Best for Last?
Look off in the distance with me where you can see the dust rising up.
What is moving?
What is causing the commotion?
Alas, it is a scraggly flock of sheep, one animal lagging behind on the far side, yet another bringing up the rear. As they come into focus, a lone figure walks with them ... talking to them, coaxing the four-legged animals, staff in one hand and rod in the other. Can you picture this with me?
When traveling in Israel, it excites me most to spy the sheep, and then the shepherd. In an instant, I become the silly tourist doing whatever it takes to catch a picture of them, thinking of David's words and Jesus' too: I am the Good Shepherd.1 [when making the trip to the Holy Land, people are excited about going where Jesus was born, grew up and went to the cross, but it is so. much. more. than. that. It puts skin on scripture.]
Let us look back at where we have been in Psalm 23, and remind ourselves:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. i shall be content.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. i shall know rest.
He leads me beside still waters. he gives me what i need.
He restores my soul. he heals my broken places.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. showing me the way to holiness
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. i am never alone, no matter what surrounds me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. you invite me into your salvation now and for eternity.
Then the psalmist closes with this:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Those two promises of David again? Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever! I should like to roll around in this knowledge--God's goodness and mercy will be with me all my life, and I will be with the Lord--not just now, but forever! hmmm....
As I write, I am sitting in a tiny coffee shop in old Boston--the North End to be precise, surrounded by men speaking Italian, some of them yelling. Not so different from being in a Tiberias coffee shop early in the morning, except the men were speaking Hebrew. The crown of God's creation is humanity, made in his image.2 No matter where I am, no matter who or what surrounds me, his goodness and mercy are present.
David the king likely wrote this while looking back at having been a shepherd, knowing what it was to be pursued, to have his life threatened. And now there’s you, now there’s me, several millennia later. Notice that in this great psalm is the prayer of our hearts: 'Lord, lead us, grant us rest, heal our brokenness.' Our Shepherd goes before us - so that we can follow him - and in the middle of our lives, he promises that no matter what we are walking through, we will never be alone -- he will be with us.
The Shepherd before us, leading us . . .
And the rear guard: two angels following behind us: goodness and mercy. Some Bible translations say ‘kindness’ instead of mercy. I’ll take mercy, please. (for $200, Alex) Imagine with me that our Shepherd - our good Father - leads us, guides us, stays ever close to us, and when we act out of our humanness, he is yet good, he extends mercy. Mercy is kind of like compassion combined with forgiveness - described by David in Psalm 103: The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. . .
He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.3
And then, when we draw our last breath, we will be forever with the Lord -- forever in his kindness, forever in his goodness, forever in his love. We will have a seat at the table as an honored guest of the Lamb of God. Oh. My. Goodness. Jesus himself said of that time, “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”4 ohhhh.
As we come to the end of this beautiful psalm, there is so much to grab a hold of . . .
There is so much to stand upon,
There is so much we can be comforted by,
A Savior we can know.
Do you love him . . . your Good Shepherd?
O, I pray you do. [his invitation to follow Him is always open]
Because not only has he promised that goodness and mercy will follow us,
but that we will live with him forever . . . in. his. house.
And there is no place better to be. Amen.
Because God is good and faithful, he keeps his promises to us, and we can trust him:
That's a wrap on Psalm 23.
1 - John 10.11
2 - Genesis 1.26-27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
3 - Psalm 103.8-12
4 - Luke 13.29