The theme for today’s sermon is drawn from our fourth window in this series. The “I AM the good shepherd window” was erected in the memory of Rev. John. D. Currie, D.D. According to the Fort Massey United Church history titled A Century of Witness, Dr. Currie served as minister in Maitland, Nova Scotia before becoming the professor of Hebrew here in the city at the Presbyterian School. He was a founding member of Fort Massey Church and, in fact, was responsible for organizing the congregation here in the South End in 1871. He served as elder in this church of 38 years. He died in 1909 at the age of 82. He once reported that he had preached 70 times in the 12 months of 1875! “He was unceasing in his industry, gentle in all his ways, and much beloved by members of the Halifax Churches.”
The story of the good shepherd begins in the old testament. Today I want to start my looking at it from the perspective of the 23rd Psalm that we sang this morning. This is likely familiar to most of you. I memorized this Psalm in Sunday School when I was 8 or 9 years old along with the Lord’s Prayer, the names of the disciples, the books of the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Apostle’s creed and the Ten Commandments. Psalm 23 was part of my formation as a young Christian. Many argue that learning through memorization isn’t really learning, but for me it was really important. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm had a big impact on me as I repeated the words. As I did, I remember really thinking about what those words meant. I repeated them over and over, trying to make them stick so that I could earn a star sticker for the poster in the church hall and the little laminated certificate of completion that I still have in my Bible at home. But, over time, as happens with things memorized, the words became more like a habitual chant than an inspiring mantra. The meaning behind the words became lost. This happens…
In churches all over the world Psalm 23 is the gold standard for funeral readings. We may find ourselves reciting these familiar words there while not taking the to absorb the richness of their meaning. It’s like driving to work or another familiar place – after years of driving to the same place, you kind of hit auto-pilot and you get where you are going, you even get there safely, yet you don’t really remember the drive. That’s what the elements of worship sometimes become don’t they? – just another box to tick off…just another star sticker on the wall. Being a sheep is about SO MUCH MORE than just going through the motions.
Sheep and shepherds are mentioned in the Bible over 200 times. At the very beginning, Adam and Eve’s son Abel was a shepherd, then so was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Rachel, David, Moses….the list is long. When we say today that someone is a sheep we are usually insulting them, but in ancient times sheep were extremely valuable. The were used as currency, for sacrifice, for food, milk shelter, wool, clothing…
The Psalmist was able to use the shepherd as a metaphor for God so effectively because the people really understood the important role of a shepherd. The shepherd was the one that tended the treasured sheep, protected them, fed them, guided them and so on. This imagery is used so poetically in Psalm 23 that we sometimes miss the power of the meaning of each line when we simply recite it by rote.
When God was referred to elsewhere in the Hebrw Bible God is the Shepherd over the whole community, but here in Psalm 23 the words are deeply individual and personal speaking to the Psalmists personal relationship with God in that very moment. I’d like us to take a closer look at the Psalm this morning while we think about this question that I read while researching for this sermon,
“So, what are you and God up to these days?” (repeat)
Psalm 23 speaks to a relationship that is possible with God when we recognize ourselves as valuable sheep that God longs to shepherd. Let’s have a look…
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
When we are in relationship with God as our shepherd, we literally want for nothing. Our eyes are open to how God is working in our lives and we are grateful for the abundance already present there. When we trust the God provides for our every need there is no experience of scarcity. We may not have everything we ever wanted, but this relationship has revealed to us that we have everything that we truly need.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
God provides us with guidance to paths of peace and serenity in the midst of our busy lives. When we honour God as the leader of our life, we learn what it means to rest. And if we don’t take this rest on our own, God will find a way to make us rest. God will help us see those moments in our lives that are our green pastures and still waters. Then, we will want to take time to enjoy them and feel restored. God wants us to do this so that we are ready to do God’s work in the world.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff –they comfort me.
God as our shepherd is with us even in the darkest times of our lives. Notice it doesn’t say that God will keep us out of those times, but it says that even there, in the darkness….even in the shadow of death, God is with us and we need not be afraid because we are not alone. God will lead us through, even if it means we need a little poking and prodding! We sometimes need those poking prodding lessons and challenges to keep us on the right path. Be grateful that God is there to help us in this way!
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
God isn’t going to let us do our work in the comfort of our friends and family alone. We have to receive the gifts of God in front of those that might make fun of us or even hate us for fulfilling God’s will with our lives. God will make sure that we are prepared…with God’s blessing and with cups full of life, we can do this so that all can see that what we do, we do in the name of the God who loves and protects us.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
This last part is the most taken for granted I think. The message is so subtle that it might be lost when read as simply a closing statement. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life….the end”. This speaks to the unending mercy and goodnss of God that follows US…God chooses to follow ALL of us with these gifts…ALL of the days of our live. Not just some of us some of the time. But ALL of us ALL of the time. Not just when we choose to follow God…but like the sheep that wander away and even like the ones that don’t ever notice the shepherd watching out for them, the shepherd still follows longing to keep them safe because they belong to him. God CHOOSES to follow us with goodness and mercy. Because of this truth, the Psalmist is confident that he will Live with God all the days of his life.
So let me ask you, “Is this what you and God are up to these days?” Not quite? Then have you considered why not. Who IS your shepherd…really? Have you tried to be maybe money has become your shepherd? …or maybe it’s concern over status or reputation?…Or maybe it is the fear of not every having enough that is guiding your life?
Jesus’ life shows us what it means to truly say, “the LORD is my shepherd” and mean it. Jesus embraced this belief with all of his heart, with all of his mind and with all of his strength. Our gospel reading from John today helps us begin to understand this lesson.
As a Jew, Jesus studied the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. He regularly referred to these scriptures when teaching because many of his followers were also Jewish. Jesus could use these familiar metaphors to teach the people about God. If you read the Old Testament with an eye on what it has to say about Jesus, you are not alone. The people of Jesus’ time were also wondering if it was written about him…
In the reading today, Jesus says that he IS the good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep. There are two sets of ears listening for the answer from Jesus about whether or not he is the Messiah. To one set of ears he is saying that he is LIKE God who is the greatest of all shepherds. He shares so fully in God’s work that his character reveals the loving nature of God. When he says that he and the Father are one, he is revealing that He and God are united in one common purpose. His sheep recognize his good works and follow him because they know him and he is not a stranger. He will love them as God loves them. The other ears? – they hear only that he saying that he IS God. The hear only that he is breaking the law. Some of the people cannot hear what he says because the don’t follow him and so not know him to be their shepherd.
We can recognize human beings today in these groups. There are those of us that need proof that God is real. We point to words in the Bible as proof of who and what God is. These same words are then used by others to prove that God does not exist. And sometimes the very same words are used to prove that if God exists then He is a God of wrath and vengeance and therefore the root of all evil in the world! What Jesus asks us to do is look for truth beyond what we read in the words or in what anyone tells us. He wants us to follow him because we have experienced his good work in our lives. Jesus wants us to know him by being like him so that others can see who he is when we work in his name.
When we follow the voice of the shepherd that is familiar, we are like the sheep. We follow because we know that we can trust the one that loves us and go so far as lay his life down for us as any good parent would for their child. That is faith.
And Grace? —that goodness and mercy that follows you all the days of your life??? – that is the fruit born of faith. When we follow we see the abundant gift of grace in our lives and it is then that we pour out that gift to others.
There is an old hymn that goes, “And they will know we are Christians, by our love, by our love…” This is how Jesus says you will know him. By his LOVE. Because God chose us we can choose to follow Jesus. And when we do, Jesus will not let us go. He tells us that explicitly throughout the gospel of John.
Jesus acts as though his hands are God’s hands. When we follow Jesus, his hands become our hands. As yourself, “How can other come to know Jesus and God’s love through our work in the world?”, “How can we lead others beside the still waters?”, “How can we walk with them through the valleys of the shadow of death?” Where is Jesus as YOU to follow him?
I want to leave you with this true story. I was preaching at another church and the lesson was Paul meeting Jesus on the road. I was with the children and I asked them, “So if some strange man met YOU on the road and asked you to follow him would you go?” at this point in the service the children knew the “right” answer and so they were all nodding. I challenged them, “But haven’t you been taught not to follow strangers?” (I thought I was so smart!) and with that a small but clear voice spoke up, “But HE is not a stwangerh, The voice is Jesus and we all know him!” There was stillness in that moment and maybe a few tears.
Tell me, would you say so confidently that you would recognize the voice of your shepherd when he called you to follow him? Who is YOUR shepherd? Really?