I can imagine that you have heard hundreds of sermons preached around and about this most beloved psalm, Psalm 23! As a pastor, I've never been part of a funeral service where the family has failed to ask for this Psalm to be shared. As a matter of fact, all the funeral homes in our area reprint this Psalm in the death notice given to those who come to pay their respects.
It was the first thing I memorized in Sunday School when I was a child. Songs have been written, stories told, and movies produced to bring its beautiful, peaceful, and reassuring images to life for us "moderns" who have probably never tended a flock of sheep. I don't personally know a shepherd, do you? And green pastures in middle Tennessee where I live are usually filled with cows, not sheep. Yet when we sing "The Lord is my Shepherd" in the church where I worship, the visions I have that come with the words are always full of peace and free of fear.
Different translations of this psalm have added to its beauty and meaning as if it needed help. I memorized it from the King James Version:
The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soulÃ‰
Isn't that beautiful? But I really don't speak in that fashion in my daily life, do you? For the past few years, I have been reading the Contemporary English Version of the Bible completed in 1995 by the American Bible Society. Listen to Psalm 23 with a new ear as I read:
You, Lord are my shepherd.
I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields of green grass.
You lead me to streams of peaceful water.
You refresh my life.
You are true to your name and lead me along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid.
You are with me.
Your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe.
You treat me to a feast while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest and fill my cup until it overflows.
Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life And I will live forever in your house, Lord.
That translation has meant so much to me, for it talks in a way that I can relate to. I found another one by Eugene Peterson in his book "The Message," which is, in his words, contemporary language.
God, my shepherd,
I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows.
You find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word
You let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley
I'm not afraid when you walk by my side.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I'm back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
Walter Brueggemann in his book "The Message of the Psalms" begins his commentary on Psalm 23 with these words:
"It is almost pretentious to comment on this psalm. The grip it has on biblical spirituality is deep and genuine. It is such a simple statement that it can bear its own witness without comment. It is, of course, a psalm of confidence. It recounts in detail by means of rich metaphors a life lived in trustful receptivity of God's gifts.
"It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurtÃ‰. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy."
I deeply agree with Dr. Brueggemann's comments, and I have discovered in my own life that God's gifts are best understood and experienced when I fully trust God. But for the next few moments that we will spend together, I want to reach forward in our Scriptures and tie this beautiful psalm together with a parable the Shepherd of all shepherds will share as recorded in Luke chapter 15.
Jesus tells us about a shepherd who realizes that one of his or her sheep has gone astray. The shepherd leaves the flock to go look for the one that is lost. When I was a young girl, I cut my teeth on the Cokesbury hymnal and I loved the hymn, "There were Ninety and Nine, that safely lay in the shelter of the fold." Now, it's a wonderful hymn, but it isn't really accurate. You see, Jesus said in his parable, they were in the wilderness, not safely in the fold. This makes the story even more incredible for this means that the shepherd left the flock in danger to go look for just one.
That made no sense to me until a few years ago when we were camping in Colorado, and we were driving over Trail Ridge Road one day. We were seeing rainbows dance from ridge to ridge in those majestic Rocky Mountains. We were watching snowflakes fall as the sun turned them into crystals of great beauty, when all of a sudden we came upon this lush, green, flat pasture and there in the field was a flock of sheep. I hit the brakes, threw everybody in the car out of their seats. I grabbed my camera and ran across the road and began acting like a tourist as I snapped pictures of those white sheep against that awesome green grass. Then I looked out in the field and saw at a distance the shepherd. Now, mind you, he didn't look like a Christmas card. He was sitting on the back of a covered wagon wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and he was strumming a guitar. As I was observing this pastoral scene, suddenly out of my peripheral vision I realized that a little lamb was nibbling its way toward a deep ravine in the earth. I began to holler at the shepherd, "Pay attention! Look here! Look!" when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came a dog. He circled that flock and went straight for the little fellow in danger. He nipped at his heels. He barked in his face, and he just forced him right back to safety. And then I understood what Jesus was telling me about the ninety and nine. The shepherd could go off and look for the lost sheep because the shepherd had a good dog.
Now that reassurance that God can be trusted in every situation takes on a meaningful twist. The question becomes, "Can God trust us?" You see, I believe that each one of us is symbolically a watchdog. The Good Shepherd depends on us to keep watch over his children, and the flock represents all people everywhere, for we are all "sheep in his pasture." Certainly many of will have skills and the gifts of perceptivity to go and bring persons who have put their heads down and just nibbled their way into danger back into the fold. But I believe that all of us--all of us--must keep watch over the fold. How many people in your place of worship have just walked away? They didn't mean to get lost, and you and I were not paying attention. We didn't call when they were sick. We didn't take time to run by the funeral home when they lost a loved one to death. We didn't send congratulations when they received a promotion or their child excelled in school. You know what I'm talking about. We just weren't paying attention and so they just went away feeling uncared for and insignificant to the flock.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
He leadeth me;
He restoreth my soul.
He offers me green grass and fresh waterÃ‰
But this question in my life remains: "Can God trust me?" Perhaps you need to ponder that question also. In the New Interpreters Bible, Clinton McCann Jr. comments on Psalm 23 with these words:
"To be sure, it is appropriate that Psalm 23 be read and heard in the midst of death and dying. It may be more important, however, that this psalm be read and heard as a psalm about living, for it puts daily activities such as eating and drinking and seeking security in a radically God-centered perspective that challenges our usual way of thinking."
For me, the Jesus of Mark 6 is the Good Shepherd of my life--he sits me down, he has compassion on my hungry spirit, he leads me, feeds me, helps me to rest and be refreshed, and then he looks in my eyes and whispers, "Now take up your cross and follow me." God, and God's Son, Jesus, can always be trusted to be with us, to guide us, and to give us rest and peace.
But the question remains, "Can God trust us to go and seek the lost and to watch over the fold?"
Let us pray.
Gracious God, that's a hard question, for it is a question that we must each day attempt to answer again with how we live our lives. So often we pray that you will take care of us. We tell you of our needs and we do trust you, Lord, but how many times during the day do we fail to become the answer to our own prayers? We pray that the hungry will be fed and we don't share. We pray that the naked will be clothed and we go shopping. We pray that the homeless will find shelter and we lock our front doors. We know, God, that too often we have just passed these concerns on to you in prayer, and we have never been stirred in our own souls enough to realize that we are the watchdogs--that you trust us not only to bring back to safety those who are in danger but to go out and find those who are truly lost. Forgive us, for in so many ways we go on failing you, in so many ways we go on reciting the Twenty-third Psalm without ever trying with all of our hearts to live the Twenty-third Psalm. Let this be the day, Lord, that we become trustworthy. Amen.