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 during Lent. Psalm 23 pops up at least once—and usually twice—inside any given calendar across 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 on multiple occasions before. Not only the best-known Psalm of them all—and so always a little extra difficult to say anything fresh—but then we keep looping back to it as well.
Three years ago when this came up on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, I reflected on how radically the world had changed between the Lenten inclusion of this poem and the post-Easter occurrence. That was because the Lenten one came just before the world turned upside down in 2020 as COVID and the first lockdown descended. By the time we hit Easter 4A that year, most of us were plenty disoriented. Yet in some ways even three years on, we still feel at least a bit off-kilter even as we sense how much has never quite gone back to pre-COVID “normal.”
Psalm 23 hasn’t changed in the last three years but the world has. The church has. We all have. Sometimes our need for a shepherd becomes more achingly apparent than in ordinary moments of life. When I preached on this psalm in my congregation 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 in recent years 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 one way or another, we have all passed through a valley time. But Psalm 23 tells us even so to fear no evil. Well, 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 (which is of course the Gospel lection for Easter 4A) 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. 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—not now, not ever. 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.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2023
Psalm 23 Commentary