Scripture: Psalm 23
Date: July 27, 2014
Well, it’s just five more months to Christmas and I’m sure that many of you have been taking advantage of the Christmas in July sales to get a jump on your Christmas shopping. I couldn’t help but notice that Mazda is having a big sale on the Miatas, just fyi. But you know, it won’t be long now until people start asking “What do you want for Christmas?” Not what do you need that will help celebrate Christ’s birth, but what do you want that will uphold the more secular, commercial nature of Christmas. The 23rd Psalm begins by placing that age old question in context. What do I want? And really the question is not confined to Christmas. We ask “What do you want for your birthday?” Or every time we go to the Mall. What do you want at the Mall? At the grocery store. It’s usually not “What do I need?” but rather, “What do I want?” In one way or another we are constantly asking, What do I want out of life? And so David begins what is arguably the best known Psalm with a rather surprising statement for the 21st Century when he says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Because, if we are honest, for most of us, life is often a quest to satisfy what it is that we want. Several years ago, Billy Crystal, starred in the movie “City Slickers”. Crystal played a character by the name of Mitch, who seemingly had everything he could want out of life. But Mitch was experiencing a mid-life crisis. And so, he decided that he needed some adventure in his life and so he decided that he was going to go on a cattle drive. Now the leader of the drive was a tough old cowboy by the name of Curly who was portrayed in the movie as the last real cowboy, completely content with his life. At one point along the trail, Mitch, who was a bundle of insecurities, asked Curly what the secret of his contentment was, and Curly said to him, “You’ve got to find that one thing.” But the problem was that Curly would never tell Mitch what that one thing was, and so Mitch became kind of a microcosm for the lives of so many — a never ending search for “that one thing.” Mark Twain described it this way when he said: “You don’t know what it is you want but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so much.” And so David the King writes: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But, the reality was that David wanted for many things in his life. He wanted to be a hero, to be recognized, and was willing to go up against Goliath to get what he wanted. He wanted to be king and was nearly killed trying to achieve that. He wanted the beautiful Bathsheba for his wife, and was willing to kill her husband, and eventually suffer grief over the loss of his own son because of it. He wanted power, so he raised a mighty army which united the Kingdom and drove away their enemies. He wanted to be remembered, and so he built the Temple and other magnificent structures. The truth was that he was haunted by all the things he wanted. He was never satisfied. His soul was restless. Many of the psalms he wrote mirror the anguish of his wanting, the overwhelming burden of his desires. His pursuit of “that one thing”.
It seems to me that what his pursuit really came down to was a pursuit of contentment with his life. And most of us pursue the same thing, in many ways. Sometimes our search leads us to other people. We think if we get married, or have children, we will find true contentment, and though those things certainly bring joy to our lives, we discover that they are not the one thing that brings us peace and contentment. Because sometimes marriages fail. Sometimes children, darn them, move away and make lives of their own. And we find ourselves restless again. . Still searching. Still in want. Some search by trying to acquire great fortunes. Become great successes. But they still aren’t content. Ted Turner is one of the richest men in America. He has owned CNN, Turner Broadcasting, AOL, the Atlanta Braves baseball team. He was once married to a glamorous movie star. By all appearances he is a great success in life. Surely he is content. But I read this statement that he made recently in reflecting on his life. He said: “success is an empty bag.” Those who pursue wealth and success ultimately discover that it is not that one thing. Some think that money is that one thing. But find it isn’t.
Some think that retirement is that one thing. We save and sacrifice all of our life so that we can be comfortable when we retire. Only to discover that retirement and contentment don’t always go hand in hand. I ran across this poem which speaks to this:
Since I have retired from life’s competition
Each day is filled with complete repetition.
I get up each morning and dust off my wits,
Go pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name isn’t there, I know I’m not dead,
I get a good breakfast and go back to bed.
Well, those of you who are retired, I hope that things are better than that. But I suspect it doesn’t take us long to realize that retirement is not that one thing.
Some think that it’s fitness and health that will bring us contentment. Several years ago, there was a series of television commercials for some health product that ended with the line, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” But, though it sounded good and probably sold a lot of the product, we know that good health doesn’t always bring contentment and peace, does it? And the opposite must be true also. The loss of our health doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy and content. Health is not that one thing. You see, the problem with our human pursuits is that they are only temporary. Fortunes can be wiped out in one day. Health can be as fleeting as the next diagnosis. Relationships with others are often tenuous at best. Success can be forgotten in the glare of one newspaper headline. The retirement that we have saved for all of our life can be much too brief and sometimes the ones we expected to spend that retirement with, are gone before it even begins. Contentment that is based on human, worldly pursuits will be fleeting at best. And we can never get enough to satisfy us. There is always something more that we want. The Apostle Paul discovered the truth in that and he wrote in one of his letters to the churches:
I have learned to be satisfied with the things I have. . . I know how to live when I am poor, and I know how to live when I have plenty.
David spent his life pursuing that one thing that would make him happy and content. He was a powerful man. But never powerful enough. There was always one more army to conquer. He was a wealthy man, but there was always one more monument to build, one more jewel to place in his crown. He was surrounded by people who loved him, but one day he looked out his window and saw another man’s wife and he had to have her love too. He thought his children would bring happiness, until they betrayed him. And at every turn, he envisioned that the next turn, the next change in his circumstances, would bring the happiness, the contentment that he sought. But it never did. And it will not for us either. What is that one thing that is separating you from true joy and contentment in this life. If I were to ask you to write down this sentence and complete it, “I will be happy when . . . . ” What would you write in that blank?
Max Lucado in commenting on this first line of the Psalm writes:
Are you hoping that a change in circumstances will bring a change in your attitude? If so, you are in prison, and you need to learn a secret. What you have in your Shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.
After all of his searching. The incredible life that he had led. David discovered that contentment for him ended where it had begun many years before — in the relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep. He remembered his days as a boy keeping watch over the flocks in the fields and how it was then that he had had all that he wanted. Being in the fields, with the sheep was all that he knew and so he had wanted for nothing else. And he was all the sheep knew, and so they wanted for nothing more than him. And so out of a life that had become a lot more complicated and unsettling in later years, he wrote, finally, Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall no longer be in want. But David was certainly not the first person of faith to learn this. The great Patriarch Jacob on his death bed spoke of this contentment when he said: God has been my shepherd all my life. You see what both David and Jacob had learned in long and in many ways incredible lives was that contentment and peace on this journey of life does not depend on where we go, or what we find and accumulate along the way. It depends on who is leading us. It depends on the relationship between the Shepherd and His sheep. And that’s where David places it when he says: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And, of course, many centuries later, Jesus draws from David’s imagery and says, in essence: I am the Good Shepherd that David spoke of. I am the Good Shepherd that Jacob spoke of. I am all that you need.
So what would David have us know about the relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep.
First, we need to know that a good shepherd is one who leads his sheep. It’s been about 20 years ago now that Karen got me a puppy for my birthday. Sandy was a pure bred Sheltie. Now most people look at Shelties and see that they look just like Lassie, only smaller, and so they think that they are miniature collies. But really Shelties are Shetland Sheep Dogs. They were originally bred to herd sheep. Now I know that Sandy never saw any sheep in her life time, but she still had that herding instinct in her. When she was younger, Karen and Anna and I would occasionally take her to this park where there was a big open field where she (and Anna who was about 9 or 10) could run. Well, Sandy’s herding instincts would kick in and she would run back and forth between Karen and Anna and I, trying to get us to move closer together as we made our way across the field. It was kind of humorous watching her try to work us like her ancestors would have worked a flock of sheep. It would drive her crazy if we got spread out, because the flock needed to be kept together. But I think Sandy’s real frustration was that she wasn’t in control. Sometimes, since I was such a manly man, I would get out in front of Karen and Anna, and that would just drive her crazy. Well sheep are that way. When they are being herded, when the dog or the shepherd is at the rear of the flock driving it forward, then the fastest and strongest sheep tend to go to the front of the flock and they set the pace for the others. And those sheep that are weak or sick or small, struggle to keep up and the flock gets scattered. But when the shepherd leads the flock, he or she sets the pace for the whole flock. He or she knows the sheep and so sets a pace that even the weakest ones can keep up with. And so by placing us in that kind of relationship with the Lord as our shepherd, David is telling us that the Lord knows each of us – our weaknesses, our sicknesses, our age, our situation in life – and as the Good Shepherd He will never leave us behind. He sets a pace that we can keep up with. And the good shepherd also knows the lay of the land. There were high planes and steep drop offs in Judea where the sheep of Israel grazed, and the sheep did not always know the difference until is was too late. So if one of the sheep was in the lead, it was likely to step right off the side of a mountain, and the whole flock would follow. And so the good shepherd did not herd them as much as He led them, and would not lead them over terrain that he or she could not travel safely. Once Sandy got the “herd” all together, she would take the lead and would encourage us to follow by looking back and barking if we lagged too far behind. So it is with the journey of life, without the shepherd leading us we often wander into treacherous areas. And so the Shepherd leads His sheep and we do not want.
And then we need to know, that the well being of the shepherd was intricately linked to the well being of the sheep. The shepherd will be judged by the condition of his sheep. Most shepherds were hirelings. And the owner of the sheep would hold them to strict standards of accountability. And so when it came time to bring the sheep in from the fields and count them, for the shepherds sake they had better all be there, and in great shape, or the shepherd would be held strictly accountable. Sometimes with his life and livelihood. The life span of a bad shepherd was very short. And so the good shepherd knew where the best fields were for grazing, and the easiest paths were for traveling so that all the sheep would return in great shape. The prophet Jeremiah, in talking about the coming of the Messiah, says this: Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord says to the shepherds who tend my people: Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock and bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid, or terrified, nor will any be missing” declares the Lord. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
And then the shepherd needed to be on constant look out for enemies of the sheep. Because they were such helpless creatures, sheep had many enemies from the wild animals that inhabited the wilderness to the poisonous snakes that populated the grazing lands, and the shepherd had to watch for them all. And he constantly watched for those sheep who would stray from the flock. He kept close track of his flock and when one was missing, he went searching until he found it. It was a great day when he found it alive and returned it to the flock. When David talked about the Lord as his shepherd, he was talking about a God who loved him so much that he was everything to Him. This Psalm tells us that the greatness of God is intricately linked to the well being of you and me. And so he leads us to good pasture, along the easiest paths, and when we stray, he continues to search until he finds us. To Ezekiel, God says: I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. Jesus tells of a good shepherd who left the flock and went and searched for one lost sheep. And David knew that’s what a Good Shepherd would do, and he knew that when he had wandered from the flock, taken other paths in his life’s journey, that God had always searched for him and brought him back to the fold. And he does the same for you and I. No loss is an acceptable loss in the eyes of the Good Shepherd. Each sheep is essential in God’s eyes and heart.
And then, finally, the good shepherd provided the sheep with everything they needed, not just to survive, but to thrive. He found the best pasture for them, and the coolest and calmest waters. He cleared the paths and the fields of their enemies, and at night he found them a safe cave or sheep fold in which to sleep and he slept across the entrance, so that no enemies could get to the flock. All over Israel today there are the archaeological evidences of ancient sheepfolds, spaced about the distance apart that a flock of sheep could travel and graze in one day. Jesus said that a good shepherd would even lay down his life for his sheep. And that is ultimately what our Lord, the good shepherd, did for us. He laid down His life so that you and I might want for nothing in this life or the next.
Sometimes in our quest for that one thing that will bring us happiness and contentment in life, we get out in front of the shepherd and we get lost and the enemies close in around us. That was David’s experience until he finally understood that the Lord was his shepherd, and because of that, even though his power and his wealth and his family eventually failed him and his enemies gathered, he need never want for anything. He was like the man who had lost all of his worldly possessions and sat down one night to a meal that consisted only of water and a piece of hard bread and still he prayed in gratitude, “All this and Jesus, too.”
The story is told of a missionary visiting a leper colony. On the final day of his stay there he was leading a worship service, and he asked if anyone had a favorite song. And a woman raised her hand. When he looked he saw the most horribly disfigured face he had ever seen. The disease had eaten away her ear and nose. Her lips were nearly gone. The hand she raised had no fingers. And the missionary asked her what song she wanted to sing. And she said, “Count Your Blessings”. And the missionary started the song but, thinking about that woman, he became overcome with emotion and could not finish. But the woman continued on and finished the song. And later, someone said to him, “I suppose you’ll never be able to sing that song again.” To which he responded. “Oh, I’ll sing it again. Just never in the same way.”
David found that “one thing” that he wanted and pursued all of his life.
He found it in the relationship between shepherd and sheep.
Between he and his Lord, the great shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What will you have if you find it? You might have the greatest marriage. You might have the best relationship with your children. You might have great riches, material wealth, and success. But then again, you might not. Sometimes the life of a sheep, in spite of the best efforts of the shepherd was very difficult. After all the sheep of Israel, spent most of the time in the Wilderness of Judea In some places the terrain there is not fit for man nor beast. But the sheep go, because that’s where the shepherd leads them. And so the sheep find peace and contentment in the care of the Shepherd. Because the Lord is my shepherd, wherever He leads me, I will want for nothing. I will have all that I need.