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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

March 22, 2015

 Abiding in the Shepherd

Psalm 23; John 15:1-17

  Many years ago, while still a high school student, I happened to read a small book and found its writings to be extremely helpful.   God’s Psychiatry, by Charles Allen, is a book that I have read and re-read many times since.  The book opens with Charles Allen describing a meeting with a parishioner while Dr. Allen was serving as a pastor of a Methodist church.  The man was one that Dr. Allen admired very much.  The man had started at the bottom of his company with the determination to rise to the top.  He used his considerable abilities and energy and rose to become the president of his company and now had all the things that go with such a prestigious position. 

Yet, along the way, this man found that while he had achieved his professional goal, he had not achieved happiness.  He was a nervous, tense, worried and sick man, and his physician had suggested that he talk with a minister.  His physician had written for him prescriptions for medication, and although he had followed his doctor’s advice, he was not improved.

Dr. Allen took out a sheet of paper and wrote for him a prescription: the 23rd Psalm, five times a day for seven days.  Dr. Allen stressed that he must follow the prescription guidelines just as he prescribed.  He was to read the 23rd Psalm first thing when he awakened in the morning.  He was to read the psalm carefully, meditatively and prayerfully.  Immediately after breakfast, he was to do the same thing, and also immediately after lunch, after dinner and finally, the last thing before he went to bed.

He was not to read the psalm hurriedly, nor was he to recite the psalm from memory, nor was he to read the psalm five times at one sitting.  Instead, he was to read and think about each phrase at the five prescribed times, and allow his mind to soak up the meaning.  Dr. Allen promised that at the end of just one week, his life would be different.  I recommend to you Charles Allen’s prescription as a way of allowing God to lead you beside the still waters and to restore your soul. 

The 23rd Psalm teaches us a pattern of thinking, a way of knowing the Lord as our Shepherd.  Over the Lenten season, Todd Jones has been preaching each week an excellent sermon in a series on the 23rd Psalm, taking us through a study of the psalm, line by line.  We have also studied Jesus’ words telling His disciples, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  Today, I would like for us to consider what the psalm teaches us about abiding in Jesus as He abides in us. 

In the Gospel of John, we find recorded Jesus’ promise to His disciples that after He goes away, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, would come and teach us all things and remind us of all that Jesus taught us.  In the passage we read this morning, we hear Jesus’ invitation to abide in Jesus and His love as He abides in His Father God’s love.   Jesus describes Himself as the vine, and His followers as the branches.  Jesus describes His followers’ union with Him as branches united in the true vine.  Jesus nourishes us and provides for us, through the Holy Spirit, allowing us to bear fruit in the form of lives lived in His peace and with His love shown in our loving deeds for others.  God is the good gardener tending the vine and its branches.  The Gospel of John invites us to abide in Jesus, and through Jesus, in God, His Father.  We can read the 23rd Psalm to learn more about God’s care and love shown to us through Jesus, for Jesus always points us to His Father.

The 23rd Psalm presents God as our Shepherd, caring for us and providing for us during the various chapters or seasons of our lives, beginning with the daily challenges of life.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, or as this verse is sometimes expressed, the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.  God provides for our needs, today and tomorrow.  God provides for our physical needs, but more importantly, God provides for our spiritual needs, inviting us to find rest in Him and entrusting us with a sacred calling.  Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink.  Nor about your body, what you shall put on….  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all His glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith.  Therefore, do not be anxious saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For … Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:25-33)  Jesus teaches us to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and so fulfill our highest calling: to live a life surrendered to Christ and abiding in Him.  Then we will bear the fruit He brings forth in us.

The best news about abiding in Jesus is that we are simply the branches.  Jesus is the vine filling us with His Holy Spirit.  We simply surrender and trust in Jesus and allow Jesus to work in and through us.  Hudson Taylor once wrote, “The branch of the vine does not worry and toil, and rush here to seek for sunshine, and there to find rain.  No, it rests in union and communion with the vine and at the right time, and in the right way, is the right fruit found on it.  Let us so abide in the Lord Jesus.”  Such generosity calls us to respond with gratitude for God’s abundant provisions for us.

As we abide in Jesus, He leads us, one step at a time, as a faithful shepherd leads His sheep.  Our paths may lead us through times of transition and change.  Every good shepherd will shear the excess wool off the sheep before the hot summer months so that the sheep will not suffer in the heat.  In fact, I read on the internet instructions on how to shear your sheep in five easy steps!  Every good gardener will prune the branches of a vine or tree for the health of the plant.  Pruning helps the vine to bear more fruit.   We may need to shed or prune certain habits or practices in our lives or even consider a major life transition to another school or job, a different place to live, or a healthier relationship.         

God can lead us in various ways.  Perhaps in your life, you have seen a God wink.  You have experienced a seemingly amazing encounter with a person that proved to be significant in your life or you have been seized with an idea or a sense of restlessness that will not let you go.  When we become aware of a God wink, we may begin to knock on doors that open to reveal a new opportunity that seems to have God’s fingerprints all over it.  We may find the work it seems we were created to do or the person with whom we are meant to share our lives.

If we prayerfully seek God’s guidance, and then we watch for the ways God reveals Himself to us, we may become aware that our prayers are being answered.  God’s leading may be as gentle as sheer silence or as amazing as a burning bush.  But when we encounter a God wink, we are standing on holy ground.     

Our paths are not always through green pastures and beside still waters.  At some point, our lives almost always encounter difficulties, and we may find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death.  Our valley may be the serious illness of ourselves or a loved one or the death of one dear to us.  Our valley may be the loss of a job or a significant relationship or a treasured home.  The path into the valley may vary, but the result is the same: the joy of life is gone and we experience a sense of deep darkness.

Henry Ward Beecher said that the 23rd Psalm is the nightingale of the psalms, for the nightingale sings the sweetest when the night is the darkest.  I have shared the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm so many times at the bedside of someone who is ill or while holding the hand of someone who has learned of the death of a loved one.  Often, the person’s head begins to nod and the countenance relaxes, for there is solace in these beloved words that remind us that God is leading us through the valley of the shadow of death.  God is present with us and we are never alone. 

Jesus provided this assurance to His disciples with these words, “I am with you always” and “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (Matthew 28:29b and John 14:27)

The valley of the shadow is a place that invites us to trust that God will bring us through the darkest valley and into the light again.  Sometimes we must wait on God’s timing.   Yet even in the waiting, we can be assured that God is with us.  The Holy Spirit is not only our guide, the Holy Spirit is also our comforter inviting us to know a peace that passes all understanding.

God’s love is present to us through our suffering as we receive the comfort that only God can provide.  Sometimes, as sheep graze, the sheep are stuck by thorns and scratched by briars and their heads are cut by the sharp edge of a stone buried in the grass.  At the end of the day, the shepherd examines each of the sheep and applies soothing oil to heal the wounds of the sheep and as a safeguard against infection.  The touch of the shepherd comforts the weary sheep and the sheep can rest through the night.

We also are wounded by life.  The 23rd Psalm tells us that the shepherd “anoints my head with oil.”  Only God has the power to heal our deepest wounds.  When we bring to God our wounds in prayer and reflect upon His promises of His care and love for us, He anoints our hurts.  We know that Jesus understands suffering, for He suffered during His life and His sufferings included betrayal by His dearest friends and death on a cross.  Our wounds become a path leading us closer to our Shepherd because we know our need of His comfort.  We tend to cry out more often to God and focus on our need of God when our hearts are breaking.  Pastor John Ortberg once helped lead a survey asking thousands of people when they grew the most spiritually.[1]  The number one contribution to their spiritual growth was suffering. 

Our wounds also remind us that others are suffering, for no one who lives on this earth escapes suffering.  Our heartaches can lead us to reach out to other suffering people as God helps us to use our suffering to provide comfort to others.

 You may have had the experience of sitting in the waiting room of the intensive care unit of a hospital while a loved one fights for his or her life.  Strangers in the waiting room can quickly become compassionate friends as they share their stories and care for one another.  They rejoice together when the health of a loved one improves and embrace one another when good news does not come.  Our wounds become an opportunity to care for others.  It is one way that God redeems our suffering, allowing us to help another and point another hurting child of God to the Shepherd.

The 23rd Psalm reminds us that God is our Shepherd, present to us during all times of our lives, inviting us into a deeper relationship with Him, providing for our needs, restoring our souls and calming our fears.  God sustains us when our lives fall apart and leads us through the darkest valley.  God is also the God of hope for all our tomorrows. 

We know God’s promise for tomorrow in the words of the 23rd Psalm: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The house of the Lord is the home we long for, the place where we are truly ourselves as God created us to be.  God’s promise responds to our need for love and belonging as God claims us as His own.  We will never be forsaken by God.

During one of the recent ice and snow storms, I watched a news report of motorists stranded on an interstate in Kentucky, locked in a stand-still, bumper to bumper line of cars on icy and treacherous roads.  One of the motorists, a young woman, was interviewed about how many hours she had been sitting in her car.  The woman had been in her car all the night before, cold and hungry, and the traffic had not yet begun to move.  The woman said, “I just want to go home and sleep in my warm bed.”

Home.  Where do we long to be when we are stranded in an airport, all the flights to our home city cancelled, or when we are tired, so tired and long to rest?  We want to go home.

Yet, life has a way of reminding us that we are not home yet, and our home is not of this world.  When a loved one dies or we face the diagnosis of a serious illness or a marriage falls apart, we long for the comfort that no earthly home can provide.  The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort, in life and death?”  The answer given is: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”   

The church as God intends for the church to be is a beacon, a light on the path that leads to our home in the heart of God.  In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells the story of a young girl who was lost.  A policeman found the little girl and offered to drive her home, but she did not know her address.  The policeman concluded that the little girl could not be far from home since she had wandered away on foot.  So he invited the young girl into his car and began to drive her around the neighborhood.  Suddenly, the little girl cried, “Stop!  I know where I am! There is my church and I can always find my way home from my church.”  Anne Lamott added, “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church… I can always find my way home.”[2]

We need our church community to remind us of who we are, children of God, sheep of the Good Shepherd, and to point us to a loving God.  We need our church community to remind us that God is reaching out to us with goodness and mercy.                

The path to God is never as long as it might seem, even when we feel we are miles from home and lack the strength to travel.  Jesus taught us that a good shepherd will leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness and search for the one who is lost until he finds it.  The shepherd will bring the lost sheep home with rejoicing.  “Just so,” Jesus taught, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:3-7)

In his book Longing for Home, Presbyterian pastor Frederic Buechner speaks of his search for home: “I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and maybe have always known, the way that leads to it.  I believe that …the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is.  I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”[3]

Home is available to us in the sense that God is our dwelling place, the one in whom we abide through Jesus Christ.  But home is also “not yet” in the sense of being complete and finished as in the house of the Lord we will know someday.   

Yet, we know the one who will lead us home.  We know the Good Shepherd and we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.  Jesus is our Good Shepherd today, tomorrow and forever.

   There is a lovely story from the Jewish tradition of a king who had a son who had gone astray from the king on a journey of one hundred days.  His friends said to him, “Return to your father.”  He said, “I cannot.”  Then his father sent a message to his son saying, “Return as far as you can and I will come the rest of the way to you.”  In a similar way, God says to us, “Return to me as you can, and I will find you and come to you.”[4]

This is the way we are invited to travel home, simply doing what we can, wherever we are, as we abide in Jesus and trust in Him.  We trust Jesus to provide for us, bear fruit through us, comfort us in our suffering and use us to comfort others, to guide us and find us when we feel lost, and bring us to our eternal home.

We are never lost, when we abide in Jesus, for God’s love, mercy and goodness will follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  We only need to remember these words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” and abide in the One who loves us more than life itself.    

[1] Philip Yancey, The Question that Never Goes Away: Why (Grand Rapids: Zonderman 2013), 103.

[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (Anchor Books, 2000), 55.

[3] Frederic Buechner, Longing for Home (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 28.

[4] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Image Doubleday, 1992), 72.

 

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