I want you to turn around and look
at the window in the back of the sanctuary. It is the “Good Shepherd”
window. It was given to this congregation in memory of Senator John McCreery,
who served faithfully as the Clerk of Session for many years. His home
stood where the Southern Communications building now stands. That beautiful
stained glass window portrays Jesus as the “Good Shepherd”—showing compassion over the lamb, he is holding.
Through that window one can feel the intimate relationship that Christ
has with each one of us.
The image of the “GOOD SHEPHERD” has a rich
history in ancient times. Many kings referred to themselves as the shepherds
of their people. In his famous law code, Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon, declared
“I am Hammurabi, the shepherd.” Likewise, the Canaanite god,
Baal, was to have claimed to be the shepherd of those who worshipped him.
However, when Jesus referred to himself as the “Good
Shepherd,” he was drawing on a metaphor from the Old Testament. In several
places in the Old Testament God was referred to as watching over the Hebrews as a shepherd watched over his sheep.
Dr. William Barclay described the Palestinian shepherd
“His equipment was very simple. He had his ‘scrip,’ a bag made of skin of an animal in which he carried his food…no more
than bread, dried fruit, some olives, and cheese. He had his sling…The
shepherd used his sling as a weapon… (The shepherd) had his staff, a short wooden club which had a lump of wood at one
end…He had a rod which was like the shepherds’ crook. With it he
could catch and pull back any sheep which were moving to stray away…” Shepherds
were brave, skilled, resourceful, and they carried the basic equipment for their task. Good
Shepherds were willing to die for their flock.
Perhaps, in the Old Testament, of all the metaphors used
for God—this Shepherd metaphor is the most beloved. In this psalm, that metaphor carried with it several implications:
THE LORD IS PERSONAL: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
In all other references to God in the Old Testament as a Shepherd, those references
spoke of God as the Shepherd of a community of people. However, in this psalm,
God has been described as personal. The Lord is “my shepherd”—declaring
that God personally knows me and cares for me my whole life long.
THE LORD PROVIDES: “I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.”
To say that “I shall not want”
challenges all the advertising campaigns today that seek to create a feeling that we are in “want”—and only
that particular product can satisfy our “want.” Just as God provided manna, quail, and water for the Israelites
when they were wandering in the wilderness—likewise God provides us according to all of our needs in life. Note he provides for our needs, not our wants—for our wants sometimes can fall into idolatry. We often miss taking note of these words, “I shall not want,” when we are
saying the psalm.
THE LORD PROTECTS: “Even
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they
comfort me.” Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
The psalmist was describing how the Lord guides us through dangerous places in our lives—difficult experiences—and
even death itself. I am told that there is a dangerous portion of the road from
Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, which is referred to as the
“Valley of the Shadow”.
I love the prayer that follows the service for the Baptist
of Infants in the 1946 edition of the Book of Common Worship. A portion of that
prayer goes like this:
“We humbly beseech Thee for this Child, that Thy
Spirit may be upon her and dwell with her for ever. Take her, we entreat Thee, under Thy Fatherly care and protection; guide
her and sanctify her both in body and in soul. Grant her to grow in wisdom as
in stature, and in favor with God and man. Abundantly enrich her with Thy heavenly
grace: bring her safely through the perils of childhood, deliver her from the
temptations of youth, and lead her to witness a good confession, and to persevere therein to the end.” The assurance that God is with our children, that assurance goes a long way when one is waiting up late
in the night for a child to return from a date, or for a child to get to her destination.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence
of my enemies”: Shepherds used to refer to the high grazing lands deep
within the mountains as “a table.” After the snows melted, the shepherd
would lead his flock to those rich grazing lands. However, before he would let
them graze, he would get down on his hands and knees to pull out noxious weeds, briars, and thorny growths that might injure
his sheep. He had to prepare the table-lands for them to graze safely.
“Thou aniontest my head with oil, my cup overflows…”
Shepherds used oil made of olive oil, sulfur, and spices to keep flies and other insects off his sheep. Moreover, he used oil to heal bruises and cuts that he found on the head of his sheep. Anointing in the Hebrew tradition came to mean blessed by the Lord.
“My cup overflows”—literally in Hebrew
it means “my life.” God makes our whole life overflow in God’s
benevolent care and mercy.
We today live in a world where constantly we are told
that we are not safe. Daily our news media and politicians tell us that we are
not safe from terrorists who are seeking to crash our airplanes—cyber-terrorism who are seeking to destroy the electronic
infrastructure of our country—nuclear materials being lost that could be used to build nuclear “dirty-bombs”—thieves—home-invasions—and
killers on the loose. I particularly remember how one Jackson,
MS, TV station had its lead story each day: some
robbery, shooting, or murder that had taken place in the Jackson area. It seemed as if Jackson was the most dangerous place to live.
Yet Jackson was no more dangerous
than any medium size city, and much safer than many.
The psalmist calls us to examine our fears in the presence
of the One who provides us the ultimate security in life and in death. Certainly, this does not mean that we should act recklessly,
for there is evil in the world. Yet, rather than hiding in our houses, we are
to live life assertively—knowing that the Lord journeys with us our whole life long.
FINALLY—THE LORD PURSUES. “Surely goodness
and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” The word “follow” in the phrase “goodness and mercy shall follow,” in Hebrew is
the word “pursue.” Psalmist was declaring that the Lord takes the
initiative with us—not waiting for us to seek him out or call upon him.
John Calvin once wrote that the word “pursue”
describes God’s “prevalent grace.” God anticipates our unwillingness
to turn to him and yet he constantly pursues us tirelessly, and brings us home. God
pursuing us means that even our faith is God’s gift to us—that faith is the fruit of God’s grace that is
at work in our lives. Our faith therefore is not our accomplishment for which
we can take credit, but a gift of God’s grace for our lives.
What difference would it make in our lives, if we took
seriously that God always takes the initiative for us—leading us toward his presence—never letting us wander out
of his reach.
One evening when my father was dying of cancer, my mother
and he were alone at home. They were having one of those conversations that only
one can with whom they have been married almost 39 years. Suddenly my father spoke to us and asked if they could say the 23rd
Psalm together. They did. For Dad,
saying that psalm together with my mother was very comforting, and a few days later he died in peace. He knew his shepherd was leading him even through the shadow of death.
Likewise, for us to say those words, declares that God
is personal, that God cared deeply about us as individuals—that God provides
for our needs throughout our life’s journey—that God protects us from evil having the last word for our lives—and
that God tirelessly pursues us in God’s benevolent grace. Moreover, in
Jesus Christ we see the “Good Shepherd.” In our recognition of Jesus
as the Good Shepherd, we create “Good Shepherd” windows as our faith testimony to the world.