The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd)
Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
The Venerable Ralph Leavitt Honorary Associate Priest
As a faithful Christian, what is it that you desire from God the most?
I think that we find some answers to this question in three of our scripture readings today. An answer from David, from Jesus and from the beloved disciple John.
It all starts with David and his most famous Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd. I sometimes wonder if David had any inkling just how popular Psalm 23 would be. Scholars think that David probably wrote this psalm at the end of his kingship about the year 1,000BC. So Psalm 23 has remained at the top of the charts now for some 3,021 years. That is quite something! And my modern and humorous mind thinks; “Wow, even longer than a Beatles song!” O Lord forgive me.
Why is this psalm so popular?
First, it was written from the heart. David himself was shepherd, and so for him the best and most personal, comprehensive and intimate metaphor to describe God would be a shepherd. Yes, he did talk of God as a King, a rock, a shield, which are all very true, but for him, a shepherd meant the most.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
We see right away how personal this relationship will be. My shepherd.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
This first part of the Psalm speaks of how God will provide, provide green pastures, still waters, and most important, restoration of our souls.
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
David continues to write now of how God will guide and protect us in life. If we confess our sins, God will lead us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, meaning that on those paths we will bring glory to God and our souls will not want for anything.
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 thy staff they comfort me.
Note first of all that David does not walk into the valley of death, but rather through it. It is here that the psalm address itself to anyone who is facing death, or anyone who is facing suffering, pain, depression. David moves into a difficult depth of human nature. Note here, as we start through this valley, there is a shift in the way the psalmist addresses God. In the first section David referred to God as “he”, in the third person. Now God is being referred to as “thou” in the familiar second person. “thou art with me” God becomes real, a personal friend to accompany us through the valley.
The famous British actor Charles Laughton was asked at a party once to recite Psalm 23, he did so, with perfect diction and delivery. Then everyone at the small party was asked to recite something. The first person asked was his deaf Aunt, who having not hear her nephew, stood up and did the same thing, she too recited Psalm 23. Perhaps not with such finesse, yet when she finished many people in the room were in tears. When Charles Laughton was asked later why this was, his reply was, “I know the Psalm, she knows the shepherd.” Yes, “thou art with me” is the truth.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth 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.
Here the emphasis changes, the psalmist stops talking of the shepherd but now talks as a guest and a host. God is our host, and we are his guest. As hospitality was so important in David’s culture this metaphor is even more personal and intimate. What does God offer us? Goodness and mercy. These are his gifts of grace. They pursue us until we open them. And with them we can dwell in God’s house forever.
And so, for David, he realized that with God, he had no wants. With God’s gifts of goodness and mercy he could be with God forever. Indeed, as he said, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
No wonder this psalm was popular from the beginning as it addresses basic human desire and tells us how we can be with God forever.
Now, let us shift to our Gospel lesson some 1,000 years later. I am sure that Jesus knew that Psalm 23 was faithful peoples’ favourite psalm. So in one of his “I am” statements explaining who he truly is, he says; I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
He also says; I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my own know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
What are the most important things to Jesus in these statements about himself?
First, the shepherd is “good”. This word in the original Greek can have meany meanings; good, noble, perfect, precious, virtuous, excellent. All these apply to Jesus. In other words, a true shepherd is always good.
Secondly, a true shepherd will lay down his life. A true shepherd will always put God first in life. Of course Jesus is referring to the fact that he would literally lay down his life so that we, his sheep, might live.
And thirdly, Jesus knows his sheep just as he knows his Father. Relationship is essential.
Jesus takes the role of shepherd to a whole new level. Indeed he is the good shepherd. I would say the best shepherd. And Jesus’ prayer is that there will be one flock, one shepherd all knowing God’s will.
Finally, our reading from 1 John tells us how the beloved disciple of Jesus reacted to the fact that Jesus was his good shepherd. He writes; We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us. This disciple urges us that we should not only love God but love one another; he says; let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Love is shown by action and we are all called into that action. And in that action All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.
And so, there you have it. David’s greatest desire was to dwell with God forever. Jesus’ greatest desire was to know his Father’s will, to be a good shepherd, and that there be one flock and one shepherd. And for the disciple John, his greatest desire was to abide in God and know and share love.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, I pray that we will all have our deepest desires met in God. And as they are, that we can share that good news with others.