Back in what my grandson the New One called the “back olden times” I often did music for summer church camps. A signature song was called, “I just want to be a sheep.” The song was terrible so everyone loved it. Every now and then, someone sends me a message and reminds me of those days and I just smile.
Thinking back, it still reflects my heart. I just want to be a sheep.
Certainly these are turbulent and uncertain times. 2020 has been rough. COVID is like a cold winter that won’t let go, many people are still out of work, small businesses and churches are on a financial razor’s edge, racial tensions are boiling over, it hotter than six kinds of smoke and a presidential election cycle is adding fuel to the fire. Elected officials are playing partisan politics, experts are divided, statistics lie and news outlets are incredibly biased; everyone seems to be yelling and no one seems to be listening. Nothing seems less common today than common sense. Christian leadership is like walking across a Mid-western cow pasture; you ARE going to step in something. What is worse, some of it explodes all over your boots and you don’t even have to do anything wrong for it to happen.
What is our collective challenge? To individually follow the shepherd.
I am an orthodox Christian with a high Christology who holds to a traditional interpretation of the Bible. That means I believe people need to repent and turn to God, Jesus is the only way to salvation and the Bible, not the culture, gets to determine what is right and wrong. Furthermore, I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, church exists to connect people with Jesus Christ, our best lives are lived in submission to the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and our mission is most accurately stated in the Great Commission. I am not in a bad mood about it but that is where I stand.
These days, such core values do not play well with everyone but frankly, I am not having to count sheep to go to sleep at night. My convictions are not for sale to the highest bidder and I don’t’ check the direction the wind is blowing each morning to determine my actions. I have had many conversations with people who suggest I am going to find myself on the wrong side of history. My concern is not that I will find myself on the wrong side of history, my concern is that I will find myself on the wrong side of God. I have told many people with whom I cannot agree that I truly love them but concerning our disagreements, “God will have to decide.” So in the meantime, I will follow the Great Shepherd and he will either vindicate me or he won’t but to quote crime fighter Barney Fife, I am not going to “make a big ‘malage’ about it.” I stand unwavering for truth but truth must be grounded in love, grace and humility or its not Christian truth.
The Twenty-third Psalm is the most popular and familiar full chapter in the Bible. Let’s unpack the chapter and learn how to receive God’s vindication with love, grace and humility.
V. 1 The Lord is my shepherd This passage was written from southern Israel about 1000 BC. Ancient Israelite’s used every part of a sheep like the Native Americans of the Plains used every part of a bison. Back then there were large predators like lions, wolves and bears in the region and they proved a nightmare for shepherds. Sheep were a major cash crop and were especially valuable in uncertain times because they could be moved in ways you can’t move a vineyard or an olive grove. Also sheep are dumber than a box of hammers in a deep freeze so everything about the existence of domestic sheep is directly related to the shepherd. Sheep in the open were penned at night and the shepherd literally slept at the gate. Predators got at the sheep over the shepherd’s “dead body.” The Lord is that to us…
I shall not want There is nothing more a domestic sheep could ask for than a good shepherd; that sheep would lack nothing. Shepherds nurtured sheep by day and protected sheep by night. If our every need is turned over to the God who created us, loves us, sustains us, forgives us and offers us the gift of salvation; what more could we possibly want?
Tasks of the shepherd?
- He gives us rest
V. 2-3 Makes me lie in green pastures The COVID shut down MADE many of us to lie down in green pastures who never would have otherwise. I had been running at a dead sprint for years with more running still to come and suddenly everything just went away. Live worship services gone. Travels gone. Speaking engagements gone. Six sermons a week were reduced to one; I preached to two cameramen. I was forced to rest. When we place ourselves under the care of the shepherd, he takes care of us whether we like it or not.
- He sustains us
Leads me to water One of the Hebrew names for God was Jehova Jira, it means my provider. This verse says God will lead us to water, not that God promises us water if we refuse to follow Him! Sheep follow shepherds to water and if they don’t, the water is still there but the sheep isn’t. If we go with God, God will provide for our needs. If we go it on our own, God’s provision for us will always be ready at a place we have refused to go! Some folks have decided that church is something they can live without in the aftermath of this COVID crisis. Hear a prophetic word, “Ceasing to follow the Great Shepherd will not go well for you.” Don’t blame the shepherd for your mess if you haven’t been following the shepherd.
- He revives us
Restores my soul God renews our spirits. God restores the souls of those who follow him. Worship re-hydrates, strengthens and restores us from the inside out.
- He leads us
Leads me in the right path You ever notice that you end up where you are headed and not always where you want to go? Up to a few years ago, I spent a lot of time lost. I am directionally challenged and that is exacerbated by the fact I don’t pay attention or always have interest in arriving where I am supposed to be. I would get directions from someone and by the second sentence the person sounded like an adult talking in a Charlie Brown special. Then technology changed and now I just ask my phone to take me to where I want to go. It possesses my sound system and if I follow, I always end up where I want to go. Do you want to live a life of purpose, peace, passion and power? Follow the shepherd.
- He takes away fear
V. 4-5 Even though death’s shadow comes, I will not be afraid Do you want to emerge from perpetual fear, uncertainty and drama? Follow the shepherd. I have found the key to overcoming fear is to embrace the worst case scenario; if we can deal with the fear of death, we can deal with anything! You beat fear; you have won the game.
Why do we need not fear?
- You are with me Presence. God promises to never leave us or forsake us.
- You comfort me Comfort. God is not only with us, but is active in comforting us.
- You honor me Honor. God not only comforts us but in time God will vindicate us if we remain faithful!
- You anoint me Power. God will not only honor us, but God will empower us to do ministry.
- You bless me Blessing. God will not only empower us but God will give us the assurance of his presence, comfort, honor and power.
Suddenly we are transported to an awards banquet given in the honor of the faithful sheep. This is about vindication for the persecuted who dared not give up or give in and kept following the shepherd. And all the “Ovis aries” critics can do is bear it and watch. It is enough to make a sheep grin.
V. 6 Surely goodness and mercy follow me and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever! Salvation in the Old Testament often seems limited to time and space; health and wealth but not here. The sheep follow the shepherd through life, through danger, through death and into folds of eternity.
A few year’s back, I wrote this introduction for a funeral of a friend named who died way too soon. I use it for every funeral these days:
At the bedrock of our Christian tradition lies a single story. Jesus Christ was crucified, dead and placed in a tomb. It seemed as if evil had triumphed over good, death over life and despair over hope. Then Friday passed…and Saturday passed but on the third day, on the third day Christ arose. Today we gather to mourn the loss of a dear friend but we also stand together with the saints in an act of holy defiance. Death does not get the last word and though a body lies before us, a soul dances before the father singing songs of Zion. That is our story and it is in celebration of that story that we gather on this day to celebrate life and life eternal.
Here at the big ideas:
- Follow the shepherd
- Be content with his provision
- Be restored
- Refuse fear
- Anticipate vindication
- Anticipate eternity with God
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and they staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runeth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (KJV)
Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois