What is your favorite name for God?
Our scriptures are more than generous in providing us with words, names, and images for the divine. Many names refer to the things that God does: Advocate, Redeemer, Refiner, Comforter. Some compare God to nature: Rock of salvation, Morning Star. There are names for God that are very abstract: I am who I am, Alpha and Omega, Light of the World. There are also names that are very concrete and near at hand: Bread of Life, Mother Hen.
The most famous concepts for God in our tradition are the three persons of the trinity, sometimes called Creator, Christ and Spirit. We have scheduled out these biggest God categories over the course of our year. We often focus on God our creator during the summer and fall; and on Jesus during Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter; and on the Spirit at Pentecost. But there is one other name that is given a specific place on the calendar. The name “Shepherd” or “Good Shepherd” gets its very own Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter.
Why has this name for God been singled out for so much attention?
If we start at the beginning of the bible, we find that the patriarchs were shepherds. It was the family trade. And very early on they begin to imagine that God was like them, that God was also a shepherd. Jacob, when his son Joseph is restored to him in his old age, blesses him and his sons with these words: ‘May the God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys… and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.’
Shepherding continues to be important as we move forward in the bible, both as a profession and as a metaphor. Leaders of the nation Israel are called shepherds. The great King David begins his life as an actual shepherd. In the book of Ezekiel we read, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.” The metaphor of God as shepherd appears four times in the psalms, including, of course, Psalm 23.
In the Gospels, shepherds are among the first to receive the news of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has compassion on the crowds he meets, the gospels say, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus tells a story about a shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to go after one that is lost. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Then, after his resurrection, he tells the disciples: “Feed my sheep.”
Finally, in the book of Revelation, we find that Jesus has taken the form of a Lamb on a throne. And yet, mysteriously – nothing is ever straightforward in the book of Revelation – this Lamb is also a shepherd, wiping away every tear from the peoples’ eyes.
Whether or not Shepherd is a name for God that you particularly enjoy, we cannot avoid it. Sheep and lambs and shepherds are everywhere in our scriptures. And reading the 23rd Psalm, we can begin to understand why this is such a powerful idea, those of us who have never shepherded ourselves or thought too much about what shepherding involves.
This Shepherd God of Psalm 23 is simultaneously fierce and kind. He is also busy: leading, restoring, comforting, abiding, feeding, anointing. This God watches over his sheep and gives them whatever they need the most: something to eat; something to drink; a safe and beautiful place to rest; protection, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
That is a God I want to know. A God who provides food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, safety to those in the midst of violence. A God who is a companion through the most difficult parts of our lives. A God who offers us a safe place to rest and restore our souls – green pastures, still waters. A spiritual home.
This psalm describes a God that does so much of what we need and what we long for. But the power in the psalm is greater than this. This psalm is sometimes called a psalm of trust, because the writer expresses complete confidence that God is already doing all of the things he describes.
Listen again with fresh ears; here’s the version of the psalm from the Bobby McFerrin song that our choir has sometimes sung:
We say this psalm all the time, but do we really believe it? It’s as if we repeat it in our prayers, and at our memorial services, and in so many pieces of sacred music, because we are trying to ease ourselves into a similar state of trust. We want to practice – worship is practice – we want to practice trusting God in the way that this psalmist does.
What is your favorite name for God? What word or phrase or idea helps you to open your heart to something, to someone, so big, so incomprehensible? What name helps you to step further into a relationship of intimate trust? If you haven’t found one that really sings for you yet, take a look on the table as you leave, there’s a list of names for God that may help.
The Christian faith, the Christian church, is not about harassing people into intellectual agreement with a list of propositions – although perhaps that is what you have been told. We show up here to have an encounter: to try to get to know the mystery of cosmic love as if she were a lamb that we could hold in our arms, or a shepherd who could lead us like sheep.
Please pray with me as we listen to the words of this psalm one more time; this time from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.