“The Lord our Shepherd Gives us Provision, Protection, and a Place in His Flock” (Psalm 23)
The shadow of death. In the Hebrew, it’s one word. In English, we can make a new compound word out of it. “Deathshade.” Sounds like the name of a Marvel comics villain. Or a heavy metal band. Deathshade.
This deathshade is the pall that hangs over all humanity. We’ve seen lately how the valley of the deathshade runs through places like Boston, Massachussetts; West, Texas; and Newtown, Connecticut. It runs through faraway places that are off our personal radar, but are no less affected by sorrow and grief. The valley of the deathshade runs through every nation, every state, every county, every city, every village, every home.
When you compare the scale of the event in Boston to the one twelve years ago on 9-11, there really is no comparison. But tell that to every single family who was affected. No matter how many casualties are counted, the deathshade falls dark and devastatingly upon even one single person and all the individuals who were a part of that person’s life.
Death comes to us through evildoers. It comes by tragic accidents. It comes by disease. It comes when our bodies age and finally wear out. But the root cause of all of this is sin. Mankind’s disobedience to God brought this deathshade upon itself. God gave man life. Man abused that gift. Now life is twisted and contorted with fear, distress, trouble, anxiety, and evil behavior. And lest you think evil behavior is reserved for terrorists, think about the evil in our own hearts. The Lord our Shepherd provides all that we need, yet you and I greedily covet. The Lord our Shepherd brings us to the green pastures and still waters of his Word, yet we seek satisfaction in other pastures that are not God-pleasing. Like sheep that stray, we walk off the paths of righteousness and onto the way of wickedness. We speak hurtful words. We refuse to forgive. This is all part of the deathshade that hangs over all of us and ruins the life that God intends for us.
God should come in and crush each and every one of us for the way we have misused and abused his gifts to us. But instead, he sent his Son into the flesh to be crushed in our place. “He was crushed for our iniquities,” the prophet Isaiah foretold (Is. 53:5). The deathshade that lies upon the whole world fell upon Jesus at the cross. He endured all that we deserve. The valley of the shadow of death traveled up the hill of Golgotha and dragged Jesus all the way down into its darkest depths in the tomb. But as you already know, three days later the tomb was empty. The light of the resurrection eclipsed the deathshade. That’s what we celebrated several Sundays ago. That’s what we celebrate every Sunday. It’s what we should be celebrating and remembering every single day. We do not worship a dead Savior. He lives. Through his death, he has earned the forgiveness of sins for you. Through his resurrection, he has conquered death and the grave for you. And he is present now with his life and with his love in Word and Sacrament.
King David was once a shepherd boy. He knew how a shepherd was to be ever watchful, ever vigilant, ever caring for his sheep. When he became shepherd over God’s people Israel, David knew he needed a greater Shepherd. And so he was able to pen those familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In John chapter 10, Jesus teaches us that he is the Shepherd of whom David wrote: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
The Lord our Shepherd gives us provision, protection, and a place in his flock.
The Lord our Shepherd provides for our needs. The psalmist says “I shall not want.” Other translations say something like this: “I lack nothing” (NIV) … “I have everything I need” (GNB). And what is it that we really need? I think about this every time I go into my garage. There is an awful lot of stuff there. And it just sits there. Taking up space. Collecting dust. Providing places for spiders and other creepy-crawlies to hide and reproduce. Do I need all that stuff? Of course not. Most of it I could probably take to the dump and I would still be fine. I wouldn’t miss it a bit. The only time I probably even think about it is when I’m in the garage, and I think to myself, “I might need that some day.” Really? Those roller blades? I will probably never put those things on ever again. If I did, I’d probably break my neck. That old drill that I inherited from my dad? I don’t think I’ve taken it out of the bottom of the Craftsman tool cabinet (also inherited from dad) since we moved in, and since my wife bought me one of those new-fangled rechargeable drills. And what about all those tools inside that tool cabinet? I probably have at least five hundred allen wrenches in there … again, an inheritance from dad. Do I really need that many allen wrenches? Did my dad really need that many allen wrenches? I am no handyman, but I would venture to guess that even the most experienced handyman does not need five hundred allen wrenches.
What do we really need? Simple, nourishing food. Quiet refreshment. Restoration. The Lord our Shepherd gives us exactly what we need for our bodies, like a shepherd who leads his flock to green pastures and still waters. More importantly, he provides for our spiritual needs in his Word. In his commentary on Psalm 23, this is what Luther saw. The green pastures and still waters are all about the blessings of God’s Word for us. His Word nourishes our souls. It gives us times of quiet refreshment as we take time to listen, to read, and to have our souls restored through the message of the forgiveness of sins. That’s the path of righteousness on which we are led by our Good Shepherd. And it’s not because of anything we have done. It’s all because of everything that he has done for us. Jesus walked the path of perfect righteousness for us. All that he does for us is “for his name’s sake.” His name is honored. He gets all the glory for the life and salvation he gives to us.
The Lord our Shepherd gives us protection. The rod and staff of his Word comfort us. The deathshade hangs over us like a vulture circling around a weak, injured animal, waiting to swoop in … or like a wolf ready to pounce on a helpless lamb when the shepherd is distracted. Nevertheless, our Good Shepherd protects us from evil and the fear of death. But what do we see all around us? Nothing but death, evil, and trouble … all kinds of vultures and wolves who would devour us and lead us astray. Whether tremendous tragedies or petty problems, they cause us to doubt God’s care and concern for us. Luther tells us, therefore, to listen to the Shepherd’s voice, not “what your eyes see and your old Adam feels.” Listen to the Good Shepherd’s sure promise: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). Our Good Shepherd is never distracted, never caught off guard. Holding fast to that promise, Luther says, “You will go straight forward to speak freely:
Let the devil, the world, or my own conscience oppose me violently as they may. I will not for that reason grieve myself to death. It must be so and it shall be so, that whoever is the Lord’s sheep will surely be assailed by the wolves. Be it with me as it may, let them boil or roast me, it shall be my comfort that my Shepherd has given his life for me. Moreover, He has a sweet, kind voice, with which He comforts me and says that I shall never perish, neither shall any man snatch me out of His hand; I shall have eternal life (John 10:28). And He will keep this promise, not matter what happens to me. If because of my weakness some sin or other fault by chance is still found in me, He will not reject me on that account. For He is a friendly Shepherd, who watches over the weak sheep, binds up their wounds, and heals them. And so that I may be all the more sure and not doubt, He has given me, as a token, His holy Sacraments.[i]
The Lord our Shepherd gives us provision. He gives us protection. And he gives us a place in his flock. It’s been said that America was once “a nation of joiners.” However, a study conducted by a Harvard professor showed that over the last 40 years, participation in voluntary associations is down by up to 50 percent. The professor blames television for this, and that may be the case.[ii] But my point here is not to point the blame at TV or the internet … although I think you can make the case that the growth of social media like Facebook has shown that people still feel the need to belong to something bigger than themselves and to connect in a meaningful way with people.
As those baptized into Christ, you and I already are connected to something bigger than ourselves. We are members of the Body of Christ. We are members of the Holy Christian Church. We are connected not only to one another here, but to Christians around the world. We are even connected mystically to that white robed, innumerable multitude already standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God.
Until we join that throng, a place has been prepared for us at his table where we get to eat and drink the body and blood of the Lamb in the presence of our enemies. We have been anointed with the abundant oil of grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. And there is a never-ending supply of life and salvation that flows from our Lord’s overflowing chalice.
Provision. Protection. A place in his flock. These are all gifts of the Lord your faithful Shepherd who became the Lamb of God for you. The light of Christ’s resurrection shines brightly through the deathshade that hangs over us. Listen to his voice in his Word and follow him. He has promised that his goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life. And you can be sure that at your life’s end, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.