Fourth Sunday of Easter (2022)
Each night when Natalie and I put our boys to bed we typically will head downstairs. We can also, with almost 100% accuracy, guess which little one is leaving their room based solely upon how they open their door.
We all have that kind of familiarity with at least one thing in our lives. Maybe it’s the smell of a beverage, the first two notes of a song, the heft of a tool or the shudder of an engine. The point is that certain things, certain institutions have worn a path in our memory that is instantly recognizable. Psalm 23 is probably that same way for many of you. When you hear its words you are brought back to a funeral or a moment of deep distress or even abiding comfort.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday thus all the readings center around this idea of sheep and shepherding.
Paul speaks to the Ephesian Elders:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Revelation 7 portrays us around the sacrificial lamb:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
and our gospel reading points out that Jesus is not just numbered as a sheep but also as the great shepherd:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
This idea of being known and also knowing is deeply important and also counter cultural. The idea of being a sheep is often bandied about as a pejorative, a diminutive. Both the political left and right highly value independence.
We’re told to not be like sheep, to figure it out for ourselves and not let anyone tell us how it is.
I remember reading an article in the NYT, and as much as I have qualms with the gray lady, I do love it. The author pointed out that many of us independently minded Americans will identify as members of a particular tradition. Either Jewish, or Hindu, Buddhist, or even Christian. But what was interesting about this article was not how we identify ourselves, the author instead asked - would the founder of that faith tradition identify you as an adherent of their tradition or as a follower of theirs? Would the founder of a tradition recognize that someone has given up enough of their individuality that they are now suitably incorporated?
Look at this in John 10.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Look at who we belong to. It seems then that the only one that may remove me from being the possession of Christ is… well, me. This is also fairly true about you. The reason why Psalm 23 is comforting is because it indicates total reliance upon someone else. This is why we read it at funerals because our independent spirit at last yields and now the only possibility is for the Lord, and the Lord alone, to restore our souls. This is the good news.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
He is the good shepherd. He is attentive. He notices that you and your loved ones are in the grave - He leads you in paths of Righteousness and if He didn’t how would that look on Him? He does it out of love for you and because His name would be disparaged if He did not take care of you. He is the GOOD shepherd.
Professor Saleska has a great point about the next verse in this Psalm: He points out that in the Old Testament a rod, a shivet in hebrew, has several functions:
In Leviticus 27 it functions as a club to ward off predators
In Genesis 49 it is a scepter made to denote a King
In 2 Samuel and again in Isaiah it is a weapon
In Isaiah 28 it is a culinary tool - see Ps 23:5.
In Exodus 21 it is a walking aid for the sick.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Note that it is God’s rod and staff. Not ours. God does all the things in Psalm 23. In Revelation 7 God wipes away every tear, in John 10 God gives eternal life and in Acts 20 Paul reminds the church, it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Jesus gives life.
But do you and I recognize it?
At different times in my life people have sent me variations of the same online quiz: lyric from Christian Song or quote from Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t take the quiz.
The point is that Christianity has become equated with so many things: Social Justice, a National Party, Therapy Club, Life Change Group and more.
But do we know Jesus? Does Jesus know us? I love Pauls words to the Ephesians.
for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
I’ve been married to Natalie for almost 12 years now. We grew up in similar homes and in the same church. Natalie can walk into a room that I have worked in and tell you what I contributed and what wasn’t me. She can probably tell you if I had oatmeal or eggs for breakfast on any given day. She knows everything about me because she loves me.
How many of us know our shepherd like that? We know bits and pieces but when it comes to plumbing the depths of the mysteries of God we find it uninteresting or make excuses like ‘I don’t have time for that’. The average American spends about 145 minutes a day on social media. We know tik-tok better than we know the Lord of life and it is destroying us.
We have invited these companies into our homes, our bedrooms, the lives of our children. I can scarcely think of another institution that we have so allowed to season everything we do.
These companies have turned each of us into a commodity. They know our preferences, religious affiliations, incomes and more. In 2019 a man named David Goldstein purchased some of this data, bought a few targeted ads and quite possibly influenced an election in the south by convincing people to not turn out to vote.
I think what is worth noting is that he didn’t change their minds, he just played to their apathy. We look at the Bible and think… yeesh that book is too big. The whole counsel of God?
We don’t reject the counsel of God but we don’t let it claim us either. We miss out on the joy of being full known.
In the midst of all of these unknowns of data and manipulation: here is what we know for sure. The great shepherd holds on to you. He leads us, he alone gives eternal life, we have been given to Him by the father and no one is able to snatch you or your little ones out of His hands.
His words of grace have been spoken over you - do you hear his voice?
This should give us confidence that we will see our loved ones again, our children, our grandparents and our spouses that only appear to have lost the battle with the sting of sin.
Christ is risen, the victory is won.
Because of this - goodness and mercy follow you. Amen.