The Word This Weekend – May 7, 2017
“A ‘Sheep’s Eye’ View”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
Though I walk through the death-dark vale,
nothing evil will I fear
For you are with me – rod and staff
And in you I feel safe (Ps. 23:4)
This weekend churches around the world observe Good Shepherd Sunday. On this fourth Sunday of the Season of Easter each year, our attention turns to texts that highlight the shepherding character of God as found in scripture. Across the span of the Hebrew Bible, and reflected in the New Testament, the image of God as Shepherd can be found. The words found there, and especially those of the 23rd Psalm, have brought comfort, strength and encouragement to many millions. Whether in times of loss and grief, obstacles and adversity, or joy and celebration, this brief and powerful psalm has a special capacity to bring consolation and inspiration.
As much as we treasure this psalm, especially as we hear it in the majestic cadences of the 1611 King James rendering, I wonder if you’ve ever looked at the beauty of the psalm’s literary composition. Because, beyond the images of protection, sustenance, fear and comfort, there is also the voice of this wonderful psalm, and I think this element of this sacred poem may be at the very heart of its power.
Because this psalm is spoken from a Sheep’s Eye View.
From start to finish, the descriptions and praise of God as the good and gracious shepherd are at the same time a testament to the vulnerability and anxiety of the sheep. Sheep need caring, protective, courageous and wise shepherds because they are so utterly helpless. No fangs, no claws, no defensive skills – these creatures are little more than walking textile material and barbecue on the hoof, completely unable to fend off the thief or the predator.
And it is in this context of sheep-and-shepherd that we catch the power of this psalm, as it identifies not only the grace and love of the good and courageous Shepherd, but at the same time claims the voice of the helpless, hapless sheep, defenseless and exposed except for the protection and providence of God.
I often imagine the speaker, the ‘sheep’ of the psalm, speaking these words of adoration and praise not from the lush and verdant meadow, or sitting around the table of plenty and anointing – but from the midst of the death-dark valley. Like whistling past the graveyard, repeating “I will not be afraid, I will not be afraid…”, we frail and fragile sheep declare our hope not in our own abilities or strength, but in the faithfulness and fidelity of the Shepherd of our souls. And for those who find the preeminent image of the Good Shepherd in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, these reflections never fail to carry us beyond the needs of food, shelter, physical protection or deliverance from foes – we hear an echo of the love and courage that rescues the sheep from sin, death and separation from God and from one another. As he says in John 10:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
In these arrestingly simple words, Christ lays claim not only to the images of the Shepherd of Psalm 23, but to the relationship of Shepherd to Sheep that is at the very heart of the Gospel proposal: that the promised Messiah, descendant of the shepherd David and Son of the shepherding God of Israel, has come to preserve, protect, defend and lead the sheep – both for those who easily identify with the ancient flock of God’s promise, and for all who will cry out and reach out to the Lord of rod and staff, meadow and meal, living water and manna bread.
See you at worship this weekend, as we claim anew the protection and providence of the Shepherd we recognize, from our sheep’s-eye-view, upon the Shepherd’s crook called the Cross, and as we dare to claim the promise of that Shepherd’s self-sacrifice and heroic deliverance. For, surely, goodness and mercy will accompany us all the days of our life, even in the midst of gloomy vale and fearsome adversity. And, by grace, we will dwell in this Shepherd’s embrace – for all our days!
With You in God’s Good Work,