4th Sunday of Easter (A); May 7, 2017
Acts 2:14,36-51 Ps 23 1 Pt 2:20-25 Jn 10:1-10
Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison
Today is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, which presents us one of the most beautiful images that has portrayed our Lord Jesus since the earliest centuries of the Church. When Jesus declares in the 10th chapter of John’s gospel that “I am the Good Shepherd (v. 11), we may be so familiar with this assertion that we may not appreciate the depths of intimacy captured in this declaration.
Keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew; so, he was familiar with the Psalms. He may have had Psalm 23 in mind when he declared that he has a special relationship with this Church, a relationship very much akin to a shepherd and his flock; a relationship so close that no one will ever be able to snatch the sheep from his hand.
Let’s look at Psalm 23 to come to a deeper understanding of the kind of relationship the Risen Lord Jesus wants to have with us. (I’m indebted to Charles L. Allen’s interpretation of Twenty-third Psalm for this reflection.)
“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack” (Ps 23:1). This Psalm is attributed to David, who was himself a shepherd before he was anointed king of Israel. From this background, David knew that sheep instinctively knows the shepherd has made plans for their grazing tomorrow. He knows that the shepherd provided for them yesterday, did so today, and will do the same tomorrow. So, the Psalm does not begin with a petition, asking God for something. Rather, it is a calm statement of fact: “The Lord IS my shepherd.” We do not have to beg God for things.
The greatest cause for human worry is what is going to happen tomorrow. What’s going to happen to my family? What’s going to happen to me when I get released from prison? What’s going to happen to me tomorrow?
Brothers, all life comes from God. That includes your life. God takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. And Jesus asks us to think that if God will do so much for a simple bird or a flower, how much more will he do for us (cf. Mt 6:25,34).
“In green pastures you let me gaze” (Ps 23:2a). The shepherd starts his grazing before dawn. The sheep walk lazily as they graze; they’re never still. By 10 o’clock, the sun is beating down and the sheep are hot, thirsty, and tired. It’s not a good idea for them to drink when their stomach is filled with undigested grass. So, he makes the sheep lie down in green pastures, in a cool, soft spot. Sheep will not eat lying down, but they will chew his cud, which is nature’s way of digestion.
In a similar way, we need to draw apart from the hurry of life for rest and reflection. One of the precious moments in our Wednesday Intercessionary Prayer gathering is the beginning when we are still as we come to know that we are in the presence of God. We need to be still to hear the gentle voice of God within our soul.
“to safe waters you lead me” (v. 2b). The sheep is a timid creature and is especially afraid of moving water. He’s a poor swimmer because of his thick, wooly coat. Imagine trying to swim with an overcoat on. So, instinctively, the sheep will not drink from moving water.
The shepherd does not force the issue, does not laugh at the sheep’s fears. So, he will seek still waters. God knows our limitations, and he does not condemn us because we have weaknesses or that we’re broken. He does not force us to go where we cannot safely venture. He does not demand of us tasks that are beyond our capability.
God is constantly ministering to our needs. He understands the load we are carrying. He also knows where the places of nourishment and refreshment are located. So, he “leads us besides still waters.” Such as experience produces surrender within our hearts and trust that enables us to face the challenges and temptations of the day.
“you restore my strength” (v. 3a). David, in his earlier years was very close to God. But, when he became king, he lost his closeness to God as shown by his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the cover-up murder of her husband, Uriah. David became unhappy; the burden of his guilt became heavy to bear, which we hear in the penitential Psalm 51. David was deeply wounded, just as you and I are. Sorrow for past sins is a wound; it cuts deep, but sorrow can also be a clean wound if we apply salve to it. If we don’t do anything about it, bad stuff—bitterness, self-pity, or resentment—can get in and cause an infection.
When we violate our conscience, when we do bad things, time will not heal these wounds. Gradually, a sense of guilt can overwhelm us and destroy our life. There is only one physician who can us and that is Jesus “who restores our soul.” Only God has this healing power. He revives life in you, if you let him.
“You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name”
(v. 3b). We all come to that fork in the road when we decide whether we are for Jesus or against him. There is no third option. There’s a hard decision to be made: either Jesus is the center of our life, our life is about him, and he’s in control or he’s not. If we don’t make the right choice, we’ll get lost just as the Prodigal Son did when he went into the cora machra—the big emptiness.
David remembered that sheep don’t have an innate sense of direction. While dogs and cats seem to have this ability to find their way back home, sheep don’t. Compounding the problem is that sheep have poor vision; they can’t see 15 yards ahead. Moreover, Palestinian fields were covered with narrow paths over which the shepherd led them to pasture. Some of these path overlooked a precipice in which an errant sheep could fall to its death.
Of necessity, the shepherd had to lead the sheep over steep and difficult places, but the paths always ended up somewhere. The sheep was willing to trust “somewhere” to the shepherd, to trust his judgment.
Notice that the Psalm says, “he leads me.” God does not drive. He’s climbing the same hill that they’re climbing. Man is not alone. As we take one step at a time, we can walk with him the right paths.
“Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side” (v. 4a). Brothers, life is very hard; it’s also very good because of the divine Presence. Life can be a forbidden journey that one may dread to take. But the sheep are not afraid. Why? Because the shepherd is with it.
And, so we end up in dark places through which we’re compelled to pass. Death is one. Disappointment is another. So, obviously is incarceration. Loneliness is another. There are many more.
In spiritual direction I’ve encouraged many people when they’re in “the valley of darkness to go into the Quiet and place themselves in the gentle and powerful presence of God. Abiding in that presence, know that you are being intentionally and unconditionally loved by God.
Wherever our paths take us, we will not be afraid. Why? For God is with us, loving us. There is power in His presence.
“your rod and staff give me courage” (v. 4b). The sheep is a helpless animal. With the exception of bighorn sheep, they have no weapon with which to fight. But, the shepherd carries a rod, which is a 2-3 foot club, and a staff, which was about 8 feet long. The end of the staff was turned into a crook. Many of the paths in Palestine had steep sides; sheep could lose their footing and slip down. The staff was used to retrieve them. It is a comfort knowing that the shepherd will be able to meet any emergency. Yes, there is seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. Many times we just feel helpless; then we find comfort in realizing the power of God.
“You set a table before me as my enemies watch” (v. 5a). In the pastures of ancient Palestine grew poisonous plants which would be fatal to the sheep. Each spring the shepherd would take a mattock, a grubbing instrument and dig out these plants, pile them up, and burn them. Thus the pastures were safe for the sheep to graze. The pasture became, as it were, a table prepared. The present enemies were destroyed by the shepherds.
So, the Lord does with us. There is no temptation, no enemy that can destroy us because God is at our side, “setting our table.”
‘you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (5b). The sheep were subject to cuts and bruises as they grazed; they could, for example, cut their head on a sharp edge of a stone buried in the grass or briars could scratch and thorns stick. Sometimes during the summer, they would just be spent at the end of day.
So, the shepherd would stand at the door of the fold and examine each sheep as it came in. If there were hurt places, the shepherd would apply soothing and healing oil. Instead of becoming infected, the hurt would soon heal.
Also, the shepherd had a large earthen jug of water. As the sheep came in, the shepherd would dip down into the water with his big cup and bring it up brimful. The tired sheep drank deeply of the life-quickening draught of water.
Notice that David said, “you anoint MY head with oil; MY cup…” He didn’t say “our” head. It’s a singular pronoun because God relates to each one of us personally. As God reveals to us through the prophet Isaiah,”I have called you by name; you are mine” (Is 43:1d). This realization “should make us feel important “…because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you” (v. 4).
“Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life;”
(Ps 23:6a).` By the time David wrote Psalm 23 he was probably an old man. He had endured many tragedies, had committed great sins, had experienced bitter disappointments. But, he also came to know God at a deeply personal level—a God who knows the needs of His children and who abundantly provides for what we truly need. David experienced God as one who can restore life and take away fear. In spite of the dark clouds that are all around us, with a God like Him whom David knew, he was sure that life was worth living, which would be true “all the days of (his) life.”
“I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come” (v. 6b). One of the saddest things is to come across an older person who’s not sure whether there is a God and who has no hope that he is destined for an eternal home. As his life is slowly coming to an end, all he can look forward to is a dark grave and oblivion.
David closes Psalm 23 with a full-throated manifesto: “I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER”! Brothers, you are here in C-chapel because you do have that assurance; otherwise, life would be unbearable.
Moreover, David did not have the insights that we have. He never heard the words, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26).
Just knowing intimately a God such as the one described in Psalm 23 gave David assurance that the close of the day he would go home. What’s true of David is true of us because we believe that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” and since we believe in him, we know that we are destined to live forever.” Amen.