Sermon by the Revd Professor David Brown
Easter IV: Psalm 23; John 10.11-18.
My usual practice is to preach on the gospel reading but this morning I want to tackle its content indirectly by focusing instead on the appointed psalm, Psalm 23, undoubtedly the best known in the psalter but not always fully understood. It is in two clear parts, so we may take these in turn. In the first half God is compared to a good shepherd who cares for his sheep, a comparison that in a number of ways reflects the actual practice of shepherding in ancient Israel. As you probably already know, the shepherd actually led his flock of sheep and often over considerable distances because in the central areas of the south of the country the land was not only mountainous but also for the most part barren. So, while returning to the village fold, if possible, each evening, considerable distances often had to be covered to reach the good pastureland on the coast. Water was of course also essential en route, as also a wary eye on the part of the shepherd who had to be on the lookout not only for human thieves but also predatory wild animals such as lions and bears. Some of you may recall the magnificent depiction of David a shepherd-king fighting with a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus in the Cathedral museum. At all events that was the reason for the shepherd carrying both a rod and staff: the staff or crook being so shaped to rescue a stray that had perhaps wandered off the path and fallen into a hole or ravine; the rod or club to beat off attackers. Particularly dangerous were deep, narrow and dark valleys set between high rocks because there light was not good and so predators not easily seen.
Given the character of the land being thus so difficult, it is not surprising to find that such use of the shepherd as a metaphor for leadership and care is frequent. With that visual image before everyone’s mind of the shepherd walking in front of his flock to lead them, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that throughout the middle east kings were frequently compared with shepherds, and, as in Scripture (e.g. Ezek. 34), reprimanded when that leadership fell well short of care expected of them for those placed under them. However, in that light much more surprising is the sort of person whom Scripture actually identifies as practising as a shepherd, for it is seldom the head of the family and more commonly the youngest or least confident. So David, for example, was the youngest of a large number of brothers (2 Sam. 7.8), while Moses, while looking after the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 3-4), is described as a rather shy and diffident young man. Less commonly noted is the fact that young women were also found in this role, for example Rebekah (Gen. 29.9). So there is a nice ambiguity in God being called a shepherd here. Was the primary intention a comparison with the great kings of the world or with these more humble creatures? Certainly, it is into similar humble and obscure circumstances that God comes to be born in the incarnation. But, irrespective of whether the psalm anticipates the New Testament at this point or not, without parallel in the Old Testament is another feature taking up by the New Testament, and found in the passage from John that we heard as today’s gospel: the shepherd dying to save his flock. Thus the indications here of the shepherd willing to risk his life to save the flock moves one stage further in John, with the shepherd now actually dying on their behalf – something totally without precedent in the Hebrew scriptures – an extravagance of care that gives new meaning not only to what it is to be a shepherd but also what it is to be God.
Initially, it may seem that with the second half of the psalm a quite different note is struck. No longer are we in the world of shepherds. God is now our host. A table has been spread, wine provided, and our face anointed with oil, the last an essential act of hospitality in a hot, dry climate where the skin frequently dried out and cracked unless additional moisture was provided. But there is a connection after all with the first part of the psalm since in effect, especially obviously so with the last verse (‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’), we are being reminded of the context in which such psalms were originally sung, in the Temple at Jerusalem. So the spread table is not just any table but one set out consequent on the traditional practices of sacrifice, and so would almost certainly have contained cuts of meat from a lamb that had recently been sacrificed.
The forms of sacrifice in the ancient world are often misunderstood. Sometimes the whole animal was burnt, and indeed that is where we get the word holocaust from: the complete burning up or destruction of the animal concerned. But, more commonly, only certain elements were offered up to God, and the rest consumed by the worshipers. This was sometimes called a communion sacrifice, since it was seen as a means of drawing the worshiper and God closer together. While such offerings could take a wide variety of different forms, all of us are familiar with the annual sacrifice of the Passover lamb, part of which was then taken home to eat. But there were also twice daily offerings of lambs in the Temple, both in the morning and in the evening, and it is perhaps part of this ritual to which the psalm is referring.
Because of that connection between Passover and the Last Supper Jesus came to be identified not only as shepherd but also sacrificial lamb. There are no less than twenty-eight references to him as such in the Book of Revelation while the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as such from the very beginning of his ministry when he has John the Baptist say of Jesus: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world’ (1.29). Those words are of course familiar to each and every one of us all as the Agnus Dei, sung by the choir just before we take communion. Their presence there has an interesting history. In the seventh century Eastern Christendom decided (at the Council of Trullo in 692) that it was an insult to the incarnation to represent Christ in any other form than as a human being. So, all images of Christ under the form of the Lamb were ordered to be destroyed. Pope Sergius I, however, took a quite different view, that seeing Jesus as a lamb spoke volumes about the nature of the God we worship and so decreed the inclusion of these words in the liturgy. One result was works of art like the famous Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers that some of you may have seen. More importantly, though, what it spoke of was divine humility, God the Son becoming like a lamb: an innocent creature wholly dedicated in sacrifice to his Father as with those lambs to which I referred a moment ago but now available not just to some tables but for all: ‘for the sins of the world,’ as John puts it. And therein lies a major difference from the thought-world of the psalmist. The author speaks of a table spread in the presence of his foes, ‘against them that trouble me’ in today’s version: in other words, God’s blessing witnessed by his enemies but there is no sense of drawing them into worship and so also into communion with God, whereas that is precisely what Christ’s sacrifice promises, a lamb available to all the world for its transformation through being brought into communion with God.
So far, I have mentioned two major changes that Christianity brought to Psalm 23: first, God as shepherd who not merely cares for the sheep but is willing to lay his life down for them; and, secondly, a transforming communion in the Lamb that can bring hope not just to some but to all the world. Let me end, though, with a third. I mentioned at the beginning the dark valley through which the shepherd successfully leads his flock but of course the dark valley is not the version with which you are all familiar, and which you heard this morining: ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for thou art with me’ (v.4). But death is in fact nowhere to be found in the Hebrew original. It first entered in the Vulgate or Latin translation and has kept a strong hold in English translations ever since. That too is a transformation that Christianity brings, that our communion begins in the Lamb here on earth but will continue and consummate in our presence with him in heaven. It is to that final destiny that God as both Shepherd and Lamb calls us.