The 23rd psalm is to the life of faith what cottage pie is to comfort food. Its 110 words are familiar, even beloved. Most people can recall at least the first verse, (even if they only know it as the theme tune to the Vicar of Dibley), and if prompted many Christians can probably stumble through all six of them. The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favourite at funerals, covering grief with a warm blanket of hopeful, familiar words.
And yet, this coming week, the fourth Sunday of Easter–which is what the church sometimes refers to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading (John 10:11-18) in which Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd–we might do well to consider what this familiar psalm means in the context of our daily faith walk.
We know from the gospel that Jesus lays down his life for his sheep and that his sheep know him and his voice. Further we hear that there will be one flock and one shepherd (vs. 16b), as Jesus continues to draw the circle larger and include all the wandering and wayfaring sheep.
The 23rd Psalm can serve to amplify what it means to be under the care of the Good Shepherd, to live a life where there is not want. It’s countercultural, this concept of having no want. After all, our consumer culture cultivates (or tries to) an ever-increasing sense of want in our lives, convincing us that we must have more in order to be satisfied. However this absence of “want” in Psalm 23 goes far beyond satisfying our consumer appetites, it exceeds mere daily bread, too. To not “want” means to be content in the daily walk of following Jesus.
Whether one finds much a needed, albeit temporary, rest in green pastures, or is struggling through one of life’s inevitable dark valleys, the promise and reality is still the Good Shepherd’s leading and provision. This psalm is no sentimental gaze at a Sunday school painting of “Christ the Good Shepherd,” and we who preach and teach dare not let it slip into any such nostalgic or happy-go-lucky realm.
To follow Christ the Good Shepherd means to tread through life in the rutted “right path” tracks of righteousness. It’s no easy-peasy short cut to wealth and happiness but rather following in the footsteps of the one who defines right relationship and justice and beloved community. The right path of righteousness doesn’t lead to a pot of gold over the rainbow but rather to a cross and being willing to lay down everything, even one’s own life.
Yes, there is comfort in the rod and staff that keeps us headed in the right direction. There are still waters that restore one’s soul. There are glimpses of goodness and portions of mercy filling life to overflowing abundance, and yes there is a place at Christ’s table where we can feast in the presence of beloved community and enemy alike. The Good Shepherd will not forsake us or leave us, but following him means being nimble of foot and sure of step as we keep our eyes and focus on his direction and path. We dare not weigh ourselves down with the cares of the world or fail to love others with the same lavish love that Christ the Good Shepherd extends to us. The journey outlined in the 23rd psalm is not one to be taken lightly but is one that can be undertaken by all who would love the Lord. Blessings for the journey where goodness and mercy are right behind you all the way.
Rev Nik Wooller
25th April 2021