In His Shepherding Care

Sermon by David Felker on March 22

Psalms 23

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Please turn with me in your Bible to Psalm 23; Psalm 23. We had been in a series on Sunday nights in The Beatitudes that we will get back to, but instead of the sermon that I had prepared and the text that I was going to preach on, I want to look instead at a well-worn psalm, a very familiar psalm that we looked at last summer. But I want to look at it again because it is a psalm that very much speaks to the situation that we find ourselves in today. So before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text tonight. 

Alfred Lansing’s 1959 non-fiction, Endurance, tells of the incredible voyage of Antarctic explorers. In the nineteen-teens – their expedition was from 1914 to 1917 – but their ship gets unexpectedly stuck in ice, in an island of ice, and then crushed and slowly but surely sunk. And so these men, these twenty-eight men, were castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world, drifting, they knew not where, without a hope of rescue. It was a desperate situation. One gripping quote from the book, Lansing writes, “In all the world there is no desolation more complete than the polar night. It is a return to the Ice Age. No warmth, no life, no movement. Only those who have experienced it can fully appreciate what it means to be without the sun, day after day and week after week. They were, for all practical purposes, alone in the frozen Antarctic seas. Nobody in the outside world knew they were in trouble, much less where they were. They had no radio transmitter with which to notify any would-be rescuers, and it’s doubtful that any rescuers would have been able to reach them even if they had been able to broadcast an SOS. It was 1915 after all. There were no helicopters, no suitable planes. Thus, their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out, they had to get themselves out.”

And so the crew launched their lifeboats to reach land. And they made their way first to Elephant Island, a dark and stormy voyage of 346 miles, on lifeboats. And upon arrival on Elephant Island, they stood on solid ground for the first time in 497 days. But because their chance of rescue on Elephant Island was very unlikely, they decided to risk a 720 mile journey to Georgia Island, to south Georgia Island, and they miraculously made it. They made it and they were rescued. And so Endurance is an amazing story and it’s an amazing story of a long journey. A long journey through months and years of the polar night, of South Pole darkness; a journey through so much darkness and so much unknown and unfamiliar terrain, out of isolation, in the frozen sea. But it’s a story of the crew, of the twenty-seven men on this ship looking to their leader, Ernest Shackleton, who is described by one of the crew members as “the greatest leader who ever came on God’s earth, bar none.” The greatest leader. And so it is the story of how they turned to him; they turned to him in their fear and they turned to him in their desperation – in the frozen sea, in the dark night. And so Endurance is the story of how this great Irish explorer led them through the polar night and how he led them through the darkness and through the scary and through the cold and through the sea, all the way home.

And that, likewise, is our journey. Our journey is a long journey. The journey of faith is a long journey, and sometimes, especially in these last few days and last few weeks, it especially feels long. And so if you came here tonight needing stamina, if you came here needing stability and strength that you do not have, if you are here and you are lost and limping and you need rest and refreshment, where do you go with that? Where do you run? To whom will you look? Who will you look to in the valley of deep darkness? To whom will you look? And so tonight we look to our Shepherd in this familiar psalm. 

This is a psalm ultimately about the Lord Jesus Christ and about the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. And before we read, let’s go to Him in prayer. Let’s pray together.

God of all grace, we pray that You would help us tonight to be still. Help us to be still and to know that You are God. We pray that You would come and give Your word success. We pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be pleasing and acceptable to You, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Psalm 23:

“A PSALM OF DAVID.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amen, this is God’s Word.

We bought Jonny Gibson’s book, his children’s book, The Moon Is Always Round, and this book has provided a really clear and a really helpful illustration for our kids and really for us as well, over the questions that we all have about suffering and the goodness of God. And in this book, he allows readers to eavesdrop on conversations he had with his young son in response to the death of their baby daughter, Leila. Jonny and his son shared a liturgy together that reminds them that just as the moon is always round, even though you can’t always see it, so also the goodness of God is always present, even on the dark and difficult days. And Jonny says, “God is good. God is always good, even when you can’t see it. Just like the moon is round. The moon is always round, even when you can’t see all of it.” 

And that is profound in its simplicity because we know that it can be hard to hold onto the goodness of God in the dark. We know that it can be hard to hold onto the goodness of God in the dark and it can be hard to keep holding onto that. That there is a good God who knows you, who cares about you, who will not fail you. It can be hard to hold onto and to believe that there is a Good Shepherd over your life. And so tonight, we're looking at the psalm that Charles Spurgeon called “the pearl.” Charles Spurgeon called Psalm 23 “the pearl of the Psalms.” Psalm 23. This psalm is in the category of psalms – it’s considered a psalm of confidence, a psalm of confidence. And so it invites us to bring all of our fears, not to stuff our fears, not to suppress our fears, but to bring all of our fears to the Lord, and it invites us into this posture of confident trust. 

And so look with me at the text. The psalm is organized around these two interlocking illustrations. The first, and the most famous, and really the governing illustration, is the shepherd in verses 1 to 4. This psalm is known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm.” But there is also in verses 5 and 6 this illustration of God being our generous Host. He is the host in hospitality as He invites us to His table. And so these two illustrations, the Good Shepherd and the generous Host, this is where David is drawing his confidence. And so we’ll look tonight as these two illustrations – the Good Shepherd, that you are a sheep in His care, in verses 1 to 4. And the generous Host, that you have a seat at His table, in verses 5 and 6. 

The Good Shepherd 

And so first, the Good Shepherd. You see in verse 1 the banner verse of the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And of course the illustration was easier to catch, it was easier to pick up on in agricultural ancient Israel than it is for us today. But I think we all have some vague recollection of shepherds and sheep. Sheep are not the smartest animal in the animal kingdom. They’re not the brightest; they’re not the bravest. They are weak. They are easily led astray. They are always vulnerable. And yet God gives us this image time and again in the Bible to say, “This is you. This is you.” I think you very much may be in touch today of all days with your limited resources. You may be very much in touch today with your limitations – that you are always weak, always vulnerable, easily led astray. 

But you see, the best thing about being a sheep is that you have a Shepherd. Charles Spurgeon said that he thought the sweetest word, the sweetest word in Psalm 23 is “my.” “The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD is my shepherd.” And the LORD, this is the personal name of God, Yahweh, the faithful God, the covenant-keeping God. “Yahweh is my shepherd.” This low position; the position, remember, of Jesse’s youngest. “The Lord looks not at outward appearance.” Yahweh has stooped to serve in this low position. And so His job, Yahweh’s job, your God’s job is to be with the sheep, tending them and teaching them and defending them and keeping them, so much so that “I shall not want.” In other words, the Shepherd, the Lord shepherds me in such a way that I lack nothing. 

The Good Shepherd Knows You 

And you see in these first few verses, you see all sorts of benefits of being His sheep. And we can’t fully flesh these out, but the Good Shepherd is good because He knows you, He leads you, and He defends you. And so He knows you. He says in John 10, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own. My sheep hear My voice and I know them. I know them by name.” And so He knows everything about you. He knows how frightened you are. He knows your particular needs. He knows your particular fears. You are His sheep and you are comprehensively known and comprehensively loved by your Shepherd. So you will not want. You will not lack rest and you will not lack restoration. You will lie down in green pastures. He knows you.

The Good Shepherd Leads You 

He also leads you. You will be led beside still waters. You will not lack guidance in this life. He guides you down just the right paths in life as you are in His shepherding care. He will lead you in paths of righteousness. 

The Good Shepherd Defends You 

But then look in verse 4. “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and that is where He defends you. And so He also protects you from those things that threaten you. When you are in the most dark place, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” And so He is a Shepherd who is armed. He is armed. If you are under attack, He defends you. And when everything is dark, and even if you are prone to wander, even if you leave, when you are so lost, Luke 15 says that He is the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine. He is the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine – don’t we need that? He leaves the ninety-nine in the open country and He goes after the one. So He goes after you. He goes after you. And when He finds you, Luke 15 says that He puts you on His shoulders, rejoicing, rejoicing. He is protecting you even if He has to prod you, to guide you, to keep you from wandering off the cliff because no one can snatch you from His hand. So He is the Shepherd who knows you, He leads you, He defends you.

But I want you to notice in this psalm, there’s no plea. There is no plea in this psalm. There is no request here. And that is because of the psalm, the story of the psalm is a journey – this long journey, this journey of faith. And this is real life. This journey of faith filled with trials and traps and temptations, but it is a journey – you see at the end of the psalm in verse 5 – it is a journey to the banquet table of God. And so the Shepherd takes you from verse 2, the green pastures where there are springs and still waters, and you travel through verse 4, the dangerous desert valleys where thieves and wild animals hide in the shadows. But the Shepherd carries you to the banquet table, to the feast table of God where there is oil and new wine and food that has been harvested and you celebrate with God.

And so the Shepherd knows you and He leads you and He defends you, but the emphasis in the psalm, the emphasis seems to be that He is with you, that He is with you on this journey. You see, on this journey there are no quick fixes. There are no ten steps. Jesus comes to you and He walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. And I want you to notice in the first three verses David is talking about the Lord. He’s talking about the Lord as his Shepherd. He’s speaking about the Lord. But when he gets to the darkest place, that deep, dark valley, he’s no longer talking about the Lord. Look at how the pronoun changes. He’s now talking to the Lord. He says, “I will fear no evil,” for in that place not, “He is with me,” but in that place, “You are with me.” “You are with me. The Lord is my shepherd.”

Derek Kidner, in his Psalms commentary, says that “The dark valley is as truly one of His right paths” – “He leads me in right paths” – “The dark valley is as truly one of His right paths as are the green pastures, and His presence overcomes the worst thing that remains – the fear. ‘For You are with me.’ His presence overcomes the worst thing that remains – the fear.” 

World War II historians tell us at the very height of World War II when the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was bombing European allied cities, that in these cities after sundown every light in every home was ordered to be extinguished; every light in every home. You could not turn on a lightbulb. You could not light a candle. You couldn’t strike a match because the darkness was so profound over the countryside that even the smallest flicker from miles away could give your city’s position away to a bomber overhead. That is how dark it was. 

And that is the picture for us, isn’t it? It seems that there is so much darkness and there is so much despair and there is so much disease and so much death. But you are not alone in the darkness. No matter how deep the darkness, God’s love is deeper still, which means that you are not alone. “The Lord is my shepherd, for You are with me.” He is your Shepherd. He will not fail you. He will not forsake you. He won’t fumble you. He won’t forget you. He will never lose you or leave you. You’re kept by Him. He won’t be clumsy with you. You are known by Him and kept by Him. How much do you and I need someone to say that over us every moment of our lives? “He will not fail you. He will not fumble you. He will not forsake you. The Lord is my Shepherd.” What if you lived there? “The Lord is my Shepherd.” What if you lived there? “For You are with me.” What would that do to your fear? What would that do to your despair? What would that do to your grief? “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Knowing that there is someone who watches over you, who cares about every detail of your life, who is not against you but for you and with you and who will not fail you – what if you lived there? “The Lord is my Shepherd.” And that is hard for us to hold on to. That is hard for us to hold on to in the dark and to keep holding on to. 

I have told this story before – the story of a little boy who was desperately ill. And his parents knew that he wasn’t going to live much longer and so they called their pastor to come to their home. And so the pastor rushed to the house and he went upstairs to the boy’s room and he spent time with the boy, just he and the boy. And after some time, the pastor left and later that night the little boy died. And so the next morning, the pastor went back to the home and he did all of the things that a pastor would do. He tried to comfort the parents, he read Scripture with them, he prayed with them, he tried to point them to the promises of the Gospel, but as he was about to leave the parents, they asked him this question. They said, “Are you able to explain something that happened?” And they went on to say that in the last hours of his life, that their son grabbed his ring finger and he died in that place. And he started doing this after the pastor left and they said, “Are you able to explain this?” 

And of course this little boy, when the pastor went to see him that night, was barely conscious, was not able to speak. And so the pastor was trying to communicate to him the beauty of the Gospel, the goodness of the Gospel, and the faithfulness of God. And so the pastor said to the parents, “I was telling him this is what it means to belong to Jesus Christ. This is what it means that you are in His grip. This is what it means that He is with you.” And the pastor said, “I grabbed his hand and starting with his thumb I said over and over again, “The – Lord – Is – My – Shepherd.” “The – Lord – Is – My – Shepherd.” And I said to him over and over again, “Your Shepherd will not let you go. You are in His grip. He is with you.” And so this little boy, moments before he was in the presence of Jesus, he grabbed his ring finger for “My” – “The – Lord – Is – My – Shepherd,” reminding his heart that he is held and he is kept, that he is safe and secure, that he is embraced even in the valley of the shadow of death. He is embraced by his Shepherd who is with him.

Do you sense the nearness of the Lord, your Shepherd tonight? You see, for David it’s never the circumstances that drive or dictate his confidence. It is the presence of the One who is with him. “For You are with me.” And so that is the Good Shepherd – that you are a sheep in His care.

The Generous Host 

And second and briefly, let’s consider the generous Host – that you have a seat at His table, in verses 5 and 6. And you see that David replaces the shepherd imagery and he describes a relationship that’s actually more intimate. He describes a relationship, not just shepherds and sheep, but of companions around a table. And he gives us this picture of welcome and celebration and joy and freedom. And Kidner points out in his commentary that “to eat and drink at someone’s table could be the culminating token of a covenant. And so to be God’s guest is to be more than an acquaintance invited for a day, but it’s to live with Him.” And so Psalm 23 is this journey home. It’s this journey home. You see, this is where, beloved in Christ, this is where your story is headed. And God, as the great Host, invites us to sit at His table and to commune with Him.

And you see in verse 5 – notice verse 5 – “He anoints my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This picture of oil and wine shows the overflowing joy of this communion – a sign of welcome. And so he has rolled out the red carpet. You are welcomed and honored at this table and you are filled. And notice there’s freedom. You see, so many people wonder about this imagery in verse 5, the table is prepared “in the presence of my enemies.” I think this may be my favorite part of the psalm. I think the psalmist is saying, “Think of the things in your life that are foes.” And of course the psalmist may be talking about, he may be referencing individuals. But maybe more, think about the interior foes, the interior enemies, the interior opposition, the enemies of your soul that prey upon you; the irreconcilable war that takes place inside of you. And so the psalmist is saying that when you are at the Lord’s table, those enemies cannot touch you; that you will be free. This will be a freedom unlike you have ever known before.

And so imagine, beloved in Christ, this is where you are going. You and I have a certain future. We will be seated at the feast table of God with the resurrected Jesus Christ. But here’s the scary part. You have to go through verse 4 to get to verse 5. Here’s the scary part. Verse 4 is a part of the journey. And so what is going to sustain us? Well again, look at the text. “The Lord is with us.” You see this in verse 6. “Surely goodness and mercy” – His goodness and His hesed love, His unbreaking, always and forever committed love – “shall follow me all the days of my life.” Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman, says, “It is that His goodness and mercy pursue us. They run after you and me that wherever you may find yourself to be, the mountaintop or the deepest, darkest valley, you know that His goodness and His love is relentlessly chasing after you.”

And so notice the imagery in the psalm is one of being wrapped up on every side. Because what’s behind you, believer in Jesus Christ? What is behind you? Verse 5, “Surely goodness and mercy follow you.” Surely goodness and mercy is chasing after you. Well what is in front of you? What is before you? The psalm says, verse 3, “He leads me.” And so you do not have to fear the path that you are on. He leads you. But in the darkest moments, where is He? Verse 4, “For You are with me.” And so goodness and mercy is chasing after you. He leads you in paths of righteousness. And in the darkest moments, He is right there by your side, “For You are with me.”

Do you get the picture? That you cannot get away from the Lord, your faithful Shepherd and your hospitable Host. And so we do not lose heart. Even when our hearts falter, we do not lose heart because our faith is not in our faith. Our faith is not in ourselves. Our faith is in the faithfulness of our faithful Shepherd. He will let nothing separate us from Him. He will let nothing separate us from His love. 

Let me close with this. What does it look like tonight, what does it look like for you to lean into this? If you are listening and you are in your golden years, or you are listening and you are a child, what does it mean, what does it look like for you to lean into this good news tonight? And another way to ask this, “What do you do on the long journey? What do you do with the darkness? What do you do with your fears? What do you do with your questions? How can you know that God is for you and not against you when there is so much that is against you; how do you know that God is for you?” I think these are our real questions. These are our most anguished questions, our deepest questions. Well to whom will you look? Where do you run? To whom will you look in the valley of deep darkness? And here’s the answer, beloved in Christ – you seek His face. You seek His face.

I heard a story recently about a little boy whose mother died and after her death this little boy was having trouble sleeping at night. And so every night he would get up and he would get out of bed and he would make his way to his dad’s room to be near his dad. And he would climb up in his dad’s bed. And truth be told, his dad couldn’t sleep either, and so he would toss and turn but every time in the night, every time in the dark that the father would turn away from the son, the son would wake up his dad, he would wake up his dad and he would turn him and he would hold his face and he would say, “Dad, I need your face.” I don’t need an explanation. I don’t need my questions answered. “Dad, I need your face.”

And so tonight, for the first time or again afresh, you only need to look to God and say, “God, I need You. God, I need Your face. I need Your smile. You are my help. You are the stronghold of my life. You are my Good Shepherd and You are with me.” That is an invitation. Amen. Let me pray for us.

God, we pray that You would give us Your face. We pray that You would help us to know that You are our Good Shepherd. And we pray that You would help us to leave here with courage, with comfort, and with delight and joy. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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