I Am the Good Shepherd

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

I do not know a lot about sheep.  I am a suburban-bon kid after all, who has never lived on, or near, a farm.  A number of years ago, right after Kerry and I finished school and before we started our first permanent jobs, we had a great opportunity to travel across England and Scotland – very cheaply.  Along the way, we ran across a lot of grazing sheep.  And I have to say, I was not very impressed by them.  I began to agree with what I have always heard: sheep do not seem to score very high on the animal intelligence scales.  My dad, who grew up in a farming community, liked this joke: “Do you know why God created sheep?  So that chickens could look smart.”

I know even less about being a shepherd.  A number of years ago, before I entered the ministry, the associate pastor of my church in Baltimore – who also happened to be my wife – came up with a creative idea about having an Advent program at church that required a live lamb for the children to see and pet.  Guess who was in charge of picking up the live lamb?  That minister’s spouse.  I traveled out to a farm outside of Baltimore and picked up the lamb a courageous sheep farmer was loaning to us.  The cute little thing was in one of those animal carriers you see on airplanes.  I put him the back of our station wagon and began driving home.

Unfortunately, at some point on that curvy road, I forgot about the lamb in the back.  All of the sudden I heard the sound of a tumbling cage as his cage rolled over and over from one side of the station wagon to the other.  Fortunately, only the lamb’s psyche was injured.  But you should have seen what it took after the program was finished to push him back into the cage.  You would have thought that he no longer trusted me!

I do not know much about sheep or shepherds, but I do know something about “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Psalm 23 has always been a very important Bible passage for me.  And I know I am not alone.  On a Men’s Retreat at my former church, during the closing worship, rather than my doing a short meditation or devotion, I asked people to share a favorite Biblical passage or verse and speak to why it was important for them.  The passage most cited was Psalm 23.  One man pulled out a dog-eared card he carried in his wallet with Psalm 23.  Another man talked about the strength and comfort he drew from Psalm 23 as he awaited serious surgery.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” or as some translations put it, “I shall not lack for anything I need.”  It is all here in this Psalm – all that we face and all that we need.  Green pastures and being fed.  Still waters and being refreshed.  Guidance along paths when we are searching or lost.  Protection from that which would do us harm.  The shepherd’s presence in the darkest valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death.  Dwelling with God forever.

And Psalm 23 becomes an even richer resource for our lives when we read it with John 10, where Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd,” which can also be translated “I am the true, genuine shepherd.  John 10 personalizes Psalm 23.  The shepherd described in Psalm 23 is the shepherd we meet in Jesus Christ.  Jesus gives us a portrait of what a model shepherd of people looks like.  And Jesus makes clear that his relationship with us sheep personal: he knows us personally and we can know his voice.

John 10 also intensifies Psalm 23.  While Psalm 23 shows us what a Good Shepherd will do for us, John 10 tells us the cost that Jesus is willing to pay to protect and save us.  He is no hired hand who will abandon us, Jesus tells us.  He is not even a shepherd like other shepherds.  After all, a human shepherd might do his best to protect the sheep, but would that shepherd give up his life for a bunch of sheep?  Jesus would – and Jesus did.  And, as he makes clear to the disciples in John 10, giving up his life was not something forced on Jesus.  He did it willingly – out of love for us, silly sheep that we are.

Psalm 23 and John 10 are realistic about life.  Both passages assume that there will be dangers out there: predators and dark valleys – not just green pastures and still waters.  We will face them – but not on our own.  Jesus, our true and good shepherd, will be there with us, and for us.

But let’s be clear: to say that Jesus is our Good Shepherd does not mean that Jesus is going to be operating on our timetable or according to our expectations.  We belong to him; he does not belong to us.  So there will be times when prayers seem unanswered, times when we cannot see Christ at work, times when we wonder where he is, or what is taking him so long.

Yet, he is there.  He is here.  And not just anywhere.  Earlier in John 10, Jesus says that he is the shepherd who is the gate for the sheep.  Picture not the kind of corral you might have seen on a farm or in an old western, with wooden rails and a gate that you can lock shut.  In Jesus’ time, sheepfolds were far simpler – a natural place with natural boundaries like rocks and an opening for the sheep to enter and exit.  The shepherd would stand and sleep in the gap; he would be the literal gate.

 As one colleague notes, shepherds stand between sheep and the problem.  Wild animals cannot destroy the sheep because the shepherd is there.  In the same way, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, stands between us and any problem that we might face, between us and anything that might do us harm.[i]  Or anything and anyone that might do others harm.  When we need to stand up to predators of injustice or abuse of others, the Shepherd goes before us.  Try doing this: picture a problematic situation or person that you are facing; now picture Jesus standing between you and that problem.

Sometimes, perhaps like some of you, I wake up at about 3:30 in the middle of the night.  Before I can roll over and go back to sleep, my suddenly awake mind says to me, “Not so quick, Carter, you have a lot to worry about.”  Foolish as I am, too often I obey that voice.  I worry about what I forgot to do this past day or what I have to do in the day to come.  I worry about our daughters and their families; about the church and those in the church who are struggling with one thing or the other; about the world, whether it is another national election cycle, the war in the Middle East, or some heart-rending story of injustice being suffered by others.  The list of things to worry about can get pretty long at 3:30 a.m.

But the best antidote for those worries, the one that has been most helpful for me, has been repeating the words of Psalm 23, slowly and rhythmically, as breath prayers with phrases inhaled and exhaled.  “The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want for anything.  He makes me lie down in green pastures…He leads me beside still waters…He restoreth my soul…He helps me find the way…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…I need not fear anything…

Not always, but more often than not, I find in those words the reminder that Jesus is standing there between me and anything that I might fear or worry about.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”  Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd throughout it all; when we are hungry or thirsty and when we are full; when we are on the mountaintop of a spiritual high, or when we are in a dark valley and despair of ever climbing out.  As someone has written, “the psalm is a song about the present.  It is about life.  It invites us to discover God’s guidance, God’s company, and God’s protection in our daily life.”[ii]  Right now, right here.

Sometimes people feel that Psalm 23 is limited to the big stuff in life: life-threatening illnesses, the death of loved ones – the times when we have big worries and big fears.  The thinking is that the Lord has bigger issues to face than your and my everyday concerns.  After all, in the scheme of things, what are we compared to wars and global warming and deadly diseases?  We don’t want to be rude and intrude upon God unnecessarily, some may think.

Do you ever feel this way?

To be sure, we do want to maintain some perspective.  And we don’t want to trivialize God or treat God like a magic genie at our beck and call.  But nowhere does it say that the Lord is our shepherd only in the dark valleys.  Nowhere does it tell us that the Lord wants us to wait on praying until things get really serious.  Because prayer is not just making requests.  Prayer is conversation – with the one who made us, the one who loves us enough to die for us.

What parents, after all, want their child to only talk with them when they have big problems?  What marriage or friendship will be healthy or strong if the conversations are only reserved for the big “stuff” in life, the big problems and crises?  Good relationships are built on sharing the daily stuff of life.

So it is meant to be in our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the Lord of the world, a big claim these days.  But this claim is just as big: He is also the shepherd who knows us individually – and wants us to know his voice.  He is always ready to listen to us and lead us.  And when we get lost, He is always ready to go out and find us – and bring us back home, if that is what we want.

I know a young adult who is not a member of this church who is dealing with a lot; substance abuse, trauma, depression.  He is getting good professional counseling.  He is learning some techniques to cope when tough times come along.  I am glad that he is getting that help.  But I also hope, above all else, that he will listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd.  I hope that he will know the presence of the One who will guide him when he feels lost or the way seems unclear, and will stand between and anything that he might fear.  And, I hope that he will come to know the voice and the power of the One who loves him and has even laid down his life for him.  Because knowing all that can make all of the difference.  I believe that with all of my heart.

A couple of generations ago, a great Scottish actor of the stage attended a caillie, which is a country gathering.  It was a time before televisions, radios or movies, when people would entertain each other at such gatherings, in between the music, with memorized speeches and recitations.  With this celebrity unexpectedly in their midst, people persuaded the actor to stand up and recite the 23rd Psalm.  So, with great drama and flair, he came to the center of the gathering and delivered the psalm showing all of his thespian talents.  The people smiled and were dazzled as those familiar lines rolled out in his Scottish brogue.  He was definitely one who could read the phone book and leave you smiling, someone later observed.

Now, the thing about Scottish caillies is that is not just for those who have special talents in speaking or music.  All are invited to participate.  Later in that same program, an older woman was asked to make some kind of contribution to the entertainment.  Stage struck when she got up there, she apologized, explaining that she could think of nothing else to do but recite the 23rd psalm by memory.  Her voice cracked as she spoke, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”  She was not used to speaking before others, so people had to strain to hear her low voice.  But when she was finished, that observer later wrote, there were few dry eyes in the place.  She may not have dazzled them, but she had moved them.

To his credit, the great actor knew it immediately.  He climbed onto the stage, hugged the woman, and said before all: “I know the psalm.  She, however, knows the Shepherd.”[iii]

Friends, this is my hope for all of us, with all of my heart.  That you will not just know the psalm; that you will also know the Shepherd.  Because when we know the Shepherd, we too are able to say, “I shall want for nothing.”

[i] Rev. William L. Self, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” http://day1.org/933_objects_in_mirror_are_closer_than_they_appear.

[ii] Juan Bek, “Wednesday, April 29 – Psalm 23” in Disciplines (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2009), 131.

[iii] Told originally by William Barclay, source unknown.