“Up Close and Personal”

John 10/Good Shepherd Sunday

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Some Christians set great store by the belief that God issues each of us a personal invitation.

According to these Christians, God invites us to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. And when we have done that, we will begin to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus.

We will then exclaim as the old hymn says, “What a Friend we have in Jesus;”—we will experience the spiritual closeness suggested by the Gospel for today, in which Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep and knows each one of them by name.

Other Christians though may be a bit uncomfortable with such a notion of the divine. This group of Christians may include many of us in the more formal, liturgical churches.

We tend to think that the absolute distinction between the infinite Divine and finite humanity limits any intimacy that could exist between God and us.

So we don’t conceive of Jesus as our “friend.” While we accept that the way of Christ is a path to peace and wholeness, we find it hard to think of Christ as our “personal Savior.” After all, how interested could the Ruler of the Universe be in our individual struggles?

I share some of these reservations. But I must admit that this idea of spiritual closeness is based on an ancient and attractive tradition that arose long before Jesus. This Hebrew way of thinking about God is beautifully revealed in the 23rd Psalm, which we also have as one of our readings on Good Shepherd Sunday.

This Psalm must be the most popular of all the 150 Psalms. Even people who aren’t churchgoers request that it be read at weddings, and it is invariably asked for at funerals. The 23rd Psalm seems to speak to everyone. It’s certainly my favorite.

What is the unique appeal of this Psalm? Well, in a number of different ways, it promises a close relationship with God. And instead of making us uncomfortable or quizzical, this Psalm assures us that we as individuals are valued and blessed by God.

As we examine the Psalm in detail, we first note that is the Lord who is “my shepherd.” The texts in John’s Gospel about Jesus as the Good Shepherd explicitly link him to the Old Testament portrayal of the Divine. So the Twenty-third Psalm claims to say important things about God.

It claims to bring God to human beings. The Lord is “my” shepherd. And because he is my shepherd, he cares for me.

For example, the Lord anoints my head with oil—which means he treats me like a monarch. In ancient times and even in England today, a king is anointed with holy oil when he is crowned; the oil is a symbol of his divine calling.

Then, too, God is like a shepherd to me by bestowing on me “goodness and mercy all the days of my life.” All the days of my life—even on those days when I’m not behaving like a very good sheep – and I am in need of mercy!

Not only will the Lord be merciful to me, but he will also lead me in “right pathways”—he will show me, in the old translation, “paths of righteousness.”

The Psalmist, then, presents a God who can’t wait to give good things to all of his people. I will receive so many blessings that “my cup” will be filled with them, until the blessings “run over.”

And it’s no wonder that this extraordinary text includes a gift that is especially welcome to exhausted modern people: the psalm says, the Lord will “revive” our “souls.”

Isn’t this exactly what we need? Every person can benefit from a good shot of interior revival. “Revival” means to be given life again. And, looking to Christ’s resurrection, we need that new life within us—we need to share the life of the Good Shepherd.

But now, let’s step back for a moment and notice what this picture of God does not include. It doesn’t say that the Lord enjoys wielding tyrannical power over his creatures—forcing them, for example, to do things that they don’t want to do. No, the Lord who is our Shepherd wants us to have a cup of ever-flowing blessings.

Nor does the Psalm depict a God who is looking to punish us when we do things that we know are wrong. Rather, it reveals a forgiving God who wants to lead us to drink of the divine “still waters,” so that, refreshed and restored, we will be able to turn away from self-destructive evil.

Other parts of the Old Testament describe an angry God, a God of judgment. Psalm 23, however, shows us how the Lord’s judgment is tempered with mercy.

And we may also notice that the 23rd Psalm doesn’t only speak of God. For, by implication, it tells us something about ourselves. By describing God, it tells us how we can approach the Divine.

Whatever we have done, we are still able to address God, and ask for God’s forgiveness, and find a new way forward in life.

At the same time because the Lord’s offer is so intimate, we receive a valuable reassurance about ourselves. While we may feel uneasy with the idea that Jesus is our “personal Savior” because it seems to bring God down to our level, there’s an important truth in this approach that the 23rd Psalm reveals.

If the absolute God cares about us, he cares absolutely. That means he cares for everything that we care about.

The Lord knows as well as we do that these concerns of ours rarely have earthshaking significance. Not to put too fine a point on it: a lot of my worries are trivial. Even for me, they’re trivial!

But because our concerns are our concerns, and because God loves us as we are, God is always with us, like a Good Shepherd standing watch over his flock.

Even if we find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we know that God is with us—a “rod and a staff” to lean on. In that profound sense, our religion is a rod, a staff–a “crutch.”

And thank God it is! For as we hobble along the crowded, crooked pathways of modern life, we are very lucky to have a crutch!

We’re blessed that God calls us each by name, that the Lord knows us as individual persons, and he leads us to green pastures and still waters, and he restores our souls.

And now unto that same God, Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


Leave a Reply