The God Who Provides, Protects, and Pursues
Scriptures: Psalm 23; Luke 15:3-7
There is a reason Psalm 23 is one of the most popular and
well known chapters of the Bible. It is a powerful picture of the God who provides for us and protects us in every situation. Verse 1: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." When I hear that verse I think of television commercials bombarding us with all the things we don't have: good looks, wrinkle free skin, a hot new car. Our culture programs us to want. But Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need." What a gift!
The next verse goes further. It says, "He makes me lie down
in green pastures." If you think about it, a sheep will not lie down in a green pasture unless two conditions are met: 1) it has to feel safe, and 2) it has to feel full. A sheep will not lie down on a field of green grass if it is hungry or if it senses wolves lurking on the horizon. Sheep will lie down in a green pasture only if they feel full and safe. The Lord is a shepherd who provides and protects. What a gift!
Verse 5 uses a different image to make the same point: "You
prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." Here again provision and protection are rolled into one. We have a table spread before us-God provides-and we are secure enough to enjoy it-God protects us even in the presence of enemies. What a gift! What a gift to have a God who provides for us and protects us in every situation, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Psalm 23 would be worth it just for that, but I think there
is something else in this psalm even more important. Yes, the Lord provides for us; yes, the Lord protects us. But the really remarkable thing about the shepherd in this psalm-the truly amazing thing about the God-is not only that God provides for us and protects us but that God pursues us. The Lord is a shepherd who comes after us when we get lost.
There are hints of this at three different points in Psalm
23. First in verse 3. Our English translation verse 3 says, "He restores my soul." In Hebrew, however, the word translated "restores" literally means "to bring back." It means to restore in the sense of restoring lost property to its rightful owner or restoring a lost child to his or her parents. The Lord is a shepherd who goes looking for lost sheep and restores them, bringing them back to the fold.
The same idea is implied by verse 4. Verse 4 says, "Your
rod and your staff-they comfort me." A rod is something a shepherd uses to beat off predators who try to attack the sheep. That is part of protecting the sheep. But the staff, the thing with the crook on the end, is not something the shepherd uses to beat off wolves. The crook is used for hooking the sheep and to bring them back. That is comforting, the psalm writer says. Your staff-it comforts me. It comforts me to know that if I wander away you will hook me and bring me back.
Finally, verse 6 concludes, "Surely goodness and mercy shall
follow me all the days of my life." The Hebrew word translated "follow" is a word that means literally to "pursue" someone, to "chase them down." The idea is not only that God will bless you with goodness and mercy. The idea is that God's goodness and mercy will chase you; it will pursue you all the days of your life.
Elsewhere when the Bible describes God as a shepherd, the
emphasis is often on precisely this aspect of shepherding. In the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34, there is a message from God given to the Israelites when they are in exile in Babylon. Verses 11-12 say,
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
When Ezekiel describes God as a shepherd, he emphasizes how God pursues us, going after us when we have gone astray.
Jesus does the same thing. He says, "Which one of you,
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?" Jesus did not tell this parable to show what a good provider or protector the shepherd is. The parable makes you wonder about that. How good a provider or protector is a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go looking for the one that is lost? You may assume that there were other shepherds looking after the other sheep, but Jesus does not tell us that. Jesus does not what a great provider and protector the shepherd is. He emphasizes how the shepherd is a determined pursuer, and so is God.
Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian minister, tells this
story which I got from a Presbyterians for Renewal publication (Dec. 1999):
Brenda was a young girl in my congregation. . A young man, David, came into her life and started courting her. A more inappropriate courtship you never imagined. Brenda was beautiful, gentle, Christian, Presbyterian. David was rough, crude, and rude. They wanted to get married. I did everything I could to discourage this, . but was unsuccessful, and finally I married them-or maybe I should say I conducted the ceremony.
David had a military obligation to fulfill for two years, and they went off to Alaska and lived in an alcoholic haze. They came back; the marriage was in bad shape, and they came to me to fix it. I did my best, but without hope. . After a couple more years of making one another miserable, they tried the geographical cure and moved to Alaska. Every six months David would call me asking for help; most often he was drunk when he called. They started going to church again, a little Pentecostal church, and had a spiritual experience. In the next phone call David announced that God was calling him to be a pastor. I thought, "Fine, let the Pentecostals take care of him."
The next call after that, he was drunk again. After another couple of years, they had joined a Presbyterian church, and David said he wanted to be a pastor. I said, "David, you haven't been to college; do you realize how long that is going to take?" I tried to discourage him, but he ignored me, as usual. He started going to night school and eventually got his degree. The biannual calls continued; they seemed to me exercises in futility even though the drinking had stopped. The next call informed me that he had been accepted in seminary. And then a final call-David has his theology degree, was called to be a pastor to a little country church in North Dakota: Would I come and preach his ordination sermon. All those years of my faithless listening, hopeless praying now issued in this.
There were 40 or so people in the congregation. . David and I sat in the chancel, and just before the sermon the choir sang, five women, all [quite elderly]. They sang, "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I'll Be There." Their voices were thin and quavery, but David leaned over to me and said, "Don't they sound like angels?" .
And at that moment, I knew David was a pastor. . In those five voices, David was hearing angels sing. David heard and saw glory of God in that place, and then I got it.
Never underestimate the power of God to pursue people, to
chase them down and bring them back. That's why we never give up on people. Even when we must confront them or hold them accountable or insist that they take responsibility for their actions-even then we never quit praying for people or trying in some appropriate way to show them God's love. We never give up on people because God never gives up on them, nor on us.