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The Name of God: Jehovah-Rohi – The Lord My Shepherd

November 6, 2011


Sermon:  The Name of God:  Jehovah-Rohi – The Lord My Shepherd
Text:  Psalm 23

Today on this All Saints Day, we read the list of those from our congregation who have gone on to be with the Lord during the past year.  We think of them as people who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses” that we read about in the book of Hebrews.  We think of them as saints because the New Testament word hagios applies to all Christian people.  Hagios is the New Testament word for saint, the New Testament word for holy.  We, as Christians, are called to holiness.

Some of those on that list, my dad and John White, for example, would not want to be called a saint.  They would say, “Aw shucks” to the very thought of that label applying to them.  They knew the English language; but because they had to deal with the public so much, they had a special language, words that were not really a part of the English language.  The epithet “saint” would make them uncomfortable.

On a day like today, we might turn to the Gospel of Matthew and consider the Beatitudes.  We might think about what it means to be blessed, as Jesus called people blessed.  That might be a way of understanding the meaning of sainthood.  After all, in those Beatitudes Jesus basically turned the world upside down.  He used the term “blessed” for those in his society ordinarily considered far down on the totem pole.  We might even turn to Galatians 5 and define sainthood by considering that wonderful list of virtues the Apostle Paul calls the Fruit of the Spirit.  Leviticus 19:2, which is the heart of the Holiness Code, says that we are to be holy for God is holy.  To be called holy does not mean that we should adopt a “holier than thou” attitude.  It simply means that we are to be different from the rest of the world.  We are to consume a different diet and live by different standards.  That difference defines our holiness, our sainthood. 

My brother-in-law Dr. Steve Suits bought a vanity license plate printed with the word Hagios for his Jeep Wrangler.  I thought his choice of words was a little pretentious at the time.  Early one morning Steve left the hospital and drove down Wood Street to merge into traffic on Pine Street.  A truck too far over into Steve’s lane, side-swiped the car, denting the front and back bumper, tearing off the back fender, and scraping the entire right side.

I later saw Steve’s Jeep at the body shop.  One of the bolts had come out of that license plate, leaving it hanging to one side.  Seeing all of those scrapes and dent, I thought, Hagios – that wrecked car is exactly the way saints look with their bumps and bruises.  Saints are not perfect.  No saint is perfect.

On this All Saints Day, maybe instead of focusing on those virtues that we ordinarily think of that would set a saint apart, maybe we ought to consider sainthood in a little different way.

As we continue our series The Name of God, we come to the name Jehovah-Rohi, which means The Lord My Shepherd.  Our text for today is Psalm 23, one all of us know well.

 

Responsive Reading:

1The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
 2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
 3He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
 4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.
 5Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
 all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house
of the LORD for ever.

 

Clare and I got up early Thursday morning and drove to the mountains of North Carolina in preparation for this year’s annual Christmas story.  We visited the Cherokee reservation and then drove down to Robbinsville where the Snowbird Cherokees live.

While in the area, Clare and I ate at a restaurant.  I looked up on a wall and saw Psalm 23 written in the syllabary, the alphabet of the Cherokee people devised by Sequoyah.  I, of course, could not read it, but I could certainly recognize it.  I thought, This is a psalm for all times, all places, and all people.  It is not just for funerals.  In fact, Psalm 23, a passage often quoted at funerals, could be used as a Thanksgiving message.  I want us to use this Scripture today to think about our God who makes Himself known in a very special way – as our Shepherd.

The verbs used in Psalm 23 offer a good job description of what it means to be a parent.  The shepherd described here has so many of those characteristics that belong to good parents.  Let’s look at Psalm 23 together.

“The LORD is my shepherd.”  The psalmist could have said, “The LORD is our shepherd,” but he chose to use the first-person singular pronoun instead.  Certainly the Lord has a flock, and many of us are included in that flock.  This psalm immediately identifies the Shepherd as having a personal relationship with one sheep, with one person, with me.

Because the LORD is my shepherd, “I shall not want.”  God makes provision for me.  This statement does not mean that I am going to get everything I want.  It means that I will have no want outside of my needs.  I may not get the ice cream and chocolate syrup that I want.  I may get broccoli and green beans instead, but God is going to provide for me.  He makes provision.

“He makes me lie down.”  If you are a parent or grandparent, you have tried to make children lie down and stay down at night when they did not want to go to sleep.  How many requests can they make for another story or another drink of water?  Making a child lie down is hard for parents.  The Lord also has difficulty helping us get the rest we need.

Years ago when I was trying to put one of my young sons to bed, he said, “Dad, I want to pray.”  Usually his prayers were short, staccato, but not this one.  This prayer actually became a filibuster as he began praying for all members of our family, for every pet he could remember, and for every cousin, aunt, and uncle.  Folks, in our family, that list goes on and on and on.  When he ran out of family members, he began praying for all the Mother Goose characters, for Little Boy Blue asleep in the hay.  He included Little Miss Muffet in his prayer, saying, “Help her not be afraid of spiders.”

I finally told our son, “You can pray as long as you want to, but I’m going to leave now.”

“He leads me beside still waters.”  Still waters, we are told, run deep.  This is to say that the Lord leads us to places where we can deepen our spiritual walk, to places of quietness where we can understand the depth of God’s love.

“He restores my soul.”  Sometimes it takes physical infirmity to make us lie down.  Sometimes the Lord has to make us lie down so that our soul can be restored.  We not only need the physical rest, but we also need the spiritual restoration as well.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness.”  God teaches me to do what is right every moment of every single day, every year of my life, forever and ever and ever.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, is one of my favorites; but I do not like Peterson’s paraphrase of this psalm and Verse 4 in particular: “Even if I go through Death Valley…”  That translation might be fine in other parts of the world, but it just does not work in South Carolina.  Death Valley has a completely different meaning in this region.  I just prefer the old King James Version: “He leadeth me through the valley of the shadow of death.”

That “valley of the shadow of death” is just one of the many dark valleys we go through in life.  We must go through the valley of the shadow of serious illness or the dark valley of divorce.  When going through any dark valley, young children need to know that they will not be alone.  When adult children go through the valley of the shadow of divorce or any other kind of difficulty, they also need to know they will not be alone.  Their caregivers, parents in particular, are with them.

When we go through a dark valley, we need not fear any evil.  We need not be afraid because we are not alone.  The psalmist says, “I fear no evil because you are with me.”  The Shepherd has made the promise, “I will never leave you, never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  Our Shepherd is with us at every turn, in every dark valley.

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  Sheep do not just bolt and run for no apparent reason. They merely nibble or graze off in the wrong direction.  Shepherds use a staff to bring the sheep back into the right way, into those “paths of righteousness.”  That staff is one of comfort, one of discipline and direction.  The rod, a short blunt instrument like a billy club, was almost never used against the sheep.  Instead, it was used to protect, to keep predators away – the wolves, “lions, tigers, and bears, O my!”

The symbolic staff and rod are perhaps two of the most neglected instruments used by parents.  The staff – guidance, discipline, and correction – lead children into the right way.  As time passes, our children learn from us how to walk in those paths of righteousness.  If we do not use the rod – a means of protecting our children – the many predators lurking in the shadows will harm them.  Drop teens off at the mall with a few dollars in their pockets, and tell them you will return in a few hours.  I promise you that predators are there, looking for the innocents.

Our Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) emphasis this entire year has been the serious crime of human trafficking.  That exploitation may occur partly because parents are not on guard for the predators; they have not used the rod of protection.  Parents must take care to protect their offspring, just as the shepherd cares for his sheep.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

A mother told her young son who had been misbehaving, “You will have to eat supper by yourself.”  She set up a card table in the corner for him while the rest of the family ate at the dinner table.  When asked to say the blessing, he prayed, “Thank you for preparing a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.”

Does that story illustrate this section of Psalm 23?  No.  God provides the sustenance we need in a world filled with poison.  God gives us what we need in the midst of those who would hurt us.

“You anoint my head with oil.”  We can think of that line as simply the act of blessing a child.  All children need to know that they have been blessed, that they have received the blessing of their parents.

Phillip Keller, who was a shepherd in South Africa for seven years before going into the ministry, has written A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 and A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd.  In those two books, Phillips describes in some detail what we have read here in the psalms and in the tenth chapter of John.  He describes this anointing by detailing the shepherd’s role as caregiver as the sheep come into the fold at night.  The shepherd holds the staff low, and as the sheep scoot under it, the shepherd has an opportunity to examine the animal for pests, thorns, cuts, or scrapes.  The shepherd then anoints the sheep with medicinal lotions as a means of protecting it from pests.  Sometimes that anointing protects against pests that would lay eggs in the sheep’s eye and cause blindness.

On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, fishermen use a special kind of insect repellent that is, oddly enough, also an ointment women use to make themselves smell better and soften their skin.  Skin-So-Soft is a lotion contains pennyroyal, a natural insect repellent which wards off black gnats, green-headed flies, and mosquitoes.  Imagine encountering one of those grisly looking fishermen smelling like he has come out of a beauty parlor.  The anointing of the sheep is similar.

“My cup runneth over.”  Blessings overflow.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…”  Replace “goodness and mercy” with “grace and mercy.”  Sparky Anderson, a manager of the Cincinnati Reds and later the Detroit Tigers, made an astounding statement.  I do not know the occasion or the date that he said mercy is when you do not get what you deserve, and grace is when you get what you do not deserve.

“Grace and mercy follow me all the days of my life.”  There is no lapse, never a time, when God does not bestow grace and mercy on all He loves.

“I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” has many meanings.  I simply prefer to think that we have the assurance of eternal reward, a time when we can be in heaven.

I want us to look at a few verses from the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, beginning at Verse 2.  Jesus took this image of the Good Shepherd, Jehovah-Rohi, as his own identity.  Jesus says that we, like sheep, know his voice. We hear the voice of Jesus calling us and follow in obedience.

2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.

I saw this passage beautifully illustrated on the high plains of New Mexico when my brothers and I were traveling in the area.  When we came to a pass in the mountains, two huge flocks of Navajo sheep were located on either side of the road, one tended by a young Navajo boy riding on a pony and the other tended by a Navajo cowboy riding his big horse.  Those two shepherds led the groups of sheep into the road at the same time and funneled them through that pass.  Watching from behind, I thought they would never get untangled.  That was not so.  On the other side of the pass, the young boy and the older man rode to opposite sides of the road.  When the boy whistled, his flock moved to the side of the road where he waited.  The man shouted something in the Navajo language, and all of his sheep headed toward him.  The sheep knew the voice of their shepherd, and they followed.

Consider John 10:9-11:

 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  11 I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

 

Phillip Keller says that the shepherd himself was the gatekeeper.  Not only did the shepherd bring the sheep into the fold at night, but he also lay down across the opening of the gate when he went to sleep.  A predator trying to get into the sheepfold would have to go over the shepherd.  Think “over my dead body.”  The shepherd literally lay down his life to protect his flock.

Verse 14: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  We are back to that personal relationship between the Lord and us.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Jesus says that he has that kind of relationship with every single one of us.

Isaiah writes in Isaiah 53:6:  “All we like sheep are gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.”  All of us wander off and have to be brought back.  The one sheep without spot or blemish, however, is the Lord Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist said, “Behold the lamb of God” (John 1:29).  The rest of us have flaws.  You know the term black sheep, which means a person who is disobedient.  The truth is that every single one of us has a streak of that rebellion inside us.  We all have a black sheep streak, but Christ loves us, regardless:  “Red, yellow, black and white, We are precious in His sight.”  Our Lord wants us all to be a part of his flock.

Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who cares very much about each individual sheep in his care.  When just one goes missing, the shepherd leaves the others – ninety and nine – in order to search for the one that is lost.  Jesus mentions the rejoicing that occurs when the lost sheep is found and brought back home and continues, “The same is true in heaven.  When just one sinner repents, all of heaven rejoices” (Luke 15:7).  That is a thought for All Saints Day.

At Mr. M.A. Gregory’s service on Wednesday, I told a story that I often share at funerals.  Some of you have heard it several times, and you are going to hear it again today.  I am counting on the fact that your short-term memory is not so good.  Even if you have heard it before, it is worth hearing again because it so well illustrates Psalm 23.

A little country church in the mountains wanted to have a homecoming celebration marking its 100th anniversary.  The members made preparations, deciding to have all-day singing and dinner on the grounds.  They especially wanted to invite to the celebration a young man who had grown up in the church and gone away to college and then graduate school.  He had earned degrees in speech and drama, been in some off-Broadway plays, and taken a teaching position at a large university.  Considered the favorite son of the community, he was given a part in the homecoming service.  They were looking forward to hearing his eloquent speaking voice.

Those planning the event also wanted to invite an old retired pastor who had served their church faithfully for many years.  Since his retirement, he had suffered a stroke, causing his voice to weaken.  He spoke with a slur.  Partially paralyzed on his left side, he walked with a cane.  This pastor was so dearly loved by the congregation that they wanted him to recite Scripture during the service.

On the day of the homecoming, the little church was packed.  Early in the service at the appointed time, the confident young instructor stepped to the pulpit.  He recited Psalm 23 perfectly, putting emphasis in all the appropriate places.  When he finished quoting this beautiful psalm, the congregation responded with polite applause.

Time was designated later in the service for the elderly pastor to speak.  He hobbled to the pulpit where he had preached so many sermons in previous years.  He gripped the sides of the podium and spoke in a feeble voice, also quoting Psalm 23.  He reversed several words and several lines.  Even with the mistakes, though, the congregation was so deeply moved that a dry eye was not to be found in the congregation.  They were all moved to tears.

Following the service, the younger man approached the current pastor of the church and fretted, “I don’t understand the response I got from the congregation.  I quoted Psalm 23 perfectly without a single mistake, but the congregation gave me a polite applause.  The congregation responded so differently when the old pastor quoted the very same passage.  Even with his frail voice, even with the mistakes, they were so deeply moved.  I don’t understand.”

The current pastor explained, “Young man, here is the difference.  You know the psalm, and you know it well.  This old man knows the Shepherd.”

I know you know Psalm 23, but do you know the Shepherd?  Do you know that the Lord is your Shepherd?  Do you know that he is with you in every circumstance, that he will go with you through any dark valley of the shadow?  Do you know that you do not have to be afraid, even in the face of death?  Do you know that the goodness and mercy of God have kept you all the days of your life?  Do you know that one day you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever?  You only have to say, “Christ Jesus, be my Shepherd.  Be my Savior.  Be my Master.”  If you have never made that decision, could I invite you to do so today?  Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.  Make him the Shepherd of your life.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2011

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