Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Psalm 23


Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

We live in a world that seems to be full of reasons to be afraid. You watch the news and you are told about terrorist attacks, or some common food product that is going to cause cancer. We are worried about our family- or worried about not having a family- Worried about paying bills- worried about or job- worried about the way we look. Anxiety disorders are supposed to effect 12% of Canadians. It becomes a disorder when it starts to affect your daily life, so way more of us are dealing with anxiety without it becoming a disorder. … If you think about everything else going on in the world we have it pretty good. There is horrible war in Yemen and Syria, and famine in Sudan. Iraq is still dealing with ISIS. I’m sure there are many people all over the world who would be overjoyed to live in Canada and call this place home. And yet, we still seem to be haunted by fear.

Many of the Psalms are associated with King David, but it’s not clear if they are dedicated to David or written by him. David’s life was filled with many reasons to be anxious. Whoever the author was, Psalm 23 gives a kind of personal parable of their experience of facing fear with God’s help.

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the psalms surrounding the Psalm you are looking at. The previous psalm, Psalm 22, has some incredibly painful expressions of human anxiety. It starts out: 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps 22:1-2).

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me” (Ps 22:16).

In the next psalm God is imagined as a shepherd and everything seems to change. Psalm 23 is very short, but there is a reason we go to it so often for comfort. The Psalmist imagines himself as a sheep being cared for by God who is his shepherd.

The opening line is insightful- 

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1). 
In Harry Potter there is a magic mirror. When you look into it you see your deepest desires. Harry is an orphan, so when he looks into the mirror he sees himself with his parents. His friend Ron looks into the mirror and he sees himself as a great athlete and head boy for his house at their boarding school. Harry had not yet figured out what the mirror was when the very wise wizard, Dumbledore, gives him a hint. He says that the happiest person in the world would look into the mirror and see themselves just as they are. The insight is that the happiest person doesn’t have any deep wants. … How often are we driven to unhappiness and anxiety by a deep unfulfilled desire? We desire a certain kind of life. We want a certain kind of house. We want a certain kind of vacation. We want a certain kind of relationship. We want a certain kind of life for our kids. … What if, with the psalmist, we could be without 'want' because God is our shepherd? We could trust that God knows exactly what we need (not what we want) and provides for us. 

This is deeper than the necessities of life. God wants us to be shaped into a particular kind of person- a Jesus-like person. That is our deepest need. And that is the need God will always provide for because it leads to a never ending life with Him … where eventually every joy will be fulfilled.

God will lead us to the abundance of green pastures, and still waters. For sheep to be healthy, they need these. What if from God’s perspective we are surrounded by the abundance of green pastures and still waters for the life God wants for us. Remember that God’s goal for us is that we take on a Jesus-shaped life. What if our life is filled with opportunities to learn this, but we just don’t take advantage of it? What if the sheep are brought to a green field, but for some reason doesn’t know it can eat the grass? What if the sheep is brought to a stream, but doesn’t know to drink? Could it be that we are surrounded by the abundance of God, and don’t even realize it?

“He restores my soul” (Ps 23:3). 
That is God’s goal. He wants to restore us to who He made us to be. He does this by leading us “in right paths”. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of hiking and with every step your soul felt healthier. Every step feels like some poison was drawn out and you could breathe in a way you couldn’t before. … The path God leads us on is what restores our soul. Over and over throughout the Bible we hear about the ‘way’ of God. In the New Testament, we would call it discipleship, or apprenticeship to the ways of Jesus. Our souls are restored by living the in the ways of Jesus. God doesn’t give us these directions for His sake- they are for our sake. They are for the restoration of our soul.

An interesting thing happens in this psalm at this point. We are free from wants. We have the abundance of green fields and clear water. Our soul is restored by walking the shepherd’s path. And we might think the sheep goes blissfully on. But then we read about walking through the darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death, and then we are in the presence of our enemies. We might rightfully ask, I thought I was on the Shepherd’s path? It leads me to dark valleys and to the presence of my enemies? … When we know our Shepherd is with us these don’t have to be terrifying experiences. We read, 
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (23:4-5).
 … There are so many times in the Bible we read about some messenger telling the person to not be afraid because the Lord is with them. … The Shepherd’s rod and staff were to protect the sheep from wolves or other predators, but they were also used to keep the sheep on the right path, or to pull them up if they got themselves into a hole, or down the side of a cliff. It is a symbol of God’s guidance. There are times He gives us a tap to redirect our path. There are times we get ourselves stuck and we have to cry out for him to pull us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

God’s path also doesn’t save us from being faced with our enemies. But it is an interesting way of being with your enemies. … Put yourself back in grade school and imagine the biggest, meanest bully you ever met. Every day they torment you. They tease you. They push you into the mud and take your lunch. Now imagine this giant of a man caring for you. He sets up a table in the school yard and hovers over you while pulling your lunch out of your bag and setting it up on front of you- that’s what it means to fill your cup and anoint your head with oil. It means to be caring for you, even serving you. Imagine Him doing this while looking at the bully. … That is a very different way to be in the presence of your enemies.

Of course this starts to sound like the way Jesus lived. Jesus knew his Heavenly Father loved him and cared for him. Jesus knew there was a bigger picture. He knew he didn’t have to worry no matter what happened. Jesus could walk through the valley of the shadow of death and face his enemies from the cross, even speaking words of forgiveness for his enemies, because he knew there was a bigger picture- the story wasn’t over yet. Jesus knew that even death couldn’t end God’s plans for Jesus.

The way we view our life and death can have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives. St. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. So you might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. This is what he says of Christ's victory over death, 
"...it is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into [death], but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (On The Incarnation, xxix.3-5) ...

So weak has [death] become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed." (xxvii.3)

"For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).

Athanasius is speaking about Christians who were tortured and killed because they were Jesus followers. These Jesus followers laughed at death. These people were not suicidal. They did not hate their lives, but they no longer feared death. Even their children didn't fear death and would make fun of the lions that were about to kill them. Imagining living with that kind of freedom from fear.

We might make another mistake and think that these Christians were all about going to heaven when they die, but no. Their lack of fear meant that when a plague hit a city, instead of fleeing, many of them stayed to help the sick, even if that meant getting sick and dying themselves. It meant that they were willing to stand up for what was right and just even in the face of cruel kings and rulers. The promise of God’s presence with them- guiding them like a shepherd- freed them from fear.

The early Christians also lived in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. They knew the limitations of death. This allowed them to live amazing lives free from fear. These Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.


We don't face lions, or persecution at the hands of cruel kings. Some Christians do face horrible deaths even now because of their belief in Jesus. Some of us watched a series about Christians facing ISIS. There are places in our world where what we are doing right now is illegal, or even if it isn't illegal we might still worry about our safety being gathered together like this. We might not face persecution like this, but we have our own worries and fears. We fear cancer. We have disease. We have abuse and betrayal. We have the death of a loved one to face. We have financial issues to face. Some of us fear commitment, or rejection. ... What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Maybe you're facing it right now. ... Could you live through these dark valleys knowing that God is shepherding you? Knowing that while things are difficult right now, that ultimately everything is okay? Could we live seeing everything we deal with as an opportunity to become the person God wants us to be? Knowing that God is with us, guiding us, leading us, and serving us. Perhaps we could even say with the psalmist, 
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps 23:6).

AMEN

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow @RevChrisRoth