Sometime ago I was listening to Public radio and the radio host was interviewing the author Alan Butler who had written the book “Sheep: The Humble Animal that Built the Modern World.” I thought, “Oh, brother!” But, for some reason I kept listening and am I ever glad I did because what I learned from Alan Butler that day unexpectedly changed my life! Now, I do not recommend buying the book… unless you are really interested in how sheep have affected world history. But, believe it or not, as he talked about one aspect of sheep history that day, my perspective on my life with God took a huge turn and in the process I gained a new sense of hope… and I’m talking about deep hope… the kind of hope we need during the cold, wintery days of life. Now, I know this may sound crazy… but stick with me. Here is what he said: the average size of a sheep brought to the London Sheep Market in 1830 was about 25 pounds… about the size of a small dog. Up until about 1830 sheep were grown almost exclusively for their wool; people hardly ever ate mutton because sheep were needed to make clothing. But, about this time cheap cotton started flowing into England from America, and wool sales plummeted. As a result English sheep farmers needed a new market for their sheep. Well, this happened just as the science of animal husbandry was exploding and to help sheep farmers, scientists began breeding new kinds of sheep to sell as meat. In fact, the creation of new breeds during the next 50 years or so changed sheep so much that by 1880 the average size of a sheep brought to market in London now weighed 80 pounds. Sheep now had big, meaty legs and barrel chests; they were huge when compared to the sheep from just a few decades earlier. One thing that scientists didn’t do though was breed sheep with bigger heads and larger brains; as you may know, intelligence in mammals is brain size to body size. So, over the course of about 50 short years, sheep got bigger by a multiple of 2 ½ times, but they also got dumber. Now, you are probably wondering what this has to do with anything and how knowing this would change my spiritual life. Well, the image that God is our shepherd and we are the sheep of God’s pasture is everywhere in the Bible. This image colors the way we think about all sorts of things related to our faith… And unfortunately, our notion that sheep are stupid has bled into the way we think about God’s people being his sheep. For instance, I have heard frustrated pastors, and by the way, the word pastor is the Latin word for shepherd, I’ve heard pastors, when talking about difficult parishioners say, “Stupid, worthless sheep.” But the truth is this: when the Bible was being written and God was first calling his people his sheep, sheep weren’t 80 lb., dumb animals. They were much smaller, much smarter and here is the most important point, very, very valuable animals. In fact, people in every era of the Bible, from the beginning to the end, in all Ancient Near Eastern cultures used the number of sheep a person owned as a primary way to figure their wealth. Sheep weren’t just like money; they were money… Knowing this makes perfect sense of why Jesus said if someone had 100 sheep and one wandered off, he would leave the other 99 and go look for the lost one… and then celebrate with his neighbors when he found it. For almost all of history, literally, until less than 200 years ago, a shepherd’s main job was to protect small, vulnerable, valuable animals from predators. This is why there is that odd line in the 23 Psalm, “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” Rods and staffs were the weapons shepherds carried to use on predators, not on their sheep. Well, this new way of seeing sheep… as small, smart, vulnerable and highly valuable animals changed a lot for me. The first thing that changed relates to me being one of your pastors… what I realized was that I must never forget that just because animal husbandry has changed our concept of sheep, God’s attitude toward his sheep hasn’t changed. Bottom line: God still figures his wealth by his sheep… each of you is very, very valuable to Him… he is richer because you belong to him. And as a pastor, a shepherd of God’s sheep, I have been given a great responsibility. Plus, God knows how small and vulnerable we allreallyare; we are vulnerable to all kinds of attack… and a huge part of the pastor’s job should be to look out for you, protect you, wield the rod and staff if necessary to make certain that God’s most precious possessions are safe. And the second thing that changed for me was a huge revelation; when I read, as we will today, a Psalm by David, a man who was a shepherd, I have to keep in mind that when David thought of himself as being one of God’s sheep, simply by virtue of what sheep meant in his world, he knew that it was agiventhat he was very, very valuable to God. I know that we have lost most the reality of this fact due to animal husbandry, but I don’t think it is something we can afford to lose. We’re going look at Psalm 27 today. David will not mention sheep, or shepherds or anything like that in this psalm. But we must never forget that David’s given in life, an assumption that just came with living in his world was this: he belonged to God, he was one of God’s sheep and God was his shepherd, he was as valuable to God as is possible to imagine and God would be looking out for him. Can you imagine how much hope this truth gave David as he faced difficult times? Well, turn to Psalm 27 with me and we’ll see how this given about sheep gave David confidence and hope and my prayer is that you’ll take a whole bunch of this kind of hope home with you today.
Now, I want to start by pointing out that this Psalm was created with literary bookends. It starts with a bold statement of truth and it ends with another bold statement of truth… bold statements of truth that function as what I am going to call ‘reality checks’ for David. Let’s read these two bookends: vs. 1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”You can feel the swagger in that verse, can’t you? Just so you will know, this salvation David is talking about is not an after-this-life salvation like we tend talk about when we say ‘salvation’… David was talking about God being his salvation in the midst of fearful circumstances in this life. And then drop down to verse 14.I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.Again, you can sense David’s great hope in God… God is going to take care of things. He may have to wait a while to see it; he may have to stand strong and take heart in the face of difficult things, but he will see it. And once again, it is important to know that when David says he will “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” he is not, as many people today say, talking about some future place after death. He is talking about this land… here and now. He was confident he would live to see even more of the goodness of the Lord in this life… no matter what he was going through today. But even with all of the confidence we see in these bookend verses, truth is, this Psalm isn’t simply about David’s confidence in God… No, this psalm is really about David’s confidence in God in the face of David’s 2 greatest fears. Let me show you what I mean. Look at verse 2. Check out these phrases: ‘When the wicked advance against me to devour my flesh’… Verse 3 ‘Though an army besiege me… though war break our against me’… and down to verse 5 ‘In the day of trouble’… and verse 6, ‘My enemies who surround me.’ It’s pretty obvious that David’s first fear was attack from his enemies. And honestly, he had good reason to worry about this. He wasn’t talking about some metaphorical wicked advancing on him; he had real enemies that were literally trying to destroy him. If you look at the story of his life, and we don’t know at what point in his life he wrote this psalm, but it really doesn’t matter because it’s difficult to find any point in David’s life when someone wasn’t after him. I’m pretty sure that David lived under the constant fear that if he ever let his guard down or trusted the wrong person someone would be waiting to take him out. So, it makes perfect sense that David was fearful of his enemies. But, if that wasn’t enough to worry about David had a second fear: David feared that God would turn his back on him because of his sin. Look at verse 7. “Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me. My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior”.Now, remember, this was David, the man after God’s own heart. Yet, it is clear that he was worried… These phrases: ‘hide your face,’ ‘turn your servant away in anger,’ ‘reject me,’ ‘forsake me,’ are all common, Old Testament, phrases that the prophets used to speak of God’s response to great sin. And the picture we are given of David in the Bible is brutally honest; we know about his many sins and they were great by any definition. It’s easy to see why David might worry that his sin would cause God abandon him. Now, I don’t know about you, but I understand these two fears: attack by others and God abandoning me. First, I’ve had to face the fact that enemies do exist; there are people who are out to get us. And if not people, then there are other things, things that come out of nowhere, things over which we have no control that can destroy us. I get that fear. And second, I get David’s fear that God might turn his back on me because of my sin. I understand that one, too. Now, just to be honest, with regards to David’s first fear, I don’t think that anyone is out to kill me… literally kill me. But, I think it’s interesting that in verse two, when it says, ‘when the wicked advance to devour me’ there is some confusion as to whether the word should be ‘devour’ or ‘slander.’ And I know about slander. And I know about what David says in verse 12, ‘When false witnesses rise up against me, sprouting malicious accusations.’ I know about being accused of things that have never crossed my mind. And I’m sure many of you know what it is like to have these kinds of ‘enemies’ hoping to destroy you by destroying your character. Plus, there are some other fears that I feel fit into this category of things that are out to destroy us: for instance, I know that I’ve mentioned before that a ‘friend’ and business associate secretly stole a great deal of money from us once. I let me guard down and trusted the wrong person and he attacked us and that experience so affected me that I still struggle with a fear that economically everything is always teetering on the edge of collapse. I fear that all systems related to money are out to get me. At my age, I also have a fear that some unexpected health issue is lurking in the wings waiting to destroy me. I also live in the continual fear that something is going to happen to my wife. You want to take me off of my game, mess with Jennifer… I’m telling you these things because I know from my own experience and listening to so many of you that David’s fear of being overtaken with trouble is still a common fear. Sure, they take different forms today than they did then but they are essentially the same. And then there is the fear that God will reject me because of my sin. I’m pretty confident that the reason I fear things like economic collapse and something happening to Jennifer IS because I know what kind of person I can be. I know that I fail God and others plenty… and I can’t escape that inner voice that keeps saying, “Why would a person like you deserve God’s blessing or protection after what you’ve done?” I understand the fear of losing God’s presence due to my own foolishness. I know what it is to pray like David prayed, ‘Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger… Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior.’I’m sure that some of you know what it is to pray this prayer as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how David, a man who was clearly aware of his deep fears… how was it that he could still be so full of the confidence we see in the bookends of this psalm? I believe it gets back to the sheep stuff: it’s this simple: David knew that the reality of his value to God far outweighed his fears; the truth contained in the bookends of this psalm were a constant ‘reality check;’ every time one of his fears rose up and started to paralyze him he’d remind himself of thebiggertruth. It was true that there was plenty in life that was out to destroy him, but thebiggertruth was that the Lord was his light; God would help him see things clearly and helped him find his way. Yes, it was true that people were out to entrap David and harm him but thebiggertruth was that the Lord was his salvation and God would save him and delivered him out of danger. It was true that people were trying to slander David, lying about him and looking for ways to destroy his character and yet thebiggertruth was that God was his stronghold, a place of refuge where his reputation would be protected. And David knew that all of this was true because in the depths of his soul he was certain about one thing: he was one of God’s sheep; he knew how valuable he was to God; he knew God was his shepherd and that God was wielding a rod and staff. This is why he could sing with such confidence,When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me,theywill stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.And even in the face of David’s sin he knew that God would not reject him or forsake him. God had made a way for David’s sin to be forgiven and David could be confident that he would see God’s blessing ‘in the land of the living.’ He could wait, be strong and take heart because he was confident that even if “my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” And again, he could stand on this truth because it was a given that he was a sheep in God’s flock! I can’t think of anything that can better bring hope into the midst of our deepest fears than knowing that we are this valuable to God. Think about this with me: If you are one of the sheep of God’s pasture then God is your shepherd. It means that you are the way that God calculates his wealth. You are his most valuable possession. And you can be confident that you will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And this reality should give you hope no matter what you are going through today. I hope you can see why I called the bookends of this psalm a ‘reality check’; they tell us what is actually real; this isn’t wishful thinking. Here, once again, are the facts: if you are one of the sheep of God’s pasture… oh, and let me say here that you become one of his sheep through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection and by following Jesus as his disciple… if you are one of his sheep you can say with confidence along with David,“The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”If you are one of God’s sheep then no matter what is happening, you can be confident of this: You will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And knowing that you are a sheep in his pasture should give you hope… hope that you will never be fully overpowered; hope that you will never be abandoned by God; hope that you will see his blessing. I want you to listen to these words of Jesus. Take them in because they are about you. They speak of your value to God. They speak of his love for you. They are words that are meant to give you the hope of God’s presence, his love and his care in the midst of the darkest of days.Then Jesus told them this parable:“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shouldersand goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep. Luke 15:4-7