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Fourth Sunday in Lent
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Michael Moffitt, March 22, 2020

Leaning on the Shepherd

Text: Psalm 23

I suspect every child that has ever existed has been made to endure pithy rebukes and witty retorts from their parents that are usually born out of frustration. They are most always used to make a point when other reasoning hasn’t worked. Examples of some are, “if everyone else was jumping off a bridge would you?” I remember once responding to this question with, “I don’t know, I guess it depends on why they were jumping off the bridge.” I don’t think it ended up all that well, but whatever happened is a bit hazy after all these years.

My mother’s all time favorite was, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” Of course, that would lead to a lively discussion about whether or not I felt the thing was worth doing. Again, I always lost that argument too.

My father’s favorite, and I actually loved to use this myself as a parent, “Someday you’ll be as stupid as I am and have a son as smart as you are.” That was always good for an eye roll or two.

The amusing thing is that once I became a parent I used the same pithy sayings that my parents used. Why? Because they were universally true, and they suddenly made sense once the shoe was on the other foot.

I later found out that my father’s favorite saying was actually prophetic, and it gave me comfort that what I experienced with my son was just like what Dad went through with me. I could remember how irascible and petulant I could be as a teenager and it reminded me that my father was a lot more patient than I gave him credit for and he was far wiser too.

Sometimes it’s just comforting to remember that there are truths that you can always depend on, no matter the circumstances. I mean, I think everyone would agree that jumping of a bridge is seldom a good idea. How many of us didn’t believe our parents when they told us not to do something, and we did it anyway paying the price? I could tell you stories about that. Listening to the wisdom of those who are really invested in raising us up to be what God has called us to, can be very important. However what about those, even among family and friends, who seem to try and discourage us from lofty dreams and would prefer that we see ourselves for who we really are.

I suspect that the same thing was true of King David as he looked back at the time when he was a shepherd of his father’s sheep. To be a shepherd was the lowest rung in the culture of the ancient Middle East. David was the youngest son in a family of eight sons. His role of importance in the family and the blessing of inheriting from his father would have been minimal at best. God was going to raise David to a level that Jesse would not have expected from the youngest and therefore the least important son. If we are to truly understand David as king we should first understand David as a lowly shepherd.

This morning I want us to consider Psalm 23, which is likely one of the most familiar Psalms, even to unbelievers. However, I want to begin by seeing it through the lens of the author, King David. He wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but what he wrote about was also very familiar to him. Let’s look back at a portion of our Old Testament lesson from 1 Samuel 16:1–13, specifically verses 11–13.

Let me set the background. The chapter begins with the Lord rebuking the prophet Samuel for grieving over the fact that God had rejected King Saul, the first king over Israel, because of his disobedience to the commands of God.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

So, Samuel traveled to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse. Samuel sees the sons of Jesse and thought that surely the next king to be anointed was to be among them. They were tall and strong and likely had a kingly bearing, but the Lord advised Samuel to stop looking at the outward appearance. Samuel passes in front of seven of Jesses sons but of each one God tells Samuel that they were not to be God’s anointed. Let’s look at 1 Samuel 16:11–13,

Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

I really do wish that we could know the reaction of Jesse and the seven other brothers to David being anointed as the next king of Israel. I doubt that they were slapping him on the back and congratulating him. I suspect that they could not conceive of David being a king. I’ve wondered whether or not they made fun of him and pointed out that he was nothing more than a shepherd and would never be more than that. David was a teenager when he was anointed by Samuel. It was then that he faced Goliath, was attacked by King Saul and was banished. He hid in the desert, lived always on the run, was forced out of the nation of Israel and in the process became a mighty and valiant warrior. It was nearly 15 years between the time that he was anointed king and actually became king. He was tried and tested so that God could convert him from a shepherd into a king. God alone knew what David would accomplish and it was far beyond what David or his family could conceive of.

I love it when the scriptures tie together the sovereign works of God to point us to the unfolding plan and story of God’s redemption of his people. Even the very first verse of 1 Samuel 16 gives us a clue of how God is moving. Even the fact that God sent Samuel to Bethlehem is very important. The town is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19–20 where Jacob’s wife Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin,

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel's tomb, which is there to this day.

Now there are many passages in the Old Testament where stones of remembrance and monuments were said to be remaining but that was in the time that Moses wrote Genesis. In Joshua 4 God commands Joshua to have twelve stones gathered up from the middle of the Jordon River as Israel passed through on dry ground. They were there when the writer of Joshua was living but they are not there today. However, in Bethlehem Rachel’s tomb is still the third holiest site in Judaism and has become one of the most visited sites in Israel. We see our passage this morning that David was from the city of Bethlehem and of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There are no coincidences in God’s plan. What seems like a trivial matter becomes a very pivotal and important piece of the puzzle. God would call who he wanted and place them where they needed to be.

The other important nugget from 1 Samuel 16:1 is that God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, “for I have provided for myself, a king among his sons.” The king that God had in mind wasn’t at all like Saul’s idea of a king. 1 Samuel 9:2 says that Saul was an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others. Saul had been a king chosen for the people. They could look at him and be confident of his ability to be king, but David would be a king chosen for what God had in mind. Again, we see an example of God moving sovereignly to accomplish his sovereign will.

So, when Samuel goes to the home of Jesse to see his sons he is looking for someone who would be impressive in the eyes of men, but this was a false measure of an individual’s royal qualification. To each of the seven sons of Jesse God rejects them, just like he did Saul, because “the Lord looks on the heart”.

Instead God chooses a young shepherd to be the king of Israel. Jesus would later take fishermen and make them “fishers of men,” the Lord here took a shepherd and made him a shepherd for his people.

The Psalms were written by various authors who are often identified at the beginning of each. They were actually written and compiled over a 1,000-year period with the purpose of providing Israel with a collection of songs for worship that would be appropriate for most all situations that God’s people would encounter in life.

Over a period of time the Psalms would remind Israel that God always deserves praise and would protect and rescue the righteous when they had a need or were in trouble. He would bless the obedient and judge those who were unfaithful. The one thing about the Psalms that has always made them a source of refuge in any and every situation is that they are written by real people in every range of emotions or experiences in life.

Psalm 23 is one of those Psalms that captures the heart and imagination and provides hope and joyful release no matter where we find ourselves. It’s clear that King David is writing to his people to comfort them in their distress. Who better to write a Psalm about God as shepherd than a man who had been led by that shepherd and in following him became something that was far, far greater than what he would ever have thought to seek? Also, it was through the early years when he was a faithful shepherd that David could see better than most, how the Lord God was the perfect and ultimate shepherd.

I think that this is important to understand as we face a critical time in our nation and world. Everyone is looking for someone to come and rescue them from this pandemic. Governments have struggled to fight something they were not prepared for and the medical community was presented with a new virus that exceeded their abilities to immediately fight effectively. There has never been a better time to pray and sing the 23rd Psalm than today.

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

King David knew very well that sheep are totally dependent on the shepherd, whether they realize it or not. It’s the shepherd who sees to it that they have food, water and are protected from wild animals. David, the shepherd turned king, saw God as his own King and Shepherd, the one who cared for him at all times even when death seemed imminent. I can picture David writing this Psalm remembering all the ways that God had rescued him from the clutches of his enemies and even the times when he foolishly wandered off turning his back on the Shepherd.

I love the old hymn written in 1757 by Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The whole hymn is a wonderful tribute to God’s grace but it’s verse 4 that captures my heart and brings me to my knees:

“O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above”

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his names sake.”

In these verses David is expanding the metaphor of how the shepherd cares for his sheep. David is remembering and reminding the reader that the Lord God lovingly attends to the needs of his people but then his reveals that God does all this as his motivation. David knows from experience that the shepherd loves the sheep and moves on their behalf not only for their sake but because of the shepherds love for the sheep. You and I may struggle with the idea of loving sheep who are stupid and don’t smell very good, but David understood it.

As I thought about this I remembered a time when Teresa and I took our kids on vacation to Carolina Beach. The kids, who were in their early teens, and I went playing in the water and weren’t paying attention. Suddenly we stepped off a shelf into deep water and the undertow dragged all thee of us under. As we came up for air I saw Ben closest to me and heard Amy crying out for me to get over to her. I told Ben to grab my arm and then dragged him over to Amy. By God’s grace we made it to shore, even though for a moment I didn’t know if all three of us would.

The Shepherd reached down and saved all three of us. Why? Well, one reason is certainly to spare us from much grief, but I think the better reason was “for his own name’s sake.” For some reason, the Shepherd wanted to, and he had his own reasons that were motivated by his love. I had a cousin who had the same thing happen at the same beach and he drowned. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that God rescued us, the undertow was so strong that I was unable to get us out in my own strength. The shepherd spared us for his own reasons. That leads us to our next verse.

“Even though I walk through 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.”

This verse isn’t simply about-facing death, but it is a reference to how we should regard the dark times in our lives. Whether they be financial, medical, relational… whatever is causing us to feel as if we’re walking in uncertainty or confusion, these are the dark times. These are the dark valleys, and many are feeling that uncertainty in the times we are in now. This Psalm promises us that God is walking with us as our Good Shepherd. Jeremiah 29:11–13 tells us that God knows the plans he has for us individually and corporately. It isn’t to harm us, but to prosper us and give us a future. Does that mean that he will always provide a quick fix for our problems or concerns? No, it does not, but it does mean that what he is doing is according to his plan for us. This should give us comfort.

It also points to those times when we feel that we are fighting spiritual darkness and feel separated from God. David surely experienced this many times in his life, often due to sin that broke a connection that he had with God. It’s helpful to read Psalm 51, which is a Psalm of repentance after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed. God restored him but the incident came with a terrible cost to David’s role as king. Psalm 51 is David lamenting his sin and crying out to God to restore him. Why would he even think that God would restore him after he did such a reprehensible thing? Because he knew the heart of the Shepherd. Jesus said in Matthew 18:12,

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one who wandered off?”

However even when we are certain that we are facing death, we don’t need to despair because of the Shepherd’s faithfulness and saving grace.

One of the things that sheep recognize is the rod and staff of the shepherd. The rod was used to direct them, and the staff was used to fight off wild animals. They were comforting symbols to the sheep as was the distinctive voice of the Shepherd. We have God’s word and Holy Spirit to direct our paths and comfort us. It also leads us to his loving presence. A sheep is known to be stupid and stubborn, but they do know the voice and presence of the shepherd. I have read that they will not respond to the voice of another shepherd and David refers to this familiarity with his Shepherd in the final words of Psalm 23,

“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 forever.”

The image shifts to that of a celebration at a victory banquet and the anointing oil that a king receives at his coronation. David is reminding himself of the blessings that are to be expected when he follows the Shepherd faithfully. In spite of the distressful situations that he and Israel would go through the promise is that they would reign over their enemies and even celebrate the shepherd in front of those who would not. All this was because of the Good Shepherd’s love and covenant commitment to David and to his people. Goodness and mercy will be the positive outcome of faithfulness and ultimately to dwell in God’s house and presence forever.

This Psalm is a wonderful reminder that God is for us and will bring us through distressful times. They may last longer than we hope but he will use them and us to point others in distress to the loving arms of the Good Shepherd.

©2020 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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