Iain Provan concludes his series looking at the unconditional love through the big picture of Scripture. Here the New Horizon media team brings you a summary of his message.
Psalm 23: 1-6 and John 10: 7- 15
In 1976, in my student days (shortly after the days of the dinosaurs) I was involved in a short-term mission in France with Operation Mobilisation. Our mode of transport was a battered old VW van that had seen much better days. What the van lacked in seating was more than compensated for by the excitement of the journey. Our team leader was from New York had never driven in Europe before!
In our Christian journey, it is very important to travel with someone to get you safely to the destination. Successful travel requires the right leader. It also requires a destination worth the trouble. In Psalm 23, we have a biblical text that is about our journey with God.
There is one important question we have not yet asked or answered: How long does God’s love last for? Does God love us right to the end or does He become weary? How serious is God in this love that He has for us? Psalm 23 helps us with these questions. It is a Psalm about the character of God, the one who leads. It is a Psalm about the certainty of getting to our destination.
It uses two leading metaphors: We meet a God who is first of all a Good Shepherd but also a God who is a Generous Host. Both together remind us that God so loves us… all the way to the end!
A Good Shepherd
This metaphor is commonly employed in the Bible and is associated with God’s leading of His people in the wilderness and the return of the people from exile. The images in Psalm 23 are intimate. He is a shepherd living with His flock and being everything to His flock.
The shepherd makes sure that the sheep eat the best food. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Much of Palestine does not provide good food for sheep but the Good Shepherd manages to find abundant, lush, green pastures. It is not easy and it takes effort. God does it because He wants His sheep to eat well.
The hireling shepherd is only in the business for the money – it’s the cash and not the sheep that is important. We’ve all met people like that (minimal effort, maximum sense of entitlement). But the Good Shepherd has my best interests at heart.
He wants me not only to eat well but also to drink well. “He leads me beside quiet waters.” It wasn’t easy to find water in ancient Palestine and it was even harder to find water that was safe to drink. This is not a meagre provider. This is not an Ebenezer Scrooge – someone who is grudging or petty.
He pours out His love and in doing these things, “He restores my soul” or my life. In biblical thinking, we are integrated beings into whom God has breathed His life-force and the word “soul” is our very life-force. It could be translated, “He refreshes me.” I shall lack nothing I need for my journey through life.
The Good Shepherd guides the sheep – “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name sake.” The sheep did not plan their own itinerary. It is just as well considering the well known foolishness of sheep and their capacity for getting into danger. Sheep don’t have a good sense of direction.
I came across a news story in Quatar, which read, “400 sheep fall off a cliff in Turkey.” All the sheep followed the leader off the edge of a cliff. In Psalm 23, the sheep don’t decide where they are going. The Good Shepherd makes sure that His sheep stay on the right kind of path. The word “righteousness” has a moral or religious connotation in modern times but the point of verse three is that there are good places for sheep and there are bad places but the shepherd makes sure that His sheep does not stray into dangerous places.
There is more than one reason for making sure that sheep are well looked after. The Psalmist is convinced that God does not have a hidden agenda. The Good Shepherd provides for His sheep, not so He can slaughter them later but so He can lead them on to better things.
Psalm 23 is not a naïve psalm when it comes to human experience. It understands darkness and danger, evil and chaos and it recognises the reality of the valley of the shadow of death. What we are thinking about here is a place of “deadly darkness” – in the message it is called “Death Valley”. It is any shadowy dark place in life.
The Good Shepherd does not only look after the sheep in pleasant places but also in the dark places. This is not an accident on the journey. There is no way of getting to the destination with God without sometimes going through dark places. Anyone who tells you that the Christian life is a healthy, wealthy, pain-free life is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The journey we are on to the city of God must necessarily take us through dark places but the Good Shepherd walks through those places with us!
God comforts us IN our troubles – He doesn’t necessarily take them away.
What a wonderful companion for our journey! Therefore, I will fear no evil. He doesn’t say there is no such thing as evil – evil is real and unavoidable but we need not fear it because the shepherd is with us and He is well armed. The “rod” (poor translation) is a huge offensive weapon – a cudgel or a shillelagh!
The Generous Host
At the end of the journey, we meet a wonderful, generous, risk-taking host who welcomes the pilgrim, even thought he is not highly regarded by other people. God welcomes him, in the very presence of his enemies.
It is a very warm welcome, symbolised by the anointing with oil. Olive oil was highly valued in ancient Israel. It is a symbol of blessing and is used to anoint an honoured and welcome guest.
God prepares a feast, which is extravagant hospitality. The end of the journey is not an exam, it is a banquet. This is what life with God is like: generous provision, guidance, safety even in dark places and a generous feast at the end. This is not a temporary joy before a crushing disappointment. Some of us are wired or trained to expect that life will always proved to be disappointment – “Puddleglum theology”.
Psalm 23 says, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” These things won’t just follow us. The Hebrew verb is used of animals pursuing their prey. Surely goodness and steadfast love will hunt me down, will breathe down my neck!
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I grew up wondering why anybody would want to go to heaven, it sounded so boring but that was because it hadn’t been properly described to me. The Psalmist encourages us that God is good, all the time. He is a Good Shepherd and a Good Host. Why would you not want to dwell in a place where you are loved and honoured and cared for?
God loves each one of us to the end! This week we have been largely dealing with Old Testament texts but they are all part of a great tapestry that has Jesus at the very centre. In Luke chapter 15 the parable of the lost sheep is closely followed by the parable of the Prodigal son, which ends with a banquet – I think Luke saw the connection with Psalm 23 (the Good Shepherd and the Generous Host).
“Who shall separate us then from the love of Christ? … I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, nor the present, nor the future, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all of creation will be able to separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”