Scripture: Psalm 23:6
Date: September 7, 2014
When Anna was about 8 years old, we decided that we would make our first trip to Disney World. Now those of you who have gone to Disney World know that it is a pretty expensive proposition. And we decided that if we were going to go, we would do it right. We would see everything. We would stay at one of the Disney Resorts rather than one of the cheaper alternatives outside the Disney gates. We would have breakfast with our favorite Disney Characters. Though it would be expensive, we were determined to do it all, because we never know if we will travel that way again. So we started to save our money early on. We had a garage sale and put out in front a sign that read: Help Send The Girards To Disney World; as if the neighbors and bargain hunters cared one way or the other if we got to Disney World or not. When we made our reservations, the folks at Disney World sent us a package of information that included a book called Birnbaums Complete Guide To Disney World. We studied it with much excitement and anticipation. Karen, being the smart one of the family, took the information in the guide and drew up a plan for each of the parks at Disney that would allow us to see the greatest number of attractions with the least amount of standing in line. Citing the high cost of food in the Parks, the guide recommended carrying snack bars into the park and planning to return to the room in the midday for lunch and rest and a swim. So we prepared to do all of that. Finally the time came and we started out on our journey. On our way down, we decided to stay the first night in Chattanooga. They had just opened a new aquarium, so we went there that first afternoon on the road. Then the next morning we set out early for Orlando. Before we went to Disney, we decided that we would spend a day at Universal Studios in Orlando. And then that evening we checked in to “the happiest place on earth.” It was a great vacation. In fact, of all of the vacations that we have shared together, I still think that was the best. We left Disney World a few short days later, already talking about our next visit. We have been back several times since then (including a couple of times when it was just Karen and I), and though we always have a great time, those return trips pale in comparison to that first time we went. Now I suppose there are several reasons why that is true. But I think the biggest difference between the first time and the followup journeys, lies in the journey itself. The anticipation.” Saving our money. Working together on the garage sale. Spending time in the car and in Chattanooga, seeing the Aquarium and the Choo-choo. A day at Universal. Disney World may be the happiest place on earth, but it was the trip there that first time that made it a special time and memory for me. When I was younger, one of my favorite singers was named Harry Chapin. He was a great story teller in song. And one of his stories was about a trip he made on a greyhound bus. He talked about the other passengers on the bus and gave a brief synopsis of what circumstances brought them to the bus. And the implication was that those who were forced to ride a Greyhound were leading lives of despair, That no one really wanted to be there. And then Chapin talked about the reasons that he was on the bus, about the troubled life he had been leading and his anticipation that there was a new start at the end of the bus line. And then after reflecting on all of this, Chapin ends his song in a most interesting way because he has come to the realization that his ultimate destination should not be what he is focused on. But rather he has learned in watching the other passengers and reflecting on his own life that the journey is as important as the destination and so he concludes the song with these words: “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good. That’s a thought for keeping if I could. It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”
We started this consideration of the 23rd Psalm by talking about the journey. In a very real sense, this Psalm is a chronicle (we might call it a blog today) of King David’s journey of faith. And on that journey we traveled through pastures that were dry and brown as well as ones that were lush and green where the shepherd made us eat our fill and lie down and rest. We followed the shepherd on narrow, treacherous paths as well as ones that the he had made easy and smooth for the sheep. And we have walked through dark and dangerous valleys where all that protected the sheep from death’s shadows was the shepherd’s voice calling to them and leading them through. And finally we ended up in mountain pastures that the shepherd had meticulously prepared. For David, it had been quite a journey, this journey of faith. And David had stuck with it, even when times were incredibly hard, because he believed that at the end of the journey lay the house of God. And he concludes the Psalm with the shepherd and sheep turning their eyes towards home. After taking the sheep through the wilderness in search of green pastures, keeping them safe and secure along the way, the shepherd would return the sheep to their owners where the shepherd would receive his pay, based upon the well being of the flock, and the sheep would be sold at market, or sheared for the wool. And then the journey would start all over again. For most of us, the journey of faith is not a singular journey is it? Our journey to God is full of starts and stops. There are many paths though the wilderness and most of us experience many of those before we reach the final destination which David describes as the “House of God where I will dwell forever.” David eventually became so focused on the destination that, to honor God, he built a beautiful Temple, a wonder of wonders, and proclaimed it the dwelling place of God on earth. In his way of thinking, the happiest place on earth. But along the way, David discovered a great truth. That happiness did not lie exclusively at the end of the journey, and that God did not dwell only in the Temple, but that it was the journey itself that made all the difference. That true happiness came in dwelling with God all along the way. And so in the end he proclaimed, “Surely goodness and mercy has followed me all the days of my life and I forever dwell in the house of the Lord.”
Now we have talked a lot about sheep in the last weeks, but let me just share one more thing about them. And that is that no matter how meticulous a shepherd is in caring for the sheep, no matter how well he prepares the pasture and provides good grass upon which to graze, there are always going to be those sheep that believe that there is a better pasture on the other side of the hill. And so they will set out to find it. And when that happens, the shepherd changes from caretaker and leader, to the one who searches for the lost ones, the one who pursues. David has experienced that in his life. God has provided for his every need. He didn’t want for anything. He had green pastures in which to feed and rest. He had still waters to satisfy his deepest thirsts. God had restored him when he became lost, and had led him through dark valleys to the mountaintop. And even then, he had strayed, thinking that there was greater happiness in some distant pasture, He discovered this God of goodness and mercy, His Lord and Shepherd, had pursued him still and brought him home. The word that is often translated as “followed” in this Psalm, is more accurately translated “pursued” because the word “followed” is much too passive in describing the efforts of the shepherd towards the sheep. “Pursued” is proactive. And David had discovered that for the sheep that survived and thrived, it was not just the ultimate destination that mattered, but it was the journey. Those sheep that followed the shepherd all along the way, were the ones that came back home all fat and sassy. And so, though many did not see it, the happiest place on earth for a sheep to be was wherever the shepherd led. Dwelling in the shepherd’s camp all the days of its life. And David could now look back over his life and see the truth in that for him. It had been quite a journey. Sometimes his paths had wandered far from God. But through all times, this God of goodness and mercy had followed him, had “pursued” him and because God had found him, He would dwell with Him forever.
The Scripture I read earlier records a time when Jesus returned home. And it tells us that on that day, on that Palm Sunday, there was a great parade welcoming Jesus home to Jerusalem. The people shouted Hosanna. They laid down palm branches and their coats as they would for a King. They proclaimed Him King. And the Disciples walked beside Jesus and reveled in the limelight, and thought how wonderful that Jesus was coming to reclaim the house of God. They thought this was His homecoming parade. The journey had been hard, but finally they were home. But as the events of the next days unfolded, they discovered that the parade had not really been for Jesus at all. You know who it was for? If was for the scribes and Pharisees who stood on the walls and taunted Jesus. Keep this rabble quiet, they said. They were the ones that had evicted God from His house and relegated Him to the nomadic life of a Shepherd in the first place. That’s who the parade was for. And it was for the crazy King Herod and the Roman governor Pilate, sitting in their respective palaces, hearing the commotion in the distance, casting a wary eye in the direction of the parade, hearing the shouts of the people, “Jesus save us” essentially convicting them of their own complicity in usurping the House of God. The parade was for them. And it was a parade for the rabble that in just a few days would, out of fear and ignorance, follow the bad shepherds, and call for Jesus crucifixion. And it was a parade for the Disciples themselves who would betray Him and deny that they even knew Him, this shepherd that they now followed in that triumphant procession. They are who this parade was for. They thought it was Jesus homecoming parade. But really it was Jesus homebringing parade. The proclamation that after many years of God dwelling in the wilderness, the Great Shepherd was bringing the sheep home. And it is for you and I, whenever we lose our way. When the valleys become too dark, and the paths become too narrow and treacherous, and we are lured away by the promise of greener pastures somewhere else. It is our reminder that ultimately home is not a question of where, but rather who. Our ultimate destination, our home, is wherever the Shepherd is.
You see, Jesus had reached out to embrace Jews and Gentiles alike, but so many had strayed. And so He pursued them all the way to Jerusalem, the center of faith and secular government, and He came riding on a donkey to find them – to find us: goodness and mercy had come looking, in pursuit, wanting so desperately to lead the strays home, where they, where we, could dwell with him forever. So desperate to dwell with His sheep forever, that He was ready to go to the cross: to slip from the path so we don’t have to, to be devoured by the enemies we fear on our behalf, to be overwhelmed by the darkness so we may walk in light, to prepare a heavenly feast for us even before we understand just how hungry we are. To protect us with his rod, and rescue us with His staff and restore us through his love, and dwell with us so that we may dwell with Him forever. Why? Because He is goodness and mercy, love and grace. He is our Great Shepherd. And His voice is calling out to you today. Calling for you to come. Come follow. Come home. To the happiest place on earth and in heaven. To dwell in the camp of the Shepherd, His house, forever and forever. In the last few weeks we’ve talked a lot about shepherds and sheep. You might have learned something about shepherds and sheep that you didn’t know before. But if you strip all of that away, this Psalm is about one thing. It’s about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. And ultimately that’s what faith is all about. It’s about our relationship with God. And we often describe coming to God as a homecoming, but what David wants us to understand is that it is more of a “homebringing”. That it’s not so much that God wants us to come and dwell with Him, as much as it is that He wants to come and live in us. Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up residence with him. Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me. Why put it off any longer? Why keep holding on to the mistaken belief that there are greener pastures on the other side of the mountain? Why not begin your journey today? He is pursuing you this morning. On the back of a donkey in the midst of a parade, He pursues you. From the Cross of Calvary, He pursues you. In your deepest longings and your highest aspirations, He pursues you. And finally, from the empty tomb, He pursues you. In goodness and mercy, He pursues you and calls you to come and dwell with Him forever. In the final analysis, the 23rd Psalm is an invitation to come to the shepherd. To give him your life and trust that He is all that you need to live well and abundantly. It’s your invitation and mine to come and live with Him now, this moment, in all circumstances of this life and to live with Him forever in pastures that are always green and beside water that is always still and cool and refreshing. Amen