The Pursuit of Goodness
Rev. Kurt Lantz Proper 11 B Psalm 23
July 18, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear sheep of the divine Shepherd,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What are you pursuing: what course of study; what career; what standard of living; what retirement goals; what financial goals? Even though we are not in the United States we are very familiar with the phrase from their Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness”. In Canada we have been guaranteed the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion; of thought, belief, opinion, and expression. But with a realistic view these may not lead to happiness. And even the phrase from the Declaration of Independence does not say everyone has a right to be happy, but the right to pursue happiness.
I presume that whatever you are pursuing in life, it is aimed at you achieving happiness. We think we will be happy if we can study what we want to study, work our dream job, attain to a certain standard of living, retire comfortably, and have no financial worries. Much like the Declaration of Independence, there are no guarantees. We are free to pursue these things and we are even free to think, believe, and express that these things will bring us happiness.
In the Large Catechism, expounding on the First Commandment “You shall have no other gods”, Dr. Martin Luther points out that “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart” (LC.I.2). In our freedom, what do we think, believe, and express when we pursue our goals for school, work, family, finance, and leisure? It is not that we have made these things our gods, but that we have made ourselves our god, expecting these good things to come from our own efforts, and believing that we must double down our efforts when these things elude us.
Right away we want to argue and point out that: no, we trust in God for these things, and so we do our best to attain to them. Yes, we trust in god for these things, but has the God of heaven promised these things to you, or is it the god of self that has made these promises? It is so much a part of our fallen sinful nature that we don’t even notice that we have replaced the one true God on the dais with ourselves, and promises with our own pursuits. Instead of affirming that we have been made in the image of God, we have attempted to return the favour and create our god in our image, promising the things that we want, and consequently taking on the heavy burden to bring them to fruition.
This is what leads so many people into anxiety and depression. We have certain expectations of happiness, success, power, leisure, and we demand that we create our own reward. We don’t want other people to think we are weak if we don’t accomplish these goals, and we don’t want to face ourselves if we cannot bring them about. And if we do somewhat succeed, we want people to attribute it to our doing, and we want the satisfaction of knowing that we have created our own blessedness. But all these things are so flimsy when formed by our fortitude. They are not built firm, strong, and secure, but are plastic, even virtual. They bend and break. They become corrupted and disappear.
We are so used to having to be the ones to make our dreams come true, to fulfil the promises that we have made to ourselves, that we need the Word of God to be a constant reminder to us that, to have the one true God looking after our lives is a blessed gift and is truly what we crave. It is what we are really looking for, and today’s Psalm (23) puts it in such beautiful imagery that it has become one of the most widely known passages of any text in the history of the world. We would do well to take to heart the words we know so well.
Of course, in Psalm 23 we are not the ones making things happen. We are not the hard-working shepherd. We are the sheep relying on the shepherd to provide all we need for a peaceful life. It is quite striking to search the psalm to see what is we are supposed to do. What are our responsibilities? “I shall not want... I will fear no evil... I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (vv. 1b, 4b, 6b). That is it. Do not want, or worry. Do not fear. Dwell in the LORD’s house. Let Him provide for all of your needs.
The pastoral scene in the psalm is a picture of the very things that you are pursuing: green pastures; still waters; restoration; righteousness; comfort; a full table; an overflowing cup; goodness and mercy all the days of my life. The Psalm reminds us that these are not things to be pursued, but things that are bestowed. They are given to you by the hand of another. They are given to you by your God. Do no worry. Do not fear. Dwell in the house of the LORD.
There is a shocking example and revelation of all of this in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 6:30-44). Jesus and His disciples are looking for some rest and leisure. The crowds are pursuing them. Jesus gives them rest in His Words and then in His actions. The disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can get themselves some food. That is what we are used to. People have to look after their needs. But Jesus shows us that our God looks after our needs and there is no need to worry, or to fear, but to dwell in the house of the LORD, where He is present to provide.
So Jesus takes bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples. “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men” (Mark 6:42-44). The disciples needed to see that the LORD would look after His people. And Jesus showed them that He was the LORD who looks after His people. He did what only the LORD of heaven and earth could do. He fed them as He had fed the children of Israel in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. “Man ate the bread of the angels; He sent them food in abundance” (Psalm 78:25).
“He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34), and He showed them that He was the LORD, their shepherd. They had no need to want or worry. They had nothing to fear. They could dwell in His house forever. He would do all that they needed.
This Good Shepherd did it all. He laid down His life for His sheep when He died on the cross for all of our sins of pushing Him aside and trying to take His place as the provider of all of our needs. This great Shepherd of the sheep was brought to life again so that we might trust in Him to lead us through this valley of the shadow of death without fear. He gives to us His body and blood in bread that more than satisfies the need for our forgiveness and a cup overflowing with the blood of His covenant of peace with us.
This is the Shepherd who provides for His sheep. He has gathered us together from the ends of the earth under His care. He has rescued us. We were at one time separated from the flock, alienated from His promises, “having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off [in your sins] have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). God has gathered and brought us into the fold (Jeremiah 23:3) through the blood of Jesus. He is our Shepherd who protects, feeds, guides, and blesses us in His Church.
If we pause in our pursuit of happiness we will see that from the hand of our Shepherd, His good gifts are pursuing us. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). We do not have to strive for these things. Our shepherd gives them to us. They are not exactly the things that we dream for ourselves, because the God who supplies them is not the god that we have dreamed ourselves to be. But they are the things that fill our need. They are the things that remove all want. They are the things that restore our souls. They are the things that comfort us in our times of fear. These blessed gifts from our Shepherd are more than we can imagine for ourselves.
And they pursue us. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” God’s goodness to me in Jesus never stops coming. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). I don’t need to be anxious about accomplishing something. I can rest as a lamb in the good shepherd’s keeping. I can be a good student because His goodness follows after me. I can be a good worker because His goodness provides for me. I can be a good father because His goodness takes care of me. I can set aside my wants and worries because the Lord is my shepherd. I can fear no evil because He is with me. I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever because His goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.