Sermon for 4 Easter Yr B

4 Easter Yr B, 25/04/2021

Ps 23

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Our caring, protecting, and loving Shepherd”

A mother was concerned about her kindergarten son walking to school. He didn’t want her to walk with him, and she wanted to give him a feeling of independence. However, she also wanted to know that he was safe.

When she expressed her concern to her neighbour, Shirley offered to follow him to school every morning for a while, staying at a distance so he wouldn’t notice. Shirley said that since she was up early with her toddler anyways, it will be a good way for them to get some exercise.

All week long, Shirley and her daughter followed Timmy as he walked to school with another neighbourhood girl.

As the two children walked and chatted, kicking stones and twigs, Timmy’s friend asked, “Have you noticed that lady following us to school all week? Do you know her?”

Replied Timmy, “Yes, I know who she is. That’s my mom’s friend Shirley Goodnest and her little girl Marcy.”

Shirley Goodnest? Why is she following us?”

Well,” Timmy explained, “every night my mom makes me say the 23rd Psalm. It says, ‘Shirley Goodnest and Marcy shall follow me all days of my life.’ So, I guess I’ll just have to get used to it.”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 23 two titles. The superscription reads: “A Psalm of David.” The second title is: “The Divine Shepherd.” The Good News Bible also has two titles: “A psalm byDavid” and “The LORD Our Shepherd.” The REB gives it the following title: “A psalm: for David.” TheLutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 23, along with ten other psalms, as a trust psalm. “Trust psalms express faith and confidence in God amid great difficulties, threats, and dangers.” (p. 850)

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. However, because the appointed psalm is the same one every year on this Sunday, it is also referred to as Shepherd or Good Shepherd Sunday. The twenty-third Psalm is the best-loved psalm of them all. In fact, for millions of people, it is the all-time favourite scripture passage. Clergy and laity alike read or recite the words of this psalm when people are on their death-beds, at funerals or memorial services. Musicians also seem to have adopted the twenty-third Psalm as their favourite, since they have composed several settings or tunes for it. Artists also love this psalm. My earliest childhood memory of this psalm is the picture of Jesus with a lamb in his arms and carrying a shepherd’s staff. Many people from a variety of backgrounds have composed take-off poems of Psalm 23 or paraphrased it. You probably have read some of these over the years. There’s something about this psalm that appeals to almost everybody. We all find comfort and strength, encouragement and hope in the words of this psalm. Today I’d like to look a bit at verses 1, 4 and 6, and explore possible meanings for us.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or, in the words of the Contemporary English Version: “You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.” Or in the words of the REB: “The LORD is my shepherd; I lack for nothing.” Or, my favourite rendering of verse 1 from the Good News Bible: “The LORD is my shepherd; I have everything I need.” The Hebrew sense of the word “want” here literally means lacking nothing. The word want also is directly connected with God: it is precisely because God is my shepherd that I shall not want. God provides for all of my needs in every area of my life. God provides for the needs of my whole person—body, mind and spirit/soul.

Another way of looking at these words may be because we have everything we need, we don’t have to be caught up in the materialism, the obsession with consuming for the sake of consuming, we don’t have to be greedy or horde things. We can live contented lives because the LORD our shepherd meets our needs. The LORD provides my basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, and, in our part of the world so much more! We really do have so much to thank the LORD our Shepherd for! So, I would like to give you a little homework. Today after this worship service, please go home and write out or verbally discuss all of the many ways that the LORD has provided for your needs beyond the basic ones of food, clothing and shelter—then offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Actually this might be something for you to consider doing every day. Of course the greatest spiritual needs that he provides us with are: faith, hope and love.

Turning to verse four now: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff—they comfort me.” Or, in the words of the CEV: “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.” Or, as the Good News Bible renders it: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, LORD, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.” The Hebrew here literally means “pitch-dark valley.” This certainly could be a real danger for sheep, since their vision is rather poor, and if travelling on a dark night they might very well fall off a steep cliff or lose their way placing them in danger to predators.

During this time of COVID-19, I think verse four is especially meaningful, since many probably feel like they are walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” For those who are dying of the coronavirus, and for their families, it can be very scary, and a painful and lonely death—especially if family members cannot be with their loved one when they die. Or the valley for others might be depression—especially those who live alone and feel isolated, or those who may have lost their job. For some wives and children, the valley might be a terrible experience of domestic violence. Fear of such evil violence can paralyze people.

There are so many things in life that fill us with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of succeeding. Fear of disappointing someone or yourself. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the great unknown, Death.

And then there’s everyone’s fear. The fear of being found out that you’re not who you really say you are. That you will be exposed. That kind of fear often freezes us out of doing something to change, doing something to become the person we want to be.

And then there’s the worst fear of all. Whenever we fail, or fall or stumble in our walk of faith, the enemy begins to creep in with words of doubt. “You failed. You fell, God can’t really love you like that. You’re supposed to be better than that. What if someone else finds out? What will they think? What does God think? God’s probably up there, disgusted, ready to thump me on the head and boot me out.”

That kind of fear can cause us to doubt. Fear freezes. But that’s not what God wants.1

In contrast to such fear, verse four gives us confidence in God’s protection, and that we don’t have to be afraid even in death. Albrecht Dürer, a contemporary of Martin Luther’s, put this assurance into art. His engraving, “Knight, Death and the Devil” is a classic expression of the spirit of the Reformation. A knight in full armour is riding through a valley accompanied by a figure of death on one side, the devil on the other. Fearlessly, concentrated, confident, he looks ahead. He is alone but not lonely. God is with him, walking through that dark valley.

In reference to death then, the words of verse four are true, since dying does not last forever. The LORD our Good Shepherd walks us through death and leads us safely to the other side, into his heavenly realm. We don’t have to fear death with the LORD our Good Shepherd leading us through it.

That leads us to verse six: “Surely (or Only) goodness and mercy (or kindness) shall follow (or pursue) me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD (forever) my whole life long. Or, in the words of the CEV: “Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.”

The Hebrew word translated “follow” can also be accurately translated “pursue,” it is a forceful, strong, active verb. So the LORD our Shepherd wants us to have his goodness and mercy so much that he never gives up on us. Rather, he actively runs after us until he catches up with us in order to give us those wonderful gifts of goodness and mercy, love and kindness. The sense of the Hebrew word for mercy can refer to God’s loyalty, God’s faithfulness. During this Easter season, his loyalty, his faithfulness is, of course, epitomized in the resurrection—which we continue to celebrate every Sunday. He is with us here, now, and always. Christ’s resurrection also is the sign of hope that one day we will share in a resurrection like his and be with him forever in a more complete way. For that, thanks be to God!

1 Billy D. Strayhorn, “Close Enough For Comfort,” at: <;.

An Easter Hymn: The rock was no longer in place

The rock was no long in place,

dark and still the morning came;

Mary’s weeping tear-stained face

filled with sad-ness and deep pain:

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

The Lord called Mary by name.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus is a-ris-en

said to doubting Thomas one

evening. “Touch-ing’s not for-bid-den,”

said the Sav-iour to him, “come.”

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

My Lord, my God, you have won!

Then he came and stood a-mong them,

they were filled with fear and doubt;

tak-ing a broil-ed fish, he then

ate. “Know now what I’m a-bout.”

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Christ is with us, sing and shout!

Text: Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Copyright (c) April 17, 2021

Based on: John 20:1-18-Gospel reading for Easter Day; John 20:19-31-Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter; Luke 24:36b-48-the Gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Tune in public domain: Helmsley

Sermon for Easter Day Yr B

Easter Sunday Yr B, 4/04/2021

Ps 118:1-2, 14-24

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God’s reversals: From rejected stone to chief cornerstone”

According to my NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), Psalm 118 is identified as a liturgical psalm. As a Christian reading this psalm, I would also interpret it as a Messianic psalm, insofar as it reminds me of the Passion and resurrection of Jesus. The Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 118 this title: “A Song of Victory,” and the Good News Bible has the following title: “A Prayer of Thanks for Victory.” According to biblical scholars, Psalms 113-118 are also identified as Egyptian Hallel Psalms. These psalms were sung during the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks-Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles, also called Sukkot. 

The opening two verses of Psalm 118 serve as a responsive “Call to Worship,” thanking God for his steadfast love, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s grace. Most likely a priest or other worship leader would sing or speak verse one, and the congregation would respond with verse two.

Verses 14-16 emphasise God’s victory; which may have been deliverance from Egyptian slavery and reference to the exodus out of Egypt; or deliverance out of Assyrian or Babylonian exile; or because of the word “my” singular perhaps deliverance from some kind of illness.

Again in verses 17-18, the singular “I” and “me” are used, this time in reference to some kind of life-threatening suffering. The words “I shall not die, but I shall live,” could be understood by us Christians as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection.

Verses 19-20 may be a liturgical entrance rite into Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals. Verse 19 again may have been spoken by a priest or even perhaps all of the faithful pilgrims standing at a gate-entrance into Jerusalem, requesting the gate to be opened for them. Verse 20 may be the response of perhaps some other priest inside the gate who would then open the gate while singing or speaking the words of invitation. For us Christians, perhaps these verses remind us of our resurrection and entrance into heaven. 

Verse 21 is similar to verse 14, this time rather than referring to “the LORD,” the psalmist speaks more intimately and directly to God, saying: “I thank you….” Perhaps again the verse may refer to God delivering the psalmist from some kind of life-threatening illness; or safe travel to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. 

For us Christians, verse 22 is a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This verse was very important to the gospel writers and it also is cited in Acts and 1 Peter.

In Matthew 21:42, Jesus cites this verse in reference to his audience—the chief priests, elders and Pharisees, as he tells them parables emphasising reversals. 

In Acts 4:11, Peter addresses the Jewish council, in defence, he bears witness to Jesus, citing this verse, and then states that salvation comes through Jesus. 

In 1 Peter 2:7, Peter cites verse 22 of our psalm in a sermon to Christians—affirming this verse as a fulfilment for Christians who believe that it refers to Jesus. 

Coming back to our psalm, the psalmist, in verses 23-24 is in deep awe, wonder and reverence, at how marvellous the LORD could act to reverse a rejected stone and turn it into the chief cornerstone. Such action, on God’s part, is an occasion for joy and celebration. 

God’s reversals have been present all along, throughout the Bible. Here are a few of them, that you likely remember. 

Abraham and Sarah were old, well beyond child-bearing age, moreover, Sarah was barren. God acted in a marvellous way to reverse that situation, giving Abraham and Sarah their son Isaac, and fulfilling his promise.

There were three other Old Testament matriarchs who were also barren—Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah. God marvellously reversed their situation and gifted them with children. 

Moses, who at first considered himself a poor public speaker and did not have confidence to be a leader, became one of Israel’s finest leaders, thanks to God’s marvellous reversal. 

Joseph was sold by his brothers, and ended up in an Egyptian prison. God marvellously acted, Joseph became Pharaoh’s Prime Minister. 

David was the youngest son of Jesse, he orchestrated the death of Uriah and committed adultery with Bathsheba. Even though David’s sins were great; he repented of his sin deeply desiring to please and obey God; and God acted to marvellously make him Israel’s best-loved king. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young teenager, became pregnant out of wedlock. Then God acted with one of his most marvellous reversals by Mary giving birth to Jesus, God’s Son, our Saviour and Messiah. Moreover, God’s reversals continued in the life and ministry of Jesus, who loved and highly valued the least, the lost, the poor, the outcasts of society. He also called poor fisherfolk to be his disciples and, after his resurrection they would go on to become the leaders of his church.

Speaking of resurrection, the greatest and most marvellous reversal of them all happened on that first Easter Sunday, when God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. 

That is why you and I are here today. To celebrate with joy and thanksgiving Christ’s resurrection, and the promise that one day we too shall share in a resurrection like his. 

Easter is the feast of freedom. It makes the life which it touches a festal life. ‘The risen Christ makes life a perpetual feast,’ said Athanasius. But can the whole life really be a feast? Even life’s dark side—death, guilt, senseless suffering? I think it can. Once we realize that the giver of this feast is the outcast, suffering, crucified Son of man from Nazareth, then every ‘no’ is absorbed into this profound ‘yes’, and is swallowed up in its victory.

Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against death, and the feast of freedom fromdeath. Anyone who fails to hold these two things together has failed to understand the resurrection of the Christ who was crucified. Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist.1

So today we are filled with joy and celebration because there is hope beyond the grave. There are also hopes and small resurrections in this life. God is still at work to act in marvellous ways to reverse those things which try to destroy us or rob us of hope and new life. God’s reversals at work in our life can and do change failures into victories, hopelessness into hope, and hate into love. The student who fails in one field, studies another field and thrives in it. The sceptic is given a new-found hope when they are healed of their cancer. The one who hated a neighbour down the street because of their skin-colour comes to love them when they discover that they have more in common than what divides them. All of these, and countless more reversals bear testimony to God’s marvellous saving actions and are little resurrections in this life, which point to the big, final resurrection, that, God-willing, we all one day will share in, thanks to Christ’s resurrection. As the apostle Paul reminds us, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. So, even though COVID-19 seems like it will never end, there is hope beyond it, thanks to what God has done through the resurrection of Jesus. 

Let everyone say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen! 

1 Jürgen Moltmann, The Power Of The Powerless: The Word Of Liberation For Today (San Francisco, et. al.: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), pp. 125-126.