I would like to dedicate the sermon series on the 23rd Psalm to Mrs. Kay Metz, a dear friend of our church and mother of Kathy Metz Heckel. Kay was the one who inspired me to preach the series when she gave me the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by Phillip Keller.
Thank you and God bless you, Kay.
The Twenty-Third Psalm:
“The Lord Is My Shepherd”
July 9, 2006
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning!
In these weeks of July, just before I go away on vacation, I’d like to talk with you about perhaps the most beloved piece of scripture ever written, the Twenty-Third Psalm. Do you love the 23rd psalm? I do, too. It’s beloved around the world. The 23rd psalm is loved not only by Christians but by the Jewish people, as part of the Hebrew scripture, and by Muslim people, as part of their scripture as well. It’s wonderful to be united with so many people around the world in the love for this particular piece of scripture. William Barclay says it’s not only loved by these but also by wistful atheists. Don’t you like that?
We love the 23rd psalm. Why do we love it so? What gives it such universal appeal? Just about every culture can identify with the symbolism of the shepherd. Maybe not Eskimos, but just about every other culture can identify with it in a pretty direct way.
We say it at weddings, at funerals, during communion. These next few weeks we can take a look at this diamond of a scripture and think about why we love it so very much. One of the reasons we love it is because Jesus loved it. The Lord Jesus knew the 23rd psalm, probably by memory, just as many of you do. How wonderful that something so precious to the heart of Jesus is also precious to us! He incorporated it into His teaching. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.” And so as we think of the 23rd psalm and the shepherd in the psalm, we can think about Jesus and how much He loved this psalm, too.
Let’s look at the psalm. I love to memorize scripture in the old King James Version, don’t you? I like to look at it in other versions, but for memory I like the old style. Let’s read verses 1, 2, and 3:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”
Let’s look at that much today. And let’s do some homework together – let’s agree, in the coming weeks, to make it part of our daily practice to think about the 23rd psalm. Every day, when you think about it, maybe in the morning when you get up or when you’re saying night prayers, ask yourself, what part of the psalm is God speaking to me through this day or this week? What part of the psalm is leaping out at me this week or this day?
Let’s take a look at what happens in these three verses. I remember when I was in grammar school, and I had friends who were part of the Protestant church who told me about the 23rd psalm. I had not studied it in my Roman Catholic upbringing. They said it began “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” That bothered me, because we didn’t talk that way. What did that mean – I shall not want? What’s the deal here?
But it’s a beautiful thought. If the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. We shall not have a fear of lack. Do we go through life with a fear of lack, a fear that there won’t be enough money or ideas or love? Those are fears that we have inside. But when the Lord is our shepherd, we can let go of those fears.
My parents grew up in Poland and were definitely children of the depression. My mom had a wonderful way of letting that go and seeing prosperity in her life, but my dad lived in the depression well into the 1970s. For a fellow with not even a high school education and a fellow who worked at General Motors for a living, he did pretty well for himself. But he never let that enter his consciousness. There was always a feeling that there was never enough, that there was a lack, that suddenly it would all go away.
But, you know, the love of the Lord helps us let go of that. Instead of constantly fearing lack, that there’s not going to be enough, we can let go and say, “God is my provider. He is leading me. He is my shepherd. I am the inheritor of prosperity. I am the inheritor of good things. Good things are coming my way.” You can say that. That’s what it means to say “I shall not want.”
Another Bible translation puts it this way: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.” Wow! What a good feeling that is! I don’t have to be afraid of running out of ideas or prosperity or friends. I have everything I need, because the Lord leads me.
But let’s start at the very beginning – The Lord is my shepherd. Let’s just stop at that first title, the Lord. Picture a crown in your mind, won’t you? There’s a crown over that verse. Who is your shepherd? The Lord is your shepherd. That says a lot about you. That means you are special. The world is not your shepherd. Your job is not your shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. You are a child of the King. You are remarkable. You are a treasure, because of the One who made you. The Lord is your shepherd.
I love to begin prayers with the words, “Let’s think about God,” and I invite you to do that this week as you think about the 23rd psalm. Consider those first two words, “The Lord.” The Lord is your leader. The Lord is the One you belong to. You are on the Lord’s team. And that makes you very, very special. It’s not our doing; it’s the Lord’s doing. But it’s your recognition. And when you say yes to that, remarkable things can happen in your life.
And, you have the great joy of knowing whom you belong to. I have such a prayer for our young people, that they might know that the Lord is their shepherd. I’m so proud of our confirmation class, who have been studying the 23rd psalm and remembering that they belong to God.
Doesn’t it break your heart to read about gangs, about those poor lost, forlorn children who become tied up with gangs because they don’t know whom they belong to? We must be in prayer for them, and we must give children the opportunity to know that they are part of the Lord’s flock, that they are part of the church. We must include them in every way we can, so that they know who their shepherd is, because in this is security. In this is lifelong satisfaction, knowing that the Lord is your shepherd. As you think about this, may it bring great joy to your heart. May it be a source of satisfaction to you, to know that God, the Lord, is your shepherd.
You know, we can get so impressed by regular human beings who are celebrities, can’t we? I was in New York a long time ago, at Colony Music on Broadway to buy some sheet music. It was nighttime. I got the music and was waiting in line to pay. There was a woman also in line, waiting to pay. She’s not too tall, short dark hair, frosted highlights, very glitzy dress. I looked at her and thought, “There are so many kooks in New York City, and here is this woman all dressed up, trying to look like Liza Minelli.” We’re standing there in line, and then I realize that next to this woman are two very large, very strong-looking gentlemen in trench coats. I thought that was odd. Then I looked out the door, and there was a very large, very fancy limousine with the door open. I began to think about this. Then another customer came up to the woman in front of me, trembling, with a piece of music outstretched. She said, “Liza?”
“Would you autograph this, please?”
“Certainly.” I thought, it really is her! I looked at my music. I wasn’t going to have her autograph a copy of Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up my Life.” So I ran back and got a piece of music that she performed, “Cabaret,” and took it over to her and asked if she’d be so kind as to autograph it.
“Yes, I will.” She was so gracious and sweet. I wondered, why are my knees like jelly? Why am I so nervous talking to this person? Well, she is very special. But how much more special is the Lord?
That weak-in-the-knees, excited feeling is what we should get when we think about God. The creator of the universe, the creator of the starry night and the crashing sea, the creator of the pine tree and the elegant flower is the same One who created you and the same One who says, “I want to be your shepherd. Will you be part of my flock?”
You are the King’s child. You are special. You are a treasure. You are remarkable. That’s the first thing to think about. You are special because of who God is.
Second, friend, you are retrievable. What do I mean by that? Well, some folks may be thinking, I wish you knew what was going on inside of me. Sometimes I just feel so far from the Lord. Sometimes I just think and do things that…well, I don’t know how the Lord could love me. I don’t know how the Lord could accept me. Sometimes I feel so far from the flock.
Well, friend, please remember the scripture that says, “The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety and nine and goes after the one.” Please remember that you are ultimately retrievable. No matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how things have gone in the past, it doesn’t matter. What matters is today, and your reaching out to the God who is reaching out to you.
One of the things I love to do in the summer is fly kites. I use single string kites; I don’t do stunt kites. One string is enough excitement for me. I have quite a collection of kites, and in that collection is one I call “Old Rainbow.” Old Rainbow, for those of you who fly kites, is a Conyne Delta. It’s a triangular box kite with wings like a bird. It’s a marvelous kite, a great flyer. It flies in almost any kind of wind. I’ve had it longer than any other kite.
One summer several years ago I was flying Old Rainbow in a westerly wind at the seashore. Now those of you who fly kites know that southerly winds are wonderful. Winds from the ocean, east winds, are great for flying, too. Westerly winds are very unreliable for kite flying. There are gusts of air; there are downdrafts; and sometimes, the air just doesn’t move at all in a westerly wind. My kite was flying toward the ocean. I was trying to keep a good rein on it. I noticed that my string was kind of frayed, but I thought it should be all right.
Well, you know what happened. It wasn’t all right. The string snapped, and Old Rainbow started drifting out over the ocean. I felt awful. The kite wasn’t terribly expensive, but it was special to me. I watched it hit the water. I could have said, “Oh well, I’ll get another kite.” But I didn’t want to do that. I really liked this kite. I watched it flopping around in the water, being pushed around by the waves. I did notice that it was drifting in southerly direction, but a little bit toward the shore. So I walked along the shore and walked and walked and walked, watching the kite bob up and down in the waves.
The kite got closer and closer to the shore. Just when it got to the point where a wave had lobbed it close enough to the shore that I could wade out to get it, I went out. I caught the kite, and I dragged it in. It was wet and soggy, but it was still okay. I dried it out. And I’m happy to tell you, that kite still flies to this day…on a stronger string.
The point is, how much greater is God’s love for us? Friend, you are retrievable. God follows you along the shore, and He never lets you go out to sea, no matter how far away you’ve been or how discouraged you may be. God is still looking for you, and God will never let you go. Let Him retrieve you. You are retrievable. Sheep wander, but shepherds follow. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety and nine and goes after the one.
You are special. You are retrievable. And you are divinely guided. You know, if sheep were left to their own devices, they would stay in a very small area and graze and graze until the grass was down to the shortest length. They’d keep eating. When the grass was down to just the yellow, they’d keep eating. When it was down to the roots, they’d pull them out and eat that. They’d eat right down to barren ground.
That’s where the shepherd comes in. The shepherd leads the sheep in the paths of righteousness. He leads the sheep in right paths “for His name’s sake.” What does that mean? God and good are cognates; that means they come from the same root. God’s fundamental name is goodness. Your name is good, dear God, and you lead me in good paths. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts, and we think that the only way we can accomplish our goals is this one tiny way. God wants to lead us to ways of greater prosperity, greater wisdom, greater insight, greater knowledge.
I love what Rev. Joel Osteen says: “Make God first in your life and He’ll take you to places you never dreamed of.” Let’s take that seriously. That’s what God wants to do. He wants to lead us into ever greater prosperity, into ever expanding ways of goodness.
So, dear friend, “the Lord is my shepherd” means you are special, retrievable, and you are divinely guided. Let’s think about the 23rd psalm in the days to come. More next week. God loves you. I do, too. Have a blessed week. Amen.
© 2006 Anthony J. Godlefski