Sermon by Dominic Steele
1. When something goes wrong in Paradise!
Life is beautiful. Life is good. We expect things to be good – to go well. There is a very real sense that we live in Paradise! And so when something goes wrong, we get really upset and think what is God’s doing – and we can even begin to doubt the character of God. On Monday afternoon I was on such a high. The conference I was attending had gone really well. I had been to Capital Hill that morning and stood just meters from where the President of the United States gives the State of the Union Address each year.
In the early afternoon I went to have coffee with one of the leading Christian ministers in Washington so he could hear about the work that we have been doing. I got to the airport. I checked in. I arrived at the boarding gate to fly to Los Angeles and put my card in the slot – to get on the plane. Then I got told to go and queue up for an hour, and by the time I got to the front of the queue, I was too late to get a connecting flight to Los Angeles – and had to spend another 24 hours in Washington. Then the man who drove me to the hotel drove off with my bags in the boot! I rang Cathie to tell her I was going to be 24 hours late, and so not to come to the airport at 6 am Wednesday to meet me. I had a quick two-minute phone call. And then I said, ‘Give me a call back and we will have a longer conversation.’ I couldn’t find the hotel phone number, so a few minutes later, I rang back with the hotel phone number – a one minute conversation. The next morning when I saw the bill, the two-minute phone conversation cost $20 US! The one-minute phone conversation cost $15 US! What was God doing? Why was everything so good, and now so…?
Psalm 23 is often seen as the funeral passage. I was a funeral on Friday and the Bible was read – Psalm 23. I visited the woman who died in hospital a few weeks ago and read Psalm 23 to her (amongst other things). (I suspect that if you have been to a funeral – it’s quite possible that you have heard this passage taught too.) But it’s always taught in those forums in a fairly shallow way, and so now I want us to get our heads properly around what it means for us to call the Lord our ‘shepherd!’
2. The Lord
In Psalm 23:1 David says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd. “MY” shepherd! Not “our shepherd”. This language in his Psalm is intensely personal. ‘God is looking after me.’
I have been a critic of the Christian songs that are written in the first person singular – songs that we sing together, where we sing, ‘My Jesus, my savior.’ I don’t like it because it’s not corporate. It’s so pandering to the individualistic mindset of the age. As if Jesus is my savior, not your savior – or he might be your Savior, but I am just not thinking about you. But here there is a sense that the Lord is, ‘my shepherd. He’s the one who looks after me. And so if I have been without sleep for too long, and I am jet lagged, and exhausted, and my clothes have already gone in the suitcase and my ipad which has the phone numbers on, has gone and I have had to queue for an hour, and I can feel that if you just push me that much more I will loose it, and I need a shepherd – my shepherd!
‘Shepherd’ is lovely! It’s a wonderful metaphor. It’s so personal and comprehensive and intimate. By the time you get to the Psalms, you have read that the Lord is a King. The Lord is a rock. A king is powerful. A rock is steady. But a shepherd! Well, a shepherd is with me and yet is my leader. He is my guide, my physician, my helper and my protector.
When the Lord is my shepherd, then I shall not be in want. Oh you can see the prosperity gospel people getting excited about this verse. This one would be easy to go to town on.
What do you want? Do you want a house – four bedrooms, red double brick, in Castle Hill, with a pool? And a wife – a little blond one! Or perhaps you want a husband with a good income and a cute smile. Well is the Lord your shepherd?
It is so easy to imagine how the prosperity people could do this talk but I don’t think that is what this passage is about, because this is not just a passage for Castle Hill. This is a passage for every country, every situation, and every socio-economic group.
During the week my friend David told me about an orphanage for AIDS orphans that he visited in South Africa. Here are babies whose Mum and Dad have both died of Aids, and they have AIDS too and will die. And so there are these Aids Orphanages. The little kids are born then put in the orphanage. David said he helped teach Sunday school and the Christian couple who run it love and care for these children. They teach them about Jesus. He said they were lovely – and had such lovely trust in Jesus. ‘Jesus loves me this I know – for the Bible tells me so.’ The kids grow up to three or four and then slowly succumb to the virus and die. They pray, thanking God for the life of this little child and thankful that he or she did trust their shepherd. Then they ring the professional undertaker who takes the body away, and there’s no funeral – because there’s no family. It puts Castle Hill in perspective doesn’t it? It puts Washington Airport in perspective doesn’t it? So that line in the Psalm: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd – I will not want.’ The word ‘want’ does not mean ‘my desire.’ The word ‘want’ is ‘my need.’ And what I need from my shepherd is to be looked after. And my shepherd tenderly looks after me!
Now look at verse 3: ‘He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.’ I am being guided to by my shepherd into righteousness – not happiness. I would have been happier if there hadn’t been bad weather in new York, and if my plane had turned up in time to meet with the other plane to come back on Wednesday, but I wouldn’t have had lessons in being righteous. It’s only when we are put under pressure that we actually see what we are made of. Why am I being guided to righteousness? For his name’s sake. It’s not for me, but for him! For his glory. There’s a Copernican revolution that I need to do here. I am so self-centered that I keep thinking it is all about me. But God wants me to be righteous – in order to bring glory to him.
Now, come with me to the New Testament. ‘For the Lord is my shepherd.’ But Jesus is my shepherd. John 10:1 ‘ “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.
The hired hand just flees. He doesn’t ultimately care – he is not interested. Jesus in contrast (as shepherd), is deeply interested and deeply cares. I read in the paper about 48-year-old school headmaster Philip Lawrence. Phillip Lawrence was killed. I’ll read to you from the paper… ‘Philip Lawrence lost his life after becoming the innocent victim of a schoolboy gang war. The father of four stepped in to protect pupil William Njoh, 14, who was surrounded by a boys of a rival gang as he left the playground. The headmaster chased the intruders from the boundaries of the Public School, but staggered back moments later, his shirt stained with blood. Pupils, then paramedics, came to his aid. But six hours later, at midnight he was dead from a single stab wound to the chest.
The confrontation resulted from a showdown between a mainly black gang and another group of teenage triads. A vendetta had been running from last year but it all seemed a simple matter of teenage rivalry. Then last week, members of the Triads arrived at the school as lessons ended. William Njoh was outnumbered and surrounded. He was being beaten up with a bat when Mr. Lawrence made the fatal decision to intervene. “There was big rivalry between these boys who support the gangs” said a 16-year-old pupil. “William was caught on his own and Mr. Lawrence tried to help him because he was getting a battering.” “Mr. Lawrence lifted up his blazer and we could see his blood. He was collapsing to his side.” Another 16-year-old witness said, “The triads were armed with rice flails, knives and poles. They had their weapon in a blue shopping bag.” Pupil Daniel Ferguson, 13, saw Mr. Lawrence stagger back from the confrontation clutching his chest. “He was struggling to get his breath back. I could see he was badly injured.”’
Verse 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” It’s very helpful for us to think of someone like Philip Lawrence. That’s the kind of shepherd that Jesus is. Verse 12 “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” But my shepherd cares for me, to the point that he will die for me. What Philip Lawrence did was a spur of the moment thing. In a moment of crisis he acted bravely.
4. Is the Lord your shepherd, guide and host?
Is the Lord your shepherd? Is Jesus your shepherd? Or are you walking on your own? Do you see it that your shepherd tenderly, intimately, protects, nurtures, leads, restores, guides, prepares and even dies for you? Or are you walking on your own? I suspect that many here will say ‘yes’ to that in principle, but in practice… In the business of life we probably just go, go, go, and push aside – and forget that we even have a shepherd. It’s so easy to live like Jesus didn’t die for us.
It’s so easy to live as if we are sovereign – making our own decisions – without reflecting on the guidance of the shepherd. Does he restore your soul? Does he guide you? Do you long to dwell with him? Think back to the last time you were in the valley of darkness. Whether it was something sharp – like someone dying… Did you feel the comfort of the shepherd? Did you know that you weren’t facing it alone? But, what about when the plane doesn’t turn up – and you miss the connection? There’s a happy ending. I did feel guided by my shepherd – to righteousness – and didn’t spit the dummy.