By Paul Koch –
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want; he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” The words of the 23rd Psalm are perhaps some of the most powerful and poetic in all of Scripture. They are words that capture our hearts and minds, words that linger in our souls because they express our own desires, our own hopes and dreams. For who among us in the midst of our struggles and worries in life has not felt these very words? Who has not hoped in the gracious leading, guiding and care of the Lord? Who has not found courage and resolve in the great assertion of David, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”?
This Psalm is the cry of our own hope, our own longing, especially when we are faced with uncertainty and grief. This is why we rarely go to a funeral where this Psalm is not read. For when we are faced up to the reality of the grave, when we can no longer hide from the ramification of sin in our lives, when we understand how powerless we are to overcome such an enemy as death; then we find it so easy to pray, “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” We long for a Shepherd, for one to care for us and lead us. A Shepherd is that one who always has a watchful eye on the horizon who is always ready to take action if a ravenous wolf should sneak up upon the flock. From the point of view of the sheep the shepherd is nothing short of life itself.
Behind our Lord’s declaration that he is the Good Shepherd lies the whole powerful image of shepherding throughout the Old Testament. And outside of Psalm 23 perhaps the greatest use of this image is in the book of Ezekiel. There we find the prophet declaring that God himself will now shepherd his people. But he speaks these words not in Judah, not in the great city of Jerusalem, not from the courts of the temple, no he speaks them to the people of God who are Babylon, they are part of the exiled community, part of those taken as spoils of conquest. They are again cut off from the Promised Land, cut off from their beloved temple, cut off from hope and assurance.
Now why? Why would God’s children be in exile, why would those who entered into the Promised Land backed by the power and authority of God be pulled away from that land? Well, in short their shepherds failed. Not only did they not protect the flock, but those placed in authority, in leadership amongst the people, they lead the flock into great unbelief and despair. They turned the hope of the people to the strength of man, to the wisdom of humanity and turned their eyes away from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who were supposed to lead, who were supposed to guide, who were supposed to protect them had failed. And every day as the people of God woke in a foreign land and walked far from their beloved city they were reminded how much they needed a truly good shepherd.
Try and think of what it could be like to be hurt by those who are supposed to care for us. I know that in the church today this is a rare occurrence, but I have heard that it happens. I’ve heard that people, maybe even people we know have been hurt by the church. Maybe it was a failure of love; perhaps it was an unkind word or just being ignored. The point is when people are wounded by those who were supposed to care for them and protect them that wound goes deep and is not easily mended. People have abandoned the church because of such wounds, and who can blame them.
But our God will not tolerate it; he will not allow such an offense to stand. So he makes a bold declaration through his prophet Ezekiel (35:11-16). “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” He will come to do what the unfaithful shepherds failed to do. He will shepherd them himself. Notice how clear he is, he says, “I will seek them out,” “I will rescue them,” “I will feed them,” “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down.” “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak!” Do you get his point?
Once again he will succeed where all others have failed; he will restore his lost sheep he will be the faithful shepherd. For when the Lord himself is your shepherd you will not be in want, when he leads you you will find green pastures, his rod and staff will deliver you from the valley of the shadow of death, there is no evil that you need to fear when God himself is your shepherd. And all of this, all of it, is caught up in our Lord Jesus Christ declares, “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.”
This last week the seminaries of our Synod held their calls services. Over a hundred men found out for the first time where they would be serving for the foreseeable future in our Lord’s church. It is a nerve-racking service as you sit there waiting for them to call your name and inform you of where you and your family will be moving. But off you go, called by our Lord’s church to serve its people, to fee the sheep. And when you are actually installed at a congregation at the end of the liturgical rite there is a blessing spoken to the Pastor that says,
“Go, therefore, and be a shepherd of the God Shepherd’s flock. Preach the Word of God; administer the Sacraments; offer prayer for all the faithful; instruct, watch over, and guide the flock among which the Holy Spirit has placed you. Do it not for earthly gain but with great joy, for you have been called not to lordship but to serve His flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
What I love about that simple blessing is it is a reindeer of who is the Chief Shepherd, of whose flock a pastor is called to serve. You might say that a whole new crop of under-shepherds has been called to service this past week. They do not go out with their own authority but with the authority of the one Good Shepherd. They speak not their own Words but his; they hand over not their own gifts but the gifts of Christ himself. This is the heart of our joy and assurance, not that you have a specific pastor that you like but that the Word of the Good Shepherd is still heard in our midst.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, he is your Good Shepherd, he laid down his life for his sheep, and he laid down his life for you. God was not lying he indeed came and cared for his own, he suffered and died, he defeated the ancient wolf that seeks to scatter and destroy the flock. Today then we are reminded that the words of the 23rd Psalm are not just for funerals, they are the Words of our faith each and every day. They are Word’s that give us hope and strength and prepare us again and again to head out into this world without fear without hesitation, for the Lord is our Shepherd, the Lord himself, and we will not be in want, we will be lead to the green pastures, we will walk boldly through this valley of the shadow of dead, what evil is there for us to fear? For our Good Shepherd goes with us.