The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
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 your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 16th July 2017 at All Saints’ Church, Lindfield, West Sussex.

What is the link between Clint Eastwood, George W Bush and Eminem? They’ve all referenced Psalm 23 in their work – in a film, in a speech and in a song respectively. These aren’t the only well-known figures who have quoted from Psalm 23. Coolio, Tupac and Kanye West have all included words from this Psalm in their songs, as have Fall Out Boy, Jay-Z, Hollywood Undead, Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, U2, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Duke Ellington amongst many others. It’s been set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Schubert, Ralph Vaughn Williams to name just a few. The Psalm was read in the film Titanic and at Whitney Houston’s memorial service.

Clearly there’s something about this Psalm that resonates through the ages and with people of all faiths or of no faith. It’s certainly one of the best-known texts in the Bible.

But how well do we really know this Psalm? There’s a danger with well-known texts that, precisely because we know them so well we cease to reflect on the words and the meaning behind them.

This evening I would like to share three points relating to the Psalm. I’ve picked out three reasons why, like David, we might like to declare that the Lord God is our shepherd. These reasons are:

  • Firstly, when we make God the shepherd of our lives, he provides for us;
  • Secondly, God restores us;
  • Thirdly, God guides and protects us.

On to our first point, then, God provides for us.

I’m no fan of shopping. I tried to avoid it as much as I can. Sometimes I feel inspired, however, and brave the shops. Within minutes of arriving however, I feel like I lose the will to live, and end up retreating into Costa for a caramel latte. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love online shopping. Even here I’ve been let down a couple of times recently. I ordered some goggles recently from Wiggle with next day delivery, and it took them an age to turn up. Similarly, I ordered some T-shirts from Fat Face, also with next day delivery, and they eventually arrived several days later. First world problems, I know, but I did find the experience infuriating.

Luckily, David knew that he had a much more reliable source than Wiggle or Fat Face to provide him with all his needs. In Psalm 23 he makes it clear that he trusts God completely to provide him with all his needs.

He declares right at the outset that the Lord is his shepherd. He has made a personal decision to allow God take on the role of a shepherd in his life, whilst he adopted the role of a sheep, making himself entirely dependent on God. He had complete trust that God would provide him with all that he needs, declaring, “I shall not want.”

As the shepherd of his father’s flock, David knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.
David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

Living in a materialistic society it is not easy for us to echo David’s words and proclaim “I shall not want.” We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is always something that we want.

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t. But God provides for us according to our needs, not according to our greed.

David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

David understands that God is not a miserly provider, but the most generous benefactor.

It was common at this time for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.

David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.

David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.

If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we have every reason to be thankful. Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Our gratitude will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as an amazing witness.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance? Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

On to our second point, God restores us.

I’ve just had a lovely week. The school where I teach has the builders in and so we were forced to finish early for the summer holidays. Consequently I’ve spent the last week on the beach with my wife, Claire, and children, Daniel and Lily. We’ve had a lovely time, and I feel well rested. A good rest was exactly what I needed after an incredibly busy and stressful term at school.

I have no doubt that I’m not the only one here who often finds life just too fast paced. Many of us have lifestyles that are often very busy. Whether we spend our day preparing for exams, looking after our families, or working every hour under the sun, it sometimes feels like we simply do not have the time to rest.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of peace. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his father’s flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.

David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.

If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.

The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that “restores his soul,” as he wrote in verse 3. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour.

Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.
It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.

If we wish to join David in declaring that the Lord is our shepherd, perhaps we should reflect on this element of the Psalm. Perhaps we should consciously find opportunities to take rest in order that we might better understand the peace of God. Ultimately we have to trust in God’s goodness as our shepherd, not in our own strength.

David trusted that God would restore him and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and restore our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Let’s move on to our third point, which is, that God guides and protects us.

I’m a big fan of Sat-Navs. I’m just about old enough to remember big, old fashioned road atlases. When I first learnt to drive, if I was going on a long journey I used to consult the road atlas in advance, and then write out road numbers and junction numbers on Post-It notes to fix to the dashboard of my car. Sat-Navs have certainly made life much easier. They can sometimes go wrong, though. When I was on a driving holiday in Arizona with my friend Clive we had two Sat-Navs running just to ensure we didn’t get lost. But somehow we still ended up completely stranded in the middle of a desert. We drove past those rather creepy swinging signs you sometimes see used to illustrate impending disaster in films. We passed road signs that had been shot to pieces. Then we eventually got our big four by four stuck firmly into deep sand. It turned out that both of our Sat-Navs were pretty useless!

David certainly knew a great deal about deserts, and I’m sure he must have got lost once or twice. He knew that in God he had a reliable guide, however. He states in verse 3, “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. David understood that the right paths through the journey of his life were those that bring glory to God.

We can learn a great deal from David here. Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. It can be a real struggle at times to know which way we should head in life, particularly when we reflect on potentially life changing decisions. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

If we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments. If we factor these into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, then God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse 4, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say, “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

In our busy, stressful world, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.
David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, God would be with him still. He trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

If we trust God as our shepherd, we need never fear anything that life might throw at us, because he will never abandon us. He remains with us at all times, whether we find ourselves in a period of great joy, a period of great sadness, or a low period of depression. Just as a shepherd would never abandon or turn his back on his sheep, our faithful God will never leave us.

Of course, it is precisely when we hit those dark periods of life that we might feel utterly abandoned; by our friends, by our families, even by God. Yet David is absolutely clear that God is always with him. Scripture is clear that God will never abandon us. We might need the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us to see this, but God will never abandon us, he doesn’t ever abandon us, he is always with us. God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

God is also fully equipped to protect and guide us. The shepherd in the Psalm has a rod which he uses to deal with any threats that the sheep might encounter. He also has a staff which he uses to gently prod and guide his flock in the right direction.

If we make Jesus the shepherd of our lives, then we too can draw great comfort from his presence as our protector and guide.

As a shepherd, David knew that there might be times when leading his sheep when he would be forced to put his life on the line to protect his flock. Whilst looking after his father’s sheep, David had to fight off lions and bears.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for those who follow him. He said, as recorded in John 10, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. To save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but I have found it to be an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I have hardly been able to scratch the surface of its depth this evening. I hope, however, that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives. I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Loving ourselves more

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

Image by quinndombrowski@flickr and made available under this licence.

How are you feeling this morning? Have you had a good, healthy breakfast? Have you been for your morning run yet? Have you looked at yourself in the mirror and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re not doing too badly really?

Or perhaps the reverse is true. Maybe you haven’t had time to get yourself a hearty meal. Perhaps a run is the most awful thing you can think of. Maybe you’ve looked at yourself and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re a bit of a failure.

With the pace of life and pressures of every day living, it can be all too easy for us to fall into a negative spiral when it comes to our own perspective of ourselves. Yet in chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment, after loving the Lord God, is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whilst this speaks volumes about the attitude that we should adopt to those around us, it is telling that Jesus uses the love we have for ourselves as a benchmark for the love we should have for others. Jesus plainly thinks that we have good reason to love ourselves.

Many Christians struggle with the idea of loving themselves. There is a big difference between arrogant self love and ensuring that we treat ourselves with the care and consideration that we need, however. If we believe that we are created in God’s image, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, there is clearly a case for loving and respecting ourselves. Perhaps we need to think more positively about ourselves, therefore, and not allow ourselves to fall into self-loathing. After all, if God has a plan for our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are fit and well enough to carry it out!

Let’s think today of how we can love ourselves better. Maybe that is thinking more carefully about the food and drink that we consume and making sure that we get enough exercise. Perhaps it is recognising that we are loved by God and have a specific role to play in his creation. Rather than putting ourselves down and being critical of ourselves, maybe we should rise to the challenge of loving ourselves more!

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.

Love your neighbour as yourself

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

Louis Armstrong

I love listening to music. There are some pieces of music that I could listen to over and over again. One of these is the song ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. There’s a line in this song that moves me to tears, every time I hear it. Louis sings, ‘I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they’re really saying I love you’. I think this moves me so much because I know it to be true. There are people in my life whom I maintain a polite, friendly relationship with but, when push comes to shove, yes, I probably do love them. On the other hand there are also people who I find unkind, or irritating whom I would probably not be inclined to say I loved!

In chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus explains that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbour. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is asked who is our neighbour and recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story he shows that we are in fact to be love all people, not just those we more readily get along with.

Loving our neighbour, therefore, is quite a challenge. There will inevitably be people whom we find it very hard to love. It may be that we struggle to love a particular person who has hurt us or upset us. It may be that we find it hard to love a particular group of people who we feel are cruel, or uncaring, or even inhumane. Yet we are called to love these people.

Love is both an attitude and an action. We should not hold negative, unloving thoughts about others, but rather try to find reasons to love them. At its most basic, that might be remembering that they were created in God’s image, and we might, therefore, see something of God in them if we look hard enough.

Love should also characterise our actions towards others. We should speak well of people, refraining from nastiness or malicious gossip. And we should strive to love people practically, as God loves us. That might be by being a support for them, by listening to them, by providing for them in their hour of need.

Let’s strive in the days, weeks, and months ahead to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.

Love that resonates inside our being

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

Mark 12:28-30

Image by justintosh@flickr and made available under this licence.

I love going to the cinema. I also love sailing, and long walks in the countryside. I love sitting on a beach reading a good book in the sun. I also love my wife, my children, my parents, and my brother and sister.

Love is one of those funny words in English. We say that we ‘love’ all kinds of things. The love that we might have for our family or friends is clearly different to the love that we might have for something like the cinema or the beach though!

Love for a person is something that requires a conscious action. It’s not enough to just say that we love someone, we have to demonstrate this.

The same is true for our love of God. It’s not enough just to say we love God. We have to demonstrate our love through our actions.

In chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus deals with how we should love God. He tells a teacher of the law that the most important commandment is to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Our love for God needs to flow from deep within. This love is more than a flippant statement of love, but something that resonates inside our being. Jesus makes it clear that our entire being, physical and spiritual, is to be dedicated to loving God. All the thoughts and ideas that float around within our heads need to be directed to loving God. Jesus tells us here that to love God we need to commit not just ourselves but all of our money and possessions to God.

What sounds initially like a fairly straightforward commandment is actually incredibly challenging. Indeed, there is no way that we, as fallen humans, are capable of living up to the standards that God has set us. But with the help of the Holy Spirit we can strive to do our very best to live lives that honour God and make clear to all of those around us that we have a deep love for the God who made us, who knows us, and who offers us salvation through Jesus Christ.

Let’s commit ourselves to striving to love God in all that we do today, and in the days, weeks and months to come.

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.

He first loved us

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:16(b)-19

Image by 4thglryofgod@flickr and made available under this licence.

I’ve been married to Claire for seven years. If you asked me why I loved her I’d struggle to condense my answer into a brief sentence. I love her because she’s kind, because she’s thoughtful, because she’s smart, because she cares about me. My love for my wife isn’t just something that I accept, however; loving my wife is an action, an intention. Each day it is something that I work at, and which some days I am better at than others.

In the gospels Jesus tells us that the most important commandment is to love the Lord our God. Some might question this rule and ask why we should love God. Why should we love a God who at times can feel so distant from us? Why should we love a God who we cannot see, who allows pain, suffering and injustice to exist in the world?

The apostle John, writing in his first letter, provides us with an answer to these questions. He says that the reason we love God is because he first loved us.

If we adopt John’s thinking, it becomes much easier to love God. Sometimes we just need to stop and reflect about all that God has done for us. When we think of all the ways that God has demonstrated his love for us, loving God becomes much more straightforward, and something that we can work at doing every day.

It might be that we think about the fundamentals – that God has created us, placed us into a world of stunning beauty, sent his son to die for us, and promised us an eternity with him in a new creation. It might be that we think about specific things he has done in our lives, perhaps giving us guidance, healing us, granting us children. All of these good things are examples of how God has lavished his love on us, and give us cause to love him back.

However much you feel that you love God this morning, remember that loving God is something that we need to work at. Loving is an action as much as a frame of mind. Why not today try to think of all the ways that God has loved you, and try to love him back with all of your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength?

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.