Sermon for Psalm 23, Easter 4 B, "The Lord is MY Shepherd"

The “Lord is My Shepherd” is a sermon interpretation of Psalm 23. 

“The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will feel no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You anoint me head with oil. My cups 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.”
       Jesus the Shepherd

Chances are, you were in second or third grade when you first learned it, and then you promptly forgot it, even if you may have recited it in front of the whole Sunday School.  Chances are, the second time you learned it was during seventh grade confirmation, and then you forgot it immediately after the test.  And, chances are that, as you grew older, you heard it nearly every time that you attended a Christian funeral.

The Lord is my shepherd.  Intuitively, all of us know that shepherds are good, kind and gentle. Even in a technological society and having never met a shepherd face to face, we all know that shepherds are gentle and kind.

Even the children know that, as was demonstrated in the children’s sermon. All the children had never met a shepherd, but as a group, they unanimously and spontaneously said that shepherds were good, kind and gentle.  The children have been taught that by Bible stories. They have been taught in Bible pictures. They have seen the picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, caressing a lamb in his arms. By seeing that picture of Jesus holding the sheep, every child knows that Jesus loves children and is a very good shepherd, a person to be trusted.

There are two symbols of a shepherd. The first symbol of a shepherd is the staff, like the shepherds staff that I am holding in my hand. A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole. And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help you.”  It must be clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as panthers and lions. The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good shepherd.

The second symbol of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice, and it is difficult to draw or symbolize a voice. But the voice is important to the shepherd. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. I ask you a question: what is the life span of a sheep? Yes, some twenty to twenty-five years. The sheep of the Bible were not raised for their meat, not for mutton but they were raised for their wool. The sheep lived as part of the family for twenty to twenty-five years. The sheep were treated like pets and became part of the family. The sheep had names such as Tammy Lammy, Sally Sheepy. The point is, sheep had identities and were known by the shepherd. And likewise with you, the Bible guarantees us that we have a name and that God knows our name.

God is the good shepherd, who knows our very name. … Over time, the deeper the relationship, the sheep and the shepherd know the voice of one another. We understand this because we talk on the telephone and recognize certain voices. The closer we are to people, the more we know the sound of their voice. They don’t have to tell their name on the telephone; we know their name because we know the tone of their voice. If you are my very own child, I know the sound of your voice on the telephone. You don’t have to tell me your name. And so it is with God; God knows our voice because we have called on God often. He hears our voice and knows our voice by its very sound. And we know the sound of God’s voice, the voice of God in the Bible, the voice of God in prayer. By experience, we learn to know the sound of our Lord’s voice.

In the Old Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to God. In the New Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to Jesus. Who is our shepherd? God? Jesus? Both are referred to as Lord. We know that both the Lord God and the Lord Jesus are good and that our Lord is the good shepherd. The phrase, “good shepherd” helps us to understand God and how God works with our lives.  The Lord Jesus, the Lord God is my shepherd.

I would like to tell you my favorite 23rd psalm story. You have to be able to know how to tell the 23rd psalm. You have to know how to say the first line. The way you say the first line is the key to knowing how to recite the 23rd psalm. If you say, the Lord is my shepherd, you miss it. You need to say the first line correctly, like this: the Lord is  … my… shepherd.  You have to say it correctly, and using the fingers of your left hand and saying with each finger, the Lord is … MY …on the fourth finger…shepherd. Let’s all say it correctly together, using our fingers of our left hand. The Lord is … my… shepherd.  And you grab the finger when you say the word, my. … Now, this is the story.

It was about 1850, March, snow flurries, frozen ground, a log cabin, and in that little log cabin on the prairie was a boy by the name of Timmy, who was dying of diphtheria. The pastor who came to that log cabin that day was a Methodist circuit rider; that is, he rode his horse hundreds of miles to cabins and churches, visiting them every two months or so. This pastor came into the cabin and inquired about Timmy, whom he had heard was sick. The pastor was ushered through an opening in the curtain to a back room where Timmy was sick in bed.

The pastor said, “Timmy, do you know how to say the 23rd psalm?” “O yes, I learned it when I was in second grade, in Sunday School. It goes like this. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Timmy rattled the 23rd psalm off rapidly. “No Timmy, that is not the way to say it.” “Ok, pastor, I will say it more slowly.” “Timmy,” the pastor said, “I want to teach you how to say the 23rd psalm. As you begin the first sentence, you count your fingers and when you get to the fourth word, the word, “my,” you grab that finger. A wedding ring is one the fourth finger of your mother’s and father’s hand. It is the finger of love. Say the words of the first sentence as you count your fingers, and then grab the fourth finger when you say the word, my. That will remind you that Jesus is always your personal shepherd, my personal shepherd. OK?” So Timmy practiced saying the first sentence of the psalm. The pastor was satisfied. They said their goodbyes and the pastor left.

The pastor returned to the log cab two months later and it was now spring. The snow was gone and as he approached the log cabin, he saw a little mound of dirt near the cabin with a cross on it. He knew Timmy had died. The pastor went into the log cabin and they talked. They talked about Timmy; they talked about his death; and finally the mother asked. “You know pastor, something strange happened when Timmy died. We kissed him goodnight. In the morning, first thing, we went through the curtain to see him and he was gone; he had died. But it was so strange. His right hand was still wrapped around the finger of his left hand. Do you know what that means, pastor?”

When you say the 23rd psalm, you need to know how to say the first line: the Lord is … my … shepherd.

Edited from a sermon by Rev. Edward Markquart