Resurrection Lutheran Church, St Catharines
A Real Shepherd
Rev. Kurt Lantz Easter 3 Psalm 23
April 23, 2023 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear sheep of the Good Shepherd,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our God with the right hand that does valiantly (Ps 118) and the breath of His mouth that creates the heavens and all their host (Psalm 33) is, as today’s psalm describes Him and as Jesus states of Himself, a shepherd, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), my shepherd. When the Old Testament describes God as having such characteristics we label them with the term ‘anthropomorphic’. It is the term that we use for literature that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, like trees crying or cliffs staring down at you.
I am not so sure that it captures reality completely to think this way about God’s valiant right hand or the breath of His mouth or Him being a shepherd. Scripture tells us that God made man in His image (Genesis 1:27). Our characteristics come primarily from Him, not His from us. And of course, in the coming of the eternal Son of God into human flesh (the incarnation), we see that God really does have a right hand that does valiantly even when nailed to a cross, and breath of His mouth and gives the Holy Spirit, and, as Jesus said, He is the Good Shepherd, the one from whom all shepherds ought to pattern themselves.
It is significant that King David is the one who wrote Psalm 23. When Samuel went to Jesse’s home to anoint the next King of Israel, David was not there as he was out in the field keeping the sheep (1 Samuel 16:11). When David was delivering supplies to his brothers in Saul’s army, he accepted the challenge of the giant Philistine saying that the Lord who had saved him when he fought bear and lion to protect the sheep, would certainly protect him from the giant Goliath (17:37).
David patterned his shepherding on the God who fed and protected him, and in Psalm 23 King David does not describe God as a picture of David, but as the preeminent ultimate shepherd David tried to live up to but never could, not as the shepherd boy keeping Jesse’s sheep or even as the mighty King of Israel.
The Lord is my shepherd in a greater way than a farmer caring for animals, even his own animals. The Lord is my shepherd in a way that I shall not want anything I don’t have, even if a king would supply all of my wants. According to our sinful human nature, the more our wants are supplied, the more we want. If a farmer supplies our wants we begin to want other things that a corporate executive can supply. If our wants are supplied by a corporate executive then we want the kind of things that a movie star can get us. And even if a king were to supply our wants, we would want more. What kind of a shepherd is Yahweh (the LORD) that we shall have no wants? Surely, no such shepherd as we have ever seen or has ever been, save Himself.
So the Old Testament passages that describe God in ways that we recognize from our own human nature, are nothing less than prophetic, but possibly quite a bit more. Jesus, God incarnate, is the Good Shepherd like no fallen human shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.
Certainly any shepherd worth his calling would not flee when he sees the wolf coming. He would shoulder his rifle and shoot the wolf at a distance. But if the long gun was not working or not with him, surely he would put himself between the wolf and the sheep and attempt to scare off the wolf with loud shouting and waving of a stick. But if the wolf was not deterred, perhaps the shepherd would try to manoeuvre the flock so as to keep some kind of physical barrier between the wolf and the sheep. But if the wolf cannot be kept away, a good shepherd will leave the sheep and let the wolf have them.
A good shepherd will sacrifice the sheep to save his own life because he is a husband and father and part of a larger economy on whom many people depend. The cost of one, two, or three sheep does not balance the cost of the shepherd being injured or killed so that he cannot take care of the rest of the animals or all of the people that depend upon the contributions of the farm.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is something else entirely, something greater. By laying down His life for the sheep He is not doing something reckless, foolish, or economically disastrous. We cannot apply to Jesus the definition of a shepherd from the point of view of fallen human nature. It is not something for Him to live up to. Rather, we realize how far short the best shepherds fall when we see in Jesus what a truly good shepherd is and does. He is what shepherds aspire to be but what they cannot be. He is what you cannot be.
You cannot satisfy your own wants, nor can you supply the wants of others—and not just of those who demand of us more than is reasonable, but also of those for whom we are called to care (our families, our relatives, our brothers and sisters in Christ, the poor, the sick, the dying, the strangers). We cannot supply all of their wants for food and rest and peace of soul, but in Jesus Christ we aspire to do what we can.
Sometimes we can do a fairly good job of supplying the wants of others. But when the big bad wolf called death comes along, it becomes tortuously obvious to us that we cannot supply all the wants, not even the desire to live. And reflecting back we may see that the food and the rest and peace of soul that we sought to provide throughout the years, well, it just wasn’t enough, not enough by a long shot.
It is in this line of thought that David leads us to profess from the heart the dear words of the world’s favourite psalm. People love the twenty-third psalm. It could be the most well-memorized passage of the entire Bible. It is often included in funeral services, used when people are sick or afraid, and often a part of Sunday School or Vacation Bible School programs.
The Psalm is down to earth and yet divinely sublime. We can picture every line in our mind, and still we have never seen anything so far from our reach. The imagery requires no explanation and yet the mystery it communicates is beyond all understanding. It is the divine mystery of the Gospel itself, of God saving His people through the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of the eternal Son.
After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that He had fulfilled the things written about Him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). The proper way for us to read Psalm 23 is not to picture a shepherd from ancient Israel caring for his sheep, or even to picture Jesus taking on a side job to search out lost lambs and carry them on His shoulders. The proper way for us to read Psalm 23 is to see the death and resurrection of Jesus supplying all of our wants and leading us through the valley of the shadow of death to life everlasting in paradise.
This is the LORD, the almighty and eternal God. This is His nature, His characteristics, His being, His relationship to you and each one of His people—everyone who hears His voice, even those who are not yet of the fold of the one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church, but whom He continues to call to Himself. It is Him, Jesus Christ, who supplies all of our wants of food, drink, and refreshment of body and soul, through His death and resurrection.
He is the one who has gone through the valley of the shadow of death, not as some kind of allegory of overcoming the hardships of this life, but in reality as suffered and died and rose again. He passed through real death to really and truly live again. That was what showing His hands and His side to Thomas was all about (John 20:27). The disciple could really put his finger into the mark of the nails and really put his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side where the Roman lance pierced Him. This is what Jesus sitting down to eat bread and fish with the disciples was all about (Luke 24:43), and appearing to them personally and in large groups, repeatedly (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
It was not just an idea dreamed up in the mind of fallen man, but a return to the true of image of God in which He created us. It is a true resurrection from death to live eternally in a real paradise feasting on real food forever.
And so in the twenty-third psalm we see Jesus making His disciples and us recline for our Sabbath rest in the pasture of the Church where His body and blood are given in rich supply. We see Jesus leading us to walk by the still waters of our Baptism into His death and resurrection. We see Jesus restoring our soul through the forgiveness of our sins given by the breath of His mouth in His holy Word.
The Word and the Sacraments supply all of our wants in ways that no one else ever can, not our parents, not our spouse, not our friends, or any charitable organization. And that relieves us, knowing that although we are unable to supply all the wants of those who depend upon us, they have a Shepherd who cares for them with divine, perfect, almighty love.
And when the valley of the shadow of death appears in our path, that time when our failure to supply all wants is most clear to us, we need fear no evil (not even the evil of our own sins). For the Good Shepherd is with us. He has really and truly gone through that valley Himself and risen to life again. He is the one who is with us through death to life everlasting. There is nothing to fear even on that dark path. We are with Him and without fear and we will emerge with His victory over death and the grave, over sin and the devil.
This is not just a picture of sweet dreams while our bodies rest in the grave and our minds and memories slowly ebb away into ether. This is as true as the death and resurrection of Jesus, and as sublime as the reality of the LORD of heaven and earth being our true Shepherd. The life He gives in the resurrection of Jesus through His Word and Sacraments is real.
There is a real feast prepared that we will enjoy forever, exceeding all of the wants for food and drink that anyone ever experienced. The real food and drink that we receive here, the real body and blood of Jesus that His Word brings to us now, is rightly called a ‘foretaste’ in the very real sense of the word. We are eating and drinking what will be ours for eternity, before we pass through death to life everlasting. And there we will truly taste it with resurrected bodies right down to our taste buds as we feast with all the faithful. Isaiah prophesied a feast of rich food and well-aged wine (Isaiah 25:6).
Isaiah prophesied that the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6)--quite a feat for a shepherd to accomplish—and it, too, will truly happen in the new creation when our Good Shepherd comes on the Last Day. The paradise of creation before the fall into sin will be restored, so will our bodies created in the image of God into which He breathed the breath of life. And all of Scripture will be fulfilled in ways that are real and true and beyond our imagination.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.