John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23
The Book of Psalms was the hymn book of ancient Israel. We find it in the center of the Hebrew Bible, what we Christians know as the Old Testament. Of the 150 psalms, surely the 23rd Psalm which we have read this morning is among the most familiar and beloved. Indeed, it is one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture. Attributed to the great King David, it has been a source of comfort and hope to generations upon generations of Jews and Christians alike. But sometimes it is the things that are closest to us that have the hardest time being heard.
Long before this Psalm was used by Christians, it was a cherished hymn of the Hebrews. As you know, they were a people who were called Israel, which means “those who have struggled with God.” They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto, or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food, and for a future. They struggled most of all for their faith in God. The Hebrews longed to live with God, like sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. That left them too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd God was
leading them to green pastures or that goodness and mercy would surely follow them. So, like errant sheep, they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, and that always led them into unmanageable trouble. When they came back to worship and sang these Psalms, they were telling the story of their wandering.
The Psalms describe the pathos of being a people who get scared and lose their way and the high drama of a God who searches to find his lost sheep. So, I would argue, the last thing we ought to do is to rush to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is okay. This is the liturgical material of those for whom life was anything but okay. And to this day it still expresses the faith affirmations that can be made only by those who have survived the churning, disruptive experiences of lost and frightened sheep. The people who understand this Psalm best are those who have spent the night tossing and turning. Have you ever been really afraid? Maybe it took COVID-19 to scare you, or
cancer, or a phone call from the police late at night, or a terrible argument with someone you need in your life. When you’re really scared, it is hard to think about anything else. You don’t know what to do, but you’re sure that you have to do something. We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear. But that’s not so much my experience of how most people react to fear. What I have seen as a pastor is that when people are just terrified with fear, they don’t get scared stiff. They run, even if they don’t know where they’re running to. They can’t sit still. They turn up the pace of life to level ten. The late psychologist Rollo May has written, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
That, of course, is how we get into real trouble— running when we are lost. It is then that we make the worst mistakes with relationships, with family, with work, and certainly with God. We run because we allowed some wolf to scare us. We run because we have more faith in the wolf than we do the Shepherd. But the wolf is not the problem. The fear is our great problem. The problem is that we are not focused on the Shepherd. “Thou art with me,” David says in this Psalm. If you believe that, if you can see it, then you are not going to worry about the wolf. It is a reassuring thing to think of the Lord as my shepherd, although I’ve never been too flattered by being called one of God’s sheep. I would rather be the eagle of the Lord, or the strong bear, or the cunning tiger. Sheep are not cunning, strong, or particularly smart. They scare easily and have a knack for getting lost. Look at the faces of us gathered on Zoom this morning. None of us look lost. Most of us, thank God, have comfortable homes and steady incomes. We look like we’ve found the green pastures all by ourselves. But David would say, no, it is we who have lost our way. Some are lost in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, and others are lost in a job that depletes and slowly sucks away the passion for life. Still others are lost in the guilt of not being good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough for someone whose judgments cut deep. There are people here today who are lost in their battle against a disease and don’t know how to find their way back to the still waters of health. Others are lost in their grief. And how many of us are just simply lost in our shame for things done and left undone. Sins we are too frightened to confess.
The reason both the Psalmist and Jesus spend so much time describing us as lost is not to judge us but to save us. And confessing that we are frightened and lost is the essence of seeking our salvation. You don’t have to run when you’re afraid. You don’t have to head for the cliff or get tangled in bad decisions. You can listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, who according to John 10, is Jesus Christ. He has come to find the lost sheep of God. The wonderful writer, Frederick Buechner, preached a sermon once titled “The Sign by the Highway” which is about these hastily scribbled evangelistic messages that we find on certain buildings and overpasses, particularly in place where a more
fundamentalist type of religion holds sway. I confess that signs like that make me feel vaguely embarrassed, because the message is so rudely simplistic. How can you possibly reduce the complexity of the Bible to a two-word slogan? Buechner claims that the real reason the “Jesus Saves” message embarrasses me is the same reason the gospel has always embarrassed those of us who live in better parts of town. It dares to tell us that we, too, need to be saved. It conjures up that haunting voice that keeps saying the pastures we’ve found for ourselves are not green enough, the virus and other evils of this world may invade our homes any day, and we cannot save ourselves. That’s embarrassing. But far more importantly, the sign is embarrassing because it simply claims that Jesus saves. It doesn’t say that we deserve to be saved, know that we need to be saved, or ask for salvation. Jesus saves because that is what Jesus does. The hope of the sheep is not in their vision of the Shepherd, but it is in the Shepherd’s vision of the sheep. Most of the time we sheep are in big trouble before we even know it.(1)
For what end are we saved? Not to make everything okay for us. Ask David about that—he wrote this Psalm. Ask the Hebrews who sang it as their hymn. Ask anyone who has tried to stay behind Jesus. The reason we are saved is to follow the Lord “in the paths of righteousness.” Often the right paths are not the easy ones. They lead us away from the places where we are comfortable, maybe even to frightening places. And the paths of righteousness eventually take us all through a few dark valleys. But, David says, don’t be afraid because the Good Shepherd is with us. Most of the time, that is the only thing about which we are certain. But it is enough. It is enough to make our cup overflow with joy. Whether or not you can see the Good Shepherd doesn’t matter. Whether you are traveling on the high road or through the dark valley doesn’t matter. Whether or not you deserve to have this Savior couldn’t be more irrelevant. Not after the cross where Jesus
put to rest this question of getting what we deserve. He saves because he loves you and is determined to follow you with goodness and mercy all of the days of your life. So, why do we fear no evil? Not because evil will never visit every one of us— sooner or later it will. And not because we will get to stay in the green pastures—we cannot.
The only reason we fear no evil is because, well, because “Jesus Saves.” “Thou art with me.” That is all you need to believe to be fearless. And only the fearless can enjoy the grace of life. All authority and power and dominion to the name that is above all names—Jesus Christ ourPsalm 23 2020-05-03 (3) Lord—now and in the age to come. Amen.
(1) Frederick Buechner, “The Sign by the Highway,” Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (New
York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 27-34.