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Sunday April 25, 1999 ~ Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23


Focus Text: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me..."  [Psalm 23:4]


The Key To Peace Of Mind

I believe that God is always closer to us and more available than we imagine.

I also believe that something wonderful can happen for you today.  If you have a genuine desire for God’s gift of peace and are willing to take some action based on that desire -- you can find that peace of God.

Peace of mind is one of the most precious gifts a human being can know. When. you have it, there’s a foundation of joy in living that even the loss of every worldly possession can not destroy. When you do not have peace of mind, there is literally no-thing that can bring happiness.

The Life Threatening Absence of Peace

The total absence of peace can be life threatening!

I clearly remember an urgent phone call from a friend with whom I had served in the Air Force. This young man had returned to service as a helicopter pilot. He flew the Cobra gunships and had taken three extra combat tours in Viet Nam. Finally the Army refused to allow him to go back because the odds of his surviving another tour were astronomical.

After his army years, he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.  He turned to alcohol to numb the pain and find a bit of peace. There was, of course, no peace to be found there. The phone rang in the middle of the night.  "Hello," I said sleepily.  I could hardly understand him -- but I did recognize his voice.  He said, "John, make me want to live!"

It is a hard thing to realize sometimes, but the very first principle about peace of mind is:
    no human being can give it to you...
        and you can not give it to anybody else!

When we search for peace of mind, we need to know that God alone is the source. It is a disservice to seek peace from another person and you are bound for disappointment if you try to give it to someone else.

As much as we might sometimes wish we could give peace of mind to someone else  -- much less make someone else want to live -- there is no way. Only the Great Shepherd has power over the such things.

Out by the Green Pastures and Still Waters

It is no accident that the image of green pastures and still waters is renewing.   I don't know about you, but I have a real need to be out in nature.  When I am deprived of that for any length of time I can feel myself getting a little "buggy" inside. People who know me well occasionally say something like, "About time for you to get out in the country, isn't it?"

"Take a hike," can sometimes be really good advice.

There is a beautiful place where our family has vacationed in Canada. It is Twin Lakes near New Liskeard, Ontario.  Twin Lakes are the most clear and shining lakes connected by a narrow channel.  They are set in the midst of the most gorgeous natural beauty. The air is as clean and crisp as fine crystal and the stars at night seem so close, they beg you to reach out and touch them.

We call those lakes Upper Twin and Lower Twin. Lower Twin is where all the cottages are. There is water skiing swimming, laughing and playing and lots of hustle and bustle. Upper Twin on the other hand, is quiet and placid. There are no cottages. None are allowed. There is no water skiing and no hustle and bustle. You have to navigate very carefully through the channel to get there. Sometimes it is so quiet at Upper Twin that you can hear your own heartbeat.

I went out in the boat alone to Upper Twin alone one evening near sunset. As I emerged from the channel, the sun was just: going down. The sky was aflame and the water reflected the splendor and doubled it. A bird called in the distance. There was an incredible symphony of color and creation's music that almost overwhelming. I was alone on the lake.  At least to the physical eye, I was alone.

Yet, I could feel the presence of God! It was as real as anything I have ever felt in my life -- almost a physical experience.  I was alive in every cell and fiber of my being and I was free and my eyes grew misty as I stood up in the boat and cried out:

"I know You are here and I love You!"

An echo came back.  It startled me for a second.

"I know you are here and I love You!"

It struck me as the voice of the Lord.  Another principle of peace of mind was cemented in my heart that evening. When you say to God, "I know you are here and I love you," the voice of the Lord will come back to you...  "I know you are here and I love you!"

The Presence of God

Knowing the presence of God is a key to peace of mind.

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil for Thou art with me..."

This may be the single most popular verse in all of scripture. The simple expression of these words has brought more calm to troubled hearts, more comfort to sorrowing people, more courage to distressed souls than all the medication in our nation's pharmacies.

When I was a young lad, my geologist father took me with him on a trip into the bush. He was on a geological survey. At one point, he told me to stay put while he went to check out a diamond drilling site.  My legs were too little to keep up with him and this would save some "mileage".

I looked around and thought I would walk just over a hill nearby, not far mind you -- just a short distance. Surely my father didn’t mean that I couldn’t take a short walk.

Do you know what happened? That’s right... I looked around and couldn’t tell where I had come from.  A panic set in...I began looking here and there frantically, but the more I tried, the more lost I got. The sun seemed to be in a hurry towards the western horizon and I was afraid darkness would come all too soon. Talk about a lack of peace!

My heart was racing and I was grew quite sure that I would never see home again. My mind began to torment this frightened boy.  A bear would come to eat me. I would never find my way home and have to grow up in the bush -- like the little wolf boy in a movie I had seen.

Finally a voice called out my name!  It was the most wonderful sound I had ever heard in my life, my father’s voice calling me. Actually he had seen me most of the time. he allowed me to learn a terrific lesson, but his eyes were on me even when I feared the most.

A spiritual lesson grew from that. No matter how lost we may feel, or how far away we might experience God to be.  The problem is with us -- never with God.  I can trust the words, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

The presence of God is the prerequisite of peace.

Surprised by God

There are times when God surprises us with a strong experience of Divine Presence.   Over the years people have shared profound experiences of God's presence that came to them "out of the blue".

One of those times came some years ago during a sermon on the woman in Luke's gospel who had been ill for twelve years. She was in absolute desperation. She heard that Jesus was coming to town and took the risk to reach out to him and touched him and found healing and peace.

As I told that story, I sensed the nearness of Christ.  It was as though the whole congregation had a similar sense.  It was very quiet.  We were suddenly in the woman's place.  Her faint hope and deep discouragement were so real.

After the service, I was at coffee in the church parlor. Someone told me that there was a young woman who had visited our church and wished to speak with me.   As I talked with her I discovered that she was the one who had to leave the worship service to move her car. One of our ushers had handed me a note near the beginning of worship that a car was blocking a neighbor's driveway.  I recalled that someone had left hurriedly. It was this woman.

She said that she had been so embarrassed that she almost drove straight home. "Then," she said, "Something just made me come back. I drove all over looking for a parking place and then came and stood in the vestibule and listened. It was like that woman was me. I’ve never felt anything like that. It was almost spooky, but I felt as though Christ came close to me. That he cared about me and what I've been going through." Her eyes were teary now, as she spoke.

I was convinced that Christ graced our gathering that morning and especially that this woman for whatever reason needed to know the presence -- and the peace of God. Although she was particularly effected, all of were surprised by God that morning.  People who had no idea of what had taken place for the woman commented on how they sensed God's presence that day.

Principles of Peace

The 23rd Psalm points to five principles of peace that are the "action steps" we need to take to make some gains in our search for peace.

1) Recognize the source of peace"The Lord... is my shepherd."  It is the Lord who "leads", "restores," "comforts."  When people say they have no peace of mind or can not find peace of mind, the first question that has to be asked is, "Where are you looking for it?"  You can't receive it until you know the source.  Could not most of us come up with a list of false sources of peace?

2) Trust the source: This is the switch from "The Lord is "A" shepherd"...  to "The Lord is "MY" shepherd.   Knowing the source of something and actually going to the source and receiving from the source are two different things. The Lord is a shepherd only to those who choose his care.

3) Stay with the Source:  Imagine this, "The Lord is my shepherd -- on Sundays -- as for Monday, Tuesday...  well... "  Do you see?   Being a shepherd is a full time job.  God is there 24 hours a day every day.   The life of faith is not a "snap job" where you get "zapped" and then go on with business as usual.  Stay with the source of peace.  If peace comes and goes for you, check to see if you are on and off again with the shepherd.

4) Grow with the Source: If you will invest some time and energy in your spiritual life you will begin to grow in the conviction that he will never leave you alone. You will continue to have pain and difficulty in life....but you need not fear... the evil because He will be with you.  For many of us, "growing with the source" will mean a more active relationship with the scriptures.  The input God wants to give us can be found in the wisdom and comfort of the scriptures. 

5) Share the source: We are called to share the Good News. When something terrific happens to us, we will share it quite freely.  I have to believe that there is not a single individual here today who does not know someone who could use some peace of mind.  Give some thought to this.  "Is it possible God has put you in someone's life because you are the most likely person to help them discover the peace of mind that comes from the Shepherd? It may not be with specific words and it certainly won't come from your correcting or scolding them.  Most effective is the reflection you can provide for them of the peace of God in your own life.

May the Lord Jesus Christ surprise you with his presence and his peace!  Amen.


Notes On The Texts

Our focus for today's full text sermon is on the sense of the presence of God the Psalmist experiences in the 23rd Psalm. God with us, watching over us, caring for us as the foundation for the peace of mind we long for.

The reading from the Gospel of John focuses on the "voice" of the shepherd.  Sheep, Jesus says, know the voice of the authentic shepherd -- the one who comes to protect them.  He gives the "abundant life."  This abundant life is somewhat akin to the peaceful life pictured in the 23rd Psalm. (An amazing observation that has come to me is that people seem to have an intuitive sense for the meaning of the 23rd Psalm.  In spite of the fact that so many scholars / commentators have said that modern folk don't understand the "pastoral" world, the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known, most loved passages in all of the bible.  In a dangerous world, the shepherd of this Johannine passage gives security.  As you read through John 10 there are several other references to the "voice" of the shepherd.

In First Peter the Shepherd is the one who saves.  We have been saved, "by his wounds."  In the case of First Peter, the sheep are the willful, straying sheep who are healed (made whole) by the wounds of the shepherd.  Putting the readings together, the sheep are recipients -- not only of "rest" but of "redemption."

Psalm 23
For a dramatic sense of what it means to "connect" with the Shepherd, read a few lines of the psalm as written (first person) "The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want, He makes ME to lie down...."   Then point out what it would be like if this were impersonal as in,  "The Lord is A shepherd, He makes PEOPLE to lie down..."


Alternate Sermon Ideas

A Fully Functioning Family Of Faith ~ Acts 2:42-47

There is a sense of completeness and wholeness in the infant church described in Acts 2:42-47 that calls us to come and learn.   There are four marks of the "fully functioning" church and five results of their lifestyle.

The earliest church gave themselves to:

* The apostle's teaching - the apostles, of course, taught the word of Christ -- or we might say that the earliest church was grounded in the word of the Lord.
* fellowship - the "common  life" - knowing and growing together in the faith
* breaking of bread - the eucharistic meal provided the glue that held them together
* prayers - their life together was built on seeking the presence and guidance of God. As the eucharistic meal was the glue that held them together - so also the prayer provided the building blocks of the community. Prayer was their spiritual "daily bread" - or dependence upon God.  Prayer is a declaration of dependence - upon God.

When we are given to these four marks of the "fully functioning" church we may expect:

* Awe - a sense of reverence or wonder at the sense of God's presence - a conviction that "Surely the Lord is in this place."
* Wonders and signs - When the people of the Lord are engaged in prayer, there will be unmistakable action of God in the community.  We may not specify just what that action will be -- but it will be evident that God is acting through the prayers of the people.
* Community - "Holding all things in common" -- the earliest church in Acts literally had a Christian Communal life.  The heart of that life was that God as ultimate Owner of all things would not want one brother or sister to go without while another was in plenty.  Yet, we know from I Corinthians that this did not always work out in practice.  Nevertheless -- one result of a fully functioning church will be a desire to share with those in our midst who are struggling with life's basic necessities.
* Fellowship  - they shared their lives together in each others homes. (the proper understanding of what the NRSV translates as, "They broke bread at home.")  The people of God were bound together and their identity was very much shaped by the fact that they were all people of God in a hostile environment. Yet, even today, the effectiveness of the church is frequently measured by our commitment to each other.
* Praising God  - The keystone of the earliest church was the "joy of the Lord" which dominated their gatherings.

The bottom line of this passage (literally) is that the lifestyle and vitality of the earliest church was a magnet for those who were seeking God.

***

Additional Homiletical Possibilities

John 10  The relationship of the shepherd and his sheep is the core of John 10.  Several issue emerge.   * It is important to recognize that there are "false shepherds"  - "thieves and robbers" - out there whose aim is not gain for the sheep but gain of the sheep.  * We need to listen for and discern the voice of the shepherd.  Over and over in John 10, Jesus speaks about the sheep recognizing his voice.  But do we?  How do we do that?  Biblical literacy is one way.  Prayer and meditation is another.  Can we escape the "busyness" of our lives to pay attention to the "business" of our souls?  There is a tension in John 10 between belief and unbelief, between danger to and protection of the sheep.  The true shepherd is the one who is in danger from the anger of the unbelieving ones.  The thief who comes to "steal and kill and destroy" (v.10) might very well be unbelief -- it is finally unbelief that seeks to kill the shepherd and that keeps us from hearing the voice of the true shepherd.  *   The centerpiece of John 10 is the promise of vv.27-30.  In all of the tension and turmoil of contemporary living, we might encourage our folk to "be still" and "know" who the shepherd is.  A theme might be:  "Do you hear what I hear?"

***

1 Peter 2:19-25   There is a strong play in this passage between justice and injustice.  What can we say to people who are suffering unjustly.  This isn't the issue of illness or difficulty that comes to a person or a family that does not seem fair.  There is a need to talk about the fact that some suffer more than others and there is no particular rhyme or reason to it.  i.e. "Why do bad things happen to good people?"   But in this text it is the issue of suffering which comes to people unjustly. Prejudice, bigotry, arrogance, power -- can all be the cause of unjust suffering.  On a social level it can be prejudice toward a whole segment of a population.  On a personal level, it might be an arrogant, power hungry boss who is abusive.  Peter deals with unjust suffering and how we respond.  * When suffering unjustly, Peter says we do not return the abuse -- but...  and this is crucial --  We entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly! (v.23)  It is not that we become doormats -- it is that we believe God will somehow, someday make all things right.  * A second major point is that we are the recipients of the redemption that has come from the unjust suffering of Christ.  So, not only do we have guidance and protection (v.25) from Christ, but we have the promise of justice.  Martin Luther King Jr's comment applies.  "The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice."


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 23)

Leader:   We come to praise your name, Shepherd of our souls!
People:  From your hand we have received life's treasures;
Leader:   You have given us rest in our toughest times,
People:  Renewal when life has brought us low.
Leader:   You give us guidance when life is confusing,
People:  And show us the way we should go.
Leader:   Your goodness and mercy shall surround our days,
People:  And our spirits are yours forever and ever!  Amen!

A Prayer Of Dedication

You, O Lord, are the giver of abundant life.   We are the recipients of
grace and mercy overflowing.  What can we offer in return for all these
things?  You bless us again by taking pleasure in the gifts we bring.
Whether great gifts or small, when we do our best, you take joy
in them all.  We bless and praise your holy name.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving   (Based on 1 Peter 2:19-25)

Almighty and gracious God, we come before you today with hearts full
of gratitude and praise. Our minds are full of wonder when we consider the
One who gave himself for us. How can it be, O Lord, that One so full of grace
and truth should bear our sin and shame?  Who could ever imagine that we
would receive his wholeness and he would receive our brokenness?  O grant us
merciful Lord, the joy of staying very close to the Shepherd and Guardian of our
souls.  Amen.