The truth and comfort of the inspired words from God's own heart spring to life as we meditate upon, pray, even expand the thoughts they convey to us. They are appropriate material for this season of the Great Fast. As we lie down almost literally during this devotion of this most sacred season, we are assured that whatever our path, whatever our stumbling, the Good Shepherd will lovingly guide, carry and protect us.
We can depend on His goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. Listen with us now as we hear resonate in our hearing from the blessed pen of King David, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. In green pastures he gives me rest; Beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever Psalms 23.
Centuries before, the Prophet Isaiah wisely foretold, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arms and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those who are with young" Isaiah 40: 11.
When we examine this Psalm from the perspective of a shepherd, as only Christ can understand, we arrive at some appealing and uplifting insights. Through the eyes of the Saviour we see the poor helpless animal on its back in a ditch waiting for someone to right it so that it can walk again.
When King David speaks of making the sheep lie down in green pastures, we come to understand that sheep can only rest when they are free from fear, free from the torment of flies and other pests, and free from hunger. When sheep are well fed they will rest quietly, and it is the shepherd's task to see that they are well fed. When we come to understand fully the relationship of a shepherd to his sheep, we can better understand the relationship of the Good Shepherd to us, the sheep of his flock.
We can then find the courage to trust our Shepherd, knowing He has only our best interest at heart; understanding that He will never leave us nor forsake us, even when we pass through dark valleys of life.
That is why we have chosen this psalm to think about, pray about and meditate upon. It is for this reason we have invited our flock to come and stop with us during this holy season of the Great Fast and rest awhile from the tumult of the busy world. To rest, to read, to listen, to pray, to worship our God and come to understand who we are as His sheep, to feel the tender hand of the Good Shepherd resting on our head as He continually shows us He loves us.
The audience to whom these writings were addressed was for the most part simple, nomadic folk familiar with nature and the outdoor life of the countryside about them. Divine revelation is irrevocably bound up with the basic subjects of the natural world.
Our Lord Himself, when He was among us, continually used natural phenomena to explain eternal values in His parables. It is a sound, indisputable method both scientifically and spiritually valid. All this is understandable and meaningful when we recognize the fact that God is the author and originator of both the natural and supernatural. The same basic laws, principles, and procedures function in these contiguous realms.
Therefore it follows that to understand one is to grasp the parallel in the other that our God genuinely cares for us. David, the author of this poem of prayer, himself, a shepherd and the son of a shepherd later to be known as the "Shepherd King" of Israel, stated explicitly, "The Lord is my Shepherd" To whom does he refer? He refers to the Lord our God, the God of Israel, the God of all the world.
His statement is confirmed by Christ centuries later when He was God incarnate among men, and He declared emphatically, "I am the Good Shepherd." So when the simple, though sublime statement is made by a man or woman that "The Lord is my Shepherd," it immediately implies a profound yet practical working relationship between a human being and his Maker. It links a lump of common earthly clay to divine destiny; it means a mere mortal becomes the cherished object of divine diligence.
This thought alone should stir my sprit, quicken my own sense of awareness and lend enormous dignity to me as an individual. To think that God in Christ is deeply concerned about me as a particular person immediately gives great purpose and meaning to my-short sojourn on this planet. And the greater, the wider, the more majestic my understanding of Christ is, the more vital will my relationship with Him be.
Some men were gentle, kind, intelligent, brave, and selfless in their devotion to their stock. Others were not. Under one man sheep would struggle, starve, and suffer endless hardship. In the care of others, they would flourish and thrive contentedly.
In Christ, our heavenly Father demonstrated at Golgotha the deep desire of His heart to have man come under His benevolent care. He himself absorbed the penalty for their perverseness stating clearly, that "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" Isaiah 53:6.
Thus in a very real and vital sense, I truly belong to him simply because He has bought me again at the incredible price of His own laid-down life and shed blood. Therefore, He is entitled to say, "I am the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep" John 10: 11.
So there remains the moving realization that we have been bought at such a price, that we are really not our own and He is well within His rights to lay claim upon our lives. Because the shepherd must pay for his sheep with his own hard earned money, there is an intimate identity involved which though not apparent on the surface to the casual observer nonetheless makes those animals exceedingly precious.
Sheep do not just take care of themselves as some might suppose. They require more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care. It is therefore no accident our heavenly Father calls us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways. Our mob instincts, our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.
Yet despite these adverse characteristics, Christ chooses us, buys us, calls us by name, makes us His own, and delights in caring for us. And it is in this particular aspect that we are under spiritual compulsion to recognize His ownership of us. That we literally belong to God is the preoccupation of our soul during this holy time.
He is ever working on our behalf to ensure that we will benefit from His care. This psalm might rightly be called David's "Hymn of Praise to Divine Diligence." This poem goes on to recount and enumerate the manner in which the Good Shepherd spares no pain for the welfare of His sheep. Little wonder David takes pride in belonging to God, to the Good Shepherd.
"I shall not want" are the words which follow the initial opening. These are a proud, positive, bold statement to make! Obviously this is the sentiment of a sheep utterly satisfied with its owner, perfectly content with its lot in life, since "the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." Actually the word "want" as used here has a broader meaning than might at first be imagined. No doubt the main concept is that of not lacking, not being deficient in proper care, management or husbandry. But a second emphasis is the idea of being utterly contented in the Good Shepherd's care and consequently not craving or desiring anything more.
This may seem strange for a man like David to say if we think only in terms of physical or material needs. After all he had been hounded and harried repeatedly by the forces of the enemy, Saul, as well as those of his own estranged son, Absalom. He was obviously a man who had known immense privation, deep personal poverty, acute hardship and anguish of soul and spirit.
So it is imperative to keep a balanced view of our Christian life. To this it is well to consider the careers of men like Elias, John the Baptist, even our Lord Himself and of modern men of faith like St. Nectarios, to realize fully all of them experienced great personal privation, opposition and adversity not only from the public, but from their personal families as well, but never sacrificed their devotion to God's purpose for their life.
"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want" I am completely satisfied with His management of my life Why? Because He is the sheepman to whom no trouble is too great as He cares for His flock. He cares for them for their own sake as well as for His personal pleasure along with the fact He is fulfilling the command of God towards them. He will, if necessary, be on the job twenty four hours a day to see they are properly provided for in every detail. Above all, He is very jealous of His name and high reputation as "The Good Shepherd." So He fulfills and even exceeds anyone's expectations of His shepherding. He is not only the owner, but delights in His flock. For Him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing His sheep contented, well fed, safe, and flourishing under His care. This is indeed His very "life". He gives it all He has. He literally lays down Himself for those who are entrusted to His
Repeatedly, through the day he casts his eye over the flock to make sure all is well. Nor even at night is he oblivious to their needs. He is ready to leap up and protect His own. This is the sublime picture of the care given those whose lives are under Christ's control and valued beneath his expansive, encompassing love. He knows all about their lives from morning to night.
The reasons, as we conclude our meditation this evening, we praise our God. are enumerated for us by Him in His revelation to us. "Blessed be the Lord, who daily bestows on us benefits, even the God of our salvation" Psalms 68: 19; "Blessed be God who never refused me neither my prayer or his kindness" Psalms 66: 20; "He that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep" Psalms 121: 4.
He Makes Me Lie Down In Green Pastures
It is not generally recognized that many of the great sheep countries of the world are dry, semi-arid areas. Most breeds of sheep flourish best in this sort of terrain. They are susceptible to few hazards of health or parasites where the climate is dry. But in those same regions it is neither natural nor common to find green pastures. For example, Palestine, the Holy Land where David wrote this Psalm and kept his father's flocks, especially near Bethlehem, is a dry, brown, sun-burned waste land.
Green pastures do not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the products of tremendous labor, invested time and skill in land use. Green pastures come about by clearing rocky land, tearing up brush and roots and stumps, by deep plowing and careful land preparation; by seeding and planting special grains and legumes; by irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks.
But green pastures are essential to success with sheep. When lambs are maturing and ewes need green, succulent feed for a heavy milk flow, there is no substitute for good pasturage. No sight so satisfies the sheep owner as to see his flock well and quietly fed to repletion on rich, free forage, then easier able to able down to rest, ruminate and gain weight.
A hungry, ill sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scant mouthful of forage to try and satisfy its gnawing hunger. Such sheep are not contented, they do not thrive, they are no use to themselves nor to their owners. They languish and lack vigor and vitality. They appear like dumb lazy louts but in fact are malnourished.
In Scripture, the picture portrayed of the Promised Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was that of a "land flowing with milk and honey." Not only is this figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology. In agricultural terms we speak of a "milk flow" and "honey flow." By this we mean the peak season of spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said to be producing a corresponding "flow" of milk and honey. So a land flowing with milk and honey is a land rich, with green luxuriant pastures. When God spoke of such a land for Israel, He also foresaw an abundant life of joy, victory and contentment for His people. It is also a prefiguring of the inner life of the Church that would come about after the passover from death to eternal life in Christ. We as sheep of the flock of Christ are blessed to be fed in an abundant pasture, to be nourished not only with temporal food, but with the Body and Blood of the Saviour which sustains our souls.
For the child of God, the Old Testament account of Israel moving from Egypt into the Promised Land is a picture of a people moving from sin into the life of overcoming victory. We are promised such a life through our baptism. It has been provided for us and is made possible by the unrelenting effort of Christ on our behalf in His Body, our blessed Church.
How He works to clear the rock-filled life of stony unbelief. How He tries to tear out the roots of bitterness! He attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. He then sows the seed of His own precious word which if given half a chance to grow, will produce rich crops of contentment and peace. He waters this with
This is all indicative of the unrelenting energy and industry of our owner Shepherd who desires to see His sheep satisfied and well fed. It all denotes the Shepherd's desire to see his best interests served. His concern for the care of the sheep and lambs is beyond comprehension. At best all we can do is enjoy and revel in what He has brought into effect. How blessed, therefore are we who are communicants of His flock, His Body, our blessed Church!
This life of quiet overcoming, of happy repose, of rest in His presence, of being fed with His heavenly manna, of confidence in His management is something few believers ever fully enjoy because it is so overwhelming to comprehend. Because of our own perverseness we often prefer to feed on the barren ground of the world around us. Even the shepherd is amazed that some sheep choose inferior forage from time to time. The Good Shepherd has supplied us with green pastures right here in our parish church for those who care to move into them and gain peace, harmony, salvation and plenty of nourishment for the body and soul.
He Leads Me Beside Still Waters
Although sheep thrive in dry, semi-arid country, they still require water. They are not like some African gazelles which can survive fairly well on the modest amount of moisture found in natural forage. It will be noticed that here again the key or the clue to where water can be obtained lies with the shepherd. It is he who knows where the best drinking places are. In fact, very often he is the one who with much effort and industry has provided the watering places. And it is to these spots that the faithful leads his flock.
But before thinking about the water sources themselves, we do well to understand the role of water in the animal body and why it is so essential for its well-being. The body of an animal such as sheep is composed of about 70 percent water on average. This fluid is used to maintain normal body metabolism; it is a portion of every cell, contributing to its turgidity and normal life functions. Water determines the vitality, strength and vigor of the sheep and is essential to its health and general well-being.
If the supply of water for an animal drops off, bodily desiccation sets in. The dehydration of the tissues can result in serious damage to them. It can also mean that the animal becomes weak and impoverished. An animal is made aware of water lack by physical thirst. Thirst indicates the need for the body to have its water supply replenished from a source outside itself.
Now just as the physical body has a capacity and need for water, so Scripture points out to us rather clearly that the human personality, the human soul, has a capacity and need for the water of the Spirit of the eternal God.
When sheep are thirsty they become restless and set out in search of water to satisfy their needs. If not led to good supplies of clean, pure water, they will end up drinking from polluted potholes where they may pick up internal parasites such as nematodes, liver flukes, or gum disease germs.
In the same manner, Christ our Good Shepherd, makes it clear that thirsty souls of men and women can only be fully satisfied when their capacity and thirst for spiritual life is fully quenched by drawing on Him.
The difficulty in all this is that men and women who are thirsty for God, who do have a deep inner sense of searching, seeking, who are in quest of that which will completely satisfy, often are unsure where to look or really what they are looking for. Their inner spiritual capacity for God and divine life is desiccated like a prune and in their dilemma they will drink from any dirty, polluted, even filthy water to try and satisfy their thirst for fulfillment. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in the fourth century put it best when he said, "0 God, you have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in You." We believers, therefore have a serious responsibility to lead, to direct by our lifestyle, by our language and example the other sheep of Christ to the source of living water, available only in our blessed Church, to Christ our Lord. A regular, committed sacramental life is the identifying sign of the believer. If we absent ourselves and stay away from nourishment in Christ, we are already dead; if we unworthily receive, we eagerly contribute to our own spiritual demise.
Most people are not aware that sheep can go for months on end, especially if the weather is not too hot, without actually drinking if there is a heavy dew on the grass each morning. Sheep by habit, rise just before dawn and start to feed, or if there is bright moon light, they will graze all night. The early hours are when the vegetation is drenched with dew and sheep can keep fit on the amount of water taken in with their forage when they graze just before and after dawn.
In the Christian life it is of more than passing significance to observe that those who are the most serene, most confident and most able to cope with life's complexities, often are those who rise early each day to feed on God's Word, who study His revelation to us, who pray in a regular heart-felt way, who commit themselves to the Lord each day. It is in the quiet, early hours of the morning that they are led beside the quiet, still waters where they imbibe of the very life of Christ for the day. They mediate on the homily they were exposed to during the Divine Liturgy and appraise their soul in relation to the spiritual literature received in the parish bulletin. Like sheep, they revere their shepherd and fellow believers for nourishing, feeding and leading them to paradise.
The saints of the Church repeatedly point out how the secret of their success in spiritual life came about by attributing to the "quiet time" of each morning its proper value. There alone, while waiting for the Master's voice, one is led gently to the place where the still dew of the Holy Spirit can be dropped into life and soul.
In his minds' eye, the shepherd can see the eager flock again. The gentleness, stillness and softness of early morning always finds sheep knee deep in dew drenched grass. How much of an inspiration this is for the faithful believer to be at worship at the Divine Liturgy each opportunity the Church offers to advance in holiness! There in the grace soaked interior of the parish church, they feed heavily and contentedly. How many of us approach the Eucharistic celebration with this kind of enthusiasm and genuine need? Do sheep know something more than we human beings? As the sun rises and its heat burns the dew drops from the leaves, the flock returns to find shade. There, fully satisfied and happily refreshed, they lie down to rest and ruminate throughout the day. Nothing pleases the shepherd more than to see, as Scripture has it, "how well the brethren dwell together in love and peace." We can then come to understand the Master's heart, that of our Good Shepherd when He observes and accepts our praise and glorification in worship when we should be here at the Divine Liturgy. Our God
He Restores My Soul
Even David the Shepherd, the author of the Psalms, who was much loved by God, knew what it was to be cast down and dejected. It was a part of his weakened human condition. He tasted defeat in his life and felt the frustration of having fallen under and succumbed to temptation. He experienced the most horrifying personal disappointment with his family. David was acquainted with the bitterness of feeling hopeless and without strength in himself.
In one instance, he cries out, "Why are you so downcast, 0 my soul? Why do you sigh within me? Hope in God..." Psalms 42: 11.
Now there is an exact parallel to this in caring for the sheep. Only those intimately acquainted with sheep and their habits understand the significance of a "cast down" sheep. This is an old English term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get itself aright by itself.
A cast down sheep is a pathetic sight. Lying on its back, its feet in the air, it flays away frantically, struggling to stand up without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but generally it lies there lashing about in frightened frustration.
If the shepherd does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep will die. This is but another reason why it is so essential for a careful shepherd to look over the flock everyday, counting them to see that all are able to be up and on their feet. If one of or two are missing, often the first thought to flash through his mind is, "One of my sheep is cast down somewhere. I must go and search and set it upright on its feet again."
It is not only the shepherd who keeps a sharp eye for cast down sheep but also the predators of sheep. Buzzards, vultures, dogs, coyotes, and cougars all know that a cast down sheep is easy prey and that death is not far off. The knowledge that a cast down sheep is helpless, close to death, and vulnerable to attack makes the whole problem of cast down sheep serious for the shepherd.
As a cast down sheep lies there struggling, gases began to build up in the rumen. As these expand they tend to retard and cut off blood circulation in extremities of the body, especially the legs. If the weather is very hot and sunny, a cast down sheep can die in a few hours. If it is cool and raining it may survive this position for a while. David very well knew that some of his most poignant memories were wrapped around the constant anxiety of keeping account of the flock and repeatedly saving and restoring cast down sheep. It is not easy to convey in writing or in word the sense of this ever-present danger, particularly with a large flock. Often the shepherd simply casts his eyes across the sky to see if he can notice the black-winged buzzards circling over head in their long slow spirals. Anxiety will grip the heart and body of the shepherd and leaving all else, he immediately proceeds to the rough, wild pasture to count the flock and make sure each one is well and fit and able to be on its feet.
This is a part of the drama depicted for us in the magnificent story of the ninety and nine sheep with one lost and astray. There is the Shepherd's deep concern, His agonizing search, His longing to find the missing one; His delight in restoring it not only to its feet, but also to the flock as well as to Himself.
How openly devoted is the Lord to His flock, to us as His sheep and lambs! More than simply losing our balance in life and falling over on our backs without hope of restoring ourselves by ourselves, we sin so often, so freely, so willingly, even unwillingly, knowingly and unknowingly, but always producing the same result: alienation from our heavenly Father. Christ as the Good Shepherd comes among to restore us, to forgive us if only we but make an apology, if we but confess our wrong doing, our sins and offenses and repent How warmly welcome, then, is the sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation in which we call upon the loving mercy and help of heaven to come and visit our unworthiness and strengthen us in our resolve to remain faithful once again. How blessed the sheep that is eager for the visit of the Good Shepherd! How blessed the sheep that recognizes a need for reconciliation after a painful separation. In bleating desperation, the lost and separated sheep cries out as do we in the prayer before making a worthy confession. Do we not say "I a sinner, confess to Almighty God..." Thus the Good Shepherd follows the sound, hears the contrition and offers heaven's forgiveness as well as God's grace to once again persevere in virtue living. In lifting up the sheep upon his shoulder and carrying it back to the flock we experience the weight of misery
Again and again, the shepherd seeks after the single lost sheep. Then, more often than not, he sees, even in the distance, down on its back, lying helpless and so he approaches it, hurriedly he runs to it, for every minute is critical. Each moment, each day we contentedly live in sin, and prolong our separation from God is critical. If we should die in a state of serious sin, our destiny is detoured and hell is our self-chosen place of separation from God's loving mercy. Within every shepherd of souls there is a mingled sense of fear and joy, fear it might be too late and joy that a soul is saved for Christ. Even our Lord reminds us of the joy in heaven when all the angels resound in happiness and respond in joy over the return of a repentant sinner to the grace of God. All of this radiates in our hearts as we see another believer approach the place of apology, the place of forgiveness, the place of repentance, the place where restoration of man's dignity takes place because unlike a sheep which is simply on its back, man in sin is in far worst condition. Each time we approach the place of forgiveness, we should repeat the simple statement of truth, "He restores my soul."
There is something intensely personal, intensely tender, intensely endearing, yet intensely fraught with danger in this consideration. On the one hand there is the sheep so helpless, so utterly immobilized, though otherwise so strong and healthy and flourishing. On the other hand there is the attentive shepherd and owner, quick and ready to come to its rescue, ever patient and tender and helpful, affirming and reassuring of God's mercy if there is true repentance.
It is important to recognize in Christian spiritual life the important parallel. Many people think when a child of God falls, when he is frustrated and helpless in a spiritual dilemma, God becomes disgusted, fed up and even furious with him. This simply is not so.
One of the greatest revelations of the heart of God given to us by Christ is that of Himself as Good Shepherd. He has the identical sensations of anxiety, concern, and compassion for men and women who are cast down and overwhelmed by sin. That is precisely why he prescribed the sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation, "Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them...." To Peter and the others, He thundered in solemn seriousness, "I give you the power of the keys of the kingdom...." Our lives in sin are locked doors; the keys of heaven open the soul once again to God's love and forgiving
When we become aware of the life story of Jesus Christ among us, and examine it carefully, His conduct in responding to human need we simply see His insistence on sorrow for sin and we see Him again and again and again as the Good Shepherd, picking up a cast down, lost, even abandoned sheep. Then tenderness, the love, the patience that He uses to restore Peter's soul after the terrible tragedy of his temptations becomes for us the classic picture of Christ coming to restore and reclaim one of His own. He does the same for you, for me, for us all. And so, He comes quietly, gently, reassuringly, lovingly and warmly, no matter when or where or how I may be cast down. All I have to do, is like the sheep, bleat out my condition, confess my sins in repentance and He lifts me up! "He restores my soul!"
He Leads Me In The Path Of Righteousness
The greatest single safeguard a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move. That is to say, they are not be left on the same ground too long. They must be shifted from pasture to pasture periodically. This prevents overgrazing of the forage. It also avoids rutting the trails and erosion of the land from overuse.
In a word, there must be a predetermined plan of action, a deliberate planned rotation from one grazing ground to another in line with right and proper principles of sound management of the flock. This sort of action is the idea David the Shepherd had in mind when he spoke of being led in paths of righteousness.
In this following of a precise plan of operation lies the secret for healthy land and a well-cared for flock. Here is the key to successful sheep husbandry. The owner's entire name and reputation depend upon how effectively and efficiently he keeps his charges moving on to wholesome, new fresh forage. The one who directs his flock along this course is sure of success; it makes the difference between being a concerned and caring shepherd or simply a paid hireling.
For the successful shepherd of sheep no other plan of operation commands more careful attention than moving the sheep. It literally dominates all decisions because
Coupled with this concept of flock management, there is of course, the owner's intimate knowledge of his pastures, He has been all over his ground again and again. He knows its every advantage and every drawback He knows where his flock will thrive and he is aware of where the feeding is poor. So he acts accordingly. And the faithful flock trusts and follows His judgment.
As we mediate on the human implications and aspects of this theme we will be astonished at some of the parallels. As mentioned, it is not mere whim on God's part to call us sheep. Our behavior and life habits are so much like those of sheep it is well near embarrassing.
Scripture points out that most of us are a stiff-necked and stubborn lot. We prefer to follow our own fancy and turn to our own ways. "All we are like sheep who have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way" Isaiah 53: 6. And this we do, of course, deliberately, repeatedly, even to our own disadvantage and detriment. There is something almost terrifying about the destructive self-determination of the human being. The sinful self-willed individual will blame everyone else for his problems. He will say the employer wants a fool for a worker, one who cannot exercise his own judgments or draw his own conclusions and pursue them. What he is really admitting is that he wishes to do his own thing, regardless of the desires or wishes of the employer who is paying and supporting him. This is inexorably locked with personal pride and self-assertive arrogance. We insist we know what is best for us even though disastrous results follow us around like a long tail of unfortunate events.
Turning to "my own way" simply means doing what I want. It implies that I feel free to assert my own wishes and carry out my own ideas. And this I do in spite of every warning. When we inconsiderately do it in so-called inconsequential areas, we cross over into very problematic and serious places which affect the very destiny of our souls, even our vocation in life. In contrast to this, Christ the Good Shepherd comes gently and says, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father except through me" John 14: 6. The Son of God, himself always repeated over and again for our benefit that He does only the will of the Father, not His own pursuits or interpretations. He was so united in heart and spirit with the Father that His will is not
The difficult point is that most of us do not want to come after the example of Christ; we like our own whims much better. We do not want to follow; we wish to be in the forefront. If we do not learn to follow, we will never become leaders of men, leaders of souls in the onward pilgrimage to heaven. We do not want to be led in the path of righteousness. Somehow it goes against our prideful inflated grain. We actually prefer to turn to our own little ways even though it takes us straight into trouble than to follow the safer surer path of Christ which is submission in obedience to our legitimate superiors in all things, even the most seemingly insignificant ones.
Jesus never made light of the cost involved in following after Him. In fact, He made it painfully clear that it was a rugged life of self-denial. It entailed a whole new set of attitudes. It was not the natural, normal way a person would ordinarily live and this is what made the price so prohibitive to most people who like their own ways best. They forget the insightful wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, "Every fool thinks his way is right"
Perhaps there are those who think Christ expects too much of us. Maybe they feel the demands are too drastic. Some may even consider His call impossible to carry out. And that is simply because they are operating on their own, their own inspiration, their own imagination, their own initiative, fueled by their own pride and misunderstanding of the way of the Lord.
Perhaps all .this would be alright, it would be okay, it would be acceptable if we only had to depend on self-determination or self-discipline in order to succeed, or appear to be successful by the standards of the world. But it is interesting our Lord always has an compelling way to reveal us for what we really are. If we are in earnest about wanting to do His will, and we are interested in Him leading us, Christ does then make it possible by His gracious Spirit, Who is only given to those who are obedient to God's will. St. Luke tells us, "So, too, does the Holy Spirit whom God has given only to those who obey him" Acts of the Apostles 5: 32. For it is He who works in us both to will and to do His good pleasure. "It is God, who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure or desire or achievement" Philippians 2: 13. If we have no genuine upright desires; if we have no honest achievements, it is because God has not inspired anything good in us because He is prohibited by our desire to do our own thing, not His; to pursue our own lustful will, not that which leads to salvation! We do not follow the
Even Though I Walk Through The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death, I Will Fear No Evil For You Are With Me
Most efficient Shepherds endeavor to take their flocks on to distant summer ranges. This often entails long "drives." The sheep move along slowly, feeding as they go, gradually working their way up the mountains behind the receding snow. By late summer they are well up on the remote meadows above the timberline. Our European ancestors, were involved in this sort of summer activity as children. My own mother spoke many times of taking the small family flock, along with neighboring children and their flocks, further up the mountains to graze in new places. At that time, children were mature enough in assuming responsibility that they could be entrusted with this serious task, in contrast to today's times when even adults cannot seem to figure out what their role in life is.
During this time the flock is entirely alone with the shepherd. They are in intimate contact with him and under his most personal attention day and night. And it is well to remember this is done against a dramatic background of wild mountains, rushing descending creeks, wide open meadows and high range lands with bright days and cold nights.
David, the Psalmist, of course knew this type of terrain first hand. When Samuel was sent of God to anoint him king over Israel, he was not at home with his brothers on the "home" ranch. Instead, he was high up in the hills tending his father's flock. They had to send for him to come home. It is no wonder he could write so clearly and concisely of the relationship between a sheep and its owner/shepherd.
He knew first hand experience about all the difficulties and dangers, as well as the delights and satisfactions of the treks into high country. Again and again he had gone up into summer ranger with his sheep. He knew this wild but wonderful country like the palm of his hand. Never did he take his flock where he had not already beforehand been. Always he had gone ahead to look over the country with particular care. He employed common sense to take care of the sheep entrusted to his care.
Often we get an erroneous idea about how this takes place. It is as though we imagined we can be "airlifted" onto higher ground. On the rough trail of the Christian life, this is not at all so. And with ordinary sheep management, so with God's people, so in our own lives, one gains higher ground by climbing up through the valleys, one step at a time. We cannot park ourselves in a comfortable observatory chair, exert no effort and watch everyone else pass us by and expect that by some extraordinary circumstance we will also be in that procession of life advancing forward with alacrity and courage. There must be personal struggle, transformation, change in devotion, increase in attention to the vital details of our spiritual lives without omitting any area which needs improvement because this can become devastating as we have witnessed in so many instances. The ordinary person, the ordinary sheep advances on its own and falls into the mired mud and asks "why?" It is the sheep which follows the leadership of a devoted shepherd that may fall, but immediately attempts to find help and catches up with the advancing flock to ask "why not?"
Every mountain has its valleys. Its sides are scarred by deep ravines, gulches and draws. The best route to the top is always along those rough and tough-to-negotiate valleys, and certainly not always the easiest way. Any shepherd familiar with the high country knows this. He leads his flock gently but persistently up the paths that wind through the dark valleys. Not only is this the way of gentlest grades, but also it is the well-watered route. Here one finds refreshing water all along the way. There are rivers, streams, springs and quiet pools in the deep defiles, all that the flock is in need of, even to the happy expectation of the Shepherd.
As Christians we will sooner or later discover that it is in the valleys of our lives that we rind refreshment at the hands of God Himself. It is not until we have walked with Him through some very deep troubles that we discover He can lead us to find our renewal in
The flock is not hurried. There are lambs along that have never been this way before. The Shepherd wants to be certain there will not only be water but also grazing available for the ewes and their needy lambs. Generally the choicest meadows are in those valleys along the stream banks. Here the sheep can feed as they move toward high country.
Naturally these grassy slopes are often on the floor of steep-walled canyons and gulches. There may be towering cliffs above them on either side. The valley floor itself may be in dark shadows with the sun seldom reaching the bottom except for a few hours around noon. What man perceives as the easiest way to do something in life, to arrive at a modicum of success in the spiritual life is most times not the way of God. Man thinks he can fool the Lord and become what the Lord expects in His own way. It is only the fool who attempts this sort of relationship. The road is narrow to holiness and it is rocky and pitty; it is unquestionably difficult to traverse. The weakling therefore falls, falters and eventually fails. The Shepherd who thinks he can sit back and simply watch the sheep march by, on their own, or at his faulty direction is certain to be gravely disappointed and exposed as a cheap hireling.
The sheep themselves know from past experience that predators like coyotes, bears, wolves, or cougars can take cover in these broken cliffs and from their vantage point prey on the flock. He knows the valleys can be subject to sudden storms and flash floods that send walls of water rampaging down the slopes. There can be rock slides, mud or snow avalanches, or a dozen other natural disasters that could destroy or injure the sheep. But in spite of such hazards, he also knows that this is still the best way to take his flock to the high country. He spares himself no pains or trouble or time to keep an eye out for any danger which may develop. He is not lazy in his devotion to God or the flock. He does not delegate personal responsibility to others and sit by idly as they labor for God's glory as he watches and they indite him as a ne'er-do-well.
Our Good Shepherd knows all this when He leads us through the valleys of life. He knows where we can find strength. He has the experienced ability to encourage, affirm
It is a reassuring and reinforcing experience to the child of God to discover that there is, even in the dark valley, a dependable source of strength and courage to be found in God. It is when we can look back over life and see how the Shepherd's hand has guided and sustained us in the darkest hours that our faith is renewed. How blessed that flock which can depend on its Shepherd not to escape responsibility by ignoring the needs of the flock, or simply postponing it to another time or even forgetting about its seriousness altogether because he wishes to attend to his own overvalued comfort instead.
Your Rod And Your Staff They Comfort Me
In the Holy Land at the time of our Lord, the shepherd carried only a rod or a staff. Today this still is true especially in Africa where more primitive life styles still persist. These have been common, even universal equipment of the shepherd and it is generally how our Lord is depicted even in icons today when the idea of the Good Shepherd is evoked.
The rod and staff is an extension of the shepherds right arm. It stands as symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. It is also a sign of the shepherd's eagerness to serve, to be of help and assistance to the sheep entrusted to his care. The staff is what the shepherd relies on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. It is furthermore, the instrument used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that is wandering away from the safety and unity of the flock.
Because of this, even the shape asserts that the owner's staff, his weapon of power, authority and defense, is a continuous comfort for him. For with it the shepherd is able to carry out effective control of his flock in every situation. The staff, speaks therefore of the spoken Word, the expressed teaching of our blessed Church, the extended activity of God's mind and will in dealing with man. It implies the authority of divinity. It carries with it the convicting power and irrefutable impact of Scripture's assertion, "Thus says the Lord..."
Just as for sheep in David's day there was comfort and consolation in seeing the staff in the shepherd's skillful hands, so in our time there is great assurance in our own hearts
Another interesting use of the staff in the Good Shepherd's hand is to examine and count the sheep. In the terminology of the Old Covenant, this was referred to as passing "under the rod" Ezekiel 20: 37. This meant not only going under the owner's control and submission to his authority, but also being subject to his most careful, intimate and first hand examination and guidance, even direction.
The picture is a very poignant one. As each animal comes out of sheep corral and through the gate at the beginning of the day, it is briefly stopped by the shepherd's outstretched staff. He opens the fleece from time to time and with the staff, he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for signs of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see that all is physically well. This is a most searching process, entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort, to the sheep, for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid before the concerned and caring shepherd.
That is what is meant in the Psalms when we read, "Search me, 0 God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts; see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting life" Psalms 139: 23, 24.
This is a process from which neither the sheep nor the shepherd need shrink. It is not something to avoid. It is something early to be anticipated. We have healing services for this reason, to encounter a shortcoming, to overcome a deliberate and even unintentional slight and be made whole once again. It is not something to avoid. It is done in concern and compassion for our common welfare. The priest/shepherd wants to give a good account of his flock at the last judgment. It is imperative that the sheep be cured of whatever shortcoming, failure, illness, sin with which it is debilitated. The Good Shepherd of souls has our best interest at heart when He so searches us, when He so examines us. What a comfort this should be to the child of God who sees readily how concerned our God is with us, how much He desires we be in His solicitous care!
Finally, the Shepherd's staff is an instrument of protection both for himself and his sheep when they are mutually in danger. It is used as both a defense and a deterrent against anything that would attack The skilled Shepherd uses his staff to drive off predators such as coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs and bears who would rampage the flock Often it is used to beat down the brush, discouraging snakes and other
It is the authoritative staff of God's Word, the teaching of the Church that Christ our Good Shepherd used in His encounter with the serpent, during His desert temptation. It is the same unchanged Word and teaching that we can count on again and again to counter the assaults and attacks of the devil. And it matters not whether the guise he assumes is that of a subtle serpent or a roaring lion that desires to destroy us, body and soul.
In every situation and under every circumstance there is comfort in the knowledge that God's Word and the teaching of the Church can meet and master any difficulty if we will rely on it. Today we see the shepherd's staff embodied in the pastoral staff our hierarchs, our bishops carry. It has been reduced simply to a liturgical appendage, but its original purpose is the same as that of the shepherd. It is personal liturgical equipment, and identifies the bishop as Chief Shepherd. No one in any other profession or vocation comes with a shepherd's staff. It is designed, shaped and adapted especially to be used for their physical, worldly and spiritual eternal benefit. It is essentially a symbol of compassion, concern, that a shepherd has for his charges. No other single word can better describe its function on behalf of the flock than that it is for their comfort. The staff speaks of all that is long-suffering and kind. It is symbolic of the Spirit of God. In Christ's dealings with us as individuals there is the essence of warmth, comfort, consolation, the gentle correction brought about by the word of His gracious Spirit.
There are some three areas in which the staff plays a most significant role. The first of these lies in drawing sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will use the staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to his mother if they are separated. He does this because he does not wish to have the ewe reject her young if it bears the scent and odor of his human hands upon it.
But in precisely the same way, the staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep that normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd. The staff is also used for guiding sheep. The shepherd gently and sometimes not so gently uses his staff to guide his sheep into a new path through some gate, or along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it beat the beast. Rather the tip of the long slender staff is laid against the animal's side
Tales are also told of how a loving shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they "are in touch." They will walk along this way almost as though they are "hand in hand." The sheep obviously enjoys this special even exclusive attention from the shepherd and revels in the close, personal, intimate contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort, affirmation in a deep and profound dimension. It is a delightful and moving picture. In our walk with God, we are told by our Lord, by Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd that it will be His Spirit Who would be sent to guide us and lead us in all truth (John 16: 13). This very same Holy Spirit takes the truth of God, the Word of God, the teaching of the Church and makes it plain to our hearts and minds and spiritual grasp. It is He Who gently, tenderly, but persistently says to us, "This is the way, walk in it," "This is the narrow road, follow it" As we comply and cooperate with His gentle prompting, a sense of safety, comfort and wellbeing envelops us.
It is when we do not follow the Good Shepherd that we end up in difficulty. It is then that we find ourselves in a jam of some sort; it is then that we become ill and separated from God's grace. And here again, the opportunity is afforded us so that the gracious Spirit comes to our rescue, just as the Good Shepherd rescues His sheep out of the situation into which their shortcomings, stupidity and sinfulness has led them. A common occurrence is to find sheep stuck in the labyrinths of wild roses or bramble and pickery bushes where sheep have pushed to find a few stray mouthfuls of green grass. Soon the thorns are so hooked into their wool they cannot possibly pull free, try as they might. Only then the shepherd's staff frees them from their entanglement.
Likewise with us, many times the jams we get into ourselves, most of the impasses we encounter are of our own making. In the stubborn, self-willed, self asserted situations we encounter in life, we keep pursuing, we get into dangerous situations from which we cannot by ourselves extricate ourselves. Then in tender-hearted compassion and loving care, our Good Shepherd comes to us. He draws near and in tenderness lifts us by His Holy Spirit out of the difficulty and the dilemma we are surrounded with. What patience our God has with us! What long suffering compassion! What forgiveness! 0 Lord, we cry out daily, "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me!"
In some of the finest sheep country of the world, especially in the western United States and southern Europe, the high plateaus of the sheep ranges are referred to as "mesas," the Spanish word for tables.
So it may be seen that what the Shepherd David referred to as a table was actually the entire high summer range. Though these "mesas" may be remote and hard to reach, the energetic and aggressive sheep owner takes the time and trouble to ready them for the arrival of his flocks.
Early in the season, even before all the snow has melted by spring sunshine, he will go ahead and make preliminary survey trips into this rough, wild country. He will look it over with great care, keeping ever in mind its best use for his flock during the coming season. And then, just before the sheep arrive, he will make another expedition or two to prepare the table for them. He will take along a supply of salt and minerals to be distributed over the range at specific posts for the benefit of the sheep during the summer. The intelligent, careful manager will also decide well ahead of time where his camps will be located so the sheep will have the best bed grounds. He will go over the range carefully to determine how vigorous the grass and upland vegetation are. At this time he will decide which glades and basins can be used only lightly and which slopes and meadows can be grazed somewhat more heavily. He will check to see if there are poisonous weeds appearing, and if so, he will plan his grazing program to avoid them, or take drastic steps to eradicate them.
Unknown to some, grazing areas can have a prolific native strain of white cammas. The blue cammas are a delightful sight in the spring when they bloom along the borders. The white cammas, though a much less conspicuous flower, are also quite attractive, but a deadly menace to sheep. If lambs in particular eat or even just nibble a few of the lily-like leaves as they emerge in the grass during spring, it spells certain death. The lambs become paralyzed, stiffen up like blocks of wood and simply succumb to the toxic poisons from the plants.
Consequently, the shepherd must spend time going over the grounds, plucking out the poisonous plants or avoid the area completely because it can decimate his flock It must be a recurring task done each spring before the sheep use these pastures. Though tedious and tiring with all the bending that is necessary, it is a case of preparing the
No doubt all of this was in the forefront of David's mind as he inspiredly penned these lines so everyone who was engaged in the care of sheep, as so many then were, would easily grasp and understand his meaning. In the Church today, it is imperative shepherds have a genuine grasp of his message in this psalm. And it is just as vital that the sheep in the flock regard their importance in the sight of God as well. We can picture David walking slowly over the summer range ahead of his flock, his eagle eye sharp for any signs of poisonous weeds which he would pluck before his sheep got to them. No doubt he had armful to get rid of for the safety of his flock.
Like sheep, especially lambs, we somehow feel we have to try everything that comes our way. We have to taste this thing and that, sample just about everything simply to see what it is like. We think wrongly that to live is to experience every thing around us. We like the deadly excitement of taking chances and think it denotes some sort of silly courage. And we may very well know that some things are worst than deadly; they can do us no good because they can be most destructive and debilitating. Still our limited superficial minds somehow lead us to feel we must give them a whirl anyway.
To forestall our getting into grief, we need to remember that our Master has been there a head of us coping with every situation that would otherwise undo us, cause us death or very serious permanently injurious harm.
Another task the attentive shepherd takes on in the summer is to keep an eye out for predators. He will look for signs of wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears. If they raid or molest the sheep he will have to hunt them down or go to great pains to trap them so that his flock can rest in peace or it will be destroyed.
Often what happens is that these crafty ones are up on the rimrock, watching every movement that, the sheep make, hoping for a chance to make a swift, sneaking stealthy attack that will stampede the flock. Then one or another of the flock is bound to fall easy prey to the attacker's fierce teeth and claws. The others will be dispersed and arouse the attention, too late, of course, for the shepherd who will then try to gather them together once again, while the attacker and his prey are left to their own devices.
Again we are given a sublime picture of our Saviour, Who knows every wile, every trick, every treachery of our enemy, the devil and his companions, the evil angels. Always we are in danger of attack Scripture sometimes refers to him as a "roaring lion" who goes about seeking whom he may devour.
At all times, we would be wiser to walk somewhat closer to Christ, to adhere to His teaching somewhat more tenaciously. He is simply the only sure place of safety. It is always the distant sheep, the separated sheep, the wandering sheep, the roamers, the adventurers, the light minded ones that are picked off by predators in an unsuspecting moment. Generally, the attackers are gone before the shepherd is alerted to their cry for help. Some sheep, of course, are utterly dumb with fear under attack; they will not give even a plaintive bleat before their blood is silently spilled. When we go off on our own, thinking we are still so-called followers of Christ, the devil has a much easier chance of not only seducing us, but overcoming us. When he subsequently attacks us as we separate ourselves from the protection of Christ, we make our God the loser, the One who forfeits our soul because we choose to cooperate with the evil one and offer him success, by separating ourselves from His protective grace. That is why living in continued sin is so dangerous for our own destiny; it takes us willingly away from God's protection.
How many innocent, even dumb Christians get into deep difficulty, beyond themselves and are suddenly attacked unawares. They are stricken dumb with apprehension, unable even to call or cry out for help and then just crumble under our adversary's attack. Avoiding occasions of sin is vital because it reduces the chances of falling victim to the devil. Avoiding occasions of sin helps reduce the chances of the devil's ultimate victory.
The Good Shepherd is always concerned about what can happen to his flock He arranges opportunities for an apology to be made to the Lord for sinfulness, for poor behavior, unworthy behavior, for a lifestyle which is not conducive to holiness, Godly strength and sanctity. Christ our God is concerned for all this to happen. He takes all
As we read His Word each day, as we continue to fortify ourselves in prayer life throughout the day and are affirmed in our devotion and loyalty by our consistent regular on-going worship in the myriad opportunities given us by His Body, our blessed Church, our commitment is strengthened; His grace is recognized as absolutely necessary to avoid being poisoned and stiffened by the malignant weeds of the world. We should always give Him the opportunity to converse with us by His Holy Spirit as we contemplate His life and work and efforts for us as our Shepherd. Let us always eagerly respond to His efforts in preparing a table before us. Let us approach it gladly to be nourished, to be strengthened and made safe in this world of overwhelming attempts and attacks by the evil one.
You Anoint My Head With Oil
In the terminology of the shepherd, "summer time is fly time." By this, reference is made to the hordes of insects that emerge with the advent of warm weather. Only those people who have kept livestock or studied its habits are aware of the serious problems for animals presented by insects in the summer.
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly or nasal fly, as it is sometimes called. These little flies buzz about the sheep's head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp mucous membranes of the sheep's nose. If they are successful, the eggs will hatch in a few days to form small, slender wormlike larvae. These work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep's head; there they burrow into the flesh and set up an intense
For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush. They will rub their heads in the soil and thrash about against woody growth. In extreme cases of intense infestation a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the aggravation. Often advanced stages of infection lead to blindness.
Because of this, when nose flies hover around the flock, some of the sheep will become frantic with fear and panic in their attempt to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their feet erratically and race from place to place in the pasture trying desperately to elude the flies. Some may run so much they will drop from sheer exhaustion. Others may toss their head up and down for hours. They will hide in any bush or woodland that offers shelter. On some occasions they may refuse to graze in the open at all.
All of this excitement and distraction has a devastating effect on the entire flock. Ewes and lambs rapidly lose condition and begin to drop in weight. The ewes go off milking and their lams stop growing gainfully. Some sheep may be injured in their headlong rushes of panic; others may be blinded and some killed, and others ultimately die outright.
Only the strictest attention to the behavior of the sheep by the sensitive shepherd can forestall the difficulties of "fly time." At the very first sign of flies among the flock, he will apply an antidote to their heads. Some shepherds prefer to use a homemade remedy composed of linseed oil, sulphur and tar, which is smeared over the sheep's nose and head as protection against the flies.
What an incredible transformation this makes among the sheep. Once the oil is applied, there is an immediate change in behavior. Gone is the aggravation, gone the frenzy, gone the irritability and the restlessness. Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.
This is precisely the exact picture depiction of irritation, pain and illness in our own human lives. How easy it is for there to be a fly in the ointment of even our most lofty spiritual experiences! So often it is the small petty annoyances that ruin our rest and relaxation. It is the niggling distractions that become burning issues that can well near drive us around the bend or up the wall, or sometimes, even into it! At times, some tiny, tantalizing thing torments us to the point where we feel we are just beating our brains
Just as with sheep there must be a continuous and renewed application of the blessed oil of healing to forestall the "flies" in our lives; there must be a continuous anointing of God's gracious Spirit to counteract the ever-present aggravation of personality conflicts and personality defects. Only one application of oil, sulphur and tar is not enough for the entire summer. It is a process that continually has to be repeated. The fresh application is always the most effective antidote.
There are those who contend that in our Christian life commitment need only have a single, initial anointing of God's Spirit such as we receive in the sacramental Mystery of Chrismation. Yet, the frustrations of daily dilemmas demonstrate that one must have the Lord come continuously with His grace to the troubled mind, the disaffected heart and sick soul to counteract the attacks of one's tormentors of which physical sickness is but one isolated irritant and debilitating misery.
So our illness ill effects our behavior which affect us in a variety of ways as do the nose flies adversely affect the sheep of the flock. It is a practical and intimate matter between each of us and our Master, our Shepherd. Christ himself, our Shepherd urges us to call for the Holy Spirit to be given us by the Father. It is both a logical and legitimate desire for us to have the regular and constant anointing of God's grace. While being sustained and nourished by the Eucharist is good and praiseworthy, its purpose is not to elevate our bodies to a state that illness cannot distract us from our continued devotion. Our heavenly Father offers us this anointing with blessed oil on Holy Wednesday to assist our sick souls, to strengthen our resolve in avoiding the sickness of sin and its separation from the Source of Life. The Holy Spirit can alone give us the attitude of the Lord. He alone makes it possible for us to react to aggravation and annoyances and illnesses with quietness of mind and stillness and calmness of soul. Being anointed regularly against sickness, against illness, against all the ways we can lose our wholeness of mind, body and soul, is a good spiritual habit to embrace. How blessed are we in our parish to have a regular time to receive the grace of blessing in being anointed with the healing oil of St. Nectarios the Wondeworker! How privileged we are the Church offers us this wholeness in the sacramental Mystery of Holy Anointing on Great and Holy Wednesday during Passion Week as a weapon to resist temptation and falling into sin and separation so easily!
Sheep love to rub their heads in an affectionate and friendly manner. Scab is often found most commonly on their head. When two sheep rub together, the infection spreads readily from one to the other. In the Old Covenant, when it was declared in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that the sacrificial lambs should be without blemish, the thought uppermost in the writer's mind was that the animal should be free of scab. In a very real and direct sense, scab is significant of contamination of sin, of evil, of being seduced successfully by the devil and submitting to his inclination instead of maintaining alive the grace of the Holy Spirit within us.
Again, as with the flies, the only effective antidote is to apply linseed oil, mixed with sulphur and a few other chemicals that can control this disease. In many sheep-rearing countries, dips are built and the entire flock is put through the dip. Each animal is completely submerged in the solution until its entire body is soaked. The most difficult part is to dip the head which has to be plunged under repeatedly to insure that scab located there will be controlled. Some shepherds take great care to treat the head manually. Each sheep is individually treated.
In Christian life, most of our contamination by the world, by sin, by our submission to temptation, by that which would defile and disease us spiritually, comes through our minds. It is a case of mind meeting mind to trade or exchange ideas, concepts, and attitudes that may be damaging. How we need anointing, how we need healing, how we need cleansing, to restore our minds and our hearts from damaging ideas and concepts.
Often it is when we "get our heads together" with someone else who may not necessarily have the mind of Christ that we come away imbued with concepts which are not at all Christian. As we espouse them, as we make them our own, we become diseased as well. Often the mass media in this nation which is largely responsible for shaping our minds, are in the control of people whose character is not Christ-like, who in some cases are actually anti-Christian, antichrists!
One cannot be exposed to such contacts without coming away contaminated. Here again, the only possible, practical path to attaining a mind and soul free of the world's contamination is to be conscious daily, hourly, of the purging presence of God's Holy
There are those who seem unable to realize His control of their minds and thoughts. It is a simple matter of faith and acceptance, even dependence on the healing wholesome grace of the Holy Spirit. Just as one asks Christ to come into one's life over and over again, to assure complete control of one's conduct, so one invites the Holy Spirit to come into one's conscious and subconscious mind to monitor one's thinking processes all through life. Just as by faith we believe and know and accept and thank Christ for coming into our lives, so by simple faith and confidence in the same Saviour Christ, we believe and know and accept with thanks, the anointing we receive regularly from His gracious Spirit upon our minds, our bodies and our souls that wholeness be overall, a total part of our being. Then, having done this, we simply proceed to live and act and think as He directs us which is why we are all here this evening in prayer, praise and worship.
My Cup Runs Over
Autumn days can be golden under Indian summer weather. No other season finds them so fit and well and strong. No wonder David wrote, "My cup runs over." In other words "Lord God, You give me far more than I need, much more than I desire or deserve."
Of course, at the same time, unexpected blizzards can blow up or sleet storms suddenly shroud the hills. The flock and the shepherd can pass through appalling suffering together.
It is here that we can grasp another aspect altogether of the meaning of a cup that overflows. There is in every life a cup of suffering. Jesus referred to His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha as His cup. And had it not overflowed with His life poured out for us, we would have perished.
In tending to, sheep, the shepherd carries a bottle or flask in pocket containing a mixture of brandy and water. Whenever a ewe or lamb is chilled from undue exposure to wet, cold, damp weather, he pours a few spoonful down its throat. In a matter of minutes, the chilled creature is on its feet and full of renewed energy. It is especially delightful the way lambs wiggle their tails with joyous excitement as the warmth from the brandy spreads through their small bodies.
The important thing is for the shepherd to be there on time, at the appropriate moment, to find the half-frozen, chilled sheep before it is too late. The only way this is done is for the shepherd to be sharing the poor weather with his flock, to be aware of it with them, alert to all who are in distress. Some of the most vivid memories of shepherding are wrapped around the awful storms the flock and shepherd experience and go through together. Every shepherd can recall the gray-black banks of storm clouds sweeping in off the sea, he can recall the sleet and hail and snow sweeping across the hills, he knows the experience of the sheep racing for shelter in the tall timber and can visualize them standing there, soaked, chilled, and dejected. The young lambs, especially, go through appalling misery without the benefit of a full, heavy fleece to protect them. Some would succumb and lie down in distress only to become more cramped and chilled.
Then it is the mixture of brandy and water that comes to their rescue. Palestinian shepherds shared wine and water with their sheep. Prayer and anointing are joined together to produce a loving response in God's care to individuals who need strengthening and affirmation in the tough times of their lives.
For us, what a picture, what a scene to be remembered of our Saviour, sharing wine with His flock, sharing with us the very life-blood of His own suffering from His overflowing cup, poured out on Golgotha for you and me. He is there with us in every storm, in each day of darkness. The Good Shepherd is alert to every approaching disaster that threatens His people. He has been through the storms of suffering before and wishes to avert them for us. He has borne our sorrows and is acquainted with our grief.
Now, no matter what storms we face, no matter what pains we are exposed to, regardless the difficulties we are called upon to endure, His very life and strength and vitality are poured into mine. I am touched with the healing oil. I am not spared intercessory prayer. They overflow so that the cup of my life runs over with His life, His grace, His blessing and His loving concern, often with greater blessings and benefits that others may see us stand up so well in the midst of trials and suffering. Blessed be the Holy Name of the Lord and His never-ending concern for each of us!
Continuous emphasis has been placed on the devoted care exercised by the attentive and conscientious shepherd. It has been stressed how essential to the welfare of the sheep is the shepherd's diligent effort and labor. All the benefits enjoyed by a flock under a skilled and loving shepherd are drawn in bold lines. Now all of this is summed up by the Psalmist in one brave but simple statement: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
Sheep blessed with such a shepherd know of a surety that theirs is a privileged position. No matter what comes, at least and always they can be perfectly certain that goodness and mercy will steadfastly be in the picture. The sheep reassure themselves they are ever under sound, sympathetic, intelligent ownership and care. What more could they care about? What more could they need? Goodness and mercy will be the treatment they receive from their master's expert, loving hands.
Not only is this a bold statement, but something of an assurance, an exclamation of implicit confidence in the One Who leads, guides the destiny of the flock. It is the result of trust in the Shepherd of which our Lord spoke often. "I know mine and mine know me."
How many so-called believers actually feel this way about our Lord? How many of us truly have confidence that, no matter what occurs in our lives, we are being followed by goodness and mercy because we belong to the Lord? How many of us are actually convinced regardless what occurs, the love of God accompanies us because we are His? Of course, it is always very simple to speak joyfully and exaltingly when things are going just well for us. If my health is excellent, my income is flourishing, my family is growing in all positive ways and my friends are loving and fond of me it is not at all hard to say, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
But what about when one's body breaks down? What do I say when I have a sharp pain in a crucial place of the body? What do I express when I stand helplessly as so many have had to do and watch a life partner and spouse die by degrees in appalling pain? What is my reaction when my job folds up and there is no money to meet the accumulating bills? What happens if my children cannot make their grades in school or get caught running with the wrong gang? What do I say when suddenly without good grounds, friends prove false and turn against me?
As we look back over our own lives, in light of a Shepherd's love and care for his sheep, for his flock, we can see again and again a similar compassion and concern for us in our Master's management of our affairs. There are inevitable events which as they occur, seem like calamities; there are paths down which it appears our God is leading us like blind alleys; there are days He takes us through what are well-near as black as the night itself. But in the end, it all turns out for our benefit and well-being, and the betterment of our souls.
With our limited understanding as finite human beings, we cannot always comprehend that the Good Shepherd's management of our lives is executed in infinite and unfailing wisdom. With our natural tendency to fear, to worry incessantly and to always ask "why?" it is not always easy to be unquestionably assured that our God really does know what He is doing with our life. There are times we are tempted to panic, to bolt, to leave His care. But somehow, we have the strange, stupid, even plainly dumb notion that we can survive better on our own!
Despite this behavior, we are so glad, so grateful our Good Shepherd does not give up on us. We are so thankful He follows us in mercy and goodness. The only possible motivation is His undying and unchanging love, His unconditional love, His care and concern for us as if we are His favorite sheep. And despite our agonizing doubts, despite our misgivings about His direction and His management of our flock and its vital affairs, He picks us up, He bears us on His shoulders and in His arms with a genuine and warm tenderness.
In retrospect, then, we realize that for the one who is truly in Christ's care, no difficulty can harm us, no dilemma can emerge, no seeming disaster descend on life without eventual overwhelming good coming out of the seeming chaos. This is the goodness and mercy of my Master in my life. How blessed is the hope I have that He leads me forward so that my faith commitment to Him is the great foundation of my confidence in Him.
Now wonder we love Him! He first loved us!
His goodness, mercy, and compassion to me are new every day; they expand and grow as I contemplate His wonders toward us. And our assurance is lodged in these aspects of His unchanging loving character. Our trust is in His love for us as His own. We belong to Him just as surely as He belongs to us! Our security has as its basis an implicit, unshakable reliance on His ability to do the right thing, the best thing in any given situation and to derive from even the most remote, perplexing set of circumstances, sufficient grace to strengthen faith and augment devotion in the ready and believing heart.
This for us ought be the supreme portrait and description of our Shepherd. Continually He flows out to us His goodness and His mercy which even though we do not deserve them come unremittingly from their source of unending heavenly supply, His own heart of love, which then engages and elevates and makes us whole.
Tonight's meditation is the essence of all that has gone before in this blessed and learning Psalm. All the care, all the work, all the particular watchfulness, all the skill of the Good Shepherd, all the love and devotion, all the self-sacrifice are born of His love, the love of One Who loves His sheep, loves His work of salvation and redemption, loves and fulfills His vocation, loves His role and dignity of Shepherd.
He looks at our life with tenderness because He deeply loves us. He sees the long years during which His goodness and mercy have followed us without slackening. He longs to see some measure of that same goodness and mercy not only passed on to others by us, but also passed back to Him with joy. He longs for love, our unique kind of love that only we can return to Him. And we love Him, only and because He first loved us. With this kind of response from each of us, our God is satisfied. Come forward then this evening with hearts full of faith, souls overflowing with trust to be anointed, to be changed in our lives as a necessary step on the road to the kingdom. It is the love of Christ that makes possible for us this needed transformation.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
The Psalm opens with the joyous affirmation, "The Lord is my Shepherd!" Now it closes with an equally positive, uplifting and buoyant truth, "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Here is a sheep so utterly satisfied with its lot in life, so fully contented with the care it receives, so much at home with the Shepherd that there is not a shred of desire for change. His love for the individual sheep and lamb is overwhelming and fulfilling.
Conversely, on the shepherd's side, from His direction and dimension, there has developed a great affection and devotion to the flock. He would never think of parting with such sheep. It is a pleasure to be in their company. He is pleased and proud to be their shepherd because they so eagerly respond to His shepherding. They enjoy his God-given talents and gifts and He is more than pleased to exercise them on their behalf. Healthy, contented productive sheep are his delight and profit. So strong now are the chords between them that it will last in very truth forever. He will gladly give an accounting of them before the dread judgment with joy and fulfillment, even a submitted pride in their accomplishment with grace.
The world "house" here is used in this poem with a wider meaning than most people attach to it. Normally we speak of the House of the Lord as the sanctuary, the church, the meeting place of God with His people. In one sense, David certainly has this in mind. And of course, it is pleasant to think that one could always delight to be found in the Lord's house. But actually, what is also referred to by "house" is the family or household, or flock of the Good Shepherd. The sheep is so deeply satisfied with the flock to which it belongs, with the ownership of the particular Shepherd, that it has no wish whatsoever to change.
What a joy for the devoted Shepherd to observe a transformation, a literal conversion, a radical change in the flock that they become as King David describes them. We ought be most proud to belong to Christ; why shouldn't we feel free to boast to others of how our Shepherd treats us with genuine love and devotion? How glad we should be to look back and recall all the amazing ways in which He has provided for our welfare here in this world and certainly, then, in the next! We should want to describe in detail the hard experiences through which He has brought us intact with our faith stabilized and augmented and energized by His grace. And we should be eager and quick to show our confidence in Christ. We should be bold to state fearlessly that we are so glad we are His, that we do in reality belong to Him. By the contentment and serenity in our lives we should show what a distinct advantage it is to be a member of His "household," a communicant of His flock.
There is no other more beautiful and final sense in which the Psalmist speaks and expresses himself as a sheep, a member of the flock This is the most personal and significant sentiment that David had in his heart as he ended this hymn to divine intelligent love. Not only do we get the idea of an ever-present Shepherd on the scene, but also the concept that the sheep wants the security of being in the full view of his Shepherd at all times. In our Christian lives and experience, the same idea and principle applies. For when all is said and done the subject of a successful Christian pilgrimage or walk through life, can be summed up in one sense, "Live ever aware of God's presence. Live a Eucharistic worthy life."
There is the inner consciousness which can be very distinct and very real, of Christ's presence in our lives, made evident by His gracious Holy Spirit within. In no more dramatic way can we be aware of His enduring love than when we witness it from beneath the Cross. It is He Who speaks to us in distinct and definite ways about our behavior, always eager to elevate us to a higher level which exposes us having our dignity of being created in His image and likeness. This message could not have come more distinctly than from the heights of the cross on Golgotha's pinnacle.
There ought to be a habitual awareness of the suffering Christ within us. It should remind us of our own dignity and worth in the sight of our Creator God. It ought empower us to live a richly rewarding life in cooperation with His freely endowed grace. As we respond to Him, and grow more in harmony with His wishes we discover life becomes satisfying, fulfilling and worthwhile. It acquires greater security and admits an exciting adventure of fulfillment as we progress positively in it. This is made possible only as we allow His gracious Spirit to manage, to direct, even control our daily decisions. In fact, we should deliberately ask for His direction and intimate details from the heights of the cross.
When we become totally aware of how He suffered for us, we are aware of the equally thrilling awareness of God's presence all around us. We then live surrounded by His gracious and warm compelling presence, in His company. We become the open persons we were meant to be, living in His security. As He is conscious of every circumstance we encounter, we ought to become aware of His being in our lives. He attends us with great care and concern that we continue to belong to Him as He bought us from the clutches of the devil by his loving gift on the Cross today. What assurance we have in the blood of the Saviour ! I shall dwell irk the presence of the Lord, in His care forever! Blessed lie His Holy Name! Blessed be His salutary death on my behalf.
The Lamb Who submits to be sacrificed for one is the sheep Who transforms my very life!