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The Lord Is My Shepherd

When we say, "The Lord is my shepherd," we acknowledge our dependence upon him, his ownership of us, and our personal relationship with him.


I don't know much about sheep. I was born and raised in the suburbs, and we didn't have sheep. In fact, they were probably illegal. I have been to the sheep barn at the Minnesota State Fair, which makes me more knowledgeable about, but hardly an expert on, sheep.

When I was growing up, my mother cooked lamb chops at home, but I never really liked them. One of the good things about being an adult and having a say in such matters is that we don't have lamb chops at our house. You might like to eat lamb, but I'm in the majority, because McDonald's hasn't had any success with McMutton; it's never even been proposed as a possibility for the menu.

While sheep have not been a very important part of my life, sheep are one of the few livestock animals that are found virtually everywhere in the world. There are few places where sheep are not raised. In some western states, there are more sheep than people. Australia has ten times the number of sheep as people. The ratio of sheep to people in New Zealand is 20 to 1. That's a lot of sheep.

While I don't eat lamb and don't know much about sheep, I'll admit that I'm wearing a wool suit. You may be wearing woolen clothing as well. Wool is an amazing product. It can be woven to be worn in all seasons—for summer clothes or for winter clothes. Woolen clothing is generally more expensive than just about anything else. They tell me that wool, in terms of weight to value, is one of the most expensive commodities purchased, sold, and exchanged in the world.

Whether we knew any of those things or not, we probably know Psalm 23, because it is one of the most familiar and best-loved pieces of literature in the world. I've heard it at weddings, where it is read with a sense of celebration, excitement, and anticipation; and at funerals, where it is offered as a source of comfort in the midst of deep and terrible grief. It is spoken by people in all languages. Young children memorize it easily and seem to understand what it has to say. At the same time, the oldest quote it and gain from it a perspective on life and comfort for life's realities. Few other poems can claim such popularity.

The psalm is so familiar that I don't have to bother asking you to look in the Bible to see what it has to say. You can memorize the words almost instantly: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures … he restores my soul … Surely, goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Such simple words; such familiar words; such profound words.

"The Lord is my shepherd" is an expression of dependence.

We often miss the depth of the meaning of Psalm 23 because we think we know what it has to say. Let's not miss out on understanding what we are really saying when we pray or speak, "The Lord is my shepherd." With those words, we Americans make an unusual declaration of dependence.

We Americans value independence; we don't like other people to control us. We resent it when other people make decisions on our behalf. We prefer to be in the position of strength where others may be dependent upon us.

For example, I have a friend who has done a very interesting thing: He has lived frugally and saved sacrificially in order to have a cash account larger than his yearly salary. I'm not going to tell you the interesting name of his account; here we'll just refer to it as his "good-bye-to-you" account. When he had finally accumulated more money than a year's pay, he showed his bank statement to his boss. He explained it as his good-bye-to-you account. He wasn't quitting his job; he was simply saying if ever the boss doesn't treat him right or if things ever go wrong, he's not dependent upon the boss. He has this money, and he can say goodbye. He has independence.

People in our society have difficulty with authority. Just ask someone in a position of authority—a political figure, a school principal, a church pastor, a police officer, or the boss at a company. They'll tell you that those who have difficulty with authority bristle even if they, as leaders, are not authoritarian. There is a sense in our country that anyone in a position of authority will try to control others or make others dependent. We like our independence. We don't want someone else deciding things for us. As do animals, we prefer to be wild, make our own choices, and run wherever we please. We certainly don't like the idea of being domesticated and becoming someone else's pet. Because of all of this, it is a strange thing for someone to say the Lord is his shepherd. That is a voluntary declaration of dependence on God.

David, who wrote these words, was once a shepherd himself. He knew what every shepherd knows. Sheep come in two categories: wild and domestic. A highly domesticated sheep is highly dependent upon the shepherd. I'm told that of all the livestock, sheep can be counted among the most dependent, because they count on their shepherd for food, direction, protection, and treatment of disease.

When we call someone our shepherd, we are saying we need help. When we say the Lord is our shepherd, we are saying no one is better able to help us than God himself. We are saying we are basically foolish, and he is wise. We are quite ignorant, and he knows everything. We are weak, and he is strong. We are stupid, and he is smart. Most of all, we are saying that God is absolutely trustworthy, and we can depend on him. He has never been known to harm one of his sheep. He's never lost a single sheep. This great Lord is so committed and dedicated that he is even willing to put his life on the line for a single lamb.

I own a marvelous little book written nearly a quarter of a century ago by a former shepherd, Phillip Keller. The book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, tells about the author's experience as a shepherd in east Africa. The land adjacent to his was rented out to a tenant shepherd who didn't take very good care of his sheep: his land was overgrazed, eaten down to the ground; the sheep were thin, diseased by parasites, and attacked by wild animals. Keller remembered especially how the neighbor's sheep would line up at the fence and blankly stare in the direction of his green grass and his healthy sheep, almost as if they yearned to be delivered from their abusive shepherd. They longed to come to the other side of the fence and belong to him. Christians understand that the identity of the shepherd is everything. It is wonderful to be able to say, "The Lord is my shepherd."

"The Lord is my shepherd" is a statement of ownership.

In five words, this declaration of dependence becomes an admission of ownership. A shepherd owns the sheep and marks them. Today the ears are pierced with identification tags, but that's a fairly modern invention. For thousands of years, shepherds around the world marked the ears of their sheep by notching them with a sharp knife. Each shepherd had his own distinctive notch, so that even if the sheep gathered in a cluster, he could identify his own from a distance.

I think all of this is a lot like being a Christian. Christians are also those who admit to being owned and marked by Jesus Christ—sometimes marked painfully through suffering and difficulty. It must be painful for Jesus Christ to allow those marks to be burned, pierced, and notched into our lives.

An interesting verse in the New Testament describes Christians as those who bear crosses, almost as if we are marked by the cross of Jesus Christ, who can look at a gathering of people and instantly tell which ones are his and which ones are not. Those who bear his mark are his own. All this sounds rather gruesome except to the person who says, "The Lord is my shepherd." Belonging to the shepherd is worth the pain, even if the mark must be carried for a lifetime. It's a privilege and a badge of honor to be identified as a Christian, one of God's own sheep. And God has every right to own us: He created us. We get confused about that sometimes. We sometimes think God exists for our benefit. We need to clearly understand that God created us for his benefit. We exist for his pleasure rather than the other way around.

God wanted to make a creature he could love. God didn't want robots that were forced to love him without choice. So God took a terrible gamble: He gave his human creatures the freedom to choose whether to love him or not. Isaiah 53:6 tells the result of God's gamble: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way." Although God has a right to own us because he created us, he gave us the option of freedom, and we all left. We chose sin and did not love him as he wanted to be loved. In response, he chose to send out his own son to look for us and find and redeem us at a terrible cost—the cost of his own life.

Imagine this: A shepherd notches the ear of a lamb born to his flock because he has rightful ownership of it. If that lamb deliberately walks away, the shepherd searches near and far to get that lamb back. A long time later, he finds not a baby lamb but a grown sheep for sale at an animal auction. The shepherd recognizes his mark on that sheep's ear. He goes to the auctioneer and says, "I can see the mark. That sheep is mine." The auctioneer says, "Listen, you must bid and pay just like anybody else." The shepherd bids and pays an outrageous price, far above any reasonable market value in order to get his lamb. He now has a double right to own this sheep: by birth and by redemption.

God has a right to own us because he is our creator and because he has paid the blood of his own Son—an outrageous price far above our market value—in order to redeem us back again.

We as Christians are reluctant to let others know that we're not our own because we're bought with a price. Sometimes we're embarrassed to be Christians. We shouldn't be. Actually, it is the most wonderful admission of all to acknowledge that we are owned by God, that we bear the mark, that we're able to say, "The Lord is my shepherd."

"The Lord is my shepherd" is an admittance of a personal relationship.

We miss the point if we somehow think this talk of ownership is religious jargon, or if we miss the warmth and intimate confidence of the words "the Lord is my shepherd." I've heard people say that it is arrogant to be convinced that one is a Christian, that we should never say it with certainty because we can't be sure. But what child should be confronted for saying, "That's my mom," or, "There goes my dad"? If there's anything you ought to be certain about, it's that kind of relationship. There's nothing at all strange about a person saying, "He's my Lord," or "He's my Savior," or, "He's my Shepherd." If I count him as mine, I'm a Christian.

Almost every week I hear a story that goes something like this: People say they grew up in a church, went to Sunday school and Confirmation. They say, "My parents made me do it. I learned Psalm 23, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostle's Creed. But I didn't realize until I was an adult that I could have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And it was only when I went to a Bible study or some friend talked to me about salvation that I began to understand I had to make a choice for Jesus Christ in order to become a Christian."

Let's be sure we understand something: Reading the Bible or going to church, giving an offering or learning a psalm, creed, or prayer, will not make a person a Christian. To be a Christian is to choose Jesus Christ as Savior and Shepherd. To be a Christian is a deliberate decision to become one of God's own sheep and have a personal relationship with him.

My father often told a favorite story about a little boy who was desperately ill. His parents recognized that he probably soon would die, so they sent for the local pastor. He came at night to visit the semiconscious child. He was unable to speak and apparently never spoke in any acknowledgement of the pastor's presence. The pastor was alone in the child's upstairs room and left late at night. He returned early the next morning after the boy had died. He did his best to console the parents. He prayed with them. He grieved with them.

Later the parents asked the pastor if he had any explanation for something that had happened. They told the pastor that in the hours before their son died and at the time of his death, he was holding the ring finger of one hand with his other hand. He died in that position. It was then the pastor explained what he had said that night in the child's room.

He had wanted to explain to that child on the edge of eternity not only the importance of being a Christian but also, in a child's language, how to become one. He had taken their son's hand, held the boy's thumb, and said, "The—because, we're talking about one of a kind." Then he held his forefinger and said, "Lord." Next he held the middle finger and said, "God himself is right here." Holding the ring finger, he said, "My—a personal commitment and relationship." Finally, he held the pinky and said, "Shepherd—the one who owns us, died for us, cares for and loves us—Jesus." While he had not spoken, the child had heard. Before he died, he put his hand around the finger to say, "The Lord is my shepherd."


Is the Lord your shepherd? In just a moment, we're going to pray. I'd like to suggest that if you claim the Lord as your shepherd, take your hand as we pray and hold the fourth finger. By that you say—for you and God alone to see—that you are making a declaration of dependence. You are admitting his ownership, and you have the confidence of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Don't do it lightly. We talk here about a life-changing and eternal decision, something to be done decisively in faith.

Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

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Sermon Outline:


I. "The Lord is my shepherd" is an expression of dependence

II. "The Lord is my shepherd" is a statement of ownership

III. "The Lord is my shepherd" is an admittance of a personal relationship