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Life on the Ledge: Real Security, Psalm 23

Real Security

Psalm 23


Sometimes we get walloped with the messiness of life when we least expect it. Take what happened in Taiwan. On January 17, 2004, a 66-ton sperm whale died and was beached on the southwestern coast of that island. Almost 2 weeks later, on January 29, authorities decided to truck the dead whale to a laboratory where they could do an autopsy. So they loaded this 56-foot monster on a flatbed truck and were hauling it through the streets of Tainan, when the whale exploded. Yep, it exploded. It had been decomposing, of course, and all those internal gasses reached a breaking point. As the truck was making its way down a busy street, all of a sudden the whale exploded, showering nearby cars, shops, and pedestrians with blood and organs and stopping traffic for hours.


Isn’t that just like life sometimes? You’re just going through life, minding your own business, when suddenly, boom! The whale explodes. We don’t expect it, and we couldn’t have anticipated it, but the whale explodes. Out of the blue you’re called into your boss’s office and told you’re being downsized. You no longer have a job. Out of the blue your spouse says, “I want a divorce. I just don’t love you anymore.” Maybe you hear the word that nobody wants to hear come out of your doctor’s mouth: “Cancer.”


For some of us it isn’t so dramatic, but the pressure is there. We have enough money, but just barely. Our business is making it, but just barely. I’m reasonably sure my spouse is still committed to me. I think there will be a job for me when I get out of school. But there’s no margin for error.


In 2023, real security seems to be gone. The sources of our security have failed us. Neither the stock market nor investments in land have proven to be safe places. Violence is everywhere, at home and abroad. In our schools, our streets, shopping malls, and city parks. Our government can’t seem to fully help us out of the mess. Jobs that we once thought would be there forever are gone. Families and father figures and mother figures fail us. Real security seems to be a thing of the past. We are a society afraid of what tomorrow might bring. Where do I find REAL SECURITY?


In any given year, 18 percent of Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder. That’s twice the number of those who suffer from depression. If you broaden the study to include anyone who experiences an anxiety disorder at any time in their lifetime, the number increases to nearly thirty percent. Our levels of anxiety have also increased dramatically over the last fifty years. According to psychologist Robert Leahy’s book Anxiety Free, “The average American child today exhibits the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient did in the 1950s.” Today’s normal was yesterday’s hospitalization level. Material comfort may be higher than it was back then, but other issues like uncertain employment, threats of terrorism, uncertain futures, high cost of living, and high medical costs are a few of the many contributing factors. As Leahy puts it, “We live in the Age of Anxiety …. We’ve become a nation of nervous wrecks.” How do I find peace?


First, I have to REALIZE that I have a tendency to find trouble. Look at V. 1.


If God is my shepherd, what does that say about me? It says that I’m a sheep, and believe me, that’s no compliment! No one wants to be a sheep. Even in mythology, there’s no sheep-man. We have the Centaur, half human, half horse. We have the minotaur, half human, half bull. We even have fauns, half human, half goat. But there’s no sheep-man.


I’ve raised sheep for years. I showed sheep at the fair for 7 years when I was a kid in 4-H, and a few years ago Becky and I bought out the remnants of a flock that was in pretty bad shape after the owner got cancer and health deteriorated. We did the best we could to nurse them back to health and pass them on to others. We couldn’t save two of them, and still have a couple.

Sheep are prone to wander. Even in familiar territory they can get turned around, confused, and completely lost. They’re also  utterly defenseless. They need strong fences & guard animals to keep them safe from predators. They have a nose for trouble. I’ve had sheep caught in fences, stuck in brush, fallen in a ditch and unable to even get up. When I was a kid, one of my 4H sheep tried to jump out and didn’t quite make it. It pulled a heavy wooden fence down on itself and broke it’s leg. I’ve had sheep get out of pens, find the feed room, and eat until they died.


Without outside intervention from caring shepherds, domestic sheep don’t stand a chance. If wolves, coyotes, and cougars don’t kill them, they stand a pretty good chance of offing themselves at some point through sheer stupidity.


And yet that’s exactly what King David calls each one of us, himself included. Look at what he says. He doesn’t say “the Lord is YOUR shepherd. He says “the Lord is MY shepherd.” The Psalms are very personal for David and for the other Psalm writers. He’s not excluding you and I, but he’s making it very clear that he includes himself in the story. He isn’t trying to fix everyone else. His eyes are turned inward on himself. The Bible does that you know. We run there looking for peace and comfort and God says “OK, but you need to know something. I’m going to shine a spotlight on YOU. On YOUR heart. On what’s going on inside of YOU.” The first time I preached this text was April of 2012, just 4 months before Zeke died. Little did I know … And that’s the point of this Psalm … often we don’t know what’s coming around the next corner.


Now, sheep are one of the most common metaphors in Scripture for the human race. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah says about us: Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way;” If I’m going to find REAL SECURITY, then I have to REALIZE that on my own, I’m doomed. On my own, I am plenty capable of finding trouble … if trouble doesn’t find me first!


Therefore, I must REST, in Christ’s provision. Look at vv. 2-3.


In John 10:11, Jesus takes the imagery of Psalm 23 and applies it to himself when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” Any good Jewish person, growing up in an educational system where the primary task was to memorize the Old Testament in its entirety word for word, would have gone back in their mind to passages like this one, and would have heard Jesus saying, “I am the one you have been waiting for. I am the Great Shepherd in the flesh. I am the source of your security.” The picture here is one of rest. Lying in green pastures and being led beside still waters are images for the truths proclaimed in vv. 1 & 3: because Christ is my shepherd I lack nothing, and my soul is restored.


Sheep won’t drink from fast-running streams. They’re afraid of moving water. In areas where streams were the only source of water for the flock, the shepherd had to a few rocks or logs in the stream to slow the water down so that the sheep will drink. But sheep will drink from any old still puddle of water they happen upon, even if fresh water is available. They’ll drink from puddles that the rest of the flock has been walking around in, water filled with excrement and other impurities, water that can destroy their health.


Have you ever gone to an exotic place for vacation and then accidentally ingested too much of the local water? What happened? You got sick, right? Jesus Christ, our good shepherd, says to us, “Stop turning to filthy puddles to quench your thirst. Stop turning to alcohol & drugs to numb the pain. Stop turning to excessive gambling and pornography to fill your heart. Stop trying to find rest in financial or job security. Come to me, for in me you’ll find a source of living water that will never run dry.


Sheep won’t rest unless four things are true: They must be free from fear, there must be no tension among the flock, they must not be aggravated by the weather conditions, and they cannot be hungry. Freedom from fear, freedom from stress, freedom from hunger, and shelter from the weather. What does this passage say to us in a world where people are losing their homes, their jobs, their security, their lives? Where people in many places don’t have enough to eat, or a safe place to sleep? It doesn’t say that we will have all that we want, but that we will lack nothing that we need to be safe and secure in Christ’s flock.


When we read this passage, we imagine an idyllic scene: a lush green meadow with mountains in the background, a spring-fed mountain stream running lazily through the pasture as sheep lay contentedly in the shade. But remember David, who was at one time the shepherd of his father’s flocks, knew a different scene. The area where he had tended sheep as a young man was brown and barren. Shepherds had to work hard to find enough to sustain their flocks. But a good shepherd could do it. A good shepherd could bring sustenance out of a dry and barren land in the middle of the dry season. He knew where to go. And our good shepherd says to us, “I am the bread of life.” “Come to me, when your burden is too heavy, and I will give you rest.” In me, you will lack nothing that you need to be all that I have created you to be. Is Christ your shepherd? If not, ask him to be your shepherd. He never turns a sheep away.


If I’m going to find real security in an insecure world, I have to realize that I have a tendency to find trouble. So I must rest in Christ’s provision. And I must rely on Christ’s protection. Look at vv. 4-5.


The shepherd’s protection comes in three ways. First, he guides: he leads me along the right paths. Sheep are very ADHD and are prone to wander, even from a well-worn path with which they are supposed to be familiar. Shepherds often have to leave for a minute to go find a sheep or two that has strayed. Sometimes that path leads through what David calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” Literally, that means the deepest, darkest places.


In the Holy Land the landscape is scarred by deep wadis, deep ravines cut into the soil as waters pour from rocky mountaintops during the rainy season. One man tells this story of walking though one such area. “I remember hiking down Wadi Qelt from Jerusalm to Jericho with a friend. An ancient Roman aqueduct, still flowing with water, clung to the canyon wall at a height of several hundred feet. We began our journey following the rugged footpath on the opposite canyon wall, dipping at points to the bottom of the wadi and back up the other side.


It took only about 2 such trips down into the shadowy depths of the stifling heat at the wadi bottom (and this was in the early morning) and scrambling back up the steep limestone wall to regain the path, before we overcame our natural reluctance of the heights and continued our journey walking along the outer rim of the aqueduct. Even so my 2-liter bottle of water was depleted halfway through our journey. When we stopped at a monastery to replenish our supply of water, the water tap in the courtyard first emitted only steam, and then a grudging stream of almost boiling water. I had enough trouble dragging myself up and down those rocky hills. I cannot imagine the difficulty of herding a whole flock of sheep through the “valley of the shadow of death.”


Predators wait in canyons to jump from treetops and rocky ledges down onto unsuspecting prey walking below. Thus animals in the wild have a healthy fear of canyons and dark places. But the sheep is not afraid, for the shepherd is there at the front, calling out to his flock, guiding them along the right path.


Second, the shepherd defends: The rod was a 2’ long or so “club” that shepherds kept attached to their waists so they could defend their flocks from even the most dangerous of predators. Even to the point of providing for me when I am surrounded by enemies on every side, my Good Shepherd is there to protect.


And third, the shepherd corrects: The shepherd also carries a staff, the crook-ended walking stick we all associate with shepherding. It could be used to rescue an animal that had stupidly wandered into a ditch or fallen into a hole and couldn’t get out. It could be used to prod an animal on faster, or stretched out to slow the flock down. He keeps the flock from wandering behind, where stragglers, those who cannot keep up and those who are easily distracted, losing track of the shepherd and his voice, can be picked off by predators or fall into unseen ravines and gorges. Or just a hole along the side of the road. He slows down those who want to rush ahead, refusing to follow the leadership of the shepherd, or who in their excitement rush ahead out of the protective reach of the shepherd’s defenses. He keeps his flock safely and securely within his loving reach. He isn’t lazy and distracted. He is always paying attention. Always on the move, guiding, protecting, urging, and restraining.


And then he gives us this promise: that we will be pursued by Grace. Look at v. 6. Not only will we be at times pursued by predators of body and soul in this life, but we have this promise, that God’s goodness, and God’s mercy (literally his commitment, his perfectly faithful love) will follow us. That word literally means pursued. God’s goodness and God’s stick with us through thick and thin love are pursuing us, and will through every day of our lives, and we will dwell with Christ, our good shepherd, in HIS house forever.


Bruce Larson is a pastor and counselor, and for years he had an office in New York City. Bruce Larson would often counsel people who were going through the struggles of faith, struggles over whether they could really trust God, given the tragedies and the chaos of their present situation. Larson tells of how, when he was counseling with someone in that circumstance, he would often ask them to go for a walk with him. They would go down the elevator of the building in which he had his office, they would go out of the building and walk to the RCA building, they would step into the lobby, and there in the lobby was a huge statue of Atlas, muscles straining, carrying the world.


In mythology, Atlas was the strongest of all human beings and carried the whole world on his back. He would stand there with the person he was counseling and he would say, “Now look at that. That finely proportioned, muscular male body, straining just to hold up the world. That’s one option. You can live just like that. But there’s another option.” Then he’d take them across the street to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and there, above the high altar, was a simple painting of Jesus as a child, perhaps eight or nine. And child Jesus has a hand outstretched, and in that hand he’s effortlessly holding the entire world. And he would say, “That’s the other option. You can choose to struggle to carry your life like Atlas, or you can choose to trust the one who so effortlessly holds all of creation in the palm of his hand.”


What do we do when the whale explodes? Or what do we do when the annoyances of life pile up to the point where it seems they join together to overwhelm us? Where do we find REAL SECURITY? The stock market can fail. Financial institutions can collapse. Once-secure jobs can disappear. Friends and family members can let us down, even hurt us, sometimes seriously. Our own bodies can break. The pressures of this life can overwhelm us.


But we CAN find REAL SECURITY in Christ, if we are willing to Realize our tendency to find trouble (and for trouble to find us), Rest in Christ’s provision, and rely on Christ’s protection.