Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Psalm 23- freedom from anxiety



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

Footnotes:
Psalm 23:2 Hebrew beside waters of rest
Psalm 23:3 Or in right paths
Psalm 23:4 Or the valley of deep darkness
Psalm 23:6 Or Only
Psalm 23:6 Or steadfast love
Psalm 23:6 Or shall return to dwell
Psalm 23:6 Hebrew for length of days



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 food 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 our job- worried about the way we look- worried about grades- worried about our health- worried about crime. Anxiety disorders are supposed to effect more than 1 in 10 Canadians. (It becomes a disorder when it starts to disrupt 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 are places where people are living through horrible conflicts, famines, and natural disasters. 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. … Certainly reading about David’s life leaves you with a sense that 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.

In Psalm 23 God is imagined as a shepherd and everything seems to change. It is very short, but there is a reason we go to it 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 has learned what St. Paul wrote in Philippians 4, 
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13).

How often are we driven to unhappiness and anxiety by a deep unfulfilled desire? We desire life to be different. … What if, with the psalmist and with Paul, we could be without want because God is our shepherd? We could trust that God knows exactly what we need, rather than giving us what we want. What if we knew that God will look after us in what we need. This is deeper than the necessities of life. God wants us to become a certain 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. To be with God is to be with the source of every joy we have ever felt.

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 (symbolic) 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 to feed us in the ways we need 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 in creation 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 just go 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? … But, when we know our Shepherd is with us these don’t have to be terrifying places. 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.

And God wants that same mentality for us. As Christians, we live in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. We believe that death has limitations for how destructive it can be. This has allowed Christians to live amazing lives walking through very dark valleys filled with incredible enemies, while also being free from fear. Or at least with enough courage that their fear was overcome. 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.

What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Maybe you're facing it right now. ... How would your fear be transformed if you walked through these dark valleys knowing that God is shepherding you? Knowing that while things are difficult right now, that ultimately (eternally) 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

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