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.

Let’s kill him!

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

Genesis 37:19-22

 Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun. Joseph thrown in the pit.

Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun. Joseph thrown in the pit.

It’s funny how when I look back over my life, it’s the most painful, difficult episodes that have led to the greatest moments. At the time, of course, going through difficult patches is deeply unpleasant, but I’ve seen for myself that more often than not God works through these hardships to mould us into the kind of people that he would have us be. When I was made redundant from my job in retail management at the age of nineteen, it felt like my life and career was over. Yet this sudden departure from my intended career allowed me to spend three very happy years at university, followed by another happy year at a different university. When I found myself suffering from acute anxiety and depression it seemed like there was no future for me. Yet having these experiences has shaped me into a kinder, more tolerant, more compassionate human being, a better follower of Christ, and indirectly led to marriage and a wonderful son.

I suspect that Joseph had similar thoughts during his life. At the time described in today’s verses, being thrown into a cistern and left for dead, and then being sold into slavery must have seemed to be the worst possible situation to be in. He found himself alone, far from home, far from the father who cared desperately for him, facing a bleak and uncertain future ahead of him.

Of course, his brothers (with the possible exception of Reuben in today’s verses, and possibly Judah later in this chapter) intended to harm Joseph, indeed to kill him. They had had enough of him. They were sick and tired of Joseph getting all the adoration from their father. And they were especially sick of Joseph arrogantly recounting his dreams which suggested that he would soon rule over them; it is the dreams that they give as the reason for their action at the beginning of today’s verses. Finding Joseph in the middle of the desert and far from home his brothers decide that enough is enough, and that Joseph has to die. Most of the brothers want to kill Joseph and throw his body into a cistern. It is only because of Reuben’s compassion that Joseph lived to tell the tale.

So, what can we take from today’s passage? Once again we see the dangers of anger, the consequences of being fuelled with hatred which can lead us to take rash decisions. We can see that, as Reuben did, sometimes it might be necessary to speak out, to be the sane voice in a group of hot headed people who are not thinking straight. But perhaps most importantly of all, if we know the conclusion of the story of Joseph, we can see that when we find ourselves in the pit of despair (literally in Joseph’s case), it does not mean that we have been abandoned by God; God is still with us and can still work through us to achieve his plans. Indeed, it might be that when we find ourselves at the darkest moments of our lives that God is working most actively in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

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To speak or not to speak

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

Genesis 37:5-7

Joseph Reveals His Dream to His Brethren (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Joseph Reveals His Dream to His Brethren (watercolour circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

I’m one of those people who regularly has quite vivid dreams, dreams that I can recall when I wake up. Usually they are very bizarre, and my wife, if I share them with her, tends to find them absolutely hilarious. Sometimes, though, I have dreams that could be seen to be prophetic, showing me what the future holds. Of course, I have no idea if they are or not, but it’s quite nice to think that God does work through dreams, and maybe he is showing me something of my future. Sometimes I share these dreams, but most of the time I keep them to myself and ponder them silently.

Joseph, of course, is renowned both for having dreams that are prophetic words from God, and also for his ability to interpret dreams. In this passage in Genesis, Joseph has two vivid dreams. In the first dream, recounted in today’s verses, Joseph is out in the fields with his brothers binding sheaves. Suddenly, Joseph’s sheaf stood tall, and his brothers’ sheaves all bowed down to it. The second dream is similar; he sees the sun and moon, plus eleven stars, all bowing down to him.

There is no doubt that Joseph sees these dreams as an indication that one day he will be in a position of authority over his brothers, plus his father Jacob and Jacob’s wives. Rather than keeping this to himself, however, he shares this with his family. His brothers’ hatred for him already runs deep, but now Joseph makes matters worse by sharing his dreams with his brothers! Funnily enough, they were absolutely fuming at the arrogance of their brother – not just any old brother, but their little brother, who also happened to be the apple of their father’s eye.

Would Joseph have been better off keeping quiet? He probably could have handled this situation with a little more tact, perhaps by opting to keep his dreams to himself. In the short term his decision to share his visions with his brothers led to him being sold as a slave, which clearly was not an ideal scenario. Ultimately, this led to the fulfilment of God’s plan for Joseph.

Of course, when God has a plan for our lives, that plan will inevitably come about, whether we make matters easy or difficult for him and for us. I suspect that Joseph would have been better remaining quiet; through no fault of his own he already found himself in a hostile environment as a result of his father’s favouritism, and by opening his mouth he only made matters worse.

Perhaps this is what we should take from today’s verses; sometimes, particularly if we find ourselves in a hostile environment, we would be better off remaining quiet, or at least thinking through the pros and cons of opening our mouths. Ultimately God’s plan will come to fruition in our lives if we continue to follow his guidance, but there is no need to make things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves!

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Favouritism, anger and hatred

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Genesis 37:3-4

Jacob_blesses_Joseph_and_gives_him_the_coat

Owen Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny, isn’t it, how it is easy to regard a sibling as the ‘favourite’ of our parents. Over the course of many years, one can misread the actions or words of our parents as suggestive that a brother or sister is more important to them than we are. Our mind can make personal slights out of comments that were never intended as such. We tell ourselves that this is irrational behaviour, yet it persists, even when we should know better. Of course, the reality is that our siblings may well think the same way!

Pretty much as soon as we meet Joseph in the Old Testament, we see that he has a rather difficult relationship with his siblings. They feel that he is their father’s favourite; Genesis tells us that Joseph’s “brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them.” Far from being irrational on their part, however, they were spot on; Genesis states that “Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.” To make it abundantly clear, Jacob made Joseph “an ornate robe” – the so-called “coat of many colours” that most of us probably sang about in primary school.

Is it really Joseph who should feel the brunt of his brother’s anger and hatred, however? He couldn’t help being born to his father when Jacob was old. He didn’t choose to be given a coat by his father. Whilst his brother’s anger is rational, it is probably misdirected; they would have been better directing it at their father.

Joseph’s brother’s anger got the better of them and they ended up plotting to kill their brother before selling him into slavery. Joseph, who had not courted the favouritism of his father, ended up suffering as a result of it.

There is much than we can learn about our attitude towards others from these few short verses. Firstly, if we find ourselves in a position of care over others, perhaps our own children or groups that we work with, we must be conscious of being perceived to have ‘favourites’. The story of Joseph shows that favouritism can cause great problems and have ramifications that are far from desirable. Secondly, we must be careful not to misdirect our anger towards others who can not help the position they find themselves in, whether they be our siblings, those born to rich parents, those who we encounter begging in the streets. It is easy to get angry but much of the time our anger is unjustified. Thirdly, we must ensure that we do not let our anger get the better of us. Jacob’s sons’ anger led them to a pretty bleak place, their plot to kill Joseph, and whilst we are unlikely to find ourselves plotting to murder our siblings, anger has the potential to lead us into situations and circumstances that are best avoided.

Of course, ultimately, as we shall see, God worked through the anger of Joseph’s brothers. Perhaps the best situation at the time, however, would have been for the brothers to rise above their father’s blatant favouritism, and to strive to love Joseph. In our own lives this will inevitably be the best option. We must ensure that we don’t allow anger and hatred to contaminate our own lives, but strive to love instead, even those whom we feel have aggrieved us.

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Love keeps no record of wrongs

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In my day job, working as a teacher, the end of term is always a busy time. At the end of the summer term I found myself writing 150 end of year reports for my pupils. This was a particularly arduous task this year since my school has recently moved to a new management information system. This complex computer programme keeps details of all of our pupils, including records of all their good and bad behaviour.

As Christians we are fortunate to have a loving father in heaven who, unlike my school, does not keep a record of every time we do something wrong. Although we all sin many times every day, we can be confident that God has not only forgiven us, but that he wipes our slate clean every time. Since Jesus took all of our sin on himself on the cross and settled our debt with God, we are seen to be pure and blameless in his eyes.

If we are to live out one of the greatest commandments, to love our neighbour as ourselves, we should learn from the example God gives us. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, describes some of the characteristics of love. One of these is that love keeps no record of wrongs.

If we love our neighbour, we must accept that there will be times when they wrong us. Once we have suitably dealt with their wrongdoing, we must wipe their slate clean too; we must forget that they have ever wronged us and move forward in loving friendship. If we do not, our relationship with our neighbours will deteriorate and we will find ourselves burning up inside with anger. We must forgive and forget and not allow any actions they take to leave a permanent scar on our heart. This is by no means easy, but it is what we are required to do as Christians. It is an important part of loving our neighbours.

I pray today that we will not allow our hearts to be scarred by the actions or words of others. I pray that God will help us to forgive and forget, just as he has done with us.

As featured on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’.

premier-christian-radio

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