“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalms 23:1-4 NIV).
Reading the words of this psalm brings a warm, secure feeling to my heart. Singing songs inspired by the psalm — “I am a sheep and the Lord is my Shepherd watching over my soul!” — often brings a tear to my eye. I have this mental image of myself as a sheep and God as a shepherd, holding me in his arms, lovingly cuddling me.
But today as I meditate on this psalm, a different picture comes to my mind.
Yesterday it rained. It poured. We received a much needed soaking from the heavens for much of the day. Last night when I got home from the office I let my dog, Ragamuffin, go outside so he could stretch his legs and do his business. He is normally an obedient dog, but when he realized I was not watching he decided to explore any puddles and mud holes he could find.
Normally when I call his name he responds by running for the door, knowing he is about to receive a treat for responding to my call. But yesterday he did not come running. Finally, I had to go outside into the yard, pick him up and carry him inside. When I picked him up I noticed two things right away. One, he was soaked. Two, he was stinky.
When I got him inside, the last thing I wanted to do with my dog was cuddle. I enjoy cuddling with him right after he has had a bath. I enjoy holding him in my lap the evening he comes home from the groomer freshly bathed and sporting a fresh haircut. I had no interest in cuddling with him when he, after being a prodigal pooch, returned home all wet and stinky.
And that story brings me back to the psalm.
I am a sheep. God is my Shepherd. But I don’t always listen to God’s voice, responding obediently to God’s call. Sometimes I am the one in the flock that is missing when at the end of the day my heavenly Shepherd is counting noses to insure the safety of all the flock. Sometimes the Shepherd has to leave the 99 sheep who have listened and obeyed and come looking for me.
And when the Shepherd finds me, I am never very cuddly. When a sheep wanders off, sometimes one tuft of grass at a time, it is almost always a mess when the Shepherd finds it. That’s certainly been the case when I have wandered off.
Yes, as I meditate on the psalm a different picture comes to my mind.
In this new picture, God looks the same. God is the Shepherd who is holding the sheep with love and concern. There is joy in the Shepherd’s face as he reclaims the wandering prodigal. But in this new picture the sheep being cuddled and carried by the Shepherd looks very different. It looks less like it has been groomed in preparation for showing at the county fair and more like it has been on the run. It looks tired. The sheep’s coat is matted and caked with mud. There is a gash by the sheep’s nose. A bloody streak stains the sheep’s face and neck. The sheep is a mess.
The Shepherd remains the same. The sheep is very different.
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” ( Luke 15:1-7 NIV).
That’s what God is like!
God is revealed to me as I meditate on this psalm and parable. And as God is revealed, my response is worship.
O God, my Shepherd,
I am so sorry for the times I ignore Your calls.
Thank You for all the times You have searched for me.
Thank You for joyfully scooping me up into Your arms.
Thank You for celebrating.
Thank You for feeding my soul.
Thank You for caring for my wounds.
Thank You for facing my enemies.
Thank You for not giving up on me.
I will listen to Your voice.
In Jesus’ name,