21th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A)
October 9th, 2005
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar
Text: Psalm 23:4
Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me
For over a hundred generations, the people of God have recited the hymn we know as the Twenty-third Psalm. Walter Bruggemann said that the 23rd Psalm sings of “a life lived in trustful receptivity of God’s gifts.” 1 This song came out of an agrarian culture. It uses imagery of God as the shepherd, and God’s people as His flock. The imagery is rich, having been written by King David, who himself had been a shepherd as a young man. Today, I’d like to focus our attention on verse 4 of that Psalm. And in doing so, I want to help you understand some things about a shepherd’s rod and staff, so that we can reflect on what we mean when we say to God, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Most of what I know about shepherds comes from a book by Phillip Keller, a modern-day shepherd and a Christian. His book is called, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. 2
Psalm 23 verse 4 says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The reason for that unnatural lack of fear is that we are in the shepherd’s care, and in him we can place all our trust. For he carries a rod and a staff, and they comfort us and keep us from fear.
The rod is perhaps the less familiar of the two to us who do not see shepherds very often. It is a short piece of a sapling with a club head on the end. The way you make one of these is to uproot a small tree, and you carve and smooth its roots into a rounded knob. Shepherds from Scotland to New Zealand to Africa carry this device. The Africans call it a “knobkerrie.” A shepherd uses it for several purposes.
First, obviously it is a weapon. The shepherd uses the rod to protect his flock from danger. Shepherds develop great skill at tossing their knobkerrie, to keep a wolf or a coyote or a lion from attacking their sheep. Many a cobra has been clubbed to death with this instrument.
Second, as you can imagine, the rod can also be hurled at a sheep who is about to get itself in trouble. It may be wandering unwittingly toward a precipice. It may be strolling among poisonous weeds. A reminder in the form of a blunt instrument can bring it back to safety. The rod is a form of discipline.
And third, the rod is used to count and inspect sheep. Ezekiel 20:37 speaks of sheep passing under the rod. When a shepherd is buying, selling or counting sheep, he will use the rod to spread their thick wool to look more deeply at their skin. That way he can see whether their skin is healthy, or they are vermin infested. The wool hides a multitude of things, and indeed, the expression “pull the wool over your eyes” suggests just that. But the shepherd can get to the bottom of the wool and see the truth.
So we see that, in the hand of a shepherd, the rod is how he protects his flock from danger; how he disciplines them; and how he counts them one by one and searches them to know their inner secrets. Perhaps you can see the parallel to God, who is the shepherd of us, His people. The rod is the symbol of His power, authority and truth. And when we think about that, we see how the Word of God might be His rod.
Look, for example, at how Jesus used the power of the Word of God to defend himself against Satan. The Gospels (e.g. Luke 4:1-13) tell how the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to spend 40 days in prayer and fasting. While he was there, Satan accosted him and tempted him. And in response to each of Satan’s temptations, Jesus responded by quoting the Word of God:• Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
• Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.
• Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
The power, authority and truth in God’s word is a protection in danger and a weapon against Satan. Even Jesus turned to God’s word for his comfort.
We can see, also, how the Word of God disciplines us as a rod does the wayward sheep. When we are wayward, when our faithfulness wanes, when we stray from the straight paths God has set before us, His Word challenges us. It calls us up short. It pricks our consciences and makes us see that we are on the wrong track and need to return to God. It is just as sure as if we were a sheep, and the knob of the rod thudded into our side, or at our feet.
And think of the third function of the rod, the way it probes and inspects us. How often have you felt that from the Word of God? Here in this book, we have ourselves described in detail—our pride, our pain, our fear, our hope, our longing, our inadequacy.• Here we see ourselves in Peter, who loved Jesus but denied him in his hour of suffering.
• Here we see ourselves in Paul, who is a zealous champion of the Gospel, but cries out at how hard it is to do the things he ought to do, and to keep from doing that which he ought not do.
• Here we see ourselves in Martha, who is so busy about her work that she misses spending time with her Lord.
• We see ourselves in Peter, James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, who want so much to cling to that glorious moment and not have to go back down the mountain.
Psalm 139:23 says,Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
We take comfort in knowing that God has a rod by which he spreads open the wool we pull over ourselves. His rod is a comfort to us in defending us, protecting us, disciplining us and knowing us altogether. “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
The staff is more familiar to us than the rod. We see it in the hands of children playing shepherd in the Christmas pageant. We see it in the hands of bishops, as symbols of their role as our shepherds on God’s behalf. The shepherd’s staff, or “crook,” has its own uses, separate from the rod.
First, shepherds use the staff to guide and prod sheep. Touching the sheep with the side of the stick, they move them in the right direction. Sheep, you know, tend to wander, generally in the wrong direction. In many parts of the world, shepherds use herding dogs to enhance their ability to keep order among the sheep. But in the absence of dogs, the shepherd’s crook is quite effective.
Second, the crook in the staff is useful for lifting a lamb from one place to another. By hooking a lamb around the neck, a shepherd can pluck it from danger. Or he can move a sleepy suckling lamb to its mother without touching it and contaminating it with human smell. Sometimes a mother ewe will reject its baby if it has a foreign smell.
A third use of the crook is to make reassuring contact with a fearful sheep. Walking along beside a sheep, a shepherd will sometimes touch it continually with the side of his staff, just to let the sheep know he is there, never leaving it alone.
Again, you can see how the staff would be a comfort to sheep. And you can see the parallels to our relationship with God. Our relationship with the Holy Spirit comes to mind, for through the Holy Spirit, God guides and prods us; He plucks us from danger; and He reassures us of His constant presence. Last Spring, Lynne and I led a retreat among the international students at Virginia Seminary. I asked each of them to introduce him- or herself using one of eleven scriptural verses that I had written down on a piece of paper. These people told us many inspiring stories of hardship and faith. And over half of them chose the same scripture verse: “I will never leave you or forsake you, says the Lord.” (Joshua 1:5)
The reassuring presence of the Holy Spirit is as great a comfort to us as the truth and power and authority of the Word of God. Jesus promised this comfort to us as he spoke to his disciples the night before he died.
…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth…. The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. [John 14:16, 26-27]
Because of this promise of Jesus in John’s Gospel, Christians have often referred to the Holy Spirit as the “Holy Comforter.”Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
For over a hundred generations, God’s people have been saying these words, for they speak of our hope as we “live in trustful receptivity of God’s gifts.” (Bruggemann, op. cit.) And we in our time and place are no less in need of God’s comfort. We are in no less need of His rod and His staff—• His power and authority,
• His truth,
• His defense in battle,
• His challenge and discipline,
• His searching knowledge of us,
• the guiding and reassuring and unfailing presence of His Holy Spirit.
We are living in anxious times as we participate in a doctrinal struggle that divides the church. We can’t see the future. We human beings have a tendency to find comfort in that which is familiar. And when we look into a future that is uncertain, we are fearful and on-edge. Many of us have received barbs and criticism from other Episcopalians since our meeting of September 11, when we passed the document entitled “A Clear Choice.” Many of us have agonized over a question that was raised at that meeting: If we tie our tether to the Anglican Communion, and the Episcopal Church goes another way, will we lose the buildings that are so much a part of our parish life? Many have thought with deep pain about what has happened to parishes in some other dioceses, where bishops have sent in teams to take over the parish and change the locks on the doors. Many have looked with dismay at the unseemly lawsuits in which the church is involved in some dioceses.
It is natural for such thoughts to get the better of us. But it is comforting at such times to pray into the words of the 23rd Psalm. For just as sheep are unable to care for themselves without a shepherd, so we cannot chart our future in our own strength; we must rely on God.
Our human notion of the “best of all possible worlds” has a severe limitation. It is limited by our imagination. In that world, things are as we imagine them to be. The things we love are present, and the things we fear or hate are absent. And that is the future we long for. But the future that God imagines, and will bring about, is beyond our imagining. Many of the things we think are essential to our happiness will be unnecessary or irrelevant in the world that God will bring about. The best of all possible futures is the one that God wills in His perfect power, authority and truth. And that future awaits us if we will yield to Him and “know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Ps. 100:3) Then we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and we will fear no evil, for His rod and His staff will be our comfort.
1. W. Bruggemann, Message of the Psalms, p. 154 (Augsburg, Minneapolis 1984)
2. P. Keller, S Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1970)
© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2005