Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2020
Psalm 23 Commentary
It’s not quite true but sometimes it feels like Psalm 23 pops up in the Lectionary every couple weeks. In fact, this psalm really was assigned just a few weeks ago for March 22 during Lent. Psalm 23 pops up at least once—and usually twice—inside any given calendar year in Years A, B, and C of the Lectionary. And so there is a sense in which I believe I have nothing new to say about this most famous of all the 150 psalms than I did six weeks ago.
Yet early March now seems like a very, very long time ago after all. I wrote that most recent sermon commentary on Psalm 23 the week of March 8. My son had had a birthday on Saturday the 7th and we celebrated at a favorite restaurant. I had a birthday on Thursday the 12th and we also went out to eat at a lovely steakhouse in Grand Rapids. When that March week began, I assumed the semester would continue as usual. I taught my first of four scheduled enrichment classes at a nearby Retirement/Nursing Home on Monday the 9th and anticipated finishing the course across the next three Monday afternoons. On Tuesday that week I taught the 5th of 6th scheduled classes at a nearby prison where Calvin University has a satellite campus. I was looking forward to finishing with my inmate students on the 17th. It was going to be a busy March but then the first week of April we’d be off on a Spring Break trip to New Mexico.
And then COVID-19 descended (it had really been with us for some time). Now we are not sure when we will eat out safely at a restaurant again. My seminary classes all went online for a month effective March 14 (and not long after that for the duration of the semester). The Retirement Home shuttered its doors to all visitors, cancelling my Monday afternoon class after just the first session. All Michigan prisons also closed off to outside visitors, ending my class at the prison one week earlier than planned. And soon we were all confined to work at home. And canceling Spring Break plans. And every person reading this can tell the exact same story with only the details being a little different person to person. And for some reading this, COVID-19 has brought a grief and an overwhelming sense of fear that make the disruptions I just described a mere pittance of trivial inconvenience.
Psalm 23 hasn’t changed since I posted a sermon commentary the second week of March. But the acoustics in which we hear these familiar lines have altered radically.
As I note in also the Gospel lection for May 3, 2020, from John 10: sometimes our need for a shepherd becomes achingly apparent. When I preached on this psalm years ago, the title of my sermon was “Everybody Needs a Shepherd.” But most of the time we agree with that idea only in theory. In reality most days we are pretty sure we can operate independently without any shepherd minding after us thank you very much. And then . . . we suddenly find ourselves looking for help. For a shepherd. For a Good Shepherd.
Maybe right now it’s not the green pastures and still waters parts of Psalm 23 that leap out at us but the parts about walking through shadowy valleys. Maybe it’s the shadow of death that leaps out at us. Because all across the globe and right down to our local neighborhoods and most certainly cutting right through the middle of all our congregations there is the fear of death. There is a sense that a shadow has descended—a shadow that even some of the brighter Spring days we may have experienced recently cannot quite dispel.
One way or another, we are experiencing a valley time. For some of us the valley is dim with inconvenience and uncertainty and a few things that are testing our patience. But for others of us the valley has gone all-but completely dark: someone we know is very sick. Someone we loved has died. And we can’t even hold a funeral.
But Psalm 23 tells us even so to fear no evil. Well, easier said than done right now. Easier said than done.
What keeps us sheep going as we stumble through these valleys? The rod and the staff of the shepherd. They say that unlike cattle who need to be driven from behind if the herd is going to get moving and headed in the right direction, sheep prefer to be led. But sometimes the shepherd must need to walk backwards a bit—or perhaps alongside the flock—because how else can he use his shepherd’s crook to keep us on level paths without our falling off to one side or the other?
But for us as Christians who cannot help but read Psalm 23 in the backdrop of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, it’s not just the presence of the Shepherd’s crook that comforts us but our knowledge of how very often this Shepherd has been through this valley himself and on our behalf. If you look closely, the scars of his past valley experiences are visible all over him—hands, feet, side. And the Shepherd’s crook looks oddly enough to be in the shape of a cross. And here’s the weirdest thing: the Shepherd apparently was himself a Lamb once too. A slain Lamb according to John’s vision in Revelation. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” John the Baptist said, coining a phrase found nowhere else in all Scripture. But that Lamb had to go through something quite horrific—a very deep and very dark valley—to take away that sin and blaze a path toward a Life that could not be taken away.
Is it any wonder that the Lord Jesus who entered death ahead of us in order to blaze a trail to eternal life picked up on this pastoral image in John 10 to say, “I am the good shepherd and my sheep know my voice.” Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along–that’s how you get a shadow after all: a light shines behind something. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get at that light.
Like many Christians, I first memorized Psalm 23 in Kindergarten. But back then I knew little of dark valleys. And when you get to also that part of the poem about God’s preparing a table in the presence of one’s enemies . . . well, if I had any enemies back then, I didn’t know it and could not have named any.
But I am older now and so are you. Now we’ve got enemies, including an invisible virus that is stalking us like we are prey. Now we are altogether too acquainted with that final enemy named death. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. Life is not easy. It’s not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
This is not an easy truth to be declared lightly in this time. No pastor preaching to an empty sanctuary or into a camera lens needs to be told that right now probably. It’s not an easy truth. But it is The Truth. It is the Gospel’s Truth.
Everybody needs a shepherd.
Thanks be to God, we’ve got One.
As mentioned in this sermon commentary, I am told that unlike cattle who like to be driven from behind, sheep prefer to be led. Sheep apparently have an uncanny ability to form a trusting relationship with their shepherds. I read sometime back that a sleeping flock of sheep will not stir if their own shepherd steps gingerly through their midst. But let a stranger so much as set foot near the flock, and the sheep will startle awake as though a firecracker had gone off. In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!