Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Text: Psalm 23
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 right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staffó 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 my whole life long. (NRSV)


The Shepherd who cares

We have all been touched by the tragedy of little Sophie Delezio, the little girl who was badly burnt when a car crashed into her Childcare Centre. Her tiny body bears the scars of this horrible accident. Then the other day we hear that she is again in hospital with serious injuries after a car hit her wheel chair at a pedestrian crossing.

Can you imagine the anguish and worry that this little girl and her parents must endure all over again?

No, I donít think we can. We can only try to imagine what this family is experiencing and feel for them in this situation. I wouldnít blame them if they shouted at God and asked, "Why our little girl again? Hasnít she been through enough?"

At some time most of us have been struck with tragedy and suffering. Most of us can recall a time or times when pain and grief have cut us deeply.

A part of the Bible that has brought comfort to many people in their time of grief and suffering is the 23rd Psalm. I donít think David wrote this psalm specifically for times of grief, but today this psalm is sung, read, or preached on at many funerals. In fact, this is a psalm for all occasions. So often it is read and sung at weddings. It is a song about our God who walks with those whom he loves through all the ups and downs that life brings. It is a song of trust and confidence in Godís presence and help in times of trouble. You can see why this psalm is so relevant as a couple begin their life together as husband and wife.

I donít remember when I first came into contact with the 23rd Psalm but it was Miss Ross, the choir teacher at the State School I attended who insisted that we learn the words off by heart. I was probably 11 at the time and I donít why I was in the choir because I was a hopeless singer. In my mindís eye, I can still see her purple hair, her pale over-powdered face and her flabby arms as she waved them around as she conducted. She seemed terribly old to us. But she managed to make us into a choir. Parentsí Day was coming up and she wanted us to sing this song called a psalm.

I donít know what has happened to all those other children that were part of Miss Rossís choir, but I hope the words that she made us learn has had some impact on their lives, as it has mine. Some of those who sang that psalm on Parentsí Day have died Ė some through accident, others because of cancer and other diseases Ė it is my prayer that the words that Miss Ross made us learn gave them the hope and comfort of God when they needed it the most. I hope that the words of that Old Testament song reminded them of our loving God in the time of their deepest need.

It is clear from this song about the Shepherd that the writer wants to tell us that God is intimately involved in our lives. You might, say he knows us better than we know ourselves.
He knows what is happening in our lives.
He knows what trouble has come our way.
He knows how weak we are in the face of temptation.
He knows when we are sad, or depressed, or upset, or guilt ridden.
He knows when we are struggling with disease and ill health, always fearing that death is just around the corner.
We can say he knows every need that might have.

We donít have shepherds these days as described in this song. The Australian sheep farmer is a far cry from the Palestinian shepherd. The 23rd Psalm provides us with a picture of a person who knew his sheep closely and personally.
He lived with them,
slept with them,
roamed the hills with them day after day;
he led them to good pasture, fresh water, protecting them from all kinds of danger with his shepherdís staff.
He knew individual sheep by name and each sheep responded to the familiar voice of the shepherd.
Itís no wonder that David, the writer of this song, uses the image of a shepherd to get across the idea of the intense love that God has for us and his concern for our total well-being at every turn of our life.

And it is no wonder that Jesus takes up this illustration of the shepherd and applies it to himself. He says, "I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me (John 10:14). He is saying that just as Jesus is close to God the Father and just as God the Father is close to Jesus, so also no-one is closer to us that the Good Shepherd Ė Jesus. He knows us and loves us so much that he is willing to put his life on the line for us. A shepherd would often be in danger as he protected his sheep from wolves or would find himself hanging over some precipice in order to rescue a straying lamb. But I donít think that he would go so far as to deliberately give up his life to save a dumb sheep. But "the good shepherd" does. He gave up his life on a cross so that his sheep could have eternal life.

The picture that the songwriter presents us is a comforting and reassuring one. It reminds us that even when the going gets tough and life seems almost too difficult to bear, we have a loving God who is never more than a breath away.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me:
your rod and your staff Ė they comfort me.

Notice the words "Even though I walk through the darkest valley". This is a little truer to the intention of the original language. Older translations have the valley of the shadow of death but the songwriter includes something far wider than just the moment we are facing death.

The darkest valley includes every time and situation that strike fear into our hearts. These are words of comfort when you and I are feeling lost, helpless, alone, sick and fearful. Perhaps it is a time of sickness or hospitalisation. Or a time when you parted from a loved one, and felt pain so deep it seemed you were being ripped apart. It may have been a dark night of doubt, or a spell of uncontrolled anxiety or fear. When things get on top of us like this, it is common to feel utterly alone; we think that no one in the world can possibly know what we are going through. The message of the Psalm is that the shepherd is near at hand, even if we think he is nowhere to be found.

A little 1st-grader stood in front of his classroom to make a speech about "What I want to be when I grow up."
He said, "Iím going to be a lion tamer and have lots of fierce lions. Iíll walk into the cage and they will roar."
The teacher responded saying, "You will have to be very brave to be a lion tamer. The little boy thought about this for a moment and then replied, "No not really, Iíll have my mummy with me."

Thatís the picture that this psalm paints for us. We hear in the New Testament that Jesus Christ is "the great shepherd of the sheep," that he is the caring shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine and sets out after the one who is lost,
that he is the "good shepherd," who knows his sheep and even lays down his life for the sheep. There is something precious in the fact that the one exalted to rule the universe as king is also our shepherd, who encounters us in our private, dark desert nights, who offers the cool water of baptism and a banquet of simple bread and wine, who watches over us in every circumstance.

A new kind of plane was on its first flight. It was full of reporters and journalists. A little while after takeoff, the captain's voice was heard over the speakers. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted to be your pilot for this plane's historic first flight. I can tell you the flight is going well. Nevertheless, I have to tell you about a minor inconvenience that has occurred.

The passengers on the right side can, if they look out their window, see that the closest engine is slightly vibrating. That shouldn't worry you, because this plane is equipped with four engines and we are flying along smoothly at an acceptable altitude. A little while later the captain announces, "Those who are seated on the right side might have noticed that the other engine is glowing, or more precisely one should say, burning. That shouldn't worry you either, since this plane is designed to fly with just two engines if necessary, and we are maintaining an acceptable altitude and speed.

A little later the captain is once again heard on the loud speakers, "Those of you on the left side shouldn't worry if there is one engine missing. It fell off about ten minutes ago. However, I will call your attention to something a little more serious. Along the centre aisle all the way down the plane a crack has appeared. Some of you may be able to look through the crack and may even notice the waves of the Pacific Ocean below. In fact, those of you with very good eyesight may be able to notice a small inflatable lifeboat with a man sitting in it. Well, ladies and gentlemen, you will be happy to know that your captain is keeping an eye on the progress of the plane Ė from that lifeboat below."

The picture of Jesus as our good shepherd is a far cry from the captain who was observing the plight if the passengers from a safe distance. The Palestinian shepherd didnít sit under the cool of a shady tree all day and watch his sheep from a distance. He walked with his sheep. He guided them, helped them and protected them. That is the kind of shepherd Jesus is.

My good Shepherd says to me,
"Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Don't look at the danger around you. Don't be distracted by the darkness. Don't look at your sin or your own death. Look only at me, your Good Shepherd.
I laid down my life for you, and with me you are safe, even from death.
My death defeats death.
My life is your life.
And I will be with you always, even to end of the age.
Do not be afraid."

The picture of Jesus the good Shepherd is a great one, well worth holding on to, and well worth sharing with others. It has comforted us in times of hardship; it can do the same for others whom we know are struggling at this time. Just as we have been comforted, they too will be helped knowing that "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
7th May, 2006

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