Psalm 23
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 12, 2019

Loving someone must involve paying attention to the person.

God loves us and pays attention to us…to how we are doing and where we are going.

God had paid attention to David his entire life, even as he struggled through wars, political intrigue, family conflicts, personal betrayals and moral failures of his own making.

As a result, David fell in love with God, and came to pay attention to the God who paid attention to him.

In Psalm 23 David bears witness as to how God pays attention to him, and his testimony encourages all of us to entrust ourselves to God’s shepherding care.

And, oh, how we need it!

The most common metaphor in the Bible for a human being is a sheep. The comparison is not a flattering one. For sheep are just plain dumb.

While you hear of dog trainers, horse trainers, elephant trainers, and other animal trainers, you never hear of sheep trainers. Sheep are simply too stupid to be trained.

In fact, they are one of the animals least able to survive on their own. They can’t readily find safe pasture or good water by themselves, and they get lost easily. Moreover, they can’t defend themselves against enemies. They have no ability to bite or claw, or run away fast.

If we really are like sheep, we really need a Good Shepherd who protects us, provides for us, leads us to good places, sees us through bad places, and goes looking for us when we go missing.

A man named Philip Keller, who learned to shepherd in east Africa, wrote a wonderful book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-Three. In it, he relates how once he was shepherding his animals on a tract of land adjacent to one rented out to an indifferent and unfaithful shepherd. The man’s sheep were thin, diseased by parasites, and often showed unhealed wounds from predators. Keller recalls how, when in the evening he (Keller) would return his sheep’s fold, that other man’s sheep would line up to stare, with what he felt sure was a longing look on their faces, at his well-cared-for sheep as if they yearned to join their flock and belong to a good shepherd.

We all in a sense follow some shepherd. David understood that the character of one’s shepherd makes all the difference and that no one could have a better shepherd than the Lord. In this Psalm David sings of the kind of shepherd the Lord is. He is tender. He is tough. And He is always true.

The Shepherd God is tender. He puts us to bed in nurturing places of quiet rest, making us lie down in green pastures. He faithfully keeps us safe and well-supplied in life’s necessities, leading us beside still waters. He renews our modest strength when it flags, restoring our souls. In his constant kindness and caring, He feeds us as He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies; heals us as He anoints our heads with soothing medicinal oil; and lavishes gifts of grace upon us as He causes our cup to overflow with blessings.

And He does that even when He looks like He’s doing nothing of the kind.

Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a devout Communist and a rising literary star when he criticized the Russian dictator and was thrown into the brutal Soviet prison system called the Gulag where he did eight years of hard labor under the harshest of conditions. His suffering during that time brought him to the end of himself, brought him to Christ, and brought out of him empathetic compassion for all who suffer. Solzhenitsyn later wrote, “That is why I now turn to the years of my imprisonment and sometimes say, to the astonishment of those around me, ‘Bless you, prison.’ My life was nourished there, and I say without hesitation, ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.’”

The Shepherd God is tender and tough…for our own good. He refuses to coddle us, but guides us by the right paths that lead us into righteousness. He lets us travel down the darkest valleys and to be plagued by enemies from every side. In response to the dangers, He uses His rod and staff to protect us from our foes and to rescue us from our peril – but also to poke and prod us to higher ground, and sometimes to knock some sense into us.

The Shepherd God loves us enough to afflict us when that is what’s best for us.

Tim Keller (no relation) tells of how shepherds at times plunge their protesting, frightened sheep into huge troughs filled with antiseptic liquid. It terrifies the sheep, but it also protects them from parasites and disease. The awful experience is a blessing in disguise.

We can identify with those protesting, frightened sheep. God can sometimes appear to be intending us evil – when in fact He is saving us and so committed to our welfare that for the sake of blessing us He’s willing to have us doubt Him or even hate Him. He’s that tough in His love of us!

The Shepherd God is both tender and tough; and, in being each, He is being true.

Though He will let us endure terrors, troubles and trials, He is only insuring we shall not want for anything we truly need. Though He will lead us down hard paths, He is only taking us on the right routes for building up our faith and enabling us to come to the point where we “fear no evil”. Though He will permit our suffering pain and peril, He is staying at our side every second and providing us a home in which our innermost self may dwell secure and content our “whole life long”. The truth is His goodness and mercy shall follow us – “shall chase after us” would be a better translation – from our earliest years to our last.

In that pursuit God is making us more than a mass of dumb sheep. He is remaking us into the image of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.

What we contribute first and foremost to this transformation of us is our paying attention to who God is and what He means to do for us.

It is no easy task to keep that focus and not get distracted. How good it is then that the Shepherd God accepts us in our slowness to learn and change, and never loses His graciousness, patience or perseverance in hoping for the best for us.

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, spent his life encouraging people to pay attention to God, particularly by means of centering prayer and silent meditation.

Once, he invited a group to give it a try for just five minutes. Afterward, a woman came up to him and complained. “I gave it a good shot. It doesn’t work for me. In those five minutes I had 10,000 thoughts unrelated to God.” Father Keating broke into a big smile and replied, “Oh, that’s great. That’s 10,000 opportunities to return to Jesus.”

No one needs to feel like a failure in the process of learning to pay attention to God. We succeed just by showing up as the sheep we are, and giving God a chance to gently draw us in with His shepherd’s crook. We succeed just by owning up to our need for a Shepherd and depending on Him to make us those who shall not want, not now, not ever. Amen!

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