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By Dr. Thomas D. Walker

MAY 29, 2011

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

The twenty-third Psalm and the good shepherd text in St. John's gospel are among the most beloved in scripture.

"The Lord is my shepherd…." "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…." The Psalmist pictures God as a loving shepherd, leading his sheep through perilous danger, protecting them, nurturing them, providing them ultimate security. It is poetry unsurpassed.

Martin Luther called the twenty-third Psalm, "The Nightingale of the Psalms." Charles Haddon Spurgeon called it, "The Pearl of the Psalms." It has won a supreme place in the religious literature of the world. In eighteenth-century Scotland, it virtually became their national anthem because of the strength of the people's attachment to it. It speaks to a longing deep within the human soul. It is a favorite of the Judeao/Christian tradition.

The good shepherd motif is also present in our New Testament lesson. The setting is a large compound or fenced-in area whose only entrance is a gate. This compound is used by several shepherds, and their flocks are blended together in this sheepfold, this place of safety.

When one of the shepherds comes for his sheep, he enters through the door and calls his sheep from among the mingled flock. His sheep recognize his voice and come to him. They know him; he knows them; they trust him. Thus, when the shepherd calls, the sheep go to him and he leads them from the compound through the door to graze in lush pastures on the mountainside.

John's message is very clear. Jesus is the doorkeeper. Jesus is the keeper of the sheepfold. Jesus is the way to salvation. Jesus' followers find safety and security in him. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

But, we know that not all pastures are green and lush – and not all pastures are safe. We do well to remember that the Good Shepherd was crucified. The world has always been a dangerous place.

We have just completed the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the first year of this new century, the events of "Nine-eleven" transpired. It was the worst act of terrorism in our nation's history. Nearly five thousand people lost their lives.

For most of the past decade we have been engaged in two wars which have resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides and contributed to our nation's unprecedented national debt. Osama Bin Laden is now dead and the world wonders what may be next.

Once again we are reminded that the world is a dangerous place.

On Sunday morning, December 26, 2004, The Indian Ocean Earthquake occurred which was so strong it caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as one centimeter (0.4 inches). That earthquake resulted in the single worst Tsunami in recorded history. Approximately 228,000 people died. 

On March 11 of this year – less than two months ago – another Tsunami resulted from the most powerful earthquake ever to hit the nation of Japan. A wall of water swept away cars, ships, trains, buildings and resulted in more than sixteen thousand fatalities. An article in The New York Times tells of a school teacher who watched helplessly as all but two of her students were swept away. It also triggered the partial meltdowns of three nuclear reactors releasing radio-active material directly into the atmosphere. New questions have arisen concerning the safety and responsibility of nuclear energy.

We could go on and on. We could talk about the earthquake in Haiti, the revolutions in the Mid-East, the killer storms that swept through the south two weeks ago, and the horrible tragedy in Joplin, Missouri, just this past week. All resulted in tragic, unnecessary loss of life. And all remind us that the world is a very dangerous place.

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me…." One wonders how that Japanese school teacher would respond to those beautiful words.

The Universal Church is still in Eastertide. We continue to celebrate God's promised victory over death. And we have before us these magnificent Good Shepherd texts. What on earth are we to do with them, not only in light of these fairly recent events, but in light of the undeniable realities of human existence? One could go back to the beginning of recorded history and lift up countless examples of human cruelty and natural disasters that seem to fly in the face of the Good Shepherd motif. The world has always been dangerous.

That is why, I suppose, a number of contemporary scholars place this Good Shepherd motif in God's great future, in God's coming Kingdom. They suggest that we minimize images of solitary shepherds and contented sheep that are totally secure. Two world wars, the Nazi holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki make such images very difficult for some people. Rather, these magnificent texts – and others like them – give us glimpses of a higher reality, a new mode of existence, a time of peace that God has prepared for his people. The Good Shepherd, the safe compound, the quiet waters, the green pastures are God's reality … and our ultimate destiny.

Well, there you go again! You're talking about heaven again – about "someday," "somehow," "somewhere." But if God has taken care of the future, where does that leave us here and now? Are we at the mercy of mad dictators? Are we helpless sheep milling about in confusion, waiting to be picked off by fierce predators? Does the Good Shepherd offer any protection in this life?

Yes. Yes, there is protection. Yes, there is care and concern from the Good Shepherd for daily life. Yes, there will be judgment upon those who slaughter the sheep. But the wheat and tares grow together. Things often happen that cannot be explained. It is too early in human destiny to tie it all up in a neat package. God's care and protection remains mysterious and inexplicable. Sometimes we recognize it; oftentimes we do not. So these texts – this Good Shepherd motif – have become for me a call to faith. In a world of senseless injustice, unimaginable violence and pain beyond description, the beautiful pictures that flow from these texts are a call for faith – in a higher order, a higher reality, God's new heaven and new earth.

Langdon Gilkey, distinguished Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, died in 2004 at the age of eighty-five. If his name rings a bell with some of you, it may be because he served for some years on the faculty of the Vanderbilt School of Divinity. He was a brilliant scholar, author of significant books and articles, a committed believer, and one who lived through an extraordinary experience during World War II.

At the war's beginning, Gilkey found himself teaching philosophy at Yen Ching University near Peking. Under wartime pressure, the Japanese military herded all foreigners into an internment camp. There were more than two thousand from all walks of life living within an area the size of a city block. There they remained for two-and-a-half years before the conclusion of the war accomplished their release. Professor Gilkey kept a journal which later became the basis for a great book entitled, Shantung Compound.

The prisoners within the compound represented a cross-section of humanity. There were business people, professors, missionaries, importers, lawyers, doctors, barflies, junkies, prostitutes, little children, the old and infirm.

Gilkey provides not only a riveting description of their life together during the war, but also an extraordinary account of their liberation at the conclusion of the war. Listen to his description.

The day, August 16, 1945, was clear, blue and warm as such a day should have been. We all began our chores of cooking, stoking and cleaning up slops as usual. About the middle of the morning, however, word flashed around camp that an Allied plane had been sighted.

This miracle was true; there it was, now as big as a gull and heading for us from the western mountains… "Look, there is the American flag painted on the side! …It's turning around again… It's coming back over the camp! Look, look, they're waving at us! They know who we are. They have come to get us!"

At this point the excitement was too great for any of us to contain. …It was pandemonium… Everyone like myself was looking up and shouting at the plane, and was unconscious of what he or anyone else was doing….

This plan was our plane. It was sent here for us, to tell us the war was over. It was that personal touch… – which gave those moments their supreme meaning and their violent emotion. 

I want to suggest an analogy between this experience of Langdon Gilkey and his World War II companions and the community of those who are believers in Jesus Christ and who live their everyday lives in a world of joy and sorrow, sickness and health.

According to the scriptures, there is a war raging between God and God's good intentions for the world and those "principalities and powers" who oppose God and seek to defeat God. The scriptures proclaim also that we are living in a world of great good and great evil. Not all is darkness, though the light flickers and dims on frequent occasions. Throughout the war, Gilkey and his companions were given secret accounts of Allied victories, Japanese defeats and progress toward the war's end. In like manner, the twenty-third Psalm and John 10 and other wonderful texts provide us glimpses of God's sure and certain victory.

But remember. When the plane was spotted, Gilkey and his companions were still incarcerated. The guards were all in place with loaded weapons. Shantung Compound was still a very dangerous place. The sight of that Allied plane did not change the surrounding circumstances one iota. But it changed the atmosphere of the prison. It changed the attitude of the internees, their disposition, their expectations and thereby it changed their way of life. In spite of their continued incarceration, they knew the final outcome. And so did their captors. The sight of that plane changed everything.

"The Lord is my shepherd … He leads me into green pastures besides still waters … He leads me through the valley of the shadow of death."

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…." Signs… glimpses… previews… of that which is to come. And you and I are affected – here and now – in this life. And let me say once more that life is not all misery. Life is a gift to be lived under the sovereignty of God. We are not dumb sheep helplessly milling about waiting to be picked off by fierce predators. Someone cares for us. Someone is coming for us. And all the principalities and powers of this world are helpless to prevent it. They know. Even if they have not given up, they know. And so do you and I.

This has been a hard decade, a hard year, a hard month. The end does not seem to be in sight. Even if we get the mess settled in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Mid-East and all the other places of suffering and death, chances are we will encounter another tragic episode. And we would be foolish, indeed callous and superficial, if we used the Good Shepherd motif as a sign of our righteousness and goodness which makes us immune from such tragedy! We dare not be so foolish and insensitive.

But do not be deceived by the dangers of this world. There is a greater good than we have ever experienced. There is a higher reality than meets the eye. According to the scriptures, there is more awaiting us than any human can possibly describe.

So believe the good news. The days of the principalities and powers of this world are numbered. Someday, at the appointed time, in God's providence, according to God's promise, "goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." AMEN.
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