The Lord is my Shepherd
Chances are, you
were in second or third grade when you first learned it, and then
you promptly forgot it, even if you may have recited it in front of
the whole Sunday School. Chances
are, the second time you learned it was during seventh grade
confirmation, and then you forgot it immediately after the test.
And, chances are that, as you grew older, you heard it nearly
every time that you attended a Christian funeral. Yes, there are
many instances within our Christian lives where we learned it.
It has become a
personal symbol, living deeply in our individual psyches. It also
has become a historical symbol, living through the centuries. It
speaks deeply within our personal souls and also deeply within the
soul of history.
It goes like this:
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to
lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He
restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his
name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow
of death, I will feel no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your
staff, they comfort me. You anoint me head with oil. My cups
overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
psalm has become a symbol, woven into the psyches of the centuries,
woven into our personal subconciousness and into our historical
psalm was written by King David, some three thousand years ago. The
23rd psalm is the most famous of his psalms and it is
still a classic from the Bible today.
The following is a
story about the 23rd psalm that illustrates the power of
the 23rd psalm.
I received a telephone call from Joyce to go and visit her
mother at Valley
General Hospital in Kent, and so I went right over to see her
mother. I was told she was a devout Christian. Her mom was comatose
I didn’t know her mom and she didn’t know me. I came into this
room and she was about eighty years old, with thick glasses and
hearing aid. I reached down to her bed to touch her and said to her,
“Can you hear me? I am Joyce’s pastor.” No, she couldn’t
hear me. She seemed a little disoriented, so I spoke loudly right
into her ear. That is what I was taught to do when I was at the
seminary so many years ago; chose the 23rd psalm and
speak it loudly in the ear. The recitation of the 23rd
psalm could penetrate a coma. So, my lips were about three inches
from her ear and hearing aid, speaking as slowly and distinctly as
possible. I almost shouted, “The
Lord is my shepherd, I still not want. He makes me to lie down in
green pastures.” I
recited the whole psalm, so close to her, my lips and loud voice
right up to her ear. Slowly she quieted down and I sensed that she
was hearing me. Slowly, her arm came up from the bed and blindly
reached for my face, that was so close to her ear. She pulled my
face to her lips, kissed me and said, “I love you, Bob. I love you
my son.” There was a
moment, a pause, and then I left, having shared that special moment
with her, she thinking I was her son.
Well, the next day,
I came back to the hospital and I knew instantly her mind was clear
as I walked into her room. I introduced myself and spoke very
loudly, knowing she couldn’t hear very well. “Martha, I am
Pastor Markquart, Joyce’s pastor, and I saw you the other day and
I recite the 23rd psalm into your ear. Do you
remember.” We talked more. I eventually asked her,
“Would you like to recite the 23rd psalm
together?” We did. A
few days later, she died.
Once again, the 23rd
psalm demonstrated its powerful presence and I saw those sacred
words penetrate a coma of an elderly woman.
I would like to
walk through the primary phrases of the 23rd psalm with
“The Lord is my
all of us know that shepherds are good, kind and gentle. Even in a
technological society and having never met a shepherd face to face,
we all know that shepherds are gentle and kind. Even the children
know that, as was demonstrated in the children’s sermon. All the
children had never met a shepherd, but as a group, they unanimously
and spontaneously said that shepherds were good, kind and gentle.
The children have been taught that by Bible stories. They
have been taught in Bible pictures. They have seen the picture of
Jesus, the good shepherd, caressing a lamb in his arms. By seeing
that picture of Jesus holding the sheep, every child knows that
Jesus loves children and is a very good shepherd, a person to be
A symbol of a
shepherd is not a whip where God whips us into obedience. One time,
my family and I went to San Diego and we saw an animal show and we
saw a trainer who had a whip that whipped all those elephants into
obedience. He snapped the whip. He snapped it. He snapped it again.
And those elephants got right up. And then we watched the lion show
with the same trainer. He had that whip and he snapped it. He
snapped it again and those lions got up and stood on their haunches.
work on lambs. God does not whip you into fear. God knows you are a sheep
and whips don’t work on sheep.
And then we went to
Universal Studios and we saw a dog-training act. Those dogs were
well trained. The trainers didn’t use whips. They gave those dogs
biscuits and those dogs would jump over a hoop for a biscuit. Those
dogs would do anything for a biscuit and many people have that
concept of God. If you do something good, God will give you a dog
biscuit. I you do things bad, God will withhold the dog biscuit from
you. And so you learn to do the right tricks in order to get the dog
biscuits. Do you know what? Biscuits don’t work on sheep.
The symbol of a
shepherd is not a whip and not a biscuit. We are sheep; and fear
does not motivate us, and neither do spiritual biscuits.
There are two
symbols of a shepherd. The first symbol of a shepherd is the staff,
like the shepherds staff that I am holding in my hand. A shepherd
lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff
under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole.
And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives,
and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage
from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you
up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help
you.” It must be
clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff
to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end
of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as panthers and lions.
The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order
to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good
The second symbol
of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice, and it is difficult to
draw or symbolize a voice. But the voice is important to the
shepherd. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. I
ask you a question: “What is the life span of a sheep?” Some
twenty to twenty-five years. The sheep of the Bible were not raised
for their meat, not for mutton but they were raised for their wool.
The sheep lived as part of the family for twenty to twenty-five
years. The sheep were treated like pets and became part of the
family. The sheep had names such as Tammy Lammy, Sally Sheepy. The
point is, sheep had identities and were known by the shepherd.
And likewise with
you, the Bible guarantees us that we have a name and that God knows
our name. God is the good shepherd, who knows our very name.
Over time, the
deeper the relationship, the sheep and the shepherd know the voice
of one another. We understand this because we talk on the telephone
and recognize certain voices. The closer we are to people, the more
we know the sound of their voice. They don’t have to tell their
name on the telephone; we know their name because we know the tone
of their voice. If you are my very own child, I know the sound of
your voice on the telephone. You don’t have to tell me your name.
And so it is with God; God knows our voice because we have called on
God often. God hears our voice and knows our voice by its very
sound. And we know the sound of God’s voice, the voice of God in
the Bible, the voice of God in prayer. By experience, we learn to
know the sound of our Lord’s voice.
In the Old
Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to God. In the New
Testament, “the Lord is my shepherd” referred to Jesus. Who is
our shepherd? God? Jesus? Both are referred to as Lord. We
know that both the Lord God and the Lord Jesus are good and
that our Lord is the good shepherd. The phrase, “good shepherd”
helps us to understand God and how God works with our lives. The Lord Jesus, the Lord God is my shepherd.
Let’s go onto the
next phrase. The Lord is my shepherd. “I shall not want.” I
shall not be “in want.” An Old Testament scholar by the name of
Delitsch said that this proved that King David was an old man when
he wrote this psalm; that he was old man; that he was no longer
wanting anything. As a young man, King David would have
wanted our modern equivalent to cars, boats, houses, computers; he
would have wanted all the latest junk of his time in history.
That’s the way it is, isn’t it? You get a house and you fill it
up with junk and then more junk. How many of you have enough room in
your storage area in your house? How many of you have enough room in
your cupboards? Enough
space in your closets? In space in your garages? You spend the
primary portion of your life stuffing yourself, your closets, your
cupboards, your garages with things. Then you reach an apex to your
life and then move to another house, a smaller house and you sell
half of your junk. They call these events “garage sales” but
they are really “garbage sales” and junk sales and you are glad
to unload your junk to get rid of your stuff. You later make another
move into a smaller apartment. And perhaps towards the end of your
life, you make another move into one room. Your kids then perhaps
sell off your stuff when you are no longer around to watch the
garage sell; they sell your stuff and then give all the rest away or
take the leftovers to the garbage dump. By the end of your life, you
don’t have very much stuff at all. The only thing that you have
left is the hospital gown that you have on, and then you die.
And the wealth that
you have around you are not material things but the wealth of love
from your husband or wife, kids, grandkids, friends, loved ones who
are standing gathered around your death bed. You have finally
learned that God’s wealth is the wealth of love of people
around you … This is what you eventually learn from life: the
happiness of life does not come from material things but from human
relationships. Happiness does not come from the accumulation of pile
of things but happiness comes from the depth of relationships.
The psalmist says it well: “The Lord is my shepherd, I
shall not want … more material things.” We all learn that
The next phrase is:
He makes me. I like that phrase. He makes me to lie
down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters and
thereby restores me soul. The first thing the shepherd does
for us is that he makes us to be quiet. He makes us to
be quiet and thereby our spirits, our souls, our inner selves can be
I ask you: “How
many of you rushed to get to church today?” You get up and rush to
church; rush home to eat; rush out to a soccer game; rush home to
meet someone. You rush to this and you rush to that. You rush all
weekend and fall into bed exhausted tonight at 10:00 on Sunday
night, trying to get it all in. Thank heavens for Monday so you can
go back to work and get a little rest.
It is the frenetic rat race that goes round and round and
found in a fast paced frenetic flurry.
Now, the antidote
for a frenetic, fast paced life is this: God make you to lie
down in green pastures; God leads you beside still, still waters.
And God restores your soul in the stillness of water and the
stillness of life.
In America, over
time, our souls have shriveled up because we lead such a fast paced
life. Of this I am sure: over time, a fast paced life will shrivel
up the soul inside of you and me. The children of this generation,
whose lives are so busy, whose lives are run, run, run, from morning
until night; sometimes I wonder of the soul is developing inside of
the children of today.
There is something
incredibly wonderful to stillness. With bodies not moving. With
minds not moving. With energy not moving. Stillness.
have many “takers” today. What is wrong with you if you are
being still? Stillness is a waste of time. Can’t do anything when
you are still.
A philosopher once
said: “We are so busy dusty plastic flowers that we don’t have
time to smell the roses.” We don’t have time to cultivate the
roses and watch them grow. Especially the younger generation.
Therefore God, and
this is the first thing that the good shepherd does, will make
you to lie down and be quiet. God will lead you beside the still
waters. God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” That
is why God wants us to be still: so that we know that God is God.
Thereby, God restores our inner soul.
In this stillness,
we feed in the green pastures; we eat and absorb the food for the
soul, the Scriptures, the holy words of God. In this stillness, we
drink the water, the water of God’s Spirit.
“God leads me in
the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.” God leads me
in the paths, in the ways of right relationships, of right values,
of right choices. God always leads us down a right path, a narrow
path. The word, “path,” implies narrow, like one person
can walk on it. The word, “road,” refers to a wider path with
room enough for a wagon pulled by animals. The word, “path,”
connotes narrowness, and God needs to keep me his sheep on that
narrow path of right relationships.
Now, everybody that
raises sheep or has raised sheep always says that sheep are dumb
animals. If you ask Ingrid in our parish, who raises many kinds of
animals, she will tell you that horses are smart; that dogs are
smarter; but that sheep are the dumbest animal she knows. Keith
Sanderson in our church, as a boy, raised about two thousand sheep
and Keith will tell you that from his vast experience with sheep as
a boy, sheep are dumb animals.
God compares us to
sheep. What does that mean? Human beings are by far the most
intelligent creatures that God ever made; we are the crowns of
God’s intelligent creation; so why are we referred to as sheep?
Not because we are intellectual idiots but because we make dumb
choices. Human beings have the highest of cranial capacities but we
make the dumbest choices for our lives.
To help us
counteract making such foolish choices, God puts out for us a narrow
path of right relationships. The Lord God will lead us on this
narrow path or right and healthy relationships, and we, like dumb
fools, will make these dumb choices whereby we hurt ourselves and
other people. For example, I chatted with a neighbor young man the
other day and said, “Monty, why are you smoking that cigarette?
Those cigarettes are cancer sticks which will be nailed in your
coffin. It is so dumb. I may bury you early some day.” “I
don’t know” was his grumbling reply.
We make dumb choices in the way we use our body, how we use
time, how we treat family and friends, how we don’t have time for
God in our busy lives. We are very, very intelligent creatures, but
we make such incredibly dumb choices with our lives. God says:
“I will lead you on the paths of right relationships, right
values, right choices.” By walking on the paths of right
relationships, that helps us in making good, wise decisions. We, who
are compared to dumb animals, need all the help we can get and
walking on the paths of right relationships is help for us indeed.
“For his name’s
sake.” For decades, I did not understand what this verse meant but
now I do. In the book of Acts, the reference to Jesus’ name is
synonymous with his powerful presence. Acts 4:7 says, “By what
power do you do this? By what name do you do this?” Name
is synonymous with powerful presence. In the twenty-third psalm,
it sounds like this: “You Lord lead me in the paths of right
relationships that please your Power Presence.” That is true. When
you have right relationships with people, that pleases God’s
Powerful Presence. I have memorized the twenty-third psalm and it is
deep within me, including these words:
“You Lord lead me in the paths of right relationships that
please your powerful presence.
“Even though I
walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Your rod and your staff will comfort and strengthen me.” Yes,
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The word,
“death,” is too narrow of a translation. That Hebrew should be
translated, “deep darkness.” Otherwise, if the word is
translated “valley of death,” this psalm relates primarily to
funerals. That is not true. We all walk through valleys of deep
darkness so very often during our lives. We all walk through times
of great pain and tragedy. One thing I know about this congregation:
“I know your lives I know very well because I have been here
nearly thirty years, and I know you have experienced deep tragedy. I
look out across this congregation, if I add up all the tragedies as
I look across your faces, of this I am sure; it is inevitable that every
person here will have pain and tragedy in life. That’s just the
way it is.”
But the key to this
verse is the preposition, “through.” Even though I walk through
the valley of deep darkness, I will be with you. God will not leave
you in the midst of the valley. There is always sorrow and pain in
your life, but there is an end to it. Of this you can be sure, the
pain that you are experiencing, no matter how enormous, that pain
God says, “When
you are in that valley of deep darkness, I will be there to
strengthen and to comfort you.” Now, to comfort you, does not mean
that God is going to go into a “pity party” and say, “Now, now
there. Don’t feel so badly.” The word, “comfort,” does not
mean “pity party,” but “com” in Latin means with; “fort”
means strength. God is there to be with you to strengthen you. Is it
not true that God has strengthened you in the sorrow of life? Yes,
that is true. God has made you stronger and the people around you
stronger than you ever imagined that you could because God’s
strength is in you. I have known so many strong Christians in my day
and they are strong when they walk through the inevitable valleys of
Then, in the psalm,
come four lines that are all connected. “You prepare a table for
me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My
cup overflows. Sure goodness and mercy shall live with me all the
days of my life.” David had an overwhelming positive spirit within
him through out his life, and that spirit is revealed here in these
words. David always had enemies like King Saul and others who were
trying to kill him. And it was a divine joke that God always gave
him food, right in front of his enemies, preparing a meal for David.
Also, David felt
like a pitcher of olive oil was poured over his head and he felt
glorious. Our contemporary culture doesn’t do this; that is, we do
not drench our head and hair with olive oil in order to announce
someone is a king. But anointing the head with oil was part of the
life of David. Today, we put a dab of olive oil on our heads at
baptism and announce we are part of a royal family. But with king
David, they poured the whole pitcher of olive oil on his head. What
a celebration. He said that his cup was overflowing; that goodness
and mercy would follow him all the days of his life.
You see, there is an overflowing optimism in David.
There is this overwhelming sense that your cup is running
over, is overflowing.
In America, we
discuss whether the cup is half empty or half full, and your choice
reveals whether you are essentially a pessimist or an optimist. The
Bible doesn’t talk about cups that are half full or half empty;
the Bible talks about cups that are full and overflowing with
blessings. There is an overwhelming sense of thanksgiving to God
inside of you.
And so it is with
us Christians today. We have
this overflowing sense of God’s blessings on our lives. Did you
notice the rhododendrons in your garden? When you looked in the
mirror today, you know that you are still alive. When you look at
your flower boxes at your home, you know that you are still alive
today. When you look at your family, you are reminded that you are
alive today. When you look at the beautiful children seated before
me in the front pew, how can you not be happy?
Some of you may
feel, “Yes, but I am feeling rotten today and I don’t feel my
cup is running over. My cup feels rather empty today.” Such
feelings will change. Of this I am sure, joy will be restored to
your cup. My cup is running over with the abundance of God.
At my daughter and
son in laws wedding, I had a communion cup, a communion chalice, as
a sermon prop, and I kept on raising that communion chalice up high,
saying their cup is running over today with the happiness and
goodness of God. “Fill to the brim my cup of blessing” is what
David declares. And that is what marriage is to be: “Fill to the
brim our cup of blessing.” That is what God wants us to feel
inside; that is the way that God wired us; that our joy would be
restored and that our cup of life will overflow with love for other
people and God.
The last line: “I
shall live in the house of the Lord….forever.”
That last word is a good one, “forever.” The word,
“forever,” is a favorite word of King David. He uses it often.
God will love you forever. You will live forever in God’s house.
When you die, nothing can snatch you from the Father’s
hand. In the drama for today, you could see that there was nothing
that could snap the little sheep from the shepherd’s hand. And
when you die, there is nothing that can snatch you from the
I would like to
tell you my favorite 23rd psalm story. I tell this story
as part of my seventh grade confirmation curriculum when we study
the 23rd psalm. It goes like this. “You kids have to be
able to know how to recite the 23rd psalm. You have to
know how to say the first line of the psalm. The way you say
the first line is the key to knowing how to recite the 23rd
psalm. If you say, the Lord is my shepherd, you miss it. You need to
say the first line correctly, like this: the Lord is
… my… shepherd.
You have to say it correctly, and using the fingers of your
left hand, beginning with your thumb and saying with each finger,
you count, “The Lord is … MY …on the fourth finger…shepherd.
Let’s all say it correctly together, using our fingers of our left
hand, beginning with your thumb. The Lord is … my… shepherd.
And you grab the finger when you say the word, “my.”
Now, this is the
story. It was about 1850, March, snow flurries, frozen ground, a log
cabin, and in that little log cabin on the prairie was a boy by the
name of Timmy, who was dying of diphtheria. The pastor who came to
that log cabin that day was a Methodist circuit rider; that is, he
rode his horse hundreds of miles to cabins and churches, visiting
them every two months or so. This pastor came into the cabin and
inquired about Timmy, whom he had heard was sick. The pastor was
ushered through an opening in the curtain to a back room where Timmy
was sick in bed. The pastor said, “Timmy, do you know how to say
the 23rd psalm?” “Yes, I learned it when I was in
second grade, in Sunday School. It goes like this. The Lord is my
shepherd I shall not want.” Timmy rattled the 23rd
psalm off rapidly. “No Timmy, that is not the way to say it.”
“Ok, pastor, I will say it more slowly.” “Timmy,” the pastor
said, “I want to teach you how to say the 23rd psalm.
As you begin the first sentence, you count your fingers, beginning
with your thumb, and when you get to the fourth word, the word,
“my,” you grab that finger. A wedding ring is one the fourth
finger of your mother’s and father’s hand. It is the finger of
love. Say the words of the first sentence as you count your fingers,
and then grab the fourth finger when you say the word, “my.”
That will remind you that Jesus is always your personal shepherd, my
personal shepherd. OK?” So Timmy practiced saying the first
sentence of the psalm. The pastor was satisfied. They said their
goodbyes and the pastor left.
The pastor returned
to the log cab two months later and it was now spring. The snow was
gone and as he approached the log cabin, he saw a little mound of
dirt near the cabin with a cross on it. He knew Timmy had died. The
pastor went into the log cabin and talked with Timmy’s parents.
They talked about Timmy; they talked about his death; and finally
the mother asked. “You know pastor, something strange happened
when Timmy died. We kissed him goodnight. In the morning, first
thing, we went behind the curtain to see him and he was gone; he had
died. But it was so strange. His right hand was still wrapped around
the fourth finger of his left hand. Do you know what that means,
When you say the 23rd
psalm, you need to know how to say the first line: the Lord is … my
… shepherd. Amen.
sermon. The pastor has a shepherd crook with him. The pastor
asks the children to guess what it is. A pool cue? A question mark?
A walking stick? What is this thing called? The children guess.
Finally, they guess that it is a shepherd’s staff. … It was used
to pull a sheep who was in a hole or crevasse out. Can a child
volunteer to be a sheep in a hole and I will pull you out? (Do
that.) Jesus gently pulls us out of our holes in life, ever so
gently. … Using the other end of the shepherd staff, the pointed
end, the shepherd uses the staff as a weapon, to fight off lions and
bobcats. God always fights off the evil around us. … The shepherd
never uses the staff as a club, to club the sheep into obedience, as
a stick to beat the sheep with. God never does that. … Ask the
children: “Is a shepherd good, kind and gentle?” The children
will all answer “yes” in unison. “Have you children ever met a
shepherd?” None of
them will have. Not one. Then ask the question: “How then do you
know that a shepherd is good, kind and gentle, if you have never
know one?” The children guess. Finally, an answer will emerge.
“Jesus is our shepherd, and Jesus was good, kind and loving and so
shepherds must be also.”
Skit between two
people who are lambs: One lamb is an older grandmother. The
second lamb is a younger child who has a bag in which are all the
items to be pulled out for the skit. This skit was written by
Darlene Swanson Malmo. This play is a take-off from the story,
“Runaway Rabbit.” 1)
is the grandmother. 2) is the grandchild.
If you run away, I will find you. You are my little lamb.
If you come to find me, I will become a fish and swim away
from you. (fish)
If you become a fish, I will become a fisherman and reel you
you reel me in like a fish, I will become like a rock, way high on a
If you become a rock, I will
become a mountain climber and climb to where you are.
Then, I will become a rose and hide behind sharp, sharp
If you become a rose, I will become a gardener and find you,
even if you hide behind the thorns.
Then I will become a bird and fly, fly away. (toy bird)
If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will become a
tree that you come home to.
If you become a tree that I come home to, then I will become
a boat and sail far away from you. (toy boat)
If you become a boat, I will become a rudder and guide you to
where it is safe.
Then I will become a circus performer and swing on a flying
If you are in a circus and are flying on a trapeze, I will be
the one who catches you when you jump. (cape like in a circus)
Then, if you are the one who catches me when I jump, I will
become a little girl and run into a house.
If you become a little girl and run into a house, I will
become your grandmother and you will be in Grandmother’s house and
nothing will snatch you out of my hands. (a doll)
I think we should go and find the other sheep grandchildren.
1) OK. Baaaa.