Two weeks ago I wrote about my new book, There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals which will be published on 16 December. To whet your appetite my blog today features an extract from a sermon on Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my shepherd” (23.1). A shepherd by definition is one who cares for his sheep. A shepherd’ “rod” (23.4), was a formidable weapon: some two and a half feet in length, with a mace-like end into which pieces of heavy iron were often embedded, it was used to fend off threats to the sheep. The “staff” (23.4) on the other hand was about five feet and normally had a crook at the end to rescue a wandering sheep from danger.
Although the use of the term shepherd was a familiar image for God’s care of Israel, “its use in first person singular confession is unparalleled” (James L. Mays). The Lord is my shepherd. David sees himself as standing in a personal relationship with God. Yes, as a shepherd cares for each one of his sheep, so God loves and cares for each one of us.
He is there for us – in good times and in tough times. So in the familiar words of the AV the Psalmist says: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (23.4). He is with us in all the dark experiences of life. In particular, he is with us in our dying, the darkest experience of life. God is with us – we are never alone – not even as we make our lonely way through death.
I am reminded of the story about a little boy, starting his first term at junior school. He was asked, along with all the other children, to speak for a few moments on ‘What I want to be when I grow up’. The little boy stood up and said: “When I grow up, I’m going to be a lion tamer – I’ll have lots of scary lions who will roar when I get into the cage”. Suddenly, overcome with the thought of what it might really be like to enter a cage of roaring lions, he added: “But of course, I’ll have my mummy with me”.
The big question in life is this: Is there anybody there? Is there a ‘mummy’ in the universe? Does it matter to anyone what happens to me? Does my life matter? The psalmist declares ‘Yes’. Life may be frightening – with dark valleys, danger, and death, but it will be OK – we are not alone. God is there to help us if we will but look to him. “The Lord is my shepherd”.
If you look closely at the structure of Psalm 23, you’ll discover that God’s name only appears twice: once at the beginning and once at the end. The Psalm begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23.1); it ends: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23.6 NIV). That’s the good news – from the beginning to the end, we are never alone.
“The Lord is my shepherd”. Whenever we see illustrations of Psalm 23, they usually show a wimp of a shepherd with an insipid smile, holding a little lamb in his arms. The reality is that in the ancient world shepherds were tough guys with a tough job. Not for them a 9-5 job. They lived with their sheep 24/7. They were on duty all the time, caring, protecting, and leading. They knew their sheep intimately – they even knew them by name. What a wonderful picture of God’s loving care for us.
The Psalmist goes on to say: “I shall not want” – or in the modern translation of the GNB, “I have everything I need”. Or rather, “everything I really need”. Most of us would find we could do something with the odd £50,000, but money is nothing compared with the peace (23.3 “he leads me beside still waters”) and strength (23.3 “he restores my soul”: i.e. “he gives me new strength” GNB) that God supplies.
Notice too that God does not promise that bad things will not happen to good people: but he does say that when bad things happen, we will never have to face them alone. As a result the Psalmist is able to say: “Even though I go through deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me” (23.4 GNB). The good news is that for those who put their trust in God, not even dying is to be feared. God is there to lead us home. In the words of the Psalmist: “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23.6).
For some the thought of heaven turns them off. Karl Marx argued that religion was the opium of the people, shielding them from the realities of this life. Well, you can’t accuse the Psalms about not being interested in this life – many of the psalms are this-worldly, pleading with God for justice, for an end to oppression, hunger and poverty. Nor can you accuse Christians in general about not being interested in this life – Christians do an enormous among of good in this world. But, and it is a big but, there comes a day when this life comes to an end. What then? The good news is that the good shepherd will lead his sheep home.
Let me remind you of the words of Jesus with which we began our service: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die” (John 11.25 GNB). How do we know this is not wishful thinking? Because Jesus the good shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, was raised on the third day. In a way which the Psalmist could never have dreamt, the good shepherd leads his sheep home. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me” (23.4 AV). There is nothing in this life or the next we need to fear. The good shepherd goes with us, even “through the deepest darkness” (GNB).