April 25, 2021
"The Pursuing Savior"
Pastor Scott Landis
It’s always a little dicey to preach on a beloved psalm like the 23rd and particularly after a beautiful rendition of these memorable words are set to music like you just heard, but rarely have I been known to back down from a challenge. So, here we go.
As you might surmise from the reading of both today’s gospel and psalm, AND from our music selections – today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And while few of us fully understand the subtle nuances of shepherding with respect to God’s care for us, the biblical stories make some things very clear about how God acts in ways very similar to these protectors of the herd.
Let’s begin with the psalm. These are words you have probably recited hundreds of times in your life – perhaps you have even memorized them in King James English, of course. They are read at most memorial services and often when one is transitioning from this life to the next. For many they have become words of comfort of a God who:
Gives us rest in green pastures
Leads us to still waters
In order to restore our souls
This is the God who remains with us in the dark times (to use the psalmist’s words “even in the valley of the shadow of death”) – protecting us with a rod and staff – ensuring us we will have ample food despite being surrounded by our enemies. In other words, this God has our back, and we can take great comfort in that promise “all the days of our lives.” But I I’d like us today to focus on the last verse of the psalm – often mistranslated – that I think offers even deeper assurance of God’s unrelenting care.
We typically recite the final verse using the words: (you can say it with me)
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
But that traditional rendering of the Hebrew misses two very important aspects of the writer’s original intent. Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Joel LeMon, has suggested a better translation is “Only goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life.” In other words, the psalmist is trying to describe the Shepherding God as one who has a singular desire – that is to PURSUE me each and every day of my life with nothing other than GOODNESS AND MERCY be bestowed upon me.
Think about that for a moment. This is much more aggressive than the more familiar passive translation – “surely goodness and mercy shall FOLLOW me,” and instead suggests that God is relentless in God’s pursuit of me for one reason ONLY – to bless me with goodness and mercy. God keeps coming my way – again and again – pursuing me – to bless me. I cannot hide from God’s blessing. This understanding of God is also reflected in the 139th psalm:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there
your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
This is the God who cannot help God’s self from doing everything possible to ensure my well-being. This is the “Pursuing Savior” who will stop at nothing to make me whole. But there’s more. In response to God’s unending pursuit, we cannot help ourselves but to reciprocate in kind.
As Dr. LeMon suggests, the last section of that verse, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” is better translated in the active voice, “And I will continue to return to God’s presence my whole life long.”
What the psalmist is trying to describe is an active, dynamic, relationship between the Holy One who initiates or pursues us AND we as the Beloved who cannot help ourselves other than to respond to God’s agency and action. This is not a passive relationship where the gifts of God are offered and it’s up to us to accept merely out of gratitude. Rather, we are invited into a living-loving-ongoing process that is active and will last “our whole life long.” It’s wonderful! It’s life-giving. It’s protective! And it’s so helpful when we experience fear or feel like we are all alone.
That’s the role of the Good Shepherd – and that’s exactly what we see demonstrated in John 10, but the words of John 10 only make sense when they are read in light of the broader context. The Pursuing Savior of John 10 is demonstrated as the direct response of Jesus to the ostracism experienced by the man born blind whom Jesus had previously healed.
When you get the chance – read the whole story. Remember the chapters and verses in the bible were added years after the text was written. While they may help us to kept things straight and in order – but they often do a disservice when it comes to seeing the broader picture – and in this case it’s essential in order to appreciate fully the idea of the Good Shepherd.
In John 9 there is a huge theological dilemma about (1) why the man was blind from birth, i.e., whose sin caused this malady, (2) whether a true man of God would heal someone on the sabbath, and (3) the legitimacy of Jesus’ claim of being sent by God to offer salvation to the world.
The Pharisees thought they could get rid of the problem entirely by banishing the blind man (now healed) from the Temple. But when Jesus caught wind of this, he returned. The Pursuing Savior returned in order to restore not only the blind man’s sight, but also his soul, AND his rightful place in the community.
He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.
This is the God whom we worship. The God who will never give up on us – even if we lose heart and we give up on God. The Good Shepherd will pursue me all the days of my live with goodness and mercy. [Pause]
I want you to hear that message loud and clear today. Each of us need to be reminded of that promise from time to time – and, perhaps now more than ever.
This has been a hard year. For some of you it has been more challenging than for others. But we all have our stories to tell: of pain, of loss, of isolation, of loneliness, of fear. And some of you are experiencing those very feelings right now. We understand, perhaps in a much more profound way, that infamous line of the psalmist,
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . . . . . I need not fear . . . . . . You are with me.”
I invite you to hold fast to that promise with great hope. No matter what you are going through right now, remember – the Good Shepherd is constantly pursuing you. Do not hide. Do not run away. On the contrary. Continue to return to God’s presence – your whole life long.
It is this dynamic relationship that will be your salvation. Your peace. And where your soul will ultimately be – restored.