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: <https://sermons.com/sermon/close-enough-for-comfort/1440724&gt;.