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Easter 4B RCL April 26, 2015

Acts 4: 5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John  10:11-18

Jesus says to us this morning, “ I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” The biblical shepherd goes out in front of the flock. He walks the path ahead of us. There is nothing we can go through which he has not endured. He knows where the good water and the verdant pastures are. He is ready to lay down his own life to protect us.

We know the voice of our Good Shepherd. In biblical times and even now, the shepherd takes the sheep up into the mountains to graze during the day and brings them home at night to a safe place in the village. It may be a cave. It may actually have a wall around it. All the shepherds in the area put their flocks into the fold, and, in the morning, each shepherd comes and calls his sheep, and his flock knows his voice and comes out and follows him. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is an intimate one.

It was not easy to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time. It was a dangerous job, and it was a profession that was on the margins of society. Paradoxically, there was the idea of the shepherd-king, the leader who cared for and protected the people, especially those who were most vulnerable. King David, who was called from tending the flocks, was the most revered example of the shepherd-king.

The twenty-third psalm is one of the most beloved of psalms. and it elaborates on the theme of the good shepherd.  I would like to take a little time to meditate together on this beautiful psalm. I am going to use the traditional version, which is on page 476 of the Prayer Book.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Jesus has already told us that he knows each of us by name. He knows everything about us, good and bad, and he loves us with a love that nothing can stop.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. On the journey of life, our Good Shepherd takes care of us. We have everything we need. He takes us to green pastures where we can graze to our hearts’ content. He leads us to water in quiet, protected places where we can drink in peace. He leads us to the stillness and serenity that make us able to know how fully we are in his presence. The still waters—how rare stillness is in this busy world.

He restoreth my soul; he feeds and strengthens, not only our bodies, but our spirits. He gives us everything we need. He reinvigorates and revitalizes us. He fills us with his love and energy.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. He leads us, not on just any path, not just on a good path, but on the right path so that we can grow into the persons he calls us to be and  glorify his Name.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me. Because our Good Shepherd is with us in every moment, we do not have to fear anything, even death. Sometimes our journey takes us into some scary places. We can always trust that our Lord will bring us through.

How can we have this level of trust?  The psalm gives us the answer: For thou art with me. He is with us on the journey. He is with us to guide us. When we feel scared or confused, or lost, this is a line we can say to ourselves. For thou art with me. He is with us in everything. We are never alone. We may feel alone, but he never leaves us. He is always there.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. If jackals or wolves come after us with teeth bared, our Good Shepherd uses the rod and staff to beat them off and protect us. The  rod and staff are also used to keep us from straying off into the thorns and thickets and getting into trouble, Our Good Shepherd uses these tools to comfort us. Comfort is from the roots con-with and fortis-strength. So, comfort actually means strength. Our Good Shepherd strengthens us in times of darkness and danger.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Here, the journey takes us into a situation of a battle. The enemies are gathered all around. Maybe our little flock is surrounded by wolves. Maybe these are human enemies. Maybe it is a spiritual battle and we are being assailed by the forces of darkness.

Whatever the enemies are, our Good Shepherd is creating a safe place, setting a festive table with the best food, and blessing us with the best of hospitality.  Thou anointest my head with oil. In biblical times, a good host would anoint the guests with oil. Scholars tell us that this scene of the table is almost on the level of a royal feast.

There is some threat, and our Good Shepherd is making us safe and hosting a feast into the bargain. The wolves can circle, but they cannot get in.

Biblical scholar J. R. P. Sclater writes, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies becomes a table spread in the midst of the pilgrimage, even when foes are massing to the attack. The verse has been declared to have been a favorite text in London at Communion services during World War II, when the bombing was at its peak, even in one instance when a part of the church was hit, while the service continued.” (Interpreter’s Bible, Ps. 23, p. 128)

My cup runneth over. Our Good Shepherd showers us with abundance. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. With our Good Shepherd leading and guiding us, we will journey with courage to His glory and we will get home to the safety of the fold.

May we continue to follow him.  May we follow him always.  Amen.

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