Scripture: Psalm 23: 2
Date: August 3, 2014
We are continuing on this amazing journey through life with God as our leader and shepherd, in the words of the 23rd Psalm. When I talk with a person who is new to the faith and they ask me where to start in reading the Bible there are two passages of scripture I point them to. The first is the third chapter of John’s gospel. And the second is the 23rd Psalm. I believe of all of the passages of scripture that speak of a loving God, these two are the most loving. Hadden Robinson, in commenting on this Psalm, writes:
Three thousand years have passed since David wrote the words of the Twenty-third Psalm. Thirty centuries. That’s a long time. The palace in which these words were penned, the harp on which the melody was played, the Book of Law on which David meditated day and night — all are now buried under the debris of the centuries. Yet the twenty-third Psalm remains as fresh today as it was in the hour it was first composed. The psalm has an enduring relevance. The words are among the first that many of us learned as children, and they are often among the last that we whisper in the final dark hours of life, as we look forward to the daybreak of heaven.
And so in verse one David talked about living a life that wants for nothing. And now in verse two, David speaks of rest. But God’s concern for rest is not new with David. He has always called people to come and rest in Him. If we go all the way back to the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, we discover that the longest of the commandments is the 5th, which is the one that deals with rest. If you’ve got your Bibles, turn back there. Exodus 20 It says:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and (watch out here it comes) and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Now doesn’t it seem odd that He would cover such things as murder and adultery and lying, and stealing, in one sentence, but when it comes to resting, He felt the need to spell it out, be very specific. Now I wonder why that is the case. Well, I think it’s because He knew that human beings, like sheep would always struggle to find rest. So often we suffer from weary lives. It’s an epidemic. If you don’t believe me, listen to these statistics.
– 70 million Americans suffer from sleeplessness or insomnia
– Insomnia is attributed to 38,000 deaths every year
– Studies show that 64 percent of teens suffer from it and it is blamed for poor school performance. But it’s not just teenagers. The most severe cases occur in those between the ages of thirty and forty. And 50% of those over 65 suffer from sleeplessness or insomnia.
Many of us came to church tired this morning. (In fact, why don’t you take a look at the person next to you, and if they are starting to doze off, give them a gentle nudge. I don’t want people to start thinking that the sermon is a cure for insomnia.) Sometimes life can make us so weary. I remember sitting by the bedside of a dear man who had been fighting a brave fight against lung cancer. At one point it went into remission and he had regained his strength, but then it came back and he had resumed treatments but with little effect. And as I sat there talking with him, he said to me, “Brother Mark, I’m just so tired. I don’t think I can fight anymore.” He died late that night. So many feel the weariness that makes us want to give up. On jobs. On relationships. On marriages. On life. We become so tired that we just don’t think we can fight anymore. Hadden Robinson goes on to say:
We live in a hectic, hurried, harassed age; an age in which we find it almost impossible to rest. We would like to stop the maddening pace, to stop racing around in circles and wearing ourselves out. We would like to rest. But somehow we fear that if we do take time out, we will have such a hard time catching up again that it is hardly worth the trouble.
Well, you see, David knew that feeling of weariness, and he knew that sheep that were not well rested became more vulnerable to the environment and to predators. And so David wrote in this Psalm, these words about the Shepherd: He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. And centuries later, Jesus, the good shepherd, would issue this invitation: Come to me, all who are labored and weary, and I will give you rest. David knew the weariness of life, and the torrent that often flowed like the raging streams of the wilderness. In another Psalm he wrote: Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me. So I said, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Indeed I would wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and the tempest.
Do you sometimes feel that way? Overwhelmed, weary, engulfed by raging waters. Well, one of the things that David had learned about sheep was that they, too, had trouble finding rest and peace. Phillip Keller, a modern day shepherd, wrote a book on the 23d Psalm entitled A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23. And in that he relates that, of all the animals, sheep have the hardest time finding rest. And he says there are basically four reasons for that.
First, he says, they will not lie down unless they are free from all fear. Because sheep are such defenseless creatures, the only possible way they can escape their enemies is to flee from them. And so consequently sheep are very nervous animals. Always with one eye searching for potential enemies. Always ready to run at the slightest provocation. The slightest movement or noise will spook one and it will take off, and all the sheep will follow. The smallest thing will stampede the whole flock of sheep. Speaking from experience, Keller relates this story:
When one startled sheep runs in fright a dozen others will bolt with it in blind fear, not waiting to see what frightened them.
One day a friend came to call on us from the city. She had a tiny Pekingese pup along. As she opened the car door the pup jumped out on the grass. Just one glimpse of the unexpected little dog was enough. In sheer terror over 200 of my sheep which were resting nearby leaped up and rushed off across the pasture.
And so, Because of their fear of the unknown dangers around them and the uncertainties of their surroundings, sheep struggle to rest. I think many of us are like that. The fear of the unknown dangers we may encounter in this life, and the uncertainties that confront us in our jobs, and our relationships, and our family, even the fear of change, that things might be different then what we have known, can keep us awake at night. Fear can rob us of our rest.
And then, the second reason that sheep struggle to rest is conflict within the flock. Generally, sheep are not very nice to one another. The flock operates on the principal of survival of the fittest. They are constantly bullying each other. And so just when one of them finds a comfortable place to rest, a bigger one will decide that looks like a good place, and so it will come and keep butting the one until it moves. There is constant turmoil in the flock as some struggle to hold on to their spot, while others are constantly trying to take it from them. And the result is that none of the sheep can rest while they keep their eyes trained on each other. A flock of sheep is a very competitive society. Not unlike our society at times. We live under the constant pressure to compete. It begins when we’re kids with soccer and baseball and cheerleading and all the other things that kids get involved in. And at school, our kids are constantly placed in situations of competition. Striving to be the best. Get the best grades. Do the best work. Score the highest on the tests. And, as we get older, competition is part of our work environment. If we don’t produce, there are always those who want to have a shot at our job. Brothers and sisters compete with one another for attention and favor. Even in the church there is competition, and too often churches feel compelled to compete with one another. There can be great unrest within the body of Christ. Everywhere we turn in life there is competition and conflict and we’re afraid that if we let down, if we take a moment to rest, then someone will come and take our place, our position. Have you felt like that? The competition that comes from within robs us of our rest. There have been many nights that I have struggled to sleep because I was worrying about conflict in the body of Christ. Conflict with one another keeps us from true rest.
And then sheep can’t rest unless they are free from flies and parasites. Minor irritations keep the sheep from rest. And you can imagine how attractive those wool coats in the Judean desert were for pests of all kinds. Now, for the most part, these pests were not a threat to the sheep’s life, but they were an irritation that kept them from resting. I remember when I was a little kid living in Indianapolis, Indiana. And the house that we lived in was not air conditioned and so, of course, in the summer time we would sleep with the windows open. Now the screens would keep out the bigger pests like flies and moths, but it always seemed that a mosquito would slip through. And when the lights would go out at night, that mosquito would inevitably come from wherever it was in the house and buzz around my head. And I would swat at it, and get all worked up, but, of course, could never get it and that just seemed to encourage it to hang around. My brother and I shared a room, and I remember just wishing that it would go and bother him. And that buzzing would keep me awake late into the night. I was so afraid that it would land on me and bite me and suck out all my blood while I was sleeping, so I kept on constant alert. In fact, there were many summer evenings when I didn’t even want to go to bed at all, because I knew that a mosquito would attack as soon as the light went out.
Life is full of minor irritations, isn’t it?. We spend so much of our time and energy swatting at gnats, but most often to no good end. And so often they rob us of those things that bring joy and meaning to life. The irritations of life can make us so weary and rob us of true rest.
And then finally, sheep will not rest if they are hungry or thirsty. It’s only when their appetite is satisfied, when their stomach is filled, that they will lie down and sleep. Otherwise they will be constantly seeking that one more mouthful of grass that will feed their hunger. Food is more important to them then rest. In this life, we hunger for many things. We are hungry for happiness and love. Some hunger for power. Others for status. For some its wealth. And for others it’s a hunger for pleasure. And our hungers lead us to stray in many different directions, always in search of that one more tuft of green grass that will satisfy us. But it never does. And the pursuit wears us out.
So, if all of this is true, what is the solution to our weariness in life. How do we find rest. David tells us that the key to our rest lies in the presence of the Shepherd. The Good Shepherd makes us rest. He or she makes sure that the conditions are right for the sheep to find rest. Because when the sheep are not rested, they become more vulnerable to the environment and the enemies that are all around them. And so, David says, the Good Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures. Now we need to know that in Israel green pastures were not the natural features of the land. It was a dry and arid land, and the terrain was very rocky. So if there were green pastures, it was most likely because shepherds had cleared the pasture of rocks and thorns and weeds, and cultivated the soil, and planted good seed and dug irrigation ditches to trap the moisture. These were not the farmer’s fields that David has in mind. Sheep were not allowed to be anywhere near the farmland when the crops were in the field because they would eat them and destroy them. The only time that sheep were allowed near the farmers fields were after the harvest. Then the farmer’s would encourage the sheep to come and eat the gleanings or stubble that were left after the harvest and also fertilize the field to prepare it for the next planting. The green fields that David had in mind would have been fields that the Shepherds themselves would have carved out and prepared in the wilderness. The survival of the sheep in the wilderness all depended on whether the sheep trusted the shepherd or not. Because even the lushest pasture and the freshest, calmest water would not lead the sheep to rest, as long as they still feared the presence of enemies and experienced conflict in the flock, and had to deal with minor irritations. The key was in the presence of the shepherd who was trusted by the sheep. Those sheep who trusted the Shepherd to lead them to green pastures where they could eat their fill, and find shelter from enemies, and shield them from parasites, found comfort in the flock and found rest. Sheep thrive in the care of the Good Shepherd because in His care the sheep could find rest. The shepherd made the sheep lie down in green pastures because he loved them and they loved and trusted Him. One writer expresses it this way: We say, “Something’s wrong with me; I’m not happy; there must be something more, “but we do nothing about our discontent. Often it’s this mood of resignation that keeps us from rest and contentment. And so our first task is to get honest with ourselves. Do we want God or not? Do we trust God or not? If we do, we must be willing to make the effort to respond to Him. “Come near to God,” says James, “and he will come near to you”
And when our souls are so weary that we just don’t think we can go on. When the weight of earthly concerns seem to be crushing us under their heavy load, He will make us lie down in green pastures that he has prepared for us. If we trust the shepherd. The more we fight, the more we push against God, the more we will struggle with enemies, and live by our hungers, and never drink from the living water that He leads us too, the more we rely on ourselves to find true rest – the more weary we become in this life.
Max Lucado, in a modern parable, tells the story of Tuckered Town. He says if you take the worn out highway, through Wearyville, and past Sleepy Hollow, you will eventually come to Tuckered Town. In Tuckered Town everyone is worn out. One day a stranger made the journey to Tuckered Town, and when he saw how tired the people were he began to inquire as to why they were all so tired. And one of the residents said to him, “you would be tired to if you had to push your car every place you go.” And sure enough, as he walked through Tuckered Town, he noticed that the roads were filled with persons who were pushing their cars. There was even one man who was pushing a truck. He said proudly, “I’m a Tuckered Trucker”. And the stranger wondered if all of the vehicles were broken down (although most of them looked quite new and well kept), or perhaps they had run out of gas. But then he noticed that all of the cars that were being pushed had engines that were running. Every morning the people of Tuckered Town got into their cars, started the engines, put the car in neutral and started pushing. Rather than using the power of the car, they relied only on their own power. The stranger inquired about that, and was told that the residents of Tuckered Town did not trust the cars to get them where they needed to go, and so they pushed. And as a result they were all worn out by the life that they led.
So many have grown so weary in life because we spend all of our time pushing against God, or trying to lead God, rather than being led by Him to green pastures. We may have started the Christian walk with Christ, but so often we don’t trust Him to lead us to the green pastures and beside the still waters. We think that we have to find our own way. Or we spot what we think is greener grass else where. And so we push against God and the life that He desires for us, and we become so very, very weary. Worn out. Searching to feed hungers that we can’t possibly satisfy in the meager forage of the wilderness. That was David’s experience. After all he was the King. But his pursuit of green pastures only made him weary with his life. Then he discovered that it doesn’t have to be that way because the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. And this morning He invites you and I to come to Him. Feast at His table. In His green pasture. Come to Jesus. And He will give you rest.