(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I
shall not be in want.
You may remember that we have been looking with a fair amount of detail at the words of this well known Psalm. We have discovered that generally, we only scratch the surface of the rich meanings of scripture. This Psalm wedged between the agonies of Psalm 22 which Christ quoted on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” and the call of
I have heard in response to the promises given in this Psalm of the limitless care of our Good Shepherd Jesus, that there are some who find it difficult to give their full trust to the Shepherd, their experience has been one of finding difficulty and hardship in the process of following the good shepherd. They feel forsaken by the Shepherd. Life can be fraught with difficulties. Yet, I want to start out by reminding us that in a sense, this is the verse in the center of Psalm 22 - 24. It is a confession of trust, a boast in our Good Shepherd Jahweh, he who loves me with such an incredible love that he laid down his life for me will work hard to provide for all of my needs, he will make me rest, from all the worries of life I can relax in his care, he will keep me from dangerous waters, when I am cast, fallen and unable to get up, he will come and restore me back to life. And I know that he will do this because he proved his love for me on the cross of Calvary.
Yet the direction this Psalm is
going is toward Psalm 24.
This Psalm now shifts its perspective toward purpose. Why does the Lord pour out all these blessings and all this love on us - so that we will follow his lead in pathways of righteousness for his name’s sake.
To understand what this means, we have to spend a few minutes looking again at sheep - it is for a good reason that the Lord in scripture again and again calls us sheep.
Sheep are creatures of habit. Left to themselves, something that will happen when a shepherd does not care for them, they will walk pathways (or ruts) of habit, the same trails, the same pasture until the pasture is destroyed. As the grasses are eaten more and more, the sheep will head for the tender shoots that are the grasses desperate attempt to survive. They will eat it down to the point of damaging the roots so that the grass cannot recover. A once green pasture will become brown, dead, unable to provide life and sustenance for the sheep, if the sheep are not lead and managed properly. Not only that, sheep will walk the same journeys back and forth, their dung with its natural parasites infecting the ground, and if the sheep walk these same paths day after day, these nematodes, the bot flies which go through their life cycles partly in the soil will multiply as they infest the sheep over and over again. These parasites and insects when they have hatched will infect the sheep, unless they are led elsewhere. Managing the health of sheep depends heavily on the care of a shepherd to lead them to pastures that have had a chance to recover and where parasites have gone through their life cycle and died off so that they will not re-infect the sheep. So in the east, a shepherd will lead his sheep, rotating pastures and pathways to those pastures, for the sake of the pasture, for the sake of the sheep, and for the sake of his own reputation. In the same way farmers might talk about the farmer down the road who doesn’t have a clue what he is doing with his herd, his herd is his reputation, how well the sheep do, how they prosper is the reputation, the name of a shepherd.
When the Psalmist writes
These paths are paths to new pastures. These pathways are the shepherd leading to places that are new. The shepherd guides the sheep from their habitual life threatening pathways to new pathways that lead to life in abundance. Jesus said I have come to give you life in abundance. To do that he leads us in pathways of righteousness.
Now that sounds wonderful and comforting until we discover what the really means.
We are like sheep. Left to ourselves, we gladly continue in habitual behaviours and practices that we are familiar with, even if those habits are destructive in the long haul. Church members often assume that to be a Christian is to confess Christ, he forgives our sins, then we do our best, but in the end we are no different from our neighbours, just forgiven. And so we have bad habits, we feel guilty about them once in a while, but we do not expect them to change except for a few days after new years. Instead of sin, we call them character flaws. We remain static, unchanged, year in year out, just forgiven.
A mother in a congregation I once served was a worry-wart. Her disposition seemed designed, tailor made to fret and worry about almost anything, especially her children. She grew up in a home where both parents had an alcohol addiction, she grew up keeping the family reputation intact. But this grew into a character that could only do one thing and one thing well - worry. It was destroying her health. It was adding fuel to the fire of her children’s rebellion. It was a deep strain on the marriage, you see the father wasn’t doing any worrying at all, the mother was doing enough worrying for 10 people. The word of God started challenging her, challenging her that worry is sin, faith overcomes fear, trust overcomes the need to control. She discovered that she had to walk a new pathway. All this time she thought that her worry was an expression of love, her concern for her children and their wellbeing. She started discovering that he worry was an expression of distrust, distrust for his children and for God. When she discovered that truth, she felt like she did not have a clue how to love her children. She had to walk a new pathway. A new pathway that started with repentance and took years to learn how to love while trusting.
You see the danger is, if we have a kind of static view of the Christian life - I confessed my faith, I’m forgiven kind of view of what it means to be a Christian, then we fail to understand that the Christian life is a journey. I have known men who have had positions of leadership in the church, but if you ask them to talk about their growth as a Christian, what new pathways they have come to journey following Christ, they cannot tell you one thing that has changed in 30 years. They are living the same habits they lived 30 years ago.
To be a Christian is to follow Christ on new pathways to new pastures. A Christian presses on as Paul said, to know Christ, the fellowship of his suffering that we may share in his glory. The journey of God’s covenant people is from Egypt to the promised land - but you may remember, Israel, like sheep, once they started out, many of them preferred the leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt to the new journey through the desert with God’s provision of manna. (Numbers 11:5) Pathways of righteousness are new life giving pathways. They involve change - and you of course know that Dutchmen only like one kind of change - the stuff that jingles in the pocket.
When we commit ourselves to Christ - Christ calls us to repentance, to change, to pathways of righteousness, to clean hands and a pure heart, where our trust is not in an idol and our commitments are faithful and true. He calls us to put off the old nature and to walk in obedience to the guidance of the Spirit who fills our hearts. He calls us to an exciting adventurous and sometimes scary journey of obedience to his will.
He guides me in paths of
He does it for his name’s sake. You see, the wellbeing of the flock is the reputation of the shepherd. When people see that we are become a community where we love God with all of our hearts, where our love for God radiates from every part of our lives, when people see that we love one another, that we love one another above our own selfishness, our own reputations, even love each other at our own expense with a sincere love, when they truly see that we are really different from the rest of the world, they will give glory to God, they will acknowledge that it must be because of the shepherd. And one of the truths of scripture is that Jesus guides us to that full commitment, to that life of Christlikeness. It’s not something that we have to worry and fret about, it is his work in us to lead us and on the journey, he will provide everything that we need so that we shall not want, we will be protected, we can rest, when we fall, he will restore us.
We live to enjoy God and glorify him forever. His glory is in the pathways of walk. And he provides a table prepared before us even in the presence of our enemies.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I
shall not be in want.
(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.