SERMON BY THE REVEREND AMOS MCCARTHY
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
SEPTEMBER 8, 2019
Title: “Follow the Shepherd”
Text: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want….Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalms 23:1,6).
Scripture Reading: Psalm 23.
Probably the most familiar New Testament passage is the model prayer our Lord gave his disciples when they asked him, “Lord teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1-4). The most familiar Old Testament passage is the beloved Twenty-Third Psalm. These words have lingered on the lips of more of God’s people than any other in all of Holy Scripture.
Who is the author of this psalm? David, the great shepherd-king of Israel . He probably wrote it in the winter years of his life out of long experience with the providential care of a loving God. He remembered the tender care of a loving shepherd who watched over his wandering and disobedient sheep.
The psalm is exceedingly simple. There are no hidden mysteries here; it is within the reach of every child of God, at whatever stage of spiritual growth and development he or she may be. In verse one we find David’s proclamation, which is majestic, marvelous, and all inclusive. The provision the great Shepherd makes for his sheep is delineated in verses 2-5, and the thrilling promise concludes the psalm in verse 6.
The psalmist makes a proclamation in verse 1: :The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In the King James Version the verb “is” appears in italics, which indicates that it was not found in the original manuscripts. The translators supplied the verb for smoothness in reading. Leaving out the verb makes this opening statement an exclamation: “The Lord my shepherd!”
Notice also that David has the unmitigated presumption to say, “The Lord is my shepherd! Suggesting not only that he knows who his shepherd is but that his shepherd knows him!
Astronomers tell us that at least 250 million times 250 millions stars, each larger than our sun (which is one of the smallest of the stars), have been scattered across the vast universe by the Creator. Earth, our temporary home for the few short years of our existence, is so minute a speck of matter in space that if it were possible to transport our most powerful telescope to our nearest neighbor star, Alpha Centauri, and look back this way, earth could not be seen, even with the aid of that powerful instrument.
All of this is considerably humbling to proud and pompous humans. Yet the staggering fact remains that the Creator of such a universe descends to call himself my shepherd, and invites me to consider myself his sheep. Jesus said in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” Thus, because of his great love, God made provision through the death of his Son for us to become his very own.
“I shall not want.” Note the equation: The Lord of heaven as my Shepherd equals the fact that I shall not suffer want. But this does not mean that, because of my privileged relationship as a sheep of the great Shepherd, every whim and fancy I have shall be provided. It simply means that only my heavenly FAther truly understands my needs, and he will meet them accordingly.The second thing we glean from this passage of Scripture is the provision. Because the Lord is my Shepherd, he has made certain basic provisions for my care. First, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Phillip Keller, In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says that a strange thing about sheep is that because of their makeup, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless certain requirements are met. First, owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from all fear. Second, because of the social behavior within a flock of sheep, they will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their own kind. Third, if tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free from these pests can they relax. Fourth, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. The unique thing about all of these needs is that only the Shepherd himself can provide them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, 35).
An undefined fear dogs the steps of many in our world today. They are searching like sheep without a shepherd for something new, something different, something exciting. All the while, our Great Shepherd has provided “green pastures and still waters” for those who will let him be their Shepherd.
“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Is it possible that one who enjoys the bountiful care of the great Shepherd of the sheep could ever become so distressed in spirit that he wound need restoration? The author of this psalm knew the arid wastelands of spiritual distress. He had tasted the bitter gall of yielding to temptation; he had experienced the cold emptiness of estrangement from God. In another psalm he cries out, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?” (4:11).
Keller says that a “cast down sheep” is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself. He describes the pathetic sight of such sheep lying on its back with its feet in the air trying frantically to get up but not being able to do so. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but usually it just lies there lashing about in frightened frustration. It is necessary that the shepherd find the “cast down” sheep right away, for predatory animals and birds know that a cast down sheep is an easy meal.
After coming to our rescue, the Shepherd leads us in the “paths of righteousness.” He retrieves us from the dangerous detours we often take in life. These detours are comparable to those times when we presume that God is going to take care of us even though we have acted irresponsibly as his independent sheep. However, because ours is a Shepherd who is ever alert and attentive to his down cast sheep, he is instantly responsive to their cries for help. Through the prophet Isaiah, God expressed his concerns for the needs of his people: “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
When David speaks of “the valley or shadow of death,” he is portraying life’s bitterest experiences. One can almost feel the chill and loneliness suggested by the valley. The Hebrew word translated “shadow of death,” means “deepest darkness.” But even in these agonizing experiences, one can know the warmth of the Shepherd’s presence. For, after leading his sheep through these dark stretches on the way, the Shepherd “prepareth a table” for them in the midst of those who would destroy them and applies healing oil to their bruised bodies and the oil of gladness to their wounded spirits. The “cup running over” suggests the abundant life of our Lord promises to all who drink from his fountain.
David then talks about the promise. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Here is a picture of the complete confidence of the sheep in his Shepherd, who has, through the long journey of life, proved again and again his concern for his sheep. Every moment of the way, even on the detours he has foolishly chosen, the sheep has been followed by the :goodness and mercy” of his Shepherd.
Jesus said to his distraught disciples on the night before his crucifixion: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:12). Psalm 23 covers the full spectrum of life, from the helpless state of the young lamb through the wilds and storms of his adult life. Then the end of this life is but the beginning of a grander life that has no termination.
“Following the shepherd” each step through life is the only way to maintain one’s equilibrium even in the midst of the most ferocious storm. When the sun is shining and the Shepherd’s care for us is obvious or when we are in the subterranean passageways of the valley of the deepest shadows and cannot feel his presence, we can have “peace… which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), because we know that the Shepherd’s “goodness and mercy” follow us all the days of our lives. Let us acknowledge that the Lord is our Shepherd. He will provide for us, and his blessings will be with us forever. God bless you all!