The words, “The Lord is my shepherd” are like a warm blanket on a cold world. They have been words of comfort. Referenced on countless occasions during hard times. They have been read time and again at funerals; they’ve kept people company in hospital rooms. Countless bookmarks permanently live in that page of the Bible. People have memorized which corner of the page it’s on in their favourite Bible. Framed pictures with the words hang in living rooms and bedrooms as a reminder when things get tough… Because they are words of comfort. And, providentially, I find myself with this text of comfort courtesy of the lectionary readings for this, the fourth week of Easter.
I thought about the first line king David penned in this psalm: how God was his shepherd. In comparison, he felt like a sheep. And as a sheep, he found all his needs satisfied. For the first time, I could really, truly relate to the sheep. With being at home, I feel like I’ve adopted a sheep’s life. All sheep need to be content is some soft green shoots of grass and some cool water to help it go down. And in Nairobi, it’s been six weeks of just eating, drinking and resting. All of us have become somewhat like sheep. I have had a provision of food and water and, really, that’s all I need. And, I have to say I am grateful: I am not in want.
All the shepherd has to do is find green pasture and water for his sheep. Like along paths of righteousness, the shepherd leads the flock down paths in search of a place to refresh their soul. In his journey to look for fresh pastures and still waters, the shepherd has to keep the sheep moving. Shepherds lead large herds over great distances in search of grass and water. Have you seen them? Walking alongside the highways as you drive? It will be hours before they reach the next town. The shepherd leads his flock in search of green grass and still waters… and sometimes it’s through dangerous terrain.
Down in the valley where sheep are vulnerable to predators, hungry enemies watch with greedy eyes. Valleys are indefensible against attacks from above. Predators have the upper hand. And it occurred to me for the first time that it was the shepherd who led the sheep down the path towards the bottom of the valley. This psalm isn’t written like the story of the wayward sheep who wandered into the dark valley and had to have the shepherd rescue them. This isn’t the psalm of the lost sheep; it’s the psalm of the good shepherd who is “with me” even in those valleys. He leads us down this path for his name’s sake. “Follow me, little ones,” He says, leading the way.
All any sheep cares about down in the valley is that the shepherd is with them. Just like children can walk into any dark room knowing dad is with them. The shepherd is their comfort. Everything’s alright when he’s around. The shepherd is not like the hired hand: He stays with the sheep no matter what. And history has shown that this shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. They can walk into dark rooms because he is with them. He is their comfort.
They can also see the shepherd carrying a rod and staff. And no matter how great the danger ahead, in the right shepherd’s hands, even small stones and a slingshot have proved to be enough. The sheep can walk into dark valleys because they know their shepherd carries a rod and staff. That’s their comfort.
The situation we’re in right now reminds me of being sheep: just stuck at home eating and drinking but also being led down into the deep valley where it seems like we’re surrounded by the shadow of death. It’s going to get dark for a while. And it’s now that I reach out for the book marker in my Bible; it’s now when we turn to the framed pictures in the living room.
The Lord is my shepherd.
He is with us in dark rooms…
He lays down his life for his sheep…
He is ready with rod and staff firmly gripped in his hands…
He’s going to get you to the other side. He knows where soft green grass and still waters are. He knows the way to the place where our souls are refreshed.
The passage comforts…
But… we’re not sheep. Eating grass and drinking standing water is only so appealing. But there’s a day when we’ll trade in grass and water out in the fields for a banquet table in a home. When you won’t be out there in the fields soaked in the cold winter rains… you’ll be dripping with oil poured over your head like a royal anointing. You won’t be lowering your lips to the waters pooling out in the open. You’ll be bending low to take a sip from the top of a cup full to the brim. Spilling over, running down your elbows as you bring it to your lips.
Sheep see the rod and staff in the shepherd’s hand, and it gives them comfort. But we see God’s love and goodness following us all the days of our life… and that’s comfort.
Sheep see grass and water out in the fields, and dark valleys where death’s shadow dwells. But once we’re past this dark valley we’ll see the house of the Lord.
And on this journey, that’s the place the shepherd has in mind…
The place where our soul will truly find rest.