Our Good Shepherd
We are living in turbulent times. In just a few weeks the world has gone from ‘things as usual’ to ‘we’ve never been here before’.
The word turbulence is often used to describe the shaking experience in airplanes when the fly through patches of unsettled air. Warm air rises, cold air descends, and the plane can get caught in these currents; what had previously been a smooth flight is now subject to shaking – sometimes violent shaking.
The worse flight I’ve been on in my life – possibly the only one when I was truly scared – happened in September 1992. Jean and I, along with our 3-month old daughter, were flying from Warsaw, Poland to L’viv Ukraine. As the plane began its descent, the stewardesses were quickly trying to collect trays and rubbish from the in-flight service, and as the stewardess with her trolley approached the row where were sitting, four things happened all at once: 1) we hit an air pocket, and the plan – rather than simply vibrating violently – just dropped – and for a moment felt like it would keep dropping; 2) Jean was handing Julia to me for safe-keeping; I was getting sick in one of the nice little bags in the seat-back pocket; 4) the tray with teas and coffees in the stewardess’ hand went flying. In short – there were a lot of bad things that happened; all at once, everything was thrown into a moment of uncertainty.
Eventually we did land, and when we got to L’viv, there were trees down all over the place. We had flown into an intense windstorm that toppled trees, and it seemed the storm could have tossed the plane to the ground. But it didn’t; we landed safely – shaken, but fine; stirred – and unable to fully comprehend what had just happened.
This reminds me of the moment in which we are living. Everything has been thrown in the air, we’re not sure what tomorrow holds, and we have experienced disruption at every level. People all over the world are experiencing genuine trials.
There are a variety of trials we face on an increasing basis:
- Physical Sickness – some of you, or someone you know has gotten the Covid-19 sickness from the coronavirus, or you have symptoms, or your worried about getting it. And before this is over, many more people will get it.
- Social upheaval – it’s hard to keep calm and carry on when everyone we know is going through the same thing. Normally, when we have an issue, it’s just us, and we can assume we’ll come out on the other side.
- Pattern Disruption: whether it’s big patterns (work patterns change because the children are home from school) or small patterns (the gym is closed!), our normal lives have been substantially disrupted. Everyone we know is now living and thinking differently because of the coronavirus.
- Uncertainty about the future: We simply do not know what is going to happen. Though there are models and predictions, we do not know how long this is going to last, and we do not know what further guidance and restrictions may be coming tomorrow of the next day.
It is in the face of these trials that we must be on guard against various traps. There are many different traps that try to capture us and hold is in a kind of mental, emotional, bondage during times of turbulence.
- The trap of worry
The word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan, which originally meant "strangle," and changed over the years to mean harass and then cause anxiety. We worry when we contemplate the various worse-case scenarios that might unfold. Worry is a means of trying to problem solve our challenges. This is especially activated when there is so much uncertainty. Not of us have the luxury of not thinking about the future; but it is very easy to slip from ‘contingency planning’ to the endless cycle of worrying about the ‘what Ifs’.
- The trap of doubt
Doubt is a mental state in which the mind remains suspended between two or more contradictory propositions, unable to assent to any of them. Doubt on an emotional level is indecision between belief and disbelief. Doubt arises in our hearts when we start interpreting God through the lens of circumstances and the uncertainty of events rather than interpreting circumstances through the lens of God’s character.
- The trap of paralysis
You may have heard the phrase, like a deer in the headlights. Sometimes when deer see the light of an oncoming car, rather than running to get out the way, they just freeze in place – they get stuck. Paralysis a state of fear, panic, or confusion so extreme that it is impossible to act or think normally.Sometimes this comes from over analysis and getting caught up in Why? And the truth is, most of the time we don’t know why. But if we get caught in the endless web of asking why – why has this happening? - we can become paralysed. That means we’re not going to take the steps we need to thrive in the midst of the storm.
- The trap of pattern neglect
Because we are overwhelmed with worry, or overcome with doubt because of the uncertainty, or we have become paralysed, all of those things can bump us out of the patterns that bring health and sustenance to our soul. Patterns like reading the Bible, praying, corporate worship - even if it is online - and connect with other Christians - online. These are important patterns to maintain.
In the context of the trials and traps that we are facing, does it make sense to trust God? Is that a rationale response? Can we justify confidence in God in uncertain times? I believe it makes perfect sense to trust God. I believe that the best response to times of turbulence is to run to God and trust him with all of our hearts.
The best response to times of turbulence is to trust God.
And one of the scriptures that leads me to this conclusion is Psalm 23:1-6. Before I unpack this powerful text, I want to give you the answer at the beginning. This is a Psalm about who God is and what He does. It’s not a Psalm about what we’re supposed to do. Our tendency is to respond to crisis by asking the question, ‘What do I need to do?’ No, our greatest need is to understand who God is. If we have a distorted view of God, then we won’t respond in the correct way.
- If we think God is a celestial butler we can call on whenever we want to meet our whims and desires, we’ll respond to God in the wrong way.
- If we think God is an evil tyrant who enjoys making our lives miserable, we won’t respond to God in the right way.
So we need a deep, accurate, understanding of who God is. But this is hard for us because in a moment of crisis we want to know, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ If we embrace the picture in this Psalm – that God is like a shepherd, and we are like sheep – that’s a good start.
So as we work our way through this text, keep asking this question – what does this verse tell me about God? Then, when we know who God is, we’ll understand our appropriate response.
1. The Promise of Guidance
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Psalm 23:1
David refers to God has as his shepherd and himself as a sheep. A shepherd plays a multi-dimensional role in the lives of the sheep, for the flock he leads. He is a provider, a preserver, a protector. The shepherd has the responsibility of taking care of the sheep, being sure they are fed, they are watered, they are protected. But notice that David refers to the Lord as my shepherd.
He has personally submitted himself to the leadership of the shepherd. In other words, it is those who are part of the flock – those who are followers of Jesus – those who have submitted themselves to Christ’s Lordship – that can expect to receive the benefits that come from the Shepherd.
That’s why He says I shall not want. The promise of God to his people is that they will not lack any good thing. So ask yourself, is the Lord your shepherd? Have you turned to follow him, to listen to him, to surrender to him? If so, you can trust the God is going to guide you through these times. If not – today is a great to turn to follow Jesus.
2. The Promise of Provision
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. Psalm 23:2
The picture here is place of green pastures and refreshing waters. God takes care of all the needs of his children, but more than food and clothing and shelter, God is particularly concerned about our spiritual prosperity.
The green pastures are a picture of the Bible, God’s word of truth. The Lord invites us to come and eat and find satisfaction for our soul.
When we trust in God’s promises by faith, we are like sheep that lie down in the pasture and enjoy both rest and refreshment.
For me, green pastures are key scriptures, bits of the Bible, that I go to often. I call these feeding places. Now I know those of you reading from over their in the USA, when I mention feeding places, you’re thinking about your favourite local all-you-can-eat buffet. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about regular places I visit in the Bible that feed my soul.
Here’s one example out of many:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1
That verse reminds us every day that we can come have not only been forgiven through what Christ has done, but the banner God speaks over our life is peace – first of all with him. There is no turbulence in our relationship with God because we have peace with him through what Jesus did.
This is just one example out of a book – the Bible – that is jam-packed with promises that pertain to God’s people So the good news for us is that if we will follow the Shepherd, he will lead us to these green pastures, these feeding places.
The other key promise here is that we are led to still waters – waters of refreshment. For me, this speaks about the Holy Spirit. Jesus said,
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”Now this he said about the Spirit John 7:38-39.
The good news for us is that the Holy Spirit is not constrained by coronavirus; the Holy Spirit is not self-isolating. So even if you do have to self-isolate, you can enjoy the presence of God, you enjoy the refreshing of the Holy Spirit.
So our good Shepherd leads us into the green pastures of his word and the refreshment of the Holy Spirit.
3. The Promise of Peace
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Psalm 23:3
This is a beautiful promise. Our souls – our mind, our will, our emotions, God will restore these. We’re all susceptible to soul deterioration – that is, when dark thoughts batter our minds, when current events try to play our emotions like yo-yo – up, down, and all over the place. And the pattern of healthy thinking that should normally mark our lives deteriorates.
When our soul health gets deteriorated, it needs restoration. And the Lord restores our souls as we encounter him in his Word and by His Spirit.
Now, there are practical things you can do during these days to protect your soul health. In this time of social isolation, you need to be sure you connect with other people – join us here every Sunday morning, join us in one of our connect groups during the week.
And be sure that you meet God every day in his word. Remember, empirical studies have shown that when people experience spiritual benefit when they interact with the Bible at least four times a week. It is in these moments that the Lord invites us to open our souls to him, to let his peace, his presence, and his restoration.
4. The Promise of Presence
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. Psalm 23:4
As we go through life, we experience valleys. We all experience l low moments – period of difficulty. Sometimes it feels like rather than having the wind beneath our wings, we’re swimming through peanut butter. We’re exerting lots of effort, but - we don’t seem to be making progress.
But when read the phrase, valley of the shadow of death, I think this is more than just a difficult moment – it’s a period of darkness when we begin to wonder if we’re going to make it.
Notice what this says it is the shadow of death. The reason there is a shadow is because there is light. In other words, the shadow is created when the lies of the devil block us from the promises of God. It is in those moments that we’re tempted to listen to the lies and doubt the promises. But notice what the Psalmist says:
I will fear no evil, for you are with me
Regardless of how we get into the valley, regardless of how dark it is, when we draw on, lean into, and access the presence of God, the fears that attack our soul are chased away. Remember, the Lord is a good shepherd, and he’ll take us safely through to the other side.
- The Promise of Power
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Psalm 23:5
First, the prepares a table in the presence of our enemies. Normally, soldiers would grab a quick bite, on the battlefield, they’d eat on the run. The Lord says that for us, even in the midst of battle, struggle, difficulty, and turmoil, he’s going to keep us well-provisioned. This is a picture of an unhurried, relaxed, sit-down meal. It’s a table, not on the run. Even when we’re surrounded by enemies, we will feast.
Next, we read that he anoints our head with oil. In the Bible, being anointed with oil is a sign or a symbol God granting authority to one of his people. It’s an act of consecration or separation by which God marks someone or sets them aside for a special task. What the Lord is telling us here is that God will mark us and grant us sufficient authority to call on the resources we need to win the battle.
Finally, my cup overflows. God is not the God of almost enough - He is the God of more than enough. God gives us more than we need, more than enough, more than just the little bit we think we’re worthy of. God is a God of grace. That is, God give us an over the top abundance of love and mercy that we don’t deserve. And that leads us to verse 6:
6. The Promise of Grace
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Psalm 23:6
First of all, this is surely. David doesn’t say, ‘maybe’. ‘Maybe if I’m faithful. Maybe if I read the Bible enough. Maybe if I pray enough. Maybe if I’m nice enough to the people around me’. No – this is what God does because of who he is. And what is that is sure? What is it that certain?
Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. God’s goodness and his mercy to us are like two guardian angels, following us around wherever we go. Whether the sun is shining, or it’s rainy; whether we’re sick with Coronavirus, or enjoying the best health of our lives – God is chasing us down with goodness and mercy.
And finally, acknowledges the ‘always’-ness of being with God. We get to dwell with God forever. Now, for some of you, the idea of being with God forever may seem boring. But imagine holding a diamond so beautiful that its beauty captures your gaze. I mean you can’t stop looking at it. It’s hard to go to sleep at night because you want to keep looking at the diamond. You can’t wait to get up in the morning because you want to look at the diamond.
God is more beautiful than that. And each one of his attributes – his goodness, his mercy, his holiness, his righteousness – each of his beautiful characteristics is so beautiful that we could look at them forever and never grow tired of them. Dwelling with God is the greatest experience available for any human.
So the promise of God is that he is our good shepherd and he will take us safely home. We may walk through some very dark valleys, but in the end, the Lord will bring us safely and securely into the destiny he has for us.
Remember, this is about who God is and what he does. Notice how all of the verbs in this Psalm relate to God’s activity:
- The Lord makes
- The Lord leads
- The Lord restores
- The Lord comforts
- The Lord prepares
- The Lord anoints
In short, the Lord is our shepherd. That’s who he is, and that’s he does. And so what is our appropriate response? In a word, trust.
Because God is good, because he is a good and perfect shepherd who leads us to green pastures, still waters, he restores our souls, he walks with us through valleys of darkness and brings us safely to the other sides – We can trust him.
So the simple question is this – who is the shepherd of your life? Do you still trust yourself to navigate life’s challenge? Or do you acknowledge you need guidance from above? The appropriate response to God is to trust him with all your heart.
Jesus is a good Shepherd, and he cares for his sheep, feeds his sheep, and leads his sheep through to the other side.