Book referenced: Flight Plan by Lita Judge
Every other week here we have chapel for the children of the CDC. This past Wednesday, I used the same book with them about the flying penguin and connected it with Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” My intention was to point out that, with God’s guidance and wisdom and with the help of others at times, we can do hard things (like sharing our toys or saying I’m sorry).
With the older kids (3-5 yrs), right after I read the book and then introduced the Philippians verse, one boy, we’ll call him Archie, shouted out “What does that even mean?!”
On one hand, I’m grateful he was listening. On the other hand...actually, there really isn’t an “other hand” here. I’m super grateful he was listening and I think he shouted out what every person thinks.
“I can do all things through Christ...what does that even mean?!” “Can I fly? Do I get superhero powers?”
You also may be wondering “what does that have to do with today’s Scriptures?” So glad you asked.
Today is what is known in the church world as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is the Sunday specifically celebrating the ways that God leads us, like a Shepherd. Often, the traditional Scripture that is read comes from the Gospel of John when Jesus says something to the effect of “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus places himself in the position of being our guide, our leader - showing us how we can do hard things (like sharing our toys or saying I’m sorry).
Our Divine Shepherd doesn’t magically transform us, like growing wings so that we can fly (as the penguin would’ve loved). Our Divine Shepherd offers wisdom on the best paths to take, what mindsets offer peace, how community can support one another, and where we should place our priorities.
Enter our reading from Psalm 23. We normally hear this read at funerals - referencing God walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death. However, I really encourage you to try listening to it outside the context of a funeral. As I read it again, try imagining hearing it with the ears of nomadic shepherd of biblical times - moving herds of sheep through the rough terrain, warding of predators, looking to a higher Shepherd for guidance.
God is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul, and leads me in right paths for the sake of God's name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of God my whole life long.
On the podcast Pulpit Fiction, they point out that the Psalm has three sections to it - the first being words of comfort and calm. The second including stressful situations, highlighting that God journeys with us through those troubles. The third and final section talking about integration - that God and the Lord’s sheep (us) dwell together.
This Psalm beautifully weaves together God, us, joys, sorrows, trouble, protection, guidance, comfort….everything.
Bobby Morris, on workingpreacher.org, states “Psalm 23 is far more about dynamic movement rather than quiet solitude, enduring trials rather than avoiding them, and life rather than death.”
He goes on to highlight the active words in the passage and how it would make sense to a nomadic shepherd at that time. For example, if you are being led to a green pasture or still waters, you are moving there. Also, he suggests that the translation should not be God’s “goodness & mercy shall follow me,” rather that the Hebrew verb should be translated as “pursue” me.
Doesn’t that change the imagery a bit? If you imagine something passively following you verses actively pursuing you?
God, as our Shepherd, both guides us into a life of peace and justice...AND pursues us with goodness and mercy...integrating our earthly and spiritual lives so that we dwell in the house of the Lord.
Flipping from an extremely familiar passage of the Bible to a book we try real hard to avoid, Revelation. (What in the world was John smoking when he wrote this?!)
Before the passage we read today, John describes horrific happenings - including four horsemen, martyrs, earthquakes, stars falling, everything! The conclusion is that no one, absolutely no one can survive such turmoil.
In Revelation chapter 5, Jesus is described as the sacrificial lamb, one who is to be praised.
In chapter 6, it explains how all earthly things that we place our confidence in (such as nations, wealth, and health) will fall away.
In chapter 7, it describes the power of God holding back these destructive forces. It describes the “saints” rejoicing in God. In it, we are reminded to place our confidence in God...that placing our trust and confidence in the ways and teachings of Jesus will be our salvation.
We are reminded of where our hopes comes. The lamb mentioned previously, Christ, becomes our Shepherd.
Friends, God is our Good Shepherd.
And, in the words of 4-yr old Archie, “what does that even mean?!”
It means….we can trust that God is with us...even in the darkest of valleys (aka, the worst of days). It means that those horrid and tough times will exist, and we can look to what the Spirit teaches us so we can do hard things. We all will experience troubles and suffering but we ask God for guidance on how to overcome and change them in the future (not being complicit of abuse and injustices!).
It means that God brings hope into our lives. Hope is so important - especially in the toughest of situations. You can hope for a peaceful passing of a loved one facing death. You can hope for compassion and forgiveness when you need to admit you are wrong. You can hope for new understanding within community leaders and policy makers. Hope keeps us looking forward, to grow and improve and do the work to make those hopes reality, instead of turning backward, where we regret and play “what if.”
God being our Good Shepherd means that we recognize the earthly things that will not last, but the godly things that do. Our health, finances, jobs, and houses will not last an eternity, but the lessons we learn from God do. Love, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion will not rust or burn down.
The writers of PulpitFiction ask a great question: What would happen if the energy we use to place our trust in earthly things were spent nurturing God, neighbor, and self? Not at the expense of us being able to pay bills or maintain good health, but what if we even simply matched our energies in both arenas? What kind of relationships of understanding and mercy could we build?
Friends, hear the good news: God is our Good Shepherd. We hear it from the familiar words of Psalm 23 and we hear it from the sometimes intimidating writings of the book of Revelation. I picked these two Scriptures for today so that hopefully you see this message across the entire Bible.
We experience God as Shepherd in different ways along life’s journey - whether through dark valleys, great ordeals, or green pastures. Knowing this, I hope that we are encouraged to believe that God’s Holy Spirit is ever with us, that we can use the lessons Jesus has taught us to encourage others, and that we are equipped to do hard things.
Scripture: Psalm 23; Revelation 9:7-17