This is now at least the third time Psalm 23 has popped up in the Year A Lectionary and across also calendar 2020. The first time was during Lent and the second time a couple weeks after Easter. The first time was before we knew the world was going to get turned upside-down due to COVID-19 and the second time was in an upside-down world that even then few of us could imagine would last in some fashion all the way into at least early 2021. Indeed, that truth is only slowly beginning to sink in for lots of us even now in the Fall season of 2020.
Psalm 23 hasn’t changed across 2020 any more than it has changed across the millennia this poem has been known in Jewish and Christian circles. But the world around Psalm 23 changes all the time, and every now and again—as in 2020—those changes come so rapidly and are of so radical a nature as to make the acoustics of this familiar psalm seem new all over again.
When I preached on this psalm years ago as a pastor, 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 that we cannot on our own 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.
But Psalm 23 tells us even so to fear no evil. Well, easier said than done right now. Easier said than done.
Since the last time we had this psalm on the Lectionary radar, other things have happened that we did not see coming yet near the end of April, like the killing of George Floyd that, when combined with a killing like Breonna Taylor, led to a racial reckoning and a summer of unrest that seemed unprecedented. And on top of all that, we are in a presidential election year in the United States that is taking place in a deeply riven partisan environment that is so brittle (if not toxic) that fears of post-election violence are palpable and perhaps not far-fetched. Worse yet, simple things like mask-wearing have become politicized even in congregations that are struggling with what to do about Sunday worship gatherings. And not a few of my fellow pastors (like most of you reading this) have become the punching bag for people’s fears and frustrations, their anger and their uncertainty.
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 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!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2020
Psalm 23 Commentary