Sermon - 30th March 2014
The Lord is my shepherd
Scripture - Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.
2 He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
3 He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.
4 Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd's rod and staff protect me.
5 You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honoured guest and fill my cup to the brim.
6 I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.
Psalm 23, as we have just had read to us, is the most famous and well-known of all the psalms, and it has a unique place in the hearts, minds and souls of both Jews and Christians. The title which precedes the text is “A Psalm of David”, to whom 78 of the 150 psalms are ascribed.
Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, is the most popular hymn sung at funerals to the Scottish tune “Crimond”; however, at these times, in our grief, we are perhaps not at our best to reflect on the true breadth and depth of the Psalmist’s intended meaning.
David was Israel’s second King, yet he was born the youngest son of Jesse, and when the prophet Nathan came to anoint him King over Israel, David was not with his family: he was out tending the sheep, as a shepherd. And so it is into this context, we see David’s own understanding of what it is to be a shepherd: to lead the sheep to food and drink, to keep them safe from harm, and to retrieve the lost.
The Bible is full of stories and images relating to sheep and shepherds. In the ancient Middle East, herds of sheep and goats were a fundamental part of successful survival. The sheep provided not only wool for clothing, but also milk and meat for food, and also animals for sacrifice. Looking at the Psalm as a whole, it is about our relationship with God, and the central themes are provision, abundance and restoration. These three themes occur in the first three verses, and are repeated in the last three.
There is a key, global point to be made about the whole Psalm: it is written from the perspective that God has already granted deliverance; God has provided, and provided abundantly; and that God has restored us. From David’s confident and faithful point of view, God has already done these things.
Let us now look at the six verses of the Psalm in turn. Verse 1 speaks of God’s provision to us – “I have everything I need”. God is not portrayed as a distant deity: He is personified as a shepherd. In the ancient Middle East, kings were often described as shepherds of their people; however, the harsher daily reality was that shepherds were largely shunned in Jewish society, as they lived with their flocks, which also included working on the Sabbath. Just as at Christmas, when we heard of the angel announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, God came close to them in a very real way.
In reading in preparation for this sermon, I learned of a new perspective to this Psalm, one which is often found among Christians living in countries where they are persecuted for their faith. For them, Psalm 23 is a political psalm: these believers are saying to their unjust and oppressive governments: “The Lord is my Shepherd – not you!”
Verse 1 includes the word “everything”: this is amplified in verses 2 and 3. God’s relationship with His people is one of abundance. To sheep, fields of green grass and pools of water are the ideal luxury: this is the provision which the Psalmist declares and believes to be a current reality. The idea throughout the Psalm is that God is generous.
While verse 2 may point to physical needs, verse 3 broadens the description of God’s abundant care into the spiritual, speaking of “new strength” and guidance “in the right paths”; and, once again, the Psalmist speaks of God’s assured promise in all this.
Before we move on, I would like to point out something in the language of the first three verses. The Psalmist speaks of himself – “I” – in the first person, and of God – “He” – in the third person. In the second half of the Psalm, this changes in that the Psalmist addresses God directly, and refers to “You” and “Your”.
Verse 4 of the Psalm – translated in the King James’ Version as “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” – is better translated in numerous modern versions as “Even though I go through the deepest darkness”. It is probably this verse in the King James’ Version translation which makes this Psalm so popular at funerals with its mention of death.
Looking at David, the Psalmist: he had many dark periods in his life. Once anointed, he was hated and hunted by King Saul. David was best friend to, and probably lover of, Jonathan, King Saul’s son. Jonathan was killed in battle, and David was grief-stricken. Later in life, he committed adultery with Bathsheba, and had her husband Uriah effectively killed. We do not know exactly when David wrote this Psalm, but these might have been some of the periods of darkness he was calling to mind.
Nevertheless, David’s words in verse 4 are not of someone in despair: he speaks of going THROUGH the darkness, and coming out the other side; however, please note that David does not say that God takes us out of the darkness: we still have to go through it, but God is with us in it. And that is echoed in Jesus’ coming. Jesus was born human, lived as one of us. Jesus understands, because He is in it with us.
The second part of verse 4 returns to the notion of God as Shepherd: “Your rod and staff protect me.” Returning to sheep for a moment: they are largely timid creatures, but they learn to trust the shepherd, as if they have an innate understanding of the shepherd’s role. They do not struggle with the concept. For the most part, living here in the UK, we do not have to worry about our safety too much: while there is some crime, there are authorities and democratically passed laws.
Verse 5 mirrors verse 2 in talking about abundant provision, this time describing a sumptuous banquet before enemies. God, here, is the generous and bounteous Host. In ancient times, hospitality was extremely important. Travelling away from home meant leaving the protection of one’s own home and family and entrusting oneself to others. Abuse of hospitality was deeply scorned in ancient times, as we can read about in the awful account in the book of Genesis of Lot, his visitors and the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In some ways, those of you in our congregation who have been forced to leave your countries of birth, are entrusting yourself to the hospitality of the United Kingdom. In verse 5, the Psalmist speaks of God welcoming us as “honoured guest[s]”. As God welcomed the Psalmist, as Jesus welcomed all, so should we re-enact the welcoming hospitality. And each week, we are welcomed to God’s own table in Communion, where Jesus shares with us of His own Body and Blood, as a symbol of the promise in verse 6: “Your house will be my home as long as I live.
Our notions of hospitality have changed radically in the past century from ways which stayed largely unchanged in previous millennia, largely due to ease of travel and modern communications. It is easy now to speak to people in far-off countries, in town and cities elsewhere in the UK, on the phone, via the Internet etc.; yet, do we know our own neighbours? Everything we do in our very busy lives seems to be preceded by synchronising of diaries. How hospitable are we really? When was the last time you dropped in completely unannounced on a friend or relative? When was the last time someone dropped in on you?
Finally, in verse 6, the Psalmist speaks with confidence of God’s presence for all time. I think every one of us would admit that there are times when we feel distant from God, and other times when we feel close. Our feelings and emotions and responses to events get in the way of accepting the reality of God’s persistent, unchanging nature. The darkness in which we might find ourselves today will be different tomorrow in some way. The darkness will not change in itself, but by surrendering to God’s provision will change our perspective.
That last bit sounded a bit fuzzy: let me try to explain with an example, and one in echo of today being Mothers’ Day. If a child falls and hurts itself, let’s say a bleeding cut to the knee: there will be pain and there will be blood. But a caring parent would not only tend to the wound, the parent would also comfort the child, saying things like: “let me kiss it better”. The hug and the kiss do not in themselves heal the wound, nor take away the physical pain of the injury, but that child is assured. The child does not think that through: the child accepts; the child surrenders to the trust and protection of the parent.
[Two musical settings of Psalm 23 will be played during Communion today, where there will also be opportunity to receive prayers with anointing.]
And here, I think is the heart of what Psalm 23 is all about: it is about surrender. As adults, we like to be in control. We like to control every waking minute of our days. As humans, particularly in the scientifically accomplished 21st like to think we are in control. Recent natural disasters in our country – in the floods - have shown that we are not.
Today, we have reflected that sheep surrender to and trust the shepherd. Is God your shepherd?
Psalm 23 speaks about material provision in abundance. What does God’s generous provision look like in your life?
And trusting and surrendering, where does God lead you to find rest, refreshment and to “restore [your] soul”?