Psalm 23 – A Barnyard View
This sermon was delivered July 8th 2018 at Vineyard Church Peoria. The podcast can be heard at this link http://www.thevineyardchurchpeoria.org/2018/07/08/a-barnyard-view-of-the-23rd-psalm/
There are some passages of the Bible that are dangerous to talk about. Not because they’re particularly controversial or challenging. No, these passages are dangerous because they are well-known and cemented in our hearts. Passages such as John 3:16, The Beatitudes, Romans 8, and today’s Psalm – Psalm 23.
I’m drawn to this beloved Psalm like a moth to the flame. I’m connected to this Psalm in ways that perhaps only a few in this room can share. You see, I have sheep cred.
Many of you have city cred or street cred. You know how to navigate the everyday challenges of city life. I don’t. Betty and I grew up rural and still prefer to live rural. A traffic jam for us is two cars following a tractor. Jaywalking is a cow or deer or other critters unexpectedly crossing the road. Riding your bicycle “around the block” is a four-mile trip.
While Betty grew up outside of Roanoke my brother David and sister Dianne grew up a few miles outside of Goodfield. Our closest neighbor was about 2/10ths of a mile away. The closest boy in my class was 2-3 miles away depending on if you took the dirt road through the fields or went around on the gravel road. My fifth-grade class, not my classroom, my class, was under 20. My high school graduating class made up of students from Goodfield, Congerville, and Eureka was around 118.
Corn, soybeans, and pasture surrounded our home. Long before we had our driver’s license, Uncle Howard, my grandpa’s brother taught us to drive a tractor, disk a field, and bale hay. He also fed out pigs in our barn over the summer. You know that offensive odor you sometimes smell in the country? It doesn’t smell bad to me. It just smells like pigs. For me, sweetest scents aren’t the perfume of flowers but the smell of a freshly plowed field and alfalfa drying under the summer sun.
For many years we raised chickens and sheep. That small flock of sheep was our 4-H and Future Farmers of America project. We fed them, watered them, and cared for them with the goal of showing them at local fairs. So, you see, I don’t have much street or city cred but I do have some sheep cred. Those experiences and memories color what I see when I read the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23, ESV)
Psalm 23 is often pictured in pastels. Soft colors giving a feeling of peace and calm. Of a shepherd boy sitting under a tree playing his harp while a few sheep peacefully graze in the background. But painting the Psalm in that way removes the realities and dangers of shepherding. The vigilance and bravery of the shepherd are hidden. The relationship between sheep and shepherd is missed.
This Psalm, like many others, is intensely personal. In its words, King David portrays the comfort he found in God. Psalm 23 is also highly relational. God isn’t far away and uninterested in David’s life but close by and intensely active. The Lord is MY shepherd. He makes ME lie down in green pastures.
This relationship is portrayed with two overlapping metaphors. The Lord is my shepherd and unspoken but pictured the Lord is my king.
There were many chores and tasks needed to care for our little flock. The most challenging was the lambing season. This came for us in the cold months of January and February. During those weeks the sheep were penned up in the barn. Our chores included morning and evening trips to feed them slices of hay and scoops of grain. We’d knock the ice out of their watering trough and refill it with fresh water. And we’d spend time walking among them checking their health, looking for newborns or mothers in distress. The toughest chore was the early morning checks.
An alarm would sound off around 3:00 in the dark of the morning. One of us would half-asleep bundle up and trudge through the snow towards the barnyard. We often had to climb the fence since the gate was usually frozen or drifted shut. Nearing the barn, I would begin to softly talk to the sheep and let them know I was coming so as not to startle them. “Morning sheep, just me coming to check on you.” Once in the barn, one or two of the ewes would greet me looking for an early morning bit of hay or a handful of grain. I’d walk around the straw-filled pen looking for new lambs and checking the health of those a few days old. The hardest part was seeing some of those day-old lambs die for various reasons. Sometimes you could see it coming and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. The greatest joy was getting to witness a birth and the struggling first steps of the newborn lamb.
So, for me, the first part of Psalm 23 reads like a job description for a shepherd. These are things that shepherds do. These are things that Jesus our good shepherd is doing for us.
Shepherds feed the sheep. Ok, that’s really obvious. But here’s where some sheep cred kicks in. David is specific, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Ever think about that? Why did David say it that way? Why isn’t it “He leads me to green pastures where I can eat my fill?”
There are several things going on here. The shepherd knows what sheep need. He keeps them from overgrazing and killing off the pasture. Which sheep will do if left on their own. A shepherd leads the flock to lush green pastures, not overgrazed ones.
But there’s also a part that’s not so obvious. Sheep need time to digest their meal. Sheep are cud-chewers. A necessary part of their digestive process is to regurgitate and rechew everything they have eaten. They literally need time to sit down and chew it over. That’s the picture David is painting. This shepherd’s sheep ate fresh green grass but also feel safe enough to sit and chew their cud.
Perhaps we should feed on God’s word more like a lamb than a hungry teenager flying around the drive-through at their favorite fast food restaurant. Take time to chew on it, think it over, pray about it. Its what sheep do. It’s what the good shepherd wants us to do.
Shepherd’s water the flock. Another obvious one. But again, notice the specific picture of still or quiet waters. Sheep, being flight animals, don’t like bubbling or swiftly moving water. They are easily spooked and frightened. If one of them bolts they all tend to run.
Water is symbolic of several things. Jesus talked about himself as the living water. The Holy Spirit is pictured as being poured out. We are washed in God’s word. Taking the most basic view that water is life, I think we can say that we all need water. And we all need His presence in our lives.
We experience God in many ways, but for me, the most moving times are those moments of stillness and simply resting in His presence. One of those moments was the first Fresh Wind service Betty and I attended here. It was refreshing to sit back and let the music and the Holy Spirit flood my soul and wash out some of the crud that had built up. Sometimes we need to shout, clap, sing, and move in God’s presence; sometimes we need to be still and quiet.
Shepherds see to the health of the flock. “He restores my soul,” David said. Early in our sheep career, we had to call Doc Steffen; our local vet. One of our pregnant ewes refused to stand up. This meant she couldn’t eat or go to the watering trough. We pushed, pulled and coaxed her with no luck. Doc Steffen looked her over and concluded she had lambing paralysis and the needed medicine was sugar water. From that point on our winter grains always had some molasses added.
The sheep, however, didn’t always like what it took to keep them healthy. Once a year we’d dose them with de-worming pills. Because sheep won’t naturally swallow a pill we had to literally ram it down their throats; as gently as possible of course with a long plastic tube and pill pusher. If we didn’t do this they could develop several problems, many of them much more painful than the discomfort of that moment.
I see this same thing in my walk with Jesus. Sometimes restoration of our soul comes with heavy doses of peace and the warmth of His presence. The goosebump times of prayer and worship that calms my heart and confirms faith. But I also recognize the preventative nature of a shepherd’s care which is at times hard to understand. To shift metaphors, God’s pruning is never fun but ultimately fruitful.
Shepherds lead and guide. We didn’t lead our sheep out to pasture like David did in Ancient Israel. But the principal of sheep following the voice of a shepherd is very real. David gives us two pictures. The first is why we follow. “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” So often we can get twisted up and think that following Jesus is all about us. It’s not. We don’t follow Christ to earn points with God or to have our prayers answered. We trust His lead knowing that it will honor God and bring Him glory.
The second picture is where many of us live. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
Leading sheep where they want to go is easy. Leading them through their fears is almost impossible unless they have a trust greater than their fears.
To transport our sheep to the fair we needed to run them up a narrow portable ramp called a chute. They didn’t want to go. The tall closed sides created a dark valley and it shook a little bit as they walked up. One of us would stand at the top end shaking a feed sack and calling to them. Another pushed and pinched from behind to keep them moving. Eventually, some of them got used to the idea and walked up the chute with little fear.
Jesus can lead us through the darkest valley, through our deepest fears. What’s your greatest fear? Death and dying? Loss of health or vitality? Separation from loved ones? Being insignificant, unwanted, or unneeded? Fear of not having enough? Fear of rejection? No matter what fear you name, Jesus can lead you through that valley.
One of my personal fears is a lack of significance. That fear controlled my choices for many years. Anger followed whenever I felt my little bit significance and reputation were being threatened by the words or actions of others. To that end, I developed a dense shell to protect what I feared could be lost. But following Jesus’ lead, step by step, day by day, a trust has grown which is greater than that fear. I’ve learned to do my bit and trust that He’ll take care of the rest.
The Lord is my King
The tail end of verse four can be applied to both the shepherd and the king. “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” But what does this mean? Why did David repeat seemingly identical implements? It’s because they’re not the same or provide comfort in the same way. And both are the implements of shepherds and kings. Although, we probably relate the staff more with the shepherd and the rod more with the king.
The staff speaks of protection and guidance. That’s why shepherds had staffs, to protect the sheep from predators and to gently guide them. Knowing that our shepherd is protecting and guiding us brings comfort. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be bad days, but that our shepherd will lead us through them.
The rod, however, speaks of discipline. And that is where we get tripped up since it is hard to see a rod of discipline as bringing any comfort at all. Too often we confuse discipline with punishment. Punishment means paying for a wrong through pain. While there may be pain and discomfort in discipline there is a greater destination and purpose.
Some of our sheep received special training to get them ready for the show ring. On show day we’d walk our exhibit into the ring with one hand under their jaw and another on their tail. Surrounding the ring were family, neighbors, and friends. Inside the ring were other exhibitors with their sheep and the judge. Once lined up, we would kneel with one hand touching the jaw of the sheep, the other hand would square up their legs to make them look their best. Other animals are judged mostly by sight. Because of their wool, the judge must poke and prod the sheep. The most embarrassing moment in the show ring is when a sheep wasn’t sufficiently trained and bolts at the first touch of the judge.
We would spend weeks getting the sheep chosen ready for this experience. The discipline involved very little punishment although I’m sure that the sheep weren’t very comfortable being manhandled. That discipline of being led by the hand, of feeling someone poke and prod like a judge developed in them a place of trust and comfort.
What is our training? What form does God’s rod take for us? The disciplines of prayer, of Bible reading, of walking in forgiveness, of fasting, of worship, of practicing faith within a community all lead us to a place of trust and comfort in our Good Shepherd. Regularly practicing these disciplines lead us to comfort on the days we need it the most. Putting off those disciplines makes entering Christ’s comfort on a troubled day more difficult.
You see, knowing that Jesus is protecting and guarding brings us comfort. Even if everything is going wrong, even if we are facing our darkest fears we can rest in Him. Yielding to the rod of discipline brings us to a place of trust. Our sheep trusted us more than their fears. It was a trust developed with discipline and relationship.
A Prepared Place
The Psalm now moves from pastures and dark valleys to a banqueting hall. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.” The role of the shepherd has been replaced by that of a host. A host that I prefer to think of as the king. Who else could rule both ourselves and our enemies?
David is not talking about an impromptu gathering. This is not a few friends dropping over for pizza. This is a planned and prepared event.
It’s a little curious that David adds that this grand banquet takes place “in the presence of my enemies.” Why would our enemies be there? Let’s keep this simple. Even our enemies will see what comes next. This is not a banquet hidden in a cave but out in the bright sunlight for all to see.
At this banquet we are joyously welcomed, even our head will be anointed with oil. You do anoint the heads of your guests when they come over? Right? Ok, so that is not our custom. We welcome folks by opening the door, taking their coats, perhaps offering a handshake or a hug, and we greet them with a smile. In David’s day and in Jesus day the welcoming traditions were to wash the guest’s feet with water, anoint their head with oil, and offer a kiss of greeting. (Luke 7:44-47) That anointing declares we are undeniably welcome and accepted. You can smell it on us.
Neither is this a stingy banquet with small plates. It is a banquet overflowing with God’s grace. So much so that we cannot hold it all. Our cups overflow! Paul, quoting Isaiah, wrote, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”(1 Corinthians 2:9, NLT) No matter what we expect from God He exceeds those expectations in ways we can’t even imagine.
David closes, “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This was David’s want. To one day stand at the threshold of heaven and at that moment to look back and see God’s hand of goodness; to see His lead of love. And to look towards being in God’s presence for all eternity.
I shall not want
You may have noticed that we skipped over the opening line of the Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Let’s circle back and look at in the light what where we’ve been so far.
“I shall not want” is a dangerously bold declaration! It may make us wonder why our prayers haven’t been answered? Or why we have unfulfilled wants in my life? All fair questions. Our sheep did not lack, but some of them still wanted the green grass on the other side of the fence. Every spring we would rescue a lamb or two that had poked their head through the fence after that “greener” grass couldn’t pull it back.
In another Psalm says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.” (Psalm 37:4, NLT) It would seem to say that God will give us whatever our heart desires. I shall not want. I prefer to read it another way, God places His desires in our hearts. When we delight in the Lord His desires become our desires. Like lambs after “greener” grass – sometimes our “wants” are outside of God’s grace and will.
Sometimes it is a matter of timing. We didn’t feed our sheep grain and hay in the summer unless they were penned up for some reason. This again comes down to a matter of trust. Can we trust God to provide what we need when we need it? Even if our appetites and desires say something different?
It all comes down to a cooperative relationship. The relationship is declared in the opening words of the Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd.
He’s shepherd – I’m sheep
He’s creator – I’m creation
He’s the potter – I’m the clay
He’s the king – I’m His subject
He’s father – I’m His child.
It’s a relationship that we choose to recognize and embrace. These things are all true, but God allows us the choice to entering them.
As we lean into that relationship. As we cooperate with all that God the Father, Jesus the Son and Holy Spirit is doing in our lives we can truly say “I do not want.” We may not have riches, possessions, or earthly power but we do not want.
Yes, there are certain things we need. We need breath, food, water, and shelter. We need love, safety, significance, and belonging. We need grace, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption. The question for you and I is whether we trust our shepherd to provide, to lead, to allow trust to overcome our fears, to anoint our heads in welcome, to overflow our cup of blessing. We may never understand the whys of life, but can we trust Him anyway?
Our ewes and young lambs trusted us. They trusted us to feed and water them. They trusted us to shelter them in the winter. They trusted us when we took them to the fairs and led them into the show ring. They trusted us even when we did things to them that they didn’t like.
Jesus our shepherd
My call today is to lean into what the Good Shepherd is doing. Here’s the thing, God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are already doing all these things. The question is whether we will cooperate or run away. Will we follow His lead or go our own way? Will we strongly desire what we want or know that He will give us what we need when we need it? Will we remain in our woundedness or come to Him for healing and restoration? Will we trust Him or ignore Him? Will we confront our fears with Jesus beside us or run from them?
When we turn to Him in any of these we are lavishly welcomed. Our cup does indeed overflow. Our enemies are put to shame. Goodness, mercy, and grace follow us as we delight in Him.