Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Psalm 23 by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I have a confession to make - I don't know much about sheep!  The first time I ever saw a sheep was at the Del Mar Fair when I was a boy.  I was born and raised in San Diego over near Hoover High and we didn’t have many sheep around the house.  We did have dogs, snakes, lizards, rabbits, guinea pigs and goldfish but no sheep.  They were probably illegal anyway.

While sheep have not been a part of my life, sheep are an important commodity in the US and in many countries around the world.   Australia has ten times the number of sheep as people.  And New Zealand, with 3 million people and 20 million sheep, has twenty sheep to every one person.

I also don’t know much about shepherds, although I did meet a shepherd on our trip to Israel.  He was a Palestinian.  We talked to him through our Arab Christian guide and even entered his tent.  He lived a quiet solitary existence surrounded by hundreds of sheep.

But not to worry, not being qualified to discuss sheep and shepherds won’t stop me from delivering a message on the twenty-third psalm.  This poem, this song is one of the most familiar and loved pieces of literature in history.  It is read at funerals, in public worship and private devotions.  It has long been a source of comfort and assurance, and inspiration for Jews and Christians down through the ages.  Here David, a shepherd before he became the King of Israel, ponders the nature of God, the character of God.  David meditates deeply upon God’s goodness. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  What was David imagining here?  What does this image mean to you?  I believe it acknowledges that we are totally dependent upon God.  That God provides everything for our life.  Sheep are dependent upon the shepherd for food, water, direction, protection, and treatment in terms of disease. 

It is an admission that we need help and that God is our ultimate help.  It is saying God is absolutely trustworthy and that we can depend upon him.  God has never been known to harm one of his sheep.

This shepherd is so committed and dedicated to His sheep that he is even willing to put his life on the line for a single lamb – the sacrifice of Christ comes to mind.  To say God is my shepherd is a personal confession:  I belong to God. I am God’s. I am owned by God. I am under God’s power and protection and authority.  It is saying - you know God and you are known by God, you are loyal and committed to God and God is loyal and committed to you.  It means God leads my life, I am a follower and I am obliged to follow God’s leading.  God like a shepherd meets our basic needs.  I shall not want of the basic needs of life.

I understand from both my own reading and from what our guide in Israel told us, that sheep really do know their shepherds and vice versa.  They know and trust the shepherd’s voice.   Sheep will run from strangers, but they will come upon hearing the voice of their shepherd.    To say God is my shepherd means to live in a personal relationship with God.   It’s like a child who says: "That's my mom" or "There goes my dad"?  This is the kind of relationship to God pictured in this psalm.  It is a personal, intimate and close.  What is your relationship to God like?

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.  Picture in your mind a moment in which you just relaxed and enjoyed a moment of peace and quiet.  Maybe basking on the beach in Hawaii or lounging on a warm sunny day in your own backyard.  Like a shepherd God leads us on life’s journey to good places and good spaces.  God pours out gifts upon us in times of need – comfort, strength, rest when we are weary, peace when we are anxious or worried.  God sees our lives and at unexpected moments restores our soul.  Can I get an amen!   God bestows upon us a sense of serenity, a sense of well-being that it is well with my soul, even when things are swirling around us.  

I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message of these words – “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.”  Can you think of an instance when God led you to such a time and such a place and let you catch your breath? 

God leads us in paths of righteousness or in right paths for His name’s sake.   Yes isn’t this true about God?   God sometimes leads us in paths of righteousness, in paths of duty, in paths of justice or goodness toward others, in paths of the right unpleasant thing that must be done, in paths of service.   God sometimes leads us and calls us to do the right thing or to get involved, even though we resist and don’t want to.   Can you think of an example in your life?

It may be standing alongside someone who is being exploited or oppressed or abused.  It may be getting involved in a cause that you know in your heart needs to be taken on.  It may be sacrificing for someone who is in great need.  I have had friends say to me they felt called to go into the military – they knew it would be difficult but they felt it was the path God wanted them to follow.  I have had friends says they felt called to teach in poor rural communities, where salaries and benefits were low and community resources were lean, but that was the path they felt God was calling them.  I have had friends tell me they felt called to be missionaries in Muslim countries.  They knew it would be dangerous, but they felt it was the path God was calling them to walk.  God may call you to be a whistle-blower or to speak out for something that is wrong.  God may call you to go and do the right thing and apologize to someone you hurt and seek to reconcile that broken relationship.  When has God called you to walk the path of righteousness?   Why do we do it?  For our sake?  No, for His name’s sake.  We do it for Jesus Christ.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death or it can also be translated the darkest valley.   Death is the darkest valley through which we walk in this life.  Death has the darkest shadow of all.  Death, the death or pending death of a loved one or receiving news that you have a terminal illness, strikes the greatest fear.   And yet, by the grace and mercy of God, through prayer and the Spirit of God and the love of brothers and sisters of faith, we can find courage to face it, we can find courage in spite of our fears.

While death may be the darkest valley through which we walk, it is not the only valley in life.  Life has many other valleys and the Bible speaks of valleys as symbols of trials and hardships.  A marriage that crumbles and leads to divorce, alienation from your children and grandchildren, chronic illness, being the victim of a crime, loss of a job, a natural disaster where you lose your home and the list goes on.  All of these are valleys that we fear.   We are frightened that life's happiness might be snatched away from us, never to be regained.

And it’s then that faith brings light to our darkness.  This is what I have found.  Our faith assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  God is with us.  God never lets go of us.  God guides us, God leads us, God brings the right people to us, God surprises us, God brings miracles, small or great, God comforts us.   God is your shepherd.

I think of church members who were grieving, who have told me that without their faith and the grace and power of God, and the love and support of church members and neighbors and friends, they would not have made it through.    I have had people tell me they were contemplating suicide.  But then God reached out to them in a surprising way, in a way which instilled hope, and they changed their mind.

Dark valleys are never God’s destination. They are places that we walk through along the journey.  No we can’t avoid them or escape from them.  But God does not intend for us to live in valleys as our normal way of life.   And when we do walk through such valleys, God goes with us.  God’s goal is to lead us through the valley to the other side.  And I suspect that many of you could say: "That's right! That's right, I've been there, and I’ve experienced that myself."

I will not fear.  Is it that we are never afraid?  Wouldn't it be grand to be fearless in the face of all of the dangers of life?   Is it possible to live without fear in a world where there is evil?  I see a difference between never having any fear and, finding courage in the face of fear, finding courage in spite of fear, overcoming fear by the courage which comes with faith and trust in God.

But God where are you?  Harry Emerson Fosdick was a national radio personality, a teacher and preacher in the 20th century. He once preached a sermon entitled, "Why I Am A Theist.”  In other words why I believe in God.  He said that when he was a boy, he would look out the window and watch the branches and leaves on the tree move.  He would sense the wind blowing and concluded that it was the moving of the branches, that he could see, that caused the movement of the wind, that he could not see.   When he grew to adulthood, he understood it differently, discovering that it was the wind he could not see, that moved the branches, that he could see.  

We also might think of gravity.  No one has ever seen gravity and yet it is a force in our world that is operating constantly and effectively and efficiently in our lives.   Scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight.  Biblically we declare that that which we cannot see rules the world, is in charge of all creation, and moves in powerful and mysterious ways in the life that we can see.

The Bible claims that God is as real as anything else we count as reality. The difference biblically between natural forces like the wind and gravity is that they are impersonal and God is personal.  The invisible God is like a Shepherd, who cares and comforts and leads and protects.  Invisibility makes God no less real, no less powerful, and no less present.  God is close; God is not distant.  God can be trusted to lead us even through the valleys of the shadow of death.  And I truly believe if we are open we can learn something about God and about ourselves when we find ourselves in the valleys of life.

God is more powerful than evil.  God keeps his promises in even the deepest and darkest of valleys.   Can I trust a God I can't even see?   That is the challenge of faith.  Scripture says: “Fix your eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Here the psalmist suddenly changes his image about God’s goodness.  The mind of the psalmist switches from thinking of God as a shepherd to conceiving of God as a host who offers hospitality to His people.  Even when we are surrounded by enemies, literally or figuratively, in terms of problems, or adversity, or setbacks or crises, God is with us; God is present and offers to us moments of both physical and spiritual renewal and refreshment.    God is an abundant host.

References to oil and to an overflowing cup reinforce this idea of God as a host.  Oil is not something which means much to us today, but in the ancient Near East it was a means of refreshment to weary travelers.  Healing oils were rubbed on the forehead to ease the pain and stress of travel and to help one relax.  The overflowing cup refers to a cup of cool water or a cup of wine.  These were gifts of hospitality to weary pilgrims on their travels.   Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message:  “You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies, you revive my drooping head, my cup brims with blessing.”   Can you think of an example of God offering hospitality to you?

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.     God’s goodness follows us all our lives.  God’s love is constant.  God’s mercy is steadfast.  In these closing words, the psalmist is thinking on two levels – on one level he pictures the great temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and the joy of joining with others together in worshipping God.  “Praise the Lord, praise God in His holy temple.”   But in his mind is even a greater promise, the wonderful promise that one day one would live with God in God’s eternal temple.  It is the vision of heaven.

Here Jesus’ promise in John 14 of the Father’s House with many rooms comes to mind.  Jesus says he is going to the eternal house of God to prepare a place for us.  For you, and for me, and after he prepares such a place, he will come back to take us to this home of God to live forever.  May this familiar psalm on God’s goodness bring comfort and peace to you, as you meditate upon it, both now and forever. Amen.

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