This homily was an accompaniment to our lessons and carols service, beginning at 53:40.
My goal in the next thirteen or fourteen minutes is to bring together and summarize the story we have been singing and reading this morning. You will notice the verses of Psalm 23 used to puncutate the story. Perhaps a better metaphor is that of a chorus. We know how choruses work. Between the verses of a song, we sing a chorus to amplify and highlights themes, various things that have been said or will be said soon. That’s the way Psalm 23 works here, beginning with Psalm 23:1.
Creation and Fall
Psalm 23:1 – The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Our story starts in a garden. We flourished there with all the good things of creation. God himself would walk with us in the cool of the day as a friend and a good shepherd. We lacked nothing.
In those days, a crafty snake showed up and caused us to ask, “What is really good? Surely God didn’t mean what he said.” The snake’s advice made something other than God’s way look delightful and delicious. The snake’s way just seemed to make more sense. And so we ate, and by choosing our way we brought death and decay into God’s good creation. Now, we were in need.
Psalm 23:2 – He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
The Good Shepherd did not abandon us on the day we let darkness creep in, but he didn’t immediately fix it either. On that day, God began a plan of restoration that has stretched across the millennia. It started with one man and his family.
God appeared to a Babylonian man, our father, Abram, as he was called then. Like a sheep lost in the wilderness of Judea, God said, “Abram! Come forth! … I will lead you beside still waters.”
Moses and Sinai
Psalm 23:3 – He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Abraham believed God, and his posture of trust was counted as righteousness for him (Genesis 15:7). His family multiplied, but they were still plagued by that same tendency to follow the advice of the crafty deceiver, to look at the world around them and say, “I see a better way.”
Abraham’s family was soon known by the name of one of his sons, Jacob. Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” In a lot of ways, “struggles with God” is the plot of our story.
Our struggling with God led us to slavery in Egypt, but in those days God demonstrated his shepherdly goodness in ways that we will always remember. “Let my people go!” Moses demanded of Pharaoh. “Israel, come forth!” God called through Moses and his plagues, and we marched out of Egypt to Sinai.
Pharaoh’s army chased us, but the Shepherd stretched forth his rod and his staff and said to us, “You only have to be quiet and watch and wait.” The sea parted, and Pharaoh’s army ran between the walls of water. They did not, however, come out the other side.
You would think that God would have led us back to a garden, but instead we entered the desert and came to Mount Sinai. That’s where we heard God’s voice like thunder, we saw his presence as lightning and dark clouds and smoke, and we learned to fear the Lord. We received instructions for life. We learned how strong and mighty are his rod and his staff.
Even though we walked through the desert, he led us with a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night.
Psalm 23:4 – 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.
We made it to the Promised Land, but we continued to struggle with God. Our nation descended into chaos. He raised up judge after judge to help us, but everyone was determined to do what was right in their own eyes. “We need a king!” — or so we thought, and God allowed it. Sometimes he seems to let us have what we want in order to show us more clearly what we need.
Our new king, Saul, was picture perfect — head and shoulders above the rest, taller, strong, and more handsome, but he didn’t lead us to green pastures. Nothing really improved until God raised up a man after his own heart, a shepherd.
God called to the youngest of Jesse’s sons, “David, come forth,” and God promised him, “I will raise up your offspring after you, one who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12–13)
When David’s son Solomon built the temple, we thought, “This is it! The kingdom has come!” But kings came and went, and we were determined to hurt one another, grasping for power and pleasure, following our own way.
We ended up right back where we started. God called our father Abraham out of southern Babylon to the promised land, but when we ran away from God’s wisdom, we also ran from the protection of his rod and his staff. We ended up right back in Babylon. Down into exile we sank, like Jonah in the belly of the fish.
In Babylon, we reflected on what had happened. We collected David’s psalms; we wrote new ones. We organized our stories and scriptures. We got perspective.
Everyone around us in Babylon lived their lives in worship of strange gods, and our prophets said to us, “Will you turn away, too?” Many did, but there was a remnant among us that remembered Moses and Sinai and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
For decades we “called out to the LORD, out of [our] distress, and he answered [us]; out of the belly of Sheol we cried, and [he] heard our voice” (Jonah 2:1). Through our lamentation, we clung to Jeremiah’s words: “Look, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34)
By the river of Chebar (Ezekiel 1:1), our minds ran to the words of Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1)
When Persia took over and Cyrus let so many of us to come back home to Jerusalem, we thought, “Maybe this will be kingdom come,” but it wasn’t even close. Greece and Rome cast such a heavy shadow of darkness over our land that the sad songs of exile (Psalm 137 et al.) made more sense to us in those days than the Song of Moses and Miriam by the Red Sea (Exodus 15).
Many years past, but in those days we heard a rumor that “Aslan is on the move,” as one of our modern day prophets would say it. “A king of the Jews has been born,” they said, “a son of David.” For decades nothing came of this news about a king, and then …
John appeared! A voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And then Jesus showed up to John’s baptism event in the desert.
Psalm 23:5 – You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
John faded to the background, and we followed Jesus. We saw “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers were cleansed and the deaf heard. The dead were raised up, and the poor had good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5)
One day, in the wilderness, Jesus took a few loaves of bread and a couple fish, and he fed five thousand of us with it. You want to talk about preparing a table for us in the midst of hostility. We were in the desert, but we ate until we were full like it was Thanksgiving! “This is the kingdom!” we said.
Psalm 23:6 – Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“This is the kingdom!” we said, and so it was and is and will be. On the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread again and broke it, and he said, “This is my body broken for you.” He took a cup of wine and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you.”
We had no idea that this is what kingdom come would look like.
As the Son of God hung on the cross, we wept, but three days later the Father said, “Jesus, come forth!” The Spirit gave life to his dead body, and we saw him smile again.
On that day, after he rose from the dead, his call to us was the same, “Follow me.” Paul wrote, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)
Many years have past since those days, but how many times in our story have “many years past since those days”? The Good Shepherd’s wisdom far surpasses that of the sheep and the crafty snake.
Some days here feel like sitting by the river Chebar, as Ezekiel said it (Ezekiel 1:1). Some Sundays or Mondays, the songs of exile might make more sense to us than songs of victory, but we cling to our future hope, to what the angel showed John. We believe our Good Shepherd is, even now, leading us to green pastures, and we look for the life of the world to come. Listen with me to what John wrote about the life of the world to come:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 21:22–27)
☩ Come quickly, Lord Jesus. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.