherd, David knew from experience that sheep need to be fed, watered, rested and protected.  Having grown up in Quincy, MA, my experience with sheep was zero– that is until five years ago when my 70 year old associate minister decided to raise sheep as a hobby.  There were many occasions that I helped him:  At times I was there to help at feeding time and letting them out to pasture.  I was fortunate to be there shortly after the birth of three baby black lambs.  I got a chance to help the veterinarian when they were sick, and I was present at the unexpected death of one of the rams.  Being around sheep was a wonderful experience, but they often reminded me of needy teenage boys and girls.

In Bethlehem, David shepherded his small flock of sheep in a semi desert environment, where it was often a challenge to find enough water and grass for the animals under his care.  With that challenge in mind, he was able to write:

He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name sake. 

Jesus our heavenly Shepherd guides us as the shepherd guides his sheep.  Under Christ’s watchful eye, we are guided in both subtle and overt ways.  His invisible hand will lead us in the path we are to go:  through open and closed doors, through unmistakable circumstances that guide us to either to proceed or not to proceed through illness or some type of heartbreak.  These could be signs for us to slow down, reevaluate our priorities, or change the direction our lives are heading.

When David says the Lord will lead us by the still waters that is another way to say that he will protect us from things we can’t handle or help us cope in those things we don’t understand.

There is the story of a park ranger who discovered a 300 pound loggerhead sea turtle who just finished laying eggs.  It seemed that the turtle had become somewhat disoriented and had begun to walk toward the sand dunes, rather than the open sea.  The ranger took a 2X4 and managed to flip the turtle on her back.  Then he put chains around the turtle’s massive legs and with his pickup truck towed it a short distance to the edge of the water.  He unhooked the chains and with the 2 X 4, flipped the turtle back on its legs.  The turtle then walked to the water and swam away.

I’m sure the turtle in its own limited understanding was distressed at the sudden turn of events, but in the end everything was okay.  It is the same thing with us when we go through trials and difficulties or when we encounter those situations that defy logic.  During those times we need to take a deep breath, look up and as children of faith, and believe that God has everything under control.

Then in verse 4 David wrote:

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. 

At the end of life, all of us will walk through the tunnel we call death.  And with Christ our Good Shepherd at our side, we will not be alone.

When Episcopal bishop Samuel Gobat approached the end of his earthly journey, his son reminded him that he did not need to be afraid of the dark valley in what he called the shadow of death.  The bishop then smiled and whispered, “It is not dark.”

As pastor, I have had the privilege to be with those who have made that final journey.  There is one person who stands out above all the others and that was my good friend and mentor, Harvey Smith.  He was a pillar in the church I attended when I was younger; over the years we kept in touch and he encouraged me in the ministry.  Prior to his death at age 89, he told me he was not afraid and actually looked forward to his new life.  Harvey could say that with confidence, because, as an alcoholic, he was delivered when he went to AA and since that time dedicated his life to the Lord.

There have been many others in all the chapels and churches that I have served where those saints of God told me at the end of their journey that they were not afraid, but ready.  That type of confidence comes from a personal relationship with the Lord.

When death comes to a believer, there is a shadow that crosses our path, but there is nothing to fear, because a shadow cannot hurt anyone.  If you think about it, with any shadow, there must be a light.

Verse 6:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we commit our lives to the Lord, walk in his ways, our lives will have purpose and meaning.  Generally speaking, we will avoid problems, live healthier, and make better decisions with the Lord as our guide.

The final chapter in the life of a believer is this:  And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

During World War II, a young sailor who was a naval Morse code operator had been on duty all night and with no message traffic, had begun to read Psalm 23 from his Bible.  Then this thought came to him, why not type the psalm over the wireless and see if any ship would respond.  He did that and as he sent the last word, sixteen ships answered a wireless Amen.

So the next time we read Psalm 23, think of Christ who comforts us in this life and takes us into the next.