May 25, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Psalm 23


Meyer Friedman was a cardiologist.  He had a heart attack when he was 45.  As he was recovering, something dawned on him.  His own personality type was the same personality type he had been seeing in young men who came to him with early onset heart problems.  He was driven.  He was impatient.  He was easily irritated.  He was always in a hurry.  And so were a high percentage of the patients in his practice.  From this observation, he came up with a name for that personality type.  Type-A.  And with it, came a prescription to put yourself in a lower risk category for heart disease.  Change your personality type.  Slow down.  Chill out.  Reduce your stress.

It worked for Meyer Friedman.  He had that heart attack when he was 45, but he ended up living to be 90.

There was an upholsterer who kept the furniture in Dr. Friedman’s office in good repair.  This upholsterer made an interesting observation.  He said, “Dr. Friedman, have you noticed the wear pattern on the chairs in your waiting room?  It’s not the kind of even wear I normally see.  Your chairs wear out first on the edge of the seat.”

Can you see why that would be?  The patients who came to see him were anxious.  They were afraid.  They were upset.  They didn’t want to be there.  They didn’t have time for this.  And so they were sitting on the edge of their seats.

A lot of people go through life on the edge of their seats.  We have a lot of Type-A personalities.  A lot of people living life on the fast track and therefore not living as long or as well as they otherwise might live.

The scripture we read today is God’s antidote to the Type-A personality.  It is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in all of scripture.  Psalm 23.  It’s often read at funerals, which is ironic.  Because it’s not about dying.  It’s about living.  It’s about getting off the edge of our seats and living life a different way.  God’s way.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.

This is going to be a very simple sermon.  I’m just going to go through this passage, line by line.  We’re going to see that every line offers us a choice.  Every line is like a fork in the road.  It’s a decision point.  Which way will we go?  Which way will we choose to live?

Starting with, “The Lord is my shepherd“.  The alternative is to live as if I have no shepherd.  There is no one but me to figure out life as I go.  Life without a shepherd is a life of ”edge of the seat” worry.  But a lot of people live that way.  A lot of people don’t realize they have a choice.

A life of worry is a hard life because there’s always something to worry about.  You worry about the future.  You worry about your children.  If you don’t have any children, you worry about that.  You worry about your job, or if you don’t have one, you worry about that.  You worry about your marriage, or if you don’t have one, you worry about that.  You worry about your health or the health of people you love or the health of the economy.  You worry about your money, or if you don’t have any, you worry about that.

Here’s the odd thing about worry.   I’m sure we have a lot of worriers here.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I know a lot of people worry way too much.  So I’ll just ask you a question.  How many of you have discovered that worry is a great way to deal with the future and make life better?  How many of you have learned from your personal experience that worry pays rich dividends?  Of course you haven’t.  And yet we still worry.  But there is another way.  God says that we can choose to live under the constant care and protection of the good shepherd.

The man God inspired to write this 23rd Psalm was a shepherd.  Before he became king, David racked up a lot of experience taking care of sheep.   So he knew what he was talking about when he wrote these words.  He understood well that the fate of the sheep is in the hands of the shepherd.  And that sheep do best when they accept that and don’t fight it.  Sheep do best when they let their shepherd do his job and when they don’t try to do the shepherd’s job.

I did a little research on sheep this week.  It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.  I discovered Warren Gill, professor of animal science at the University of Tennessee.  His life work has been the study of sheep.  Warren Gill doesn’t just count sheep when he can’t sleep at night, he thinks about sheep all day long.  Sheep are his life.  Here’s what Professor Gill says: “Sheep spend up to ten hours a day grazing and then most of the rest of their waking hours they spend chewing on the cud.”  They are an animal that chews the cud.  There is a technical term for chewing the cud.  Ruminating.  All sheep ruminate.  As Professor Gill says, they are “ruminating herbivores.”

People ruminate, too.  But when people ruminate it’s seldom a good thing.   It’s a Type-A behavior.  When sheep ruminate, they aren’t worrying about a thing.  Again, Professor Gill:  “The ruminating response requires that a sheep be comfortable and relaxed.”  They can only ruminate when the shepherd is doing a good job.  “In rumination, sheep have a pensive, sleepy expression.”  A pensive sleepy expression.  Much like people listening to a sermon.

So here is the choice.  Instead of ruminating the way people do when they are living on the edge of their seats, instead of ruminating on your worries or your fears or your problems, try ruminating on your shepherd.  Ruminate on Jesus.  When you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep.  Talk to the shepherd.  As it says in the hymn, “Give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  That’s the next choice facing us.  Will we be content to let the good shepherd meet our needs, or will we continue in our endless quest to find satisfaction in others ways?

“I shall not want.”  We don’t use the word “want” that way any more.  I remember being confused in Sunday school because it sounded like we were saying that we don’t want the Lord to be our shepherd.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  But that isn’t what it means.  We “want” when we are not content.  We “want” when there is an inner restlessness fueled by a desire for more and bigger and better.  We “want” when no matter how much we have, it is never enough.

This is a hard one because we live in a world where the smartest people alive do their best thinking trying to invent new and better ways to convince us that we aren’t content.  To make us feel discontent.  And to make us believe that true contentment is just one purchase away.  Content people are not good consumers.  So we are barraged with advertising to fuel our discontent.

We think that’s something only modern people have to deal with, but it isn’t.  It goes way back, at least to David’s day, or he wouldn’t have written what he wrote.  It goes back to the time of Isaiah the prophet.  We know that because he’s the one who wrote, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2)  In other words, why are you looking for peace and contentment in all the wrong places?

It’s not a modern thing to do that.  People have always been doing that.  But there is another way.  It’s right here in the 23rd Psalm.   Find what you’re looking for in your shepherd.  Find true peace and contentment in what your shepherd has already provided for you.  If that’s what you want, you will never be in want.

There was a youth group that for spring break each year would go on a mission trip to Mexicali, Mexico.  They met a young boy.  His name was Jaime.  Jaime was fascinated with the frisbee they would toss back and forth.  He would just stand there with eyes like saucers and watch.  So when they left, they gave him the frisbee.  He couldn’t believe it.  They gave him their frisbee!

Next year the same group went to the same place and they found Jaime again.   And he had the same frisbee.  He’d gotten pretty good with it by then.  One year there was an earthquake in Mexicali.  Jaime’s family lost everything.  They ended up living in a tiny house with about 25 other people.  When they found him they saw that all of his earthly possessions were in one bag.  And in that single bag was that frisbee.

Here’s the question:  Who has the most?  The one who has many bags and always wants more or the person who has one bag and is grateful?  It’s an alternative lifestyle that is clearly endorsed by the Bible.  Live simply.  Be content.  “For life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions” (Luke 12:15).

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.”  Again, we have a choice.  We can choose to lie down in green pastures.  Or we can choose instead a lifestyle of frantic activity.

One of my very favorite things to do on a summer day is to lie down on the lush green grass under a big shade tree and just look up through the leaves at the sky.  But you ask me how often I do that?  Not very often.

The wording here is interesting.  It says, “He makes me lie down.”  In other words, we don’t want to.  We don’t have time for that.  We have things to do and places to go and people to see.  We’ll schedule a green pasture moment for maybe three months from now.  So our shepherd needs to use a little persuasion here.  He makes us do what we don’t want to do but need to do.

Meyer Friedman didn’t want to slow down.  He was an important cardiologist.  Lives depended on him.  But then he had his heart attack and he had no choice.  He was “made” to lie down.

And then while he was in recovery from his Type-A personality he stumbled upon a nifty trick.  I think I might try it.  He found his schedule was always crowded.  So he was always running from one patient to the next.  He was well on his way to another health crisis.  But he decided he would take control of the situation.  He started scheduling appointments with non-existent patients.  He discovered something.  They were always no-shows.  So that would give him chunks of time each day to take a break and lie in a green pasture, or more precisely, a green reclining chair.

My family has some green pasture time coming up.  Joe Housh will be preaching next week.  The Watts family, all 17 of us, are going to be attending the wedding of my niece in Cabo San Lucas.  Don’t know if they have green pastures down there, but we’ll manage.  We’ve never all been together for a family vacation since my sister, my brother, and I started families of our own, so we’re looking forward to it.

But here’s the secret about green pastures.  If the shepherd is there, wherever you are can be a green pasture.  Whatever you are doing, you can stop what you are doing or even continue what you and doing and still experience a green pasture moment.  If the shepherd is there a green pasture is available to you.  And remember, the shepherd is always there.

I love Psalm 127:2.  “It is in vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for [God] gives his beloved rest.”  You choose that rest, or it will be chosen for you.  A life of frantic activity is not the way we were intended to live.

We have one more choice to make.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.”  Here’s the choice:  Will we drink from the still, deep, life giving water?  Or will we reject what gives us life, and choose instead what gives us death?

I want you to notice something here.  It says the good shepherd leads the sheep beside the still waters.  The water is there.  The shepherd leads the sheep right up to it.  But it’s up to the sheep to choose to drink or not.  This is in contrast to the previous line.  “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”  Isn’t that interesting!   You can lead a sheep to water, but you can’t make him drink.  However, you can make a sheep lie down.

Phillip Keller wrote the classic A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 back in 1970.  It’s written by a shepherd, by one who understands sheep.  He tells the story of leading sheep on a trail that led to a magnificent mountain stream.  “The snow-fed waters were flowing pure and clear and crystal clean between a lovely bank of trees.”  It was like sheep’s paradise.  But what happened?  Many in the flock chose instead to drink from the little muddy puddles along the trail.  These puddles weren’t just muddy.  They were also filled with what the previous sheep had left behind.  These sheep were led by their shepherd to the best water on earth.  They chose instead to drink filth (pages 56-57).

Back to our University of Tennessee sheep specialist.  This is my favorite Warren Gill quote.  When people ask him if sheep are dumb, here is how he answers:  “A sheep has precisely the correct amount of intelligence it needs to function as a sheep.”  Which apparently isn’t much.  So yes, sheep are dumb.  I think that’s what the professor was trying to say.

How about us?  God gave us precisely the correct amount of intelligence we need to function as human beings.  Let’s hope that’s a little more than God gave sheep.  So why are we still drinking from those gross, disgusting puddles in the middle of the trail instead of from the pure, deep, life giving water our shepherd offers us?

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, said to that woman looking for water:  “Everyone who drinks from the water that I will give will never thirst; the water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Will you let Jesus be your shepherd?  Life works best that way.  Instead of worrying about stuff, will you ruminate on Him?  Instead of wallowing in discontent, will you be grateful for Him?  Instead of your treadmill of frantic activity, will you surrender to Him?  Instead of taking in poison, will you drink deeply from Him?  You can stop living on the edge of your seat.  You can start living with a restored soul.


God, we confess that we all too often live right on the edge of our seats.  We are anxious.  We are troubled.  We are worried.  We are tired.  We are stubborn.  Dear God, we confess that we often don’t use the intelligence you gave us to function as human beings.  We don’t accept your way to live.  It’s a good way.  It’s the best way.  It’s simply letting our shepherd lead.  We like sheep have gone astray.  Remind us, dear God, that we have a shepherd named Jesus who loves us, who watches over us, who wants goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives, and who promises us a dwelling place in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen.