The Song of the Sheep

This Sunday marked the conclusion of our series through the Psalms. As the series developed (planning started back in May), the themes of God’s strength in the midst of our weakness continued to come up. It only seemed fitting to conclude the series with Virginia singing His Strength is Perfect. And it only seemed right to finish the series with a look at Psalm 23. In the light of recent events in our congregation, I don’t think these themes could have been any more appropriate.

We don’t have a recording of Virginia singing her solo (and I’m not sure if licensing would allow us to share it anyway), but here’s the song as sung by CeCe Winans

Sermon audio will be posted later today. In the meantime, here’s the manuscript…

Well, we’re at the end of our quick journey through the Psalms. As we’ve listened to the songs and prayers that were composed by a group of people in a completely different time in a completely different place under completely different circumstances, it has become clear that the experiences of those by whom the Psalms were composed really aren’t that different than the stories that you and I share. They deal with exhilarating highs, like when you look at the wonder of creation that surrounds us – maybe it’s a breath-taking sunset, the sound of a newborn’s cry, or the intricate beauty of a spider spinning her web – sometimes you can’t help but stand back and say, “Wow! Look at how amazingly creative God is!” The Psalms also deal with painful lows and times of deep sorrow. With the vast spectrum of experiences and emotions expressed in the Psalms thousands of years ago, we find that they echo the same emotions and experiences we share today.

The Psalms are full of vivid imagery, describing the attributes of God in some very tangible ways. At various times, God is referred to as a tower, providing His followers protection and strength in times of trouble. He is also called our Rock, our strength, our sun which provides light and life, and our shield. When we hear these descriptions, they emphasize specific attributes about the nature of the God whom we worship. When brought together, they help provide us with a more complete picture of the Living God. And one of the most enduring and endearing descriptions used in this collection of psalms is found in Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd.

If you have your Bible with you, turn with me to Psalm 23. If you don’t have your Bible, you’re welcome to use the one found in the pew in front of you. Psalm 23 is found on page 476 in that Bible.

The culture of ancient Judah was very pastoral in nature. If you trace the history of the Jewish people, you’ll find that there’s a long line of shepherds in their past. In Genesis 4:2, we see that Abel was a shepherd. All of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were shepherds. Before Moses led his people out of Egypt, he spent forty years caring for his father-in-law’s sheep. It was while he was a shepherd that God commissioned him to deliver His people. And later on, it’s to a group of shepherds that the first announcement of Jesus’ birth is proclaimed. Jesus uses the imagery of a shepherd and his sheep to describe the relationship of God with people – because they were in a pastoral society and understood exactly what he meant without having to go into too much detail.

Then, of course, there’s David. He’s considered the greatest king in the history of Israel and Judah. He’s the man after God’s own heart. And he grew up as a shepherd-boy, tending his father’s flock. And this morning’s psalm is attributed to him. Many people refer to this as the Shepherd’s Psalm, and that’s OK. It’s a song about the Good Shepherd. But in reality, it’s the Sheep’s Song, written in reference to the Good Shepherd. And it’s one of the most recognizable passages in all of Scripture, isn’t it?

Let’s listen to this little girl as she shares Psalm 23 better than any of us could.

Read Psalm 23

We have a beautiful picture of how God relates to us here. Of course, this Psalm is closely associated with death and funerals, but it goes beyond that. It’s reminds us about how the Lord is with us always – not just at the time of death (although in the presence of death can sometimes be when we sense his presence most). It’s not by accident that we are referred to here as sheep. Sheep don’t just take care of themselves. Phillip Keller, author of the book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says that sheep “require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.”[1] Keller’s book really helped me understand the depth of the statement “The Lord is my Shepherd.” And much of what I’ll say this morning has been influenced by his book. We have a couple of copies available for you to borrow if you’d like to really go in depth into this Psalm. They’re on the Information Table. If you do borrow one, just make sure to bring it back when you’re done so someone else can read it and be encouraged.

For those of us who did not grow up around sheep, we have difficulty understanding what is being communicated here when we are described as sheep and God being our Shepherd. The overarching characteristic that defines it when compared with other forms of livestock is that…well…they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed…if you know what I mean. They are prone to wander off for no reason at all. And when they go astray, they cannot find their way back home. There is a remarkable amount of infighting that takes place amongst the sheep. Keller describes it this way: “Generally an arrogant, cunning and domineering old ewe will be boss of any bunch of sheep. She maintains her position of prestige by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from the best grazing or favorite bedgrounds. Succeeding her in precise order the other sheep all establish and maintain their exact position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting and thrusting at those below and around them.”[2] And tension hangs over the flock as there is always the prospect of getting head-butted by someone trying to move up the corporate ladder that is referred to as the flock’s “butting order.” And if a sheep were to become immobilized because of a wound, the other sheep have been known to go over and eat all of the grass around the sick one, essentially condemning the sheep to starve to death if the wound didn’t kill the sheep first.

Of course, in addition to the internal threats, there is always the threat of some outside predator coming in for a late-afternoon snack. External predators including wild dogs, bears, cougars, coyotes, and snakes were always on the prowl. Sheep have essentially no means of self-defense, except to be faster than the other sheep. So they’re always tense, ready to run away on a moment’s notice. In fact, they are so tense and easily panicked that the mere jumping of a rabbit can cause a stampede where the sheep just scatter, running blindly in whatever direction they can as fast as they can.

We’re known to do the same thing, aren’t we? If left to our own devices, there’s backbiting, bullying for position, and looking out for one’s self. We are a greedy people who could easily get ourselves lost if we weren’t careful. Throughout history, it has not been uncommon for people to wander down the path towards anarchy, chaos, and destruction without even realizing what they doing before it’s too late. And many have lived by their own golden rule that seem similar to the mindset of the sheep: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

But there’s one thing that changes all of this for the sheep. One thing ends the bullying, fighting, and tension. One thing removes the fear of the flock, and that’s the presence of the shepherd. In both the day and night, the presence of the shepherd put the sheep at peace like nothing else could. When the shepherd is not around, the sheep are tense. There is always tension in the flock because there is rivalry and competition between the sheep. They cannot lie down and rest because they have to be ready to defend their own space against any intruder. And it’s only after the arrival of the shepherd who knows each of them by name and will fend off the external enemies with his rod, a heavy instrument used to stun or kill wild animals that might come after the flock.  There’s a relationship there. The shepherd will go to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of his flock. And the sheep know it.

Not only does the shepherd protect against external and internal predators, but he also does all he can to remove any other dangers. Sheep, of course, grow wool. And wool is not exactly the most water-friendly of materials – especially if it’s your natural coat and you’re by a rippling creek or some other fast-moving body of water. So, sheep don’t drink from fast-moving water. A shepherd would be known to build a temporary dam to turn a stream into a calm pool of water, suitable for a sheep to satisfy his thirst. A more literal translation of verse 2 says, “He leads me beside stilled water.” Because the shepherd has gone ahead and prepared the water for the sheep to drink.

The same is true in providing food for the sheep. Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry. But, sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left on their own, they will walk the same paths every day, eat from the same patches of grass every day, and drink from the same pools every day. So much so that they would eat the patch bare and pollute the pool of water – but keep going there because of habit, even though there wouldn’t be a fresh supply there. So, an ample food supply is necessary to provide nutrition and it’s also important for the sheep’s health because there is no rest until there is a full belly. Flat places in the hilly country were called “tables.” Again, sharing from Keller’s thoughts: “Green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land use. Green pastures were the result of clearing rough, rocky land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special grains and legumes; of irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks.”[3] The shepherd would go ahead of the flock and literally prepare these tables for the flock. Obstacles would be removed. Dangers eliminated. The table was prepared or the flock.

After spending the day grazing in the lush table that was prepared for the flock ahead of time, the shepherd would gather the sheep together. Calling each one by name, he took his staff and inspected the sheep as they passed by. He would lift up various parts of the animal, checking for wounds and other blemishes that would need to be treated. And when an injury, infection, or parasites were discovered, the shepherd would treat the sheep. Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly. This fly and its larvae were so irritating and annoying to the sheep that they’d do anything to be rid of the parasite. They’d roll around in dirt or thrash around in a woody area. Sometimes they’d deliberately beat their heads against a rock or a tree in a vain attempt to gain some type of relief. When the shepherd would inspect his sheep at night, he’d make sure there were no nose flies swarming around them. At the very first sign of these pests, he’d apply the antidote, which was like an oil, to their heads. And they would find immediate relief.

Of course, the same is true with us. In the Gospel of Matthew in 1:23, we are told that Jesus’ name is “Immanuel” – God with us. He is with us, just like the shepherd would stay with his flock. It is in the presence of the Good Shepherd that all anxiety and fear dissolves. The pressure to compete and to “do unto others before they do unto you” goes away in the presence of the Good Shepherd. The tension goes away as we know that the One who loves us and knows us by name is here and ready to guide and protect us. When He sees an area that needs healing, He heals it. And just like sheep, we can’t really do anything on our own. When we try to do it on our own, that’s when we wind up getting lost and can’t find our way back. It’s only by the guidance of the Good Shepherd that we can approach the difficulties of life with peace and with confidence. It is only by following the leadership of the Good Shepherd that we will find rest. It is only by staying within the presence of the Good Shepherd that we can approach the valleys of life – including death – that we can say that we have no fear…because He is with us. He is our protector and our provider. He is there in the times of plenty and the times of famine. He is our shepherd and He wants to know us and for us to know Him.

And just like the shepherds would go ahead of the flock and prepare the way for them, Jesus Christ has done that for us, too. He has already gone ahead, taken on our own sins when he died on the cross, faced the death and punishment that we ourselves deserved, and provided a way for us to have a friendship with our Loving Father. He has already paved the way. We just have to follow.

Sometimes, the flocks would wind up mingling together – similar to the cattle on the ranges out West. And the shepherd would need some way to easily differentiate their own sheep from another shepherd’s flock from a distance. Yes, they knew their sheep like they knew nothing else, but sometimes it was easier just to have a mark on them to show which sheep belonged to whom. So the shepherds would mark their own sheep with a particular notch on the ear. That way, all of the sheep with that same mark could be gathered rather quickly and brought to the same shepherd. A stray sheep could also be picked out in a hurry and gently brought back into the fold. The mark was a sign that you belonged to the shepherd and you were following him.

Have you been marked? Have you chosen to follow the Good Shepherd? He has already prepared the way for you. All He wants from you is to choose to follow Him. Have you been marked by Him? Have you allowed His sacrifice to stand in the place of your sins? Have you chosen to follow Him? Have you been baptized in following His own example? When people look at you, can they tell by your actions, attitude, and words, that you are a follower of the Good Shepherd? Have you been marked?

If not, you are invited to allow Him to mark your life today. You’re invited to choose to follow the Good Shepherd wherever He may lead. Sometimes the path will be difficult. He never said it would be easy. But He did promise that HE would be there and He would never leave us.

[1] Phillip Keller. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. 20.

[2] Keller. 39

[3] Keller. 45-46

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1 Response to The Song of the Sheep

  1. Pingback: Song of the Sheep (audio update) « Continuing the Conversation

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