(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
After our introductory look at this Psalm, as a cross-the-fence-line boast of one sheep to another about how great their shepherd is, after looking at how the shepherd makes his sheep lie down by providing every one of their needs, after seeing how the shepherd guides the sheep to sources of healthy drinkable water, verse 3a comes as a bit of a surprise to us - “he restores my soul.” Why in the world would a sheep that is so well cared for need its soul restored? And we need to remember that soul here represent life, how is it that a sheep would need its life restored if it is so well cared for already?
The answer to that question comes from understanding what it means for a sheep to be cast, or cast down. By that we do not mean a sheep that is depressed, we mean a sheep that has unfortunately gone, literally, belly up. Sheep, like us, like to lay down comfortably and like us, an uneven hard bed is not very pleasant. So what they will often do is they will search for an area of softer soil or grass that has a slight depression in it for their mattress, and there lay on its side. But what sometimes happens is that the sheep in stretching can sometimes accidentally role over onto its back with its legs straight up in the air. A healthy, lean sheep, in most circumstances will be able to wriggle and kick until it works itself into a position where it can role over on its side again and get up. But there are circumstances in which the sheep gets stuck on its back with its legs flailing in the air, totally unable to right itself. If that happens, a sheep is cast.
If a sheep is cast, it is totally
vulnerable. It is vulnerable to any predator which would like to rip
open its neck. It is vulnerable to abdominal gasses that build up and
cannot escape because the physical movements on which its digestive
system depends cannot happen on its back and soon the sheep will become
life threateningly bloated. Vulnerable because circulation to its hind
quarters and hind legs depends on freedom of movement in a standing
position. Without blood flow strength can quickly be lost. Vulnerable
to vultures and buzzards, who when they see a cast sheep will
immediately start circling because they only know it is a matter of
time. If the weather is hot, it might only be a matter of hours.
Some sheep are lazy. They love to lay down in the most comfortable spot and they don’t care to develop the strength they need to get through those tough situations in life. Yes, sheep are just like us. And some of us are spiritually lazy. We’re Christians yes - but we’re Christians because the Christian life is easy, its good, and as long as it goes well, were in it for the good life. But one does not have to journey long through the Christian life to discover that the Christian life is not easy. We have bills to pay. We have schedules to fulfill. We have businesses to grow. We struggle with relationships. We have to manage our families. Not only do we have to struggle with things that the rest of the world has to struggle with, we have to struggle and fight against sin and the devil and our own sinful nature. Sometimes it is much harder to be a Christian, and if we do not learn the disciplines of the Christian faith, if we are simply fair weather Christians, the Christian life can set us on our back in a way that we cannot right ourselves.
To be a Christian means that we are disciples of Christ - to be a disciple means that we do the hard work, we practice the practice the disciplines of the Christian life - the disciplines of relationship with God and others, the disciplines of faith - dependence and trust, the disciplines of the soldier where in Christ we stand our Ground with all the armor of God, the disciplines of character that demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. (Tonight we will look at king Saul - and see why he was cast down, without being restored). If we are not on a journey of discipline, we will discover that when times get tough, we are not tough enough to face the challenge.
The wonderful comfort of this Psalm is that when we, even fair weather Christians, are missing, the Good Shepherd comes running looking for us. And when we are cast, he rights us, like a shepherd messages the back and thighs of the sheep, he cares for us, helps us back onto our feet so that we can learn our lessons and keep on going.
Some sheep are too fat. That is a consequence of the good life in the good pasture the Good Shepherd provides. Some sheep simply overeat, they become less quick on their feet, less flexible and become so top heavy that if they are cast they cannot right themselves. Spiritually speaking, fat is how we might describe ourselves. In this world, we are fed the best of spiritual food. We expect the best, after all we are in North America. And if our own church is not the best, well the church down the road has a better menu or a better chef, we go where the food is the best and we eat and eat and eat, but with all our eating, we do little else, we take in, we never give out. We are complacent and satiated. And slowly we grow less able to deal with the hard work of a real world with its pitfalls.
I have seen an entire family wreck because of one crisis. Having never put into practice the Christian disciplines of how they use their tongue, what they say to one another, when chaos came, the firestorm they started within their own family was totally out of control and faith destroying. If we do not put what we learn into practice, what we take in gets turned to fat, fat that is useless when the crunch is on. It is not how well we are fed that defines us as Christians, it is what we do with the feed we get. Jesus said: 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
But even though the Word is strong with warning, again this Psalm paints a picture of how wonderful our Good Shepherd is, because even when we are cast down because we have taken in, taken in, taken in, he watches for the vultures and the buzzards and when he sees them, he comes running, he picks us up, rights us between his legs, works our muscles so that we might start learning to put into practice what we learn. There is a good reason why this Psalm is a boast of one sheep to another.
The third reason why a sheep might become cast, becomes top heavy is because is has too much wool. Now we think of wool as light and fluffy and warm, but that is only after it has been washed and processed through modern machinery. On the back of a sheep however, wool can collect all kinds of stuff like burrs, debree, manure and mud caked into the fleece. And then when a rain comes along, this mess on the back of a sheep can become so heavy that if the sheep lays down it will become cast, unable to right itself for the weight of what has collected in its wool. Of course, a good shepherd, seeing that the fleece is too heavy for the well being of the sheep will sheer the sheep, remove all that accumulation so that the sheep can right themselves.
We like sheep struggle with the same dynamics. As we go through life, it seems junk clings to us, attaches itself to us. And if it becomes to important to us, it can start weighing us down to the point that if we fall, we cannot right ourselves. Jesus in the parable of the sower calls this the cares of this world which have the power to upset the Christian life.
But the comfort of this Psalm is that we have a Good Shepherd, so good that when he sees we have this condition, he will come around and restore us, and then do the hard work of shearing us, removing from us those things which make us top heavy. Some time ago we were visited by some friends of a previous congregation who do to circumstances having to do with 9/11 and the turn that did in portions of the economy went bankrupt. They had so much and lost it all. They would never wish it on anyone else. But they found it freeing. They found it a return to the basics of life and being thankful for the basics they have. Their faith stands strong in the face of losing everything, but they have not lost the care of the shepherd and they have not lost each other.
The fourth and final reason that a sheep may become cast is because it is a ewe that is fruit bearing, that is pregnant and heavy with young. Phillip Keller in his book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23" focuses on this dynamic more than any other for the basic reason that if a sheep who is carrying is cast, not only will he lose the ewe, he will also lose the young that she is carrying. And so a good shepherd will have a sharp eye out for the sheep that are pregnant, fruit bearing sheep.
We’re like sheep. I don’t know if you have noticed, but it is often those healthy sheep that are bearing fruit for the kingdom of God that get themselves in too deep and are cast down. Individual’s who are deeply involved, maybe they have a Christian service career, but with passion and energy they give themselves to kingdom causes and they don’t seem to put limits on their involvement, and if they go on and on like this, they discover one morning, that like a cast sheep, they are down and they can’t get up again. Their energy is gone. Their passion for God is gone. Their faith is in shreds. Their emotions are haywire. Their desire to be with God’s people disappears. Their devotions run stuck. God seems far away. We sometimes call it burn out. Whatever you call it, they are cast sheep.
The wonderful comfort of this Psalm is that the Good Shepherd has his eye on us, watching for us, and if one of us is missing because we are cast, he runs and finds us, he rights us, he puts us between his legs and gets us going again, and even though that may take time, it is his gentle loving work, pleasure and joy to restore us.
Here is where I find this Psalm such an incredible comfort and joy. So many times, when we fall, when we are cast, we look at ourselves and we wonder how badly God is frowning about us again. We feel we are a disappointment to God. We feel he judges us for our sloth, for our weight, for the crap in our coats, for our weakness in bearing fruit and being unable to get up again. We fear the Shepherds wrath...
But that is not the picture the
scriptures paint. Listen to Luke 15
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.