Sermon: St Aidan’s, Fourth Sunday of Easter, 17th April 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 17th April 2016

“THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30)

When I want to read some scripture to a dying patient, or to a recently bereaved family, what passage do I most often turn to? When I am asked to choose a passage to be read at a funeral service, what do I often choose? When I need to replace leaflets provided by the Bible Society to give to hospital patients and their families, and others who come into the chapel, what am I most likely to have run out of?

You’ve probably already worked it out! It is the 23rd Psalm, one of the best-known and most loved of all pieces of scripture. “The Shepherd Psalm”, as it is called on the Bible Society leaflet.

When I was a child I could never understand the first line of that great hymn based on the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord’s my Shepherd I’ll not want.”

If the Lord’s my shepherd, I used to wonder, why wouldn’t I want him?

Later on, of course, I discovered the point. Firstly that there are two statements in that first line. “The Lord’s my shepherd” is the first statement. “I’ll not want” is the second. Nowadays when I sing the hymn, I consciously make a short gap in that very small space between the two halves of that first line, to remind myself of the message of those words.

And then of course, I learned that “want” referred to being in want, lacking the things I need. In fact in the Good News Bible, that first verse is translated: “The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” That’s not a bad way of putting it.

It is not surprising that the Psalm is so popular. It is full of beautiful pictures, images of peace and comfort, and it brings a message of help and strength and hope. It brings us a picture of a God who is caring and loving, a God who can be our shepherd.

Today the image of a shepherd doesn’t connect the way it used to. The stockman with huge numbers of animals is much more the reality than the shepherd who can actually count his animals, and may even have names for them all. The stockman doesn’t walk with his sheep: he will be on a horse or a motorbike or in a 4-wheel drive, or perhaps even in a helicopter. Somehow I don’t think “the Lord is my stockman” conveys the same image! The shepherd knew his sheep: there was a real relationship, and the sheep recognized his voice. Quite a difference from the stockman in outback Australia! If God is our shepherd, he knows us, he understands us, he cares for us.

And how does he care for us? Remember that translation of the first verse: “I have everything I need.”  Need is a very important part of the idea. I might have many things that I want, but don’t really need. I might want a life of good health, full of delightful experiences, and free from problems and illness and sadness. But desirable as these things might be, we can live a positive and meaningful life without them, and indeed many people have done so.

There might be people in our lives, loved ones, close ones, whom we believe we could never do without. We feel we need them, we may indeed depend on them. But life doesn’t shelter us from pain and loss and bereavement, and we can learn to live positively without the presence and help of the one on whom we depended. Indeed, aren’t there people we know who have triumphed over circumstances of difficulty or sorrow? Isn’t what we often need the strength and grace and wisdom and support to keep going in difficult times? Can’t we also say that it is often in the times of struggle, rather than in times of sunshine and ease, that we grow and develop as people?

Now I’m not saying that the Lord wants us all to have miserable lives so that we can become better people. The Lord is a shepherd, not a tyrannical manipulator or torturer.

So what does this Psalm tell us that the Lord does for us? It tells us that he is our provider, our guide, our protector, and our companion.

The Lord is our provider.  As a shepherd makes sure that his sheep have access to grass and water, so God provides in different ways for us and our needs. Some time ago I discovered the importance of still waters for sheep. Apparently they have a natural fear of fast flowing water, and so the shepherd will sometimes have to dig a trench out of a running stream where the water can come but the flow is stopped. Then the sheep will feel safe to drink from it. The shepherd knows what the sheep need, and he provides for those needs.

In the same way, God knows and understands our needs. If we have food and clothes and somewhere to stay, if we have the necessities of life, we can see God providing for us. It might not be caviar and French champagne – if that is your thing! – and we may not live in luxury. But the Lord gives us day by day our daily bread, the things we actually need. He is our provider.

The Lord is our guide. As the shepherd leads his sheep to their pastures, so the Lord shows us the way through life: principles to live by, understanding of the right things to do. He gives direction and purpose for life.

In the scriptures and in the life of the church we find guidance: not necessarily every detail, not in a way that saves us the need of thinking things through. But we have the way to live, the principles that will help us make good decisions. The Lord guides us through life.

The Lord is our protector. The Psalmist knows that even when his enemies are round about him, he is still secure in the presence of the Lord.

Of course we will still have to face the realities of life as they come to us. But there is a basic security we can have in the midst of our difficulties as we hold our trust in the Lord our protector.

And the Lord is our companion. Even when we are passing through the darkest valley, even when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is there with us. Sometimes it is hard to see that the Lord is there with us. But he is with us in the dark times, when it is hard to see him. The opening part of the Psalm tells us that the Lord is with us when life is good: when the grass is green and the stream flows gently. But he is still there when things are tough.

The challenges are different. When all is well, it is easy to forget him, and fail to realize our need of him. When things are tough, it is hard to feel that he is there, and easy to believe that he has left us.

In fact, the Lord is with us, his sheep, in all kinds of circumstances. He never gives up, never lets us down, even when things get tough.

The Psalmist ends his hymn of faith by expressing his conviction that God’s goodness and mercy will follow him all the days of his life. But he seems to go even further. He believes that he will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. I’m not exactly sure what he meant when he wrote those words: in those days, there was no clear concept of resurrection as we have it in the New Testament. But our Psalmist is certainly convinced that God will be with him, blessing him with his presence for ever. God’s promises to his people are eternal.

In our readings this morning, we are reminded of those eternal dimensions. Tabitha in our reading from Acts was raised to life for only a limited additional period, and yet that miracle pointed beyond itself to the gift of life which is truly eternal.

And the saints caught up in worship before the heavenly throne in our reading from Revelation will hunger and thirst no more; they will find shelter and protection; their tears will be wiped away. Truly they will experience the care of the Good Shepherd.

The Lord is my Shepherd. It is traditionally understood that David wrote this Psalm. In doing so, he was making a big jump. It was one thing to acknowledge the Lord as the Shepherd of Israel, his chosen people. It was another thing to individualize it and personalize it: thinking of the Lord as my shepherd. However that is who he is, as we trust in him

But the shepherd of Israel did an extraordinary thing. He became one of us in the person of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep. He knows his sheep and they know him. He leads his sheep through life and stays with them, with us, through the tough times. He gives his sheep eternal life: he gives us hope for eternity

As we trust and follow the Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we shall indeed receive those things we need most of all. We shall have his presence, his help, even when life is tough. And his promise is that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.

Paul Weaver