Based on Psalm 23:1-6
The last time I was here, we talked about the story of Noah’s Ark. His ship full of saved animals and the rainbow banner still hang over our heads. It is a familiar story from our Sunday School days. We probably remember some other Old Testament stories: like Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Father Abraham. We know something of Moses’ life-story, the Exodus of slaves out of Egypt. Some of us could probably name six or seven of the Ten Commandments, if we had to.
But if there is one chapter in the Bible that almost everyone could say “by heart”, I’ll bet it is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Even if you could not recite the whole thing perfectly, you know it well enough to say it along in your mind, like we did with Mike Mack this morning. It’s kind’a like when we stand up to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at an Alpena City Band concert, or at the start of a ball game. We wouldn’t want to do it solo, but we like doing it with the crowd.
We are so familiar with the Twenty-Third Psalm that when a newer modern version of the Bible comes along, and the editors have re-written some of the old-fashioned words to be more “understandable”, we make a face, because we don’t much like the improvements. When it comes to our favorite Psalm, we crave familiarity more than accuracy, more than editorial advocacy. We don’t want people messing with the language we grew up with, even if it sounds “old-fashioned”.
In six simple verses, this little poem offers us a way to see the world that makes it look less frightening.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies!”
This psalm helps us to deal with death, with the loss of loved ones. (!) It also comforts us in the midst of conflict with people who don’t like us, or who treat us badly (our enemies). It helps us recognize the presence of God in places, in situations, and in times where we might think that God was absent.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want! … He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.”
Albert Einstein once said that science can tell us a lot about the universe: how old it is, how big it is, what laws of physics and thermodynamics control it. But he went on to say that science is powerless to answer the most important question of all: “Is the universe a friendly place?” Is it supportive of human hopes and aspirations?
I think the 23rd Psalm responds to that deeper concern. Its familiar words and images – green pastures, still waters… Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over! – give us comfort, and reassure us that the Lord God knows us, and loves us, and goes with us through everything we must face. We are not alone. The Lord God is fond of you, and cares for you… like a shepherd cares for his (or her) sheep.
And I am convinced that Psalm 23 does not simply point us toward a better, safer world beyond this one… a home in heaven (or in the Rapture) or eternal life that’s beyond this mortal one.
As I read it, the psalm teaches us to look at the world we live in – right here, right now – clearly and without illusions… and to see it as a world in which we can live courageously -- doing good for ourselves and for others fearlessly -- because we’re not alone.
Yes, the world may be dangerous, as the Psalm itself admits, but God is there to take care of us, and to lead us, guide us and help us, even as a shepherd cares for his (or her) sheep in a world of predators, enemies, and threats of accidents.
Three weeks ago, we talked about the storm at sea which threatened to sink Jesus’ disciples in their boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. You remember: they woke Jesus up in a panic and said: “Do you not care that we perish?” (!) Yes, Jesus was sleeping through that terrible storm like a baby in a crib… rocked by the waves, and cooled by the wind. Why was He not afraid, like His disciples were? I’ll bet it’s because Jesus knew: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” What’s to worry when the Lord God is in the same boat with you!?
Jesus said to those frightened fishermen: “Peace, be still” and we are told that the wind died down, and the waves became quiet. And in the calm that followed, Jesus asked them: “Why were you afraid? Have you so little faith?” And I’ll bet he gave them remedial instruction in remembering (and believing!) the 23rd Psalm.
This psalm acknowledges the emotional storms-and the soul-deep darkness we may find ourselves in when a loved one is dying, and we are slowly walking “through the valley of the shadow of death”. But instead of a psalm of grief and lament, or a psalm of cursing the injustice, we meet a God who is with us, leading us through the dark valley back into the light.
We can go forward with our lives in the confidence that we are not alone. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Obviously, the author of this psalm has known failure and fatigue. The author of this psalm has enemies. He (or she) has lost people whom they loved. In the process, they have learned that life is not easy. Life is a challenge… which can make one “sadder but wiser”-- perhaps even a better person: stronger than they would have been had they not, with God’s help, met these challenges. It’s a new way of seeing the world… warts and all.
If we are anxious, this psalm gives us courage… and, with God’s help, we can overcome those fears. If we are grieving, it offers comfort, and we find our way through the valley of the shadow -- one step at a time, one day at a time -- holding fast to the Lord’s guiding hand. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want! He leadeth me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
If our lives are growing bitter because of unpleasant people, it teaches us how to deal with them… graciously, generously, dining in their presence… eating together!
If the world threatens to wear us down... I mean, just think: what used to be one hour of “nightly news” on TV is now “wall-to-wall” bad news “24 hours-7 days a week” on cable-TV, on cell-phone feeds, and on the internet! Relentless, over-the-top anxiety-inducing reporting! -- As the world threatens to wear us down, Psalm 23 guides us to replenish our souls.
If we are obsessed with what we lack – our wants, and our needs, and our fear that we’ll have insufficient funds – this psalm teaches us gratitude for what we do have.
And, above all, if we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the priceless reassurance that “Thou art with me.” -- The Lord is “with me” – with you.. with us!
That phrase reminds me of something we hear every year at Christmas. Matthew’s Gospel starts with an angel in a dream telling Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, that the baby in Mary’s womb was conceived of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23)
Jesus made the people feel “Emmanuel” – God with us. But is that not what Psalm 23 had said a thousand years earlier? “Thou art with me.” Somehow, over the centuries, even the most faithful (Bible-believing devout disciples of the Lord God) had forgotten the basic relational truth about God: that the Lord was with them! That the Lord God was fond of them… lovingly leading them like a shepherd, guiding them to safe places, feeding and restoring them, making a dwelling place for them.
I’m concerned that a great many Christians today, like the faithful Jews in Jesus’ day, make a similar mistake when their doctrines about God, or about Church, or about sin & salvation, are preached more loudly (sometimes with a touch of “fire and brimstone!”) than the basic message of the Jesus Gospel: God is with you! God knows you & loves you, seeks you & saves you -- because the Lord is your shepherd … who has a gracious, generous, guiding goodness in store for you. (Amen?)
We are told that this is a Psalm of David… as are a great many in the Book of Psalms, the hymnal of our Bible.
The prophet Amos, who lived only a hundred years or so after David (and who, likewise, was from the town of Bethlehem) refers to David as a musician and composer. David is said to have invented the harp… and the late legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen suggested that David was “the baffled King composing Hallelujah” (“Hallelujah, Hallelujah...”) The fact is that the imagery in the 23rd Psalm would have come naturally to a shepherd boy, who had become a warrior, and eventually Israel’s most famous king. It was essential that Jesus be born from the lineage of David, if he were to be accepted as Messiah.
When I think of David’s life as portrayed in the Book of Samuel, he starts out as the youngest son of a shepherding family. David tells King Saul that in order to keep his flock safe, he fought off bears & lions using his slingshot… so the giant soldier Goliath would be easy pickin’s. (I mean, when the target is nine-feet-tall, how can you miss?!) That’s a bold shepherd, wouldn’t you say? But we are told that David also sang to King Saul, like he used to do for his sheep out in the wilderness. “He maketh me to lie down in green pasture.” David’s singing served to calm King Saul’s violent mood-swings. Psalm 23 does that!
I can imagine this psalm somewhat like a journey… One that begins with a pleasant, comfortable life, symbolized by lush, soft, green grass, and cool water. “I want for nothing. My soul is restored. I feel guided along a path for God’s sake in the Lord’s Name.” But then something happens to shatter that comfortable (pastoral) life-experience.
Maybe (for David) it was the Philistine war… in which David’s brothers were threatened by the warrior Goliath. Israel was losing, big-time, before little David came to their rescue. Maybe in your life, or mine, we are shattered also by the wars of today. Loved ones have been killed; thousands come home as PTSD casualties, with drug-dependencies, jobless & homeless.
Or it may have been a life-threatening illness; a diagnosis that requires surgery, or chemotherapy. It may have been a personal betrayal or abuse, or rejection by people around you. All these possibilities can be imagined in the second part of this Psalm, because the journey has suddenly gone into depression, even despair. The world which had been pastoral and peaceful has grown dark. Most likely, I think, it was the death of someone about whom the author cared deeply. Images of gloom and shadow dominate.
In David’s life, there were a number of really low points. Twice King Saul tried to kill David with a spear, while David was singing to him! (Marty Miller, have you ever had that kind of reaction from an audience?) Saul forbade David to live in the palace with his son, Jonathan, even though the two young men were the best friends ever. And when Jonathan was killed in battle, it broke David’s heart. When David’s infant son by Queen Bathsheba died, David wept rivers of tears; when his eldest son, Crown Prince Absalom was killed, David felt all was lost.
Some of you may have had similarly deeply despairing events in your life, where it seemed that there was no point in going on with life. In grief, David cried out to God, and a miracle happened. No, it wasn’t that the dead came back to life (as it did for Lazarus, and for Jesus), or that a glorious rainbow came out at the end of the storm (as it did for Noah)… The miracle was that he found life worth living. (!) The Lord took him by the hand and guided him “through the valley of the shadow of death.”
The one confronted by death, or despair – the one with the dire diagnosis, or betrayal; facing bankruptcy, or rejection by the people… the one who no longer believed that the sun was shining anywhere, found himself standing in the sunshine again. The past had not changed, but the future suddenly seemed more inviting.
“I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff – those things that poked me forward or pulled me back – they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.”
Who would ever have thought such goodness and mercy would follow from the deep, dark valley of death where I once was!? (!) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see! (Hallelujah! Praise God!)
Can’t you just feel the amazing joy the author wants to communicate -- not only in that familiar hymn, but in the closing lines of Psalm 23…
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall
dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”