Topical Scripture: Psalm 23:5-6
Pastoral transitions are always difficult times, for the church and for the pastor as well. For instance, Bill Austin, the former Baylor chaplain, once told me about a time when God called him from one pastorate to another.
An older member of the church came to him, absolutely distraught. “We’ll never find a pastor who is as good a preacher as you,” she complained. He tried to comfort her: “Oh, I’m sure your next pastor will be a much better preacher and leader and pastor than I have been.” “Oh, no,” she replied, “that’s what they said the last time.”
In the midst of the emotions of this day, my call from God this morning is simply to remind you of the identity of your true Shepherd. “Pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” It is a kind title, but it’s not really true. Your real Shepherd is no mere, fallen mortal. You may not be able to see his hand today, but you can trust his heart.
David will show us how.
Know our love for you
Eleven years ago, the pastor search committee of Park Cities Baptist Church contacted Janet and me as we were serving Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta.
We were deeply in love with our church family there and tremendously excited about all God was doing in our midst. Even though we had long admired Park Cities, we had no sense of release from Second-Ponce and finally had to tell your search committee that we could not come to Dallas.
The next Monday, Janet and I had no peace about that decision. I spent the afternoon alone with God in prayer, and sensed God’s clear call to come to Dallas. She had the same experience. We called the committee back, and were preaching here ten days later.
Across all these years, we have been truly grateful to God for calling us to serve this wonderful congregation. Our sons were entering the seventh and fourth grades when we came to Dallas. Their first activity at Park Cities was Vacation Bible School, where they were welcomed with great love and compassion.
Ryan still remembers the water balloon fight which ended his week of missions projects. We have often said that God called us to Dallas so our sons could grow up in this church. Ryan is now in seminary, Craig a sophomore in college, both sensing God’s call to ministry.
You have encouraged and enabled Janet and me in wonderful ways as we have pursued our ministry calls.
You have affirmed Janet in her teaching, speaking, and writing ministry across all these years; the Father’s Day sermon she preached for me remains the best-selling sermon tape in the church’s history.
You have supported me as I have been led by God to expand my ministry of writing, teaching, and cultural engagement.
My mother loved this congregation, her Sunday school class, and her pew near the back of the Sanctuary on the left. You prayed for us with great compassion when she went home to be in heaven with my father last fall.
You have been God’s great gift to us for more than a decade. To paraphrase David’s statement, “our cup overflows” today. Now we follow God’s call into a new phase of ministry, but our hearts will always be grateful beyond words for you. We look forward to all the ways God will lead us to partner with you in Dallas across coming years. We step forward together in faith, trusting that the God we cannot see can see all we cannot.
There’s a place in your life today where you need to trust that God personally and intimately. A place where you don’t understand his ways or plan, where you cannot sense his presence or feel his power. What do we do then?
Claim God’s unseen provision
“You prepare a table before me,” David celebrates. “You prepare” is in the continuous tense in Hebrew: “you keep on preparing a table” is the sense here.
The “table” for a shepherd is the high mountain country, much sought after for grazing. But these tablelands must be prepared before the sheep arrive. Salt and minerals must be distributed over the range; camps located for bedding; vegetation assessed for food.
Poisonous plants must be dug up and burned; wolves and cougars and bears must be spotted, hunted, or trapped. The table must be prepared “before” the sheep can come.
God prepares this table “in the presence of my enemies.” In the very midst of trouble, strife, and danger we are invited to the table of our shepherd. We don’t need to wait until circumstances improve; we can come to our shepherd’s table right now.
“You anoint my head with oil,” the king continues.
Now David turns to his experience with sheep and their injuries. He knows that sheep often cut themselves on rocks while grazing. The shepherd must inspect them every night and put oil on these cuts so that they do not become infected.
Sheep also have a terrible problem during the summer months with flies. Nose flies will lay eggs on the sheep’s nose. But the shepherd puts oil—in David’s day, a mixture of olive oil with sulphur and spices—on the sheep’s face and nose, and these flies are killed.
Scabs are a skin disease which is highly contagious among sheep also, and oil is the only remedy to cure it and prevent its transmission.
And the rams fight during the summer for the ewes, butting heads until one is wounded or even killed. But if the shepherd puts oil on their heads and horns they slide off each other and no one is hurt.
Our shepherd knows exactly where we hurt, and knows precisely what oil will heal and help us. And so, in the continuous Hebrew tense, he constantly anoints us with oil where we need him most.
“My cup overflows,” David testifies. The shepherd had a large earthen jug of water for his sheep. He would dip down with his big cup and bring up a brimful running over. And the tired, thirsty sheep would drink to their fill. So God provides for us.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,” David continues. “Surely” means “absolutely, confidently, unquestionably; I am completely convinced that goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”
God’s “goodness” means his steadfast love, his kindness, his grace. And his “mercy” translates the Hebrew equivalent of “agape,” unconditional mercy.
These twin gifts “follow” us. These are our divine companions, going wherever we go like bodyguards who watch over us. The Hebrew word translated “follow” means “to pursue vigorously.” God’s grace and mercy are “sent out” to watch over us. They pursue us actively. Wherever we go, they go. In fact, there is no place we can go where they do not find us. They pursue us, even today.
And they will do this every day for the rest of our lives. Every day, including this day. Spurgeon said that God’s grace and mercy follow us on the black days as well as the bright days, the days of fasting as well as the days of feasting, the dreary days of winter as well as the bright days of summer. Every day.
And so “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” “Forever” in the Hebrew means that we begin this life now—today—not just the future but the present. Eternal life began the moment you asked Christ into your life, and you are now immortal. The unseen God surrounds you with his presence today and forever.
Trust God’s unseen presence
Janet and I have long experienced the unseen presence and providence of God. We married in 1980 and moved to Arlington so I could begin seminary classes. In 1981 Janet saw an ad for a financial secretary at First Baptist Church in Arlington. She got the job, so we joined the church.
Three years later our pastor, Dr. Charles Wade, sent my resume to New Hope Baptist Church in Mansfield as they were searching for a pastor. They received over 100 resumes in the mail, but they pulled mine out of the stack because they knew and respected Dr. Wade. And so they called me to be their pastor.
Then Southwestern Seminary hired me to teach philosophy of religion, because I had pastoral background. First Baptist Church in Midland called me, because they heard about my ministry at Southwestern. Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta called me because they heard about my ministry in Midland. Then you called us to join you in this great church.
Now God has led us to an expanded ministry which will engage the culture and disciple the nations, in Texas and around the world. But none of this would have happened if Janet had not applied for that secretarial position in 1981. We had no idea then how the unseen hand of God was leading us. But he was.
If he has led us in the past, he will lead us in the future. If he led you to us, he will lead you to the next person to serve in this capacity. If he led David, he will lead us all.
God promised Moses at the burning bush, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). He assured Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 1:5). He told his people, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). Jesus assured his disciples, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Our Lord told us that we are in his hand, and no one can snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28). He is the pastor and shepherd of us all.
I reminded you last week that Park Cities has had only one shepherd since this church was founded in 1939. If Alton Reed, Herbert Howard, James Pleitz, and Allen Walworth could stand with me today, they would agree that Jesus is the shepherd and pastor of this congregation. We cannot always see his hand, but we can always trust his heart.
I read this week a study of Jesus’ names in Scripture. He calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” in direct fulfillment of our text. But that is only one of his biblical names.
Here are some of the others: Advocate, the All in All, the Almighty, the Alpha and the Omega, the Amen, the Ancient of Days, the Author of Our Faith, the Balm of Gilead, the Beginning of the Creation of God, the Beloved of God, the Bishop of Our Souls, the Blessed Hope, the Bread of Life, the Bridegroom, the Bright and Morning Star, the Brightness of His Glory, the Captain of our Salvation, the Chief Cornerstone, the Chosen of God, the Commander, the Wonderful Counselor, the Creator of All Things, the Daystar, the Deliverer, the Door of the Sheep, Emmanuel, the Everlasting God, the Everlasting Light, the Everlasting Strength, the Faithful and True Witness, the Finisher of Our Faith, the First and the Last, the Firstborn of God, the Firstborn Among Many Brethren, the Firstborn from the Dead, the Fortress, My Fortress, the Foundation, the Friend of Sinners, the Gift of God, God, God Blessed Forever, God Manifest in the Flesh, God My Savior, the God of the Whole Earth, the Great God, the Great High Priest, the Head, the Heir of All Things, My High Tower, the Holy and True, the Holy One of God, Our Hope, the Hope of Glory, the Hope of His People, the Hope of Israel, the Horn of Salvation, the I Am, the Image of God, the Image of the Invisible God, Our Intercessor, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the Just One, the King, the King of Glory, the King of Israel, the King of Kings, the King of Peace, the King of Righteousness, the King of Saints, the King Over All the Earth, the King’s Son, the Lamb of God, the Lamb Slain from the Foundation of the World, the Life, the Light of Israel, the Light of Men, the Light of the World, the Lily of the Valley, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, a Living Stone, the Lord, My Lord and My God, Lord God Omnipotent, Lord Jesus, Lord of All, Lord of Glory, Lord of Hosts, Lord of Lords, Lord of Peace, Lord of the Sabbath, a Man of Sorrows, Master, Mediator of a New Covenant, Messiah, the Mighty God, the Morning Star, the Only Begotten of the Father, our Passover, our Peace, our Physician, the Power of God, a Priest Forever, the Prince of Life, the Prince of Peace, Rabbi, Ransom, Redeemer, Redemption, Refiner, Refuge, Restingplace, Restorer, the Resurrection, Righteous Branch, Righteous Judge, Righteous Servant, Rock of My Salvation, Root of David, Root of Jesse, Rose of Sharon, Ruler, Sacrifice to God, the Salvation of God, the Savior of the World, the Seed of Abraham, a Servant, My Shepherd, my Shield, Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of Mary, Son of the Father, Son of the Highest, Son of the Living God, Son of the Most High God, Stronghold, Strong Rock, Strong Tower, Sun of Righteousness, Sure Foundation, Temple, True God, True Light, the Truth, Unspeakable Gift, the Vine, the Way, Truth, and Life, the Wisdom of God, the Word, the Word of God, the Word of Life.
Is he your Shepherd today?