TEXT: Psalm 23:1b-2a; Ezekiel 34:11-15
Today we continue in the second of seven weeks in Psalm 23. Last week, we looked at the image of God as Shepherd and talked about some of the characteristics of a shepherd as a provider, protector, and guide. Today we will focus specifically on two phrases: “I shall not want” and “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” On the surface, both are about provision, but we will see that protection and guidance are still operative.
We also come to this text in the context of a week of protests in Charlotte. These were prompted by the death of Keith Lamont Scott, but as I listen carefully, run far deeper into perceptions, experiences, and history of racial inequality – lack of safety, protection, basic provision, and a way forward. And if I’m being honest, even before this week, those were also the questions I brought to this text: how can it say “I shall not want (lack)” and talk about green pastures. Even in my relatively prosperous life, I have had times of lack and been in situations that seem like anything but green pastures. So, let’s start with this Word to us individually and see where that leads us as we contemplate the challenges our community faces.
What Do I Want? (v. 1b)
Though we are using a modern translation, there are still some old-fashioned words and phrases and this first one is one of them. “I shall not want” does not speak of desire, but of lack. The sense of it is that because the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack or “be in want” of something. It’s kind of open-ended, isn’t it? But it’s precisely the verses that follow that help define and explain the provision that our Shepherd makes for us. In sheep-terms, what follows in vv. 2-4 are food, water, rest, safety, restoration, guidance, protection, and comfort. We will spend more time on each of those in the weeks to come, but as we ask what it means to “not lack” under the Shepherd’s provision, we see that it is the basic necessities to live and thrive. And this is, of course, where we start to run into the limits of a metaphor or poetic image. What more could a sheep need? It’s not like they need a better job or nicer car or meaningful relationship.
The other question that arises also comes when we move out of the metaphor into application. Does this mean that God will provide human necessities like food, water, shelter, and clothing? Certainly there are people, and even people of faith, who do not have those things. But even IN the metaphor, the provisions move from the physical to the spiritual. The Shepherd of the sheep is “restoring souls” and guiding in “paths of righteousness.” Those are not sheep-things, but spiritual needs. So that’s a pointer, at least, that God’s provision has a spiritual dynamic, that God provides what is necessary to us spiritually to survive and thrive.
Does that mean God is not concerned with the earthly, material, and physical well-being of people? No, I don’t think we get to write this off as purely spiritual; it is a both-and, with some other factors to consider as well.
Pastures of Plenty (v. 2a)
Let’s look at the first specific example of provision: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” (v. 2a) I’ve already noted that my own experience is not one of day after day of “green pastures.” I bet yours isn’t either. Let’s stick with the metaphor for a moment and consider several things. First, it’s a JOURNEY: sheep and shepherds don’t just park in pastures of plenty, never to leave again. They are nomadic; they wander. The shepherd leads and the sheep follow. They wander through rock and dry ground and brown, withered grass to get to green pastures. So, among other things, we can note that even this metaphor does not promise us day after day of blissful, green pastures. It reminds us that the Shepherd leads His sheep toward what they need. To step out of biblical metaphor and into biblical history, I think of God’s promise to Abraham to lead him to a land God would show him. This is later referred to as the “Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (i.e. a “green pasture” if ever there was one!). Have you considered that path, that journey, from Abraham to the Promised Land. It involved quite a bit of time, wandering off, wandering around, and more. Yet God continued to lead them and call them back to that path and that place.
SECOND, the Shepherd truly LEADS the sheep. Do you notice the word ‘makes.’ It’s not that God over-rides our human will (or body-slams the sheep down at the pasture); rather it is that God makes the way for us to lie down in that safe place of provision. But we must follow; we must listen. Often we do not want to go in the same direction as God’s best. Part of a shepherd’s job is to keep the sheep together, safe, and headed in the right direction. Sheep wander off; sheep get lost; sheep get in trouble. We wander off; we get lost; we turn away. If you remember the same historical example of God’s people getting from Abraham to the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness, which was a product of their disobedience. They did not follow their Shepherd.
THIRD, let’s step out of the metaphor altogether. Is this verse a literal reference to food? No, it is surely more than that, though God is not indifferent to human hunger and need. I referenced John 6 last week and will again. There Jesus was teaching a large crowd and the disciples realized the crowd had not eaten and was far from food. Jesus performed a miracle to multiply one boy’s bread and fish to feed the crowd. But shortly after that, he taught the same crowd that earthly food would only satisfy their hunger for a time, then they would be hungry again. But God had “bread from heaven” that would satisfy them eternally. They thought he meant manna, like in the Exodus journey to the Promised Land. But he went on to say that HE was the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life, the spiritual nourishment and provision of God the Father. What does it mean for God the Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures? It must mean at least that he has shown us the way to that ultimate food and spiritual nourishment, the very Bread of Life, Jesus. And like sheep, like God’s people of old, we still turn away, wander off, or outright don’t listen to our Shepherd.
The Lord is MY Shepherd (v. 1a)
The two phrases we have looked at today describe God as a provider, a protector, and a guide. We’ve stepped out of the metaphor to see that God’s provision for us does not ignore our physical and immediate needs, but is bigger than that, providing ultimately the spiritual resources that we do not have on our own. And experiencing that provision is not necessarily an immediate or constant thing, but a journey in which it is essential that we listen for, listen to, and follow God’s voice. He hear that voice – God’s Words – in Scripture, through God’s Spirit, and in the person of God’s Son, Jesus.
So recognizing that even Jesus noted that earthly needs would have to be satisfied again and again, but spiritual needs have been provided once and for all; there still remain two key questions to ask if you – or if we – are not experiencing the provision, protection, and guidance we might expect from God:
- Am I listening to my Shepherd’s voice or have I wandered or turned away from God’s will for me?
- Am I (or we) on the journey, not yet to where God would have me (or us) be?
The first question is one primarily to ask of one’s self, not to ask (or answer!) for another person unless invited in trusting, accountable relationship.
The second question is the one that burns in my heart and spirit after the events in Charlotte this past week. It seems clear to me that our community and the races that make it up are not yet to where God would have us be. And God has not been silent on matters of inequity and injustice. And perhaps you question whether there is racial inequity and injustice; I think it only take a little bit of compassionate listening to recognize that there is. There is a lot of other complexity on top of it, but bottom-line, people are treated differently in our culture based on skin color. Some positively so; some negatively so. As just one example, any number of parents of bi-racial children will tell you that if they have a darker-skinned child and a lighter-skinned child, their experiences – even with the same parents, same upbringing, same resources at home – are often dramatically different. At any rate, if that’s the point at which you struggle to understand, let’s talk. I can point you in some helpful directions.
My point is that God has not been silent. God’s Law spoke clearly to matters of economic and racial injustice. God’s prophets spoke strongly to economic, social, and political injustice and suffering. Jesus began his ministry by announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom, marked by good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the arrival of God’s blessing. (Luke 4:18-19) Over and over in his ministry, he announced the coming of God’s Kingdom, but then also indicated it was not yet fully realized on earth. The Apostle Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles fleshed out the old covenant promise to Abraham (Abraham again!), that God would use His people to bless all the nations – that is the ethnic groups – of the world. Likewise, God would use His people, the Church, to embody the ethics and values of the Kingdom. We are to be part of the journey towards God’s blessing on the nations (ethnos) of the world and of our country and community. And that’s not because it’s simply one of many rules for Christians. It’s because that’s the work and the path on which our Shepherd is leading His people.
So it is not enough to breathe a sigh of relief that the uptown protests were 20 minutes from where most of us live or didn’t stir our immediate needs or concerns. Some of God’s flock are hurting, crying out and acting out that they do not feel safe and do not feel heard. What will your response be? What will ours be as a church? At the very least, I urge you to listen carefully… more listening, less commentary. But perhaps God is leading you to do more. I am convinced God is doing more, because I believe He is the Good Shepherd and is on the move. And the Lord is my Shepherd. God is pressing those questions on to my heart, as I imagine He is for a number of you. If you are looking for next steps or want stories to read or people to talk to, communicate that back to me and I’ll try to point you towards opportunities. I believe that’s where our Shepherd is leading us. Amen.