“In the Green Pastures of the Twenty-third Psalm” (Psalm 23)

Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2012

“In the Green Pastures of the Twenty-third Psalm” (Psalm 23)

Today is what is known in the church as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on this Sunday during the Easter season, the Gospel Reading comes from John 10, where several times Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd” of the sheep. And, every year, the psalm appointed for this day is Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the psalms, the one that begins, “The LORD is my shepherd.”

The danger with such a familiar and well-loved passage is that it can become for us just so much “white noise.” We hear the sound, and we turn off our minds. We don’t think about what we’re hearing. And that would be a shame. Because there is not only soothing sound here, there is real substance as well, strong assurance that gives true comfort and confidence to troubled souls. So just because Psalm 23 is familiar, don’t take it for granted. Instead, let’s consider more closely what we’ve heard all our life, as today we, the Shepherd’s sheep, graze “In the Green Pastures of the Twenty-third Psalm.”

Please turn in the front of your hymnal to Psalm 23, and let’s read this psalm together. . . . “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

“In the Green Pastures of the Twenty-third Psalm.” This morning I think we’ll do our grazing in three parts, following the flow of the psalm itself: 1) Our Shepherd leads and feeds us. 2) Our Shepherd guards and guides us. And 3) Our Shepherd is good and gracious to us forever.

First, our Shepherd leads and feeds us. And the place to start here is by establishing who this Shepherd is. The psalm begins, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Wherever the Old Testament has the word LORD in capital letters, the Hebrew behind it is the divine name Yahweh, the name of God. The LORD, Yahweh–this is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who made a covenant of promise with the patriarchs. The LORD, Yahweh–this is the God who revealed himself to Moses and then acted in history to bring his people out of bondage into the Promised Land. The LORD, Yahweh–this is the God who chose David to be the king of Israel, the same David who is writing this psalm. The LORD, whom David here is confessing as his shepherd–this is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is our shepherd also. The twenty-third psalm is our psalm as much as it is David’s, for we have the same God taking care of us.

David himself had been a shepherd, so he knew all that was involved in shepherding a flock, if one was to be a good shepherd, that is. And so he writes from the perspective of a sheep that has such a shepherd. Right at the outset of this psalm, he marks the theme: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” That is to say, “I shall not be in want. I shall lack nothing, because I have the best possible shepherd taking care of me.”

David then explains why he shall not want for anything: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Green pastures to graze in, so the sheep are well nourished. Still waters to drink from, so the sheep can drink in safety. Rest and refreshment when they become weary. Being led on the right paths, right where they need to go. What more could the sheep need?

Now to be sure, this is about more than sheep. It’s about how our God takes care of us. Besides feeding us physically, with our daily bread, God leads us into the green pastures of his Word, where we are nourished spiritually. Our spiritual thirst is quenched, as our Lord Jesus gives us the living water, the spring that wells up to eternal life. He restores our soul, Jesus does, as he invites us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ himself is our path of righteousness, for he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Yes, our Shepherd leads and feeds us.

Second, our Shepherd guards and guides us. This comes out in the next verse of the psalm, where David says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

David knew that when a flock of sheep passes through a dark valley, there could be danger lurking in the bushes: bandits who would steal the sheep away, wolves who would devour them. The sheep need a strong and brave shepherd to be there for them and with them, to guard them from these threats and to guide them safely through the place of danger. The shepherd’s rod was the club he would use to beat off the enemies. The shepherd’s staff would keep the sheep close on the safe path and could pull them out of danger.

David himself faced danger many times in his life: when confronting Goliath, when pursued by Saul, when facing armies in battle. But the LORD was his shield and defender, protecting him all along.

Do we have enemies threatening our safety? You bet we do. Satan would steal us away from the fold and destroy our faith. False teachers are like wolves that would devour us for their own gain. The world is a hostile environment for Christians: on the one hand, alluring us with temptations that would take us off the right path, and, on the other hand, persecuting the church, so as to crush our spirit. Our whole pilgrimage in this life is like passing through a deep dark valley, shadows all around, with death ready to leap out at us at any moment. How we need our Shepherd with us to guard and guide us! We would be lost without him.

But Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who goes with us to protect us, present all the way. With him beside us, we fear no foe. His cross and his empty tomb, they comfort us. For this is the Jesus who says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, and I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what Christ has done for you, dear one. He laid down his life for you, being lifted up on the cross of Calvary. He did this for you so that you would not die. Otherwise, your sins would have condemned you, and you would be facing eternal death, an eternity in hell. But Christ, your Good Shepherd, laid down his life for you, to save you from all your foes: from sin, death, and the devil. All these enemies were beaten back and defeated by the valiant one, Christ Jesus our Good Shepherd.

And now he is risen from the dead and promises to be with us, to be with his church forever. The Good Shepherd has gone through that valley of the shadow of death and has come out safe on the other side. He will guide us now through our valley and deliver us from every evil–yes, even death itself. This is the comfort and the confidence that is yours in Christ.

Our Shepherd leads and feeds us. Our Shepherd guards and guides us. And third, our Shepherd is good and gracious to us forever. In the psalm, David now switches the imagery and takes us from the flock in the field to the guest in the banqueting hall. He writes: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The Lord has prepared a table before us in the presence of our enemies. Today he invites us to come to his table, the Lord’s Table, where he will give you his body and his blood to eat and to drink, a foretaste of the feast to come in heaven. Even in the presence of your enemies–the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh–this table that the Lord has prepared will strengthen you for whatever they will throw your way. Your cup, the cup of salvation that the Lord gives you in this feast–this cup overflows with forgiveness for all your sins. And like a Middle Eastern host welcoming a weary traveler into his home, the Lord today is anointing your head with oil, the oil of the Holy Spirit, to refresh your soul and give you joy once again.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” This is eternal life, my friend. This is the sure hope that David had, and the sure hope that every believer has in Christ. Our Shepherd is good and gracious to us forever. He is with us every day of this life, gracious and generous toward us in his abundant goodness and mercy. And he will welcome us into our heavenly home, where we will be with him forever.

Our Shepherd leads and feeds us. Our Shepherd guards and guides us. Our Shepherd is good and gracious to us forever. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we have been grazing in the green pastures of the twenty-third psalm. This psalm is far more than a soothing sound. It provides real comfort for us and fills us with real confidence, because we know the one who is the fulfillment of this psalm. It is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and then takes it up again, in Easter victory over all our foes. With our Good Shepherd beside us, we have no evil to fear and every good to look forward to.

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Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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