Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2023
Prayer: Good shepherd of the sheep, by whom the lost are sought and guided into the fold; feed us and we be satisfied, heal us and we shall be whole, and lead us that we shall may be with you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, where you reign one God for ever. Amen.
When I moved into my house, I had big plans to set up a nice study upstairs. But then I remodeled my downstairs bathroom and had to live upstairs for a month or more before Christmas, and I decided that I’d had enough of climbing those stairs. So now I’ve just set up a little desk in front of a window facing the street in a corner of my bedroom. So yesterday when I was sitting there at my computer, I looked up, and what did I see? It had started to snow—and not just flurries. It looked like a white-out. And so, three months after the fact, I started singing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas to myself.
Did you know that Bing Crosby’s rendition of White Christmas is the best-selling song of all time? There’s some argument that the best-seller is actually the version of Candle in the Wind Elton John wrote for Princess Diana— but White Christmas came onto the scene before modern pop charts, so the Guinness Book of World Records gives it the honor of top-seller by a wide margin.
But I want to broaden our definition of “hit song” a little bit. Because there’s one song that’s both older and more widely known than anything either Elton John or Bing Crosby ever sang. And it’s the song we’ve heard three versions of this morning. First we sang it. Then we listened to it on the dulcimer. And then we recited it. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now: It’s the 23rd Psalm. Whether we’re Jewish or Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, We know and love the 23rd Psalm. It’s the most popular hymn in a collection that’s been the most widely known hymn-book for thousands of years. Can you imagine people singing White Christmas 3000 years from now? If humans are still around past the year 5000, I would imagine they’ll have forgotten Bing Crosby, but I trust they’ll still be turning to the 23rd Psalm for comfort and assurance.
Many of us can recite the entire psalm by memory. And all of us know the first verse without giving it a second thought. And when we say it out loud—The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want— we usually intone that first phrase evenly—The Lord is my shepherd— that is, without putting any particular stress on any of the words.
Obviously, if we stress one word over the others, we change the meaning of the line. If we say The Lord is my shepherd, we’re emphasizing that the Lord is not something else. If we say The Lord is my shepherd, we’re implying that he might not be yours. If we say The Lord is my shepherd, apparently somebody has just told us he wasn’t. But this morning I want us to imagine that little phrase we all know, but with the emphasis on the word Lord. The Lord is my shepherd. When you say it this way, the implication is that there’s someone—or something—else that could be your shepherd. And when you think about it, there really is. And for most of us, we can say The Lord is my shepherd as much as we want, but the reality is that it’s not the Lord who guides us in life—at least not all the time.
Let’s think about the first way the 23rd Psalm says the Lord is our shepherd: We shall not want, or we have what we need. This describes most of us. We complain sometimes about what we don’t have. But by the standards of most of the world, we live extravagant lives. There are billions of people alive today who would love to live as we do—snow and all. But who’s responsible? Who herded us into this situation, this way of life? To a great extent, I think many of us see ourselves as self-shepherding. We are independent. It is my hard work, it is my careful planning, it is my intelligence or cleverness that got me where I am today. I sing, “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want,” in church. But in reality, I’m responsible for my own success.
If we’re not patting ourselves on the back, we may have others whom we think of as responsible for the roof over our heads or the food on our table. Maybe it’s our boss or corporation, or maybe it’s a politician or political party. But too few of us really think that the Lord is our shepherd.
Gratitude is the answer to this problem. Taking stock of our blessings and thanking God each night before we go to bed for our blessings is a wonderful way to stop taking all the credit for ourselves, or to stop thinking some capitalist or politician is our provider. We may take stock and find ourselves thanking God for this or that person. But to find one new blessing each day and thank God as the Source— that’s one way to start saying The Lord is my shepherd.
Moving to the second verse helps us to think about who—or what—our shepherd actually is in another way. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his Name. So in addition to provider, the Lord would also be our guide. But we often look elsewhere for guidance. So let’s ask ourselves: Who guides us through life? or even, Who guides us through our day?
I remember back when I used to get a little black book from the pastors’ pension board every year. It was a diary. And unlike most other little calendars, it didn’t have less room for Sundays, it had more. I depended on those little calendars for years. I recorded all my appointments and meetings in it. It guided me through my life. In a way, it was my shepherd.
I’m sure most of you can relate. Call them diaries or calendars or agendas or Day Timers— most of us have used them and probably depended on them. And for most of us, those days are long gone, of course. Can you imagine what we’d have thought back in the 80’s if somebody had told us we’d be carrying around phones in our pockets that were actually computers more powerful than anything even NASA had. And that we’d use those computers for such simple tasks as keeping our calendars, s ending written messages to friends, and watching cat videos.
Needless to say, these little computers are clever enough to guide us on a daily (more like minute-by-minute) basis. They even navigate us when we need directions. I may say The Lord is my shepherd, but really, I willingly hand over more power to my phone than I do to God.
And if that’s not enough, I have a little wristwatch that’s more clever than most computers were when I first graduated seminary. It can not only remind me of what I need to do next, but it comes up with ideas all its own. I get a notification: “Time to stand up,” it tells me. It even tries to get me to take heart: “You can still do it!” it’ll tell me on a day when I haven’t done squat. My wristwatch, apparently, is my shepherd. It leads me away from my desk (or the TV) and to the treadmill. “Well done!” it says, and I beam with pride: My watch has guided me to the promised land.
The problem with God’s guidance is that it’s not usually as specific, and feedback is seldom as immediate. To reach the green pastures and peaceful waters, I need to be intentional. I need to clear my mind. I need to desire God’s presence in my life. I need to read the word… and actually think about it. I need to challenge my assumptions and question the other voices inside my head.
It’s okay to use my phone or my watch as a tool. But I need more guidance in life than they can actually provide. I need a shepherd who can not only guide me to pleasant and peaceful places, but who can teach me about justice and righteousness. God may not send me a direct message telling me to stand up. But God can give me the courage to stand up when others are too scared. And God may not give me turn-by-turn directions delivered in beeps in ear and vibrations on my wrist. But God’s word written in my heart can show me the way to the kingdom of heaven.
Even our phone’s GPS leads us astray from time to time. So it’s probably no surprise to any of us that trying to follow God’s guidance might lead through rough terrain. Sometimes we misunderstand the way we should go. And sometimes it appears to be God’s will that we go through trying times.
But, as Charles Spurgeon once wrote,
Remember this, Christian, and let it comfort you. However difficult and painful your road, it is marked by the footsteps of your Savior. And even when you reach the dark valley of the shadow of death, and the deep waters of the swelling Jordan, you will find his footprints there. Wherever we go, he has been our forerunner; each burden we have to carry, has once been laid on the shoulders of Immanuel.
And our Shepherd doesn’t just lead us. He’s also got our backs. For surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, until we dwell in God’s house forever.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.