By Paul Koch –
We just finished up an incredible week of Vacation Bible School. For the past week Grace Lutheran Church was transformed into a barnyard of sorts as our children and children from our community gathered together to learn and rejoice in the gifts of our Lord. Together we had a lot of fun: sang a lot of songs, did crafts, played games and learned about the incredible working of our Lord who never ceases to gather his children together and bless them over and over again. The key verse from Scripture that stood as the center point for all the other stories we studied through the week was Psalm 23. Psalm 23, arguably the most famous of all the Psalms or at least the most famous opening line of any of the Psalms, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
The reason that that line is famous, the reason that we have heard this Psalm so often in our lives is that it gets to the heart, to the core, of who we are. Wrapped up in that declaration by David is our identity, our security, our confidence in this life, no matter what we may face. This, I think, is why Psalm 23 is so often recited at funerals. It’s not just to soothe the troubled heart or be a calming word of comfort. No, this Psalm is a declaration of who we are. It is a rallying cry that should lift us to our feet and be boldly proclaimed. Even when the grave has laid hold of a brother or sister we don’t shrink back, we don’t pull away. No, we rally together and declare, “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.”
Do you get the feeling of it? This isn’t a resolution to simply settle for what we know. It is a battle cry that we as the children of God will not go quietly into the night. Why? Because the Lord is my Shepherd. We may be sheep but we are the sheep of the almighty God, and our Shepherd is unlike anything this world has to offer. There is a boldness for us in this Psalm.
In fact, to make the proclamation that the Lord is my Shepherd is to stand in opposition to all other would be shepherds out there, and there are plenty of them. Martin Luther famously wrote that “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.” So, “it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol.” In other words, that thing in your life that your fear, love and trust above all things will be your god. No matter who you are, longtime faithful Christian, worldly pagan, caustic atheist, you will have a god. For there will be that thing that you will place your trust in, that thing that you will believe in. It could be scientific advancement, or monetary gain, or social status, but there is no shortage of other shepherds to provide guidance for the lost sheep.
But we will have nothing of such shepherds, for we declare that the Lord is my Shepherd. The Lord, the child born of Mary, the one who suffered and died for your sins, the one who paid the price and rose from the dead so that we might have eternal life, he alone is our Good Shepherd. And we need to keep making this bold confession. We need to continue to tell one another of the nature of our Shepherd who will not abandon us to the darkness of this world, or leave us lost and confused in the evil of our age. We need to keep making this confession because we have a habit of believing that just because we are safe within the church, just because we stand on the inside and close the doors to the world outside, that somehow we are immune from the so called wisdom of the other shepherds.
Quite often within the church the shepherd of choice is not our Good Shepherd who died for our sins and who set us free by his blood, but the preferred shepherd is the requirement of the law. The demands of the law are set up and exalted as the ways of guaranteeing or entrance into eternal life. It might be as heavy and complicated as certain things we must do in order to be sure of our salvation or as simple and light as praying the right prayer or making a decision to follow Jesus. But whether it is subtle or crass, this type of shepherding has the sheep ever so slowly turn within themselves. You see the law will always leave us looking in the mirror, examining our motives our successes and failures, leaving us wondering if we have done enough, if we have done it well enough, if we have done it completely.
There is a strong, yet evasive, shepherd who would always have us turn within for hope and assurance. The problem with this shepherd is that it all looks so holy and righteous, it looks like the things Christians ought to be focusing on, it looks like waking the talk and being a living sacrifice. But within ourselves there is no confidence, no hope, no assurance of salvation. Within ourselves there is only partiality, and fractional living. There is a constant sinner that we cannot get rid of. And the deeper we look, the more we realize that the good we want to do we do not do and the evil things we know full well we should not be doing we keep on doing anyway. And the more we listen to the shepherd of the law, the more our journey looks like hopelessness, the more it looks like death.
But this is not your path. This is not your way, for the Lord is your Shepherd. And because he is your Shepherd you can declare, “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.” Your Good Shepherd did not leave you in the darkness of your own work. He did not abandon you to the death of the law. No, he is with you. In fact, he laid down his life for his sheep. He gave the ultimate sacrifice so that you might live and so that you might travel through the valley of the shadow of the death and move on to the glorious gifts of life eternal.
And so the battle cry of this Psalm goes on. You have a Good Shepherd, a Shepherd that calls you by his voice and leads you down the paths of righteousness. You don’t forget those paths. You don’t chart the way. He leads you. He directs you. He makes sure that eternal life will not be stripped from his sheep. In fact, because of our Good Shepherd we are given victory over our enemies, victory over sin, death and the power of the devil. As we say in this bold Psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” To follow our Good Shepherd, to receive the blessing of Christ as the only way to life everlasting, we receive an abundance of his mercies.
Now this promise isn’t limited to this just this moment in time. No, when you join your words to the words of David and boldly declare the 23rd Psalm, you find that you are declaring an eternal blessing, an eternal gift. You say, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” You are secure in his house, in his sheep fold for all eternity. This is what your Good Shepherd has promised you. This is the reality of a life of faith. Not turning in and finding hope within, but turning out toward the voice of our Shepherd and hearing his life-giving words. Hearing him say to you, “I have not forgotten you. I will not forsake you. I forgive you and love you and call you my brothers and my sisters.”
So my friends, no matter how hard and how bleak your future may appear, no matter how confused and how painful life can be, you can lift up your heads and with all the confidence of the eternal promises of God. You can make the bold declaration that scatters the darkness, “The Lord is My Shepherd I shall not want.”