This sermon was delivered to to congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Youngstown, Ohio on July 5, 1998. Dad also shared this message with the congregation at Poland United Methodist Church on June 20 , 2004. It is based upon Old Testament scripture from Psalms 23 and New Testament scripture from John 10:11-16.
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Much of the language, terminology and teaching in the Bible is couched in what could be called “rural language.” But today, many who read the Bible and study Scriptures come from urban backgrounds. City people, who are unfamiliar with such subjects as crops, fruit trees – and sheep.
Understanding a familiar portion of the Scriptures particularly one as beloved as The 23rd Psalm is difficult. To do this this morning I would ask you to think with the mind of a sheep. That should allow you a better insight concerning its author and its meaning. Hopefully you will leave here this morning with a greater appreciation for the endless care and love our Savior, Jesus has for us.
So, let’s look at the 23rd Psalm starting with…
“THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD”
David, the author of the 23rd Psalm, as you know, was a shepherd. He was the son of a shepherd. He stated emphatically. “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.” He referred to Jahova, The Lord God of Israel. His statement was confirmed by Jesus many years later. When he was Emanual, God with us, he declared, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
“I SHALL NOT WANT”
It may seem a strange statement for David to make. Here was a man who had been hounded repeatedly by the forces of his arch enemy Saul, as well as those of his own estranged son Absalom. David was a man who had known intense privation, deep personal poverty, acute hardship and anguish of spirit. Therefore, it is somewhat unrealistic to assert, on the basis of this statement, that we, as children of God…sheep in the Good Shepherd’s care, would ever experience lack or need. But, consider the lives of Elijah, John The Baptist, even our Lord Jesus Himself and people of faith down through history. All of them experienced great personal privation and adversity at one time or another.
Our sojourn on this planet is but a brief interlude during which there are troubled times. Yet we must remember that under our Good Shepherd’s care we shall not want.
“HE MAKETH ME TO LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES”
Due to their nature it almost impossible for sheep to lie down unless four requirements are met:
- Timid by nature, sheep will refuse to lie down unless they are free of fear.
- Due to the “social behavior” within the the flock, sheep will not lie down
unless they are free of any friction with others of their kind.
- If tormented by flies or parasites sheep will not lie down.
Only when these pests have been eliminated will the sheep relax.
- Sheep will not lie down as long as they are hungry and feel the need to search for food.
They must be free from hunger.
Only the shepherd can provide release from these anxieties. A sheep that is restless, discontented, agitated or disturbed for any reason will not do well. For Christians there is no substitute for the keen awareness of our Good Shepherd. When we realize His closeness to us, the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown black holes of life evaporate.
“HE LEADETH ME BESIDE THE STILL WATERS”
Although sheep thrive in dry, or semi-arid country, they still need water. Without adequate water dehydration sets in. This can result in serious damage to ·a flock. So, sheep in the pasture, and we sheep in the Kingdom need watering physically and spiritually. Our souls have need for the holy water of the Spirit that flows from our eternal God. If not lead by the shepherd to clear, cool water, sheep often end up drinking from polluted holes where they pick up all sorts of parasites and diseases.
In the same manner, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, made it clear that thirsty souls can only be fully satisfied when their thirst for spiritual life is fully quenched by drinking in the essence of life In Christ. In Mathew 5/6 He said, “Blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” At the great feast in Jerusalem He boldly declared, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” We should accept and assimilate the very life of God in Christ to the point where it becomes part of us.
When David composed the 23rd Psalm, he knew that his God alone could lead him to the still, quiet deep, clear, pure water for the soul and he drank from it continually.
Sheep can go for months on end without water if the weather is not too hot and if there is heavy dew on the grass each morning. Sheep, by nature, rise just before dawn and start to feed on the vegetation which is drenched with dew. Sheep can keep fit on the amount of water taken in with their forage when they graze just before or right after dawn.
And so it is when one rises early each day and turns to the scriptures to feed on, and drink in God’s word. It is in the quiet, early morning hours that we are led beside the still waters and drink in the very life of Christ to carry us through the day.
“HE RESTORETH MY SOUL”
We would assume that anyone in our Good Shepherd’s care would never become so distressed in soul as to need restoration. But, the fact remains that it does happen.
Even David, author of the 23rd Psalm, who was much loved by God, knew what it was to be “cast down” and dejected. He had known defeat in his life. He had felt the frustration of having fallen under the temptation of evil. Many times David was tormented with bitterness…with hopelessness and without strength himself.
Those acquainted with sheep and their nature understand the significance of a “cast down” sheep. It’s an old English term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and can’t get up again. It happens like this…a heavy, or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in a hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out and relax. Suddenly the sheep’s center of gravity shifts and it rolls over completely on its back, far enough that its feet can no longer touch the ground. A sense of panic sets in and the sheep begins to frantically paw the air. Now., it’s impossible for the sheep to regain its feet without the shepheerd’s help.
As children of God we can experience ”Cast down” periods in our lives. We can rest assured that our Good Shepherd will never expect us to face more than we can stand. We can do all things with God who strengthens us. Our souls are refreshed and restored in Him.
“HE LEADETH ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR HIS NAMESAKE”
Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they become desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is diseased with parasites. Many of the world’s finest sheep ranges have been ruined beyond recovery by over grazing, poor flock management and poor shepherding. The consequence of such mismanagement and indifference is that the sheep gnaw the grass into the ground to a point where even the roots are damaged.
The wise shepherd keeps the flock on the move from pasture to pasture. This prevents overgrazing and rutted trails. This results in healthier and more contented sheep.
Our behavior patterns are so much like sheep sometimes that it becomes downright embarrassing. Isaiah 53/6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way.” And we do this deliberately, repeatedly even to our own disadvantage. But our Good Shepherd tells us in John 14/5, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes unto the Father but by me.” Amid our daily chaos and confusion Jesus tells us in Mark 8/34, “If anyone will follow me, let him deny himself daily and take up his cross and follow me.” We are invited to walk with Him into the future, not only for our own personal well being, but also for the benefit of our loved ones. Our examples provide others with a good Christian path to follow.
“YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, FOR THOU ART WITH ME.”
Up to now the sheep have received excellent care on the home range and in the sheepfold throughout the winter and spring months. Now it’s time for the long trek into the high country…to their summer grazing plateau. During this time the flock is entirely under the personal care and attention of the shepherd day and night. David knew from experience all about the dangers and difficulties, as well as the delights, of the treks into the beautiful meadows of the high country.
In our Christian walk we long to rise and live above the low lands of life. We want to move up out of the dark valleys up into a more intimate walk with God. We envy those who have ascended those heights and entered into a more sublime way of Christian living. But, on the rough trail of life this is not always so. As with ordinary sheep management so it is with us. We can only gain higher ground by climbing the rough, rocky trail out of the valley. The Good Shepherd leads us gently, firmly and persistently up through the dark and treacherous circumstances of life to more abundant living. It is well to note here that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It does not say that we stop there, or stay there. Lead by the Good Shepherd we walk through trials and tribulations. The Good Shepherd tells us, “Lo I am with you always.” What a comfort that is!
For those of us who remain here on earth, there is still a life to live here and now. There will be valleys to walk through, disappointments, lonely days and nights. But, our Good Shepherd helps us with loving care and guidance and brings us to higher ground and better days.
“THY ROD AND THY STAFF THEY COMFORT ME”
Some modern day shepherds carry rifles and staffs. In David’s day the rifle was a sturdy rod. The rod was what you might call an extension of the shepherd’s right arm. And, as in David’s case a sling shot came in handy. The rod stood as a symbol of his strength, power and authority in any dangerous or serious situation. It was also an instrument of instruction and discipline to correct any wayward, wandering sheep. Sheep sense the shepherd’s rod and staff to be a source of assistance, comfort and protection.
The rod speaks to us signifying the power and divinity of God almighty. It carries with it the convincing power and impact of the words, “Thus sayeth the Lord!” or, “Be still, and know that I am God!”
we live in an era of numerous, confusing and conflicting philosophies and theologies. It is reassuring to us, God’s children, under the care of the Good Shepherd, to turn to the Word of God and know it as His hand of authority…a clear cut powerful manual of operations for our lives. There is no substitute for the Scriptures in coping with the complexities of our present day social order.
The shepherd’s staff is emblematic of the Spirit of God. There is an essence of sweetness, comfort and gentle correction brought about by the guidance of the ever-present Holy Spirit. The shepherd uses his staff to move the flock together…to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother should they become separated.
As Christians we find the Holy Spirit…the Comforter, drawing us together in warm Christian fellowship with each other. The Holy Spirit draws us to Christ. We are told explicitly in the Scriptures by Jesus Himself that He would send His Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us unto all truth. He gently yet firmly says to us, “This is the way…my way…walk in it.” As we comply and cooperate with Him and respond to His gentle promptings,a sense of safety and well being envelopes us.
“HE PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME, IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES.”
In some of the finest sheep country in the world, especially in the western United States and southeastern Europe, the high plateau of sheep ranges are referred to as mesas…the Spanish word for “table.” These mesas may be remote and hard to reach. But the energetic, aggressive shepherd takes the time and trouble to prepare the mesas or “tables” for the arrival of the flock. He will make a preliminary survey trip up through the rough trail to the flat grazing land…the mesa. There, sometimes observed by the sheep’s enemies wolves, cougars, wildcats, he lays out a good summer-long supply of salt and minerals at strategic spots for the benefit of the sheep during the hot summer months.
The parallel in the Christian life is clear. We need to remember that our Good Shepherd has been there ahead of us coping with every situation and condition that would cause us harm. Our Lord wants our mountain top, high country, mesa experiences to be tranquil. And, they will be if we stay near Him where He can protect us. We must read and heed His Word each day. Talk with Him. Listen to Him. Be still and give Him the opportunity to communicate with us…to guide us by His Holy Spirit.
“THOU ANOINTEST MY HEAD WITH OIL, MY CUP RUNNETH OVER”
Summer time in the HIGH country is fly and pesky insect time. Hordes of them emerge with the warm weather and descend upon the flock to make the life of a sheep miserable. Insect attacks on the flock can easily turn a golden summer of pleasurable, tranquil grazing into an agonizing time of continuous torture for the sheep. For relief sheep will beat their heads against rocks, tree trunks or posts. They will rub their heads on the ground. In extreme cases sheep have been known to kill themselves in a frenzied effort to find relief from the insects bites.
An observant, caring shepherd applies a balm or salve to their heads and snouts. In David’s time the remedy for this infestation was olive oil mixed with sulfur and spices. One by one the shepherd would pour this mixture over the heads and snouts of the sheep using a cup or bowl and dipping into the large vat of the mixture. Most times the cup or bowl would be filled to overflowing the shepherd poured the ointment. So, now we know what David was referring to when he wrote, “Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” After the anointing of the sheep, there would be a calming change in the flock. No more frenzied behavior to rid themselves of the insects. The sheep would return to quiet grazing.
In our lives the continuous anointing of God’s gracious Holy Spirit helps us counteract and overcome the ever-present aggravations and temptations of our daily lives. Some contend that a Christian needs only one initial anointing of God’s spirit. But, the frustrations and dilemmas of our daily lives demonstrate that we must have His continual anointing if we are to quiet our troubled minds and hearts.
“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE”
Sheep with a good, protecting shepherd know that no matter what comes the shepherd’s goodness and mercy toward them will protect them.
But there are times that test our confidence in the constant care of Christ, our Good Shepherd. When the chips are down…the loss of a loved one…the loss of a good job…when our plans and everything in our lives seems to come unglued and fall apart…when there seems to be no future for us, we sometimes have trouble with the fact that God’s goodness and mercy does follow us. With our limited understanding of His Holy Ways we cannot always comprehend His infinite wisdom. With our natural tendencies to fear and worry it’s not always easy for us to understand that God does follow us in goodness and mercy. If we think back on the good times and the bad, His management of our affairs, in His time frame, has picked us up and carried us back to His fold with great tenderness and compassion. Isaiah 40/31 says it well, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint. Teach me Lord to wait.”
“AND I SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.”
We have gone through a full year’s activities in the life of the sheep. We have gone from the green pastures and still waters of the home range, up through the treacherous mountain trail onto the tabletop highlands of the summer range. Now fall and winter approach with the storms of sleet, wind, rain and snow that drives the sheep down from the high country and back the safety of the home range and the sheepfold for the long, safe and quiet winter. The sheep are happy and satisfied to be home again.
Like the sheep, we followers of the Good Shepherd should be happy to belong to His fold. We are amazed to look back and recall all of the amazing ways in which He has entered our lives and provided for our well being. He has seen us through the hard times, and He will continue to do so. We live surrounded by His presence. He is aware of every circumstance we encounter. He attends us with care and compassion because we are His sheep…His Children…and this will continue throughout eternity. We will dwell in His presence forever.
A CLOSING PRAYER…
Father God, we know that we are Your Children under the loving care of The Good Shepherd, Your Son. May this awareness allow us to so order our lives that we can rest assured that You are always with us…that Your Holy Spirit will counsel and guide us, and that we shall dwell in Your care forever.