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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Led by the Shepherd (Psalm 23)



The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.
You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.

We’ve had family in visiting over the weekend, and it’s been a bit of a reminder of what a musical family I come from.  Both my mom’s and dad’s side of the family are saturated with musical talent.  Family gatherings often involved everyone gathering around the old piano in the dining room with sheet music or a hymnal and just singing together.  Going to visit family often meant being corralled into doing special music at church, or recruited into the family choir.  Music is woven into what it means to be part of our family.

Music is woven into the fabric of being part of God’s family, too.  It has been written, “The one who sings prays twice.”  Music is central to worship – it has the ability to lead us out and away from the everyday and mundane, into places that transcend ordinary human existence. 

Did you know that he Bible has a songbook in it?  Right smack in the middle of the Bible, you’ll find the Psalms – the songbook for Hebrew worship of God.  The Psalms are a collection of 150 poems.  They can be set to music, and are suitable for private devotion and corporate worship.  They are songs for the full range of human emotions and experiences – whether you feel like you’re on top of the world, or down in the dumps, or anywhere in between – there’s a Psalm for that!

Today’s Scripture reading of Psalm 23 is perhaps so familiar it’s difficult to hear anything new in it, which is why I had Jessica read it from the Common English Bible today.  Reading it in a different translation was perhaps just jarring enough to help you pay attention and listen to the words, and perhaps to even hear it as if for the very first time.  May we pray.

In a time where many people, including those within the church, know very little about the Bible, Psalm 23 is an oasis of familiarity.  Psalm 23 is an occasional text – meaning it usually comes out for certain occasions, namely, funerals.

At times of death, the words of this Psalm provide a certain comfort – though we walk through difficult and troublesome times, God is always there to provide grace and guidance.  Though things are often uncertain for us, we place our trust in the steady faithfulness of God.

However, we do Psalm 23 a disservice if we only pull it out for funerals, because friends, it has something to say to us not only in the dark shadows of death, but in the full sunshine of life on this side of eternity, as well.

The Lord is my shepherd – comforting words, right?   For the Lord to be our shepherd, that must mean we are sheep.  In case you didn’t know, it is no great compliment to be called a sheep.  We’re not talking about cute, white, fluffy newborn lambs.  Sheep are dumb, and dirty, and stubborn, and smelly, and have a one-track mind: eating.  They nibble a little bit over here, and then nibble a little bit over there, and will nibble themselves lost or in some other danger.

We should be insulted by this comparison to sheep, except, that it rings true.  We too can be dumb and stubborn, with appetites and desires that lead us into dark and dangerous places, places we think we can handle, only to find out that we are neither where we want to be, nor unable to get out on our own.

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.  Yet, our consumer culture tells us that we lack everything.  Advertising tells us we lack the right car or the right house or the right clothes or the right electronics or gadget or vacation.  How much money is spent in this country trying to convince us how much we lack, how dissatisfied we should be with what we have because we so desperately want something better?

More stuff, bigger stuff, more expensive stuff does not equal happiness.  How many of us have foolishly nibbled down that path, spending money we really didn’t have to buy things we didn’t really need, only to find our lives unfulfilled, and happiness lacking?

We don’t lack many things; we lack just one thing. God.  We lack intimate relationship with God.  St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  I lack nothing.  God is our satisfaction.  God is enough and then some.  Or, more to the point, God exceeds whatever we think we desire, so much so that our cup overflows with God’s blessing.  It doesn’t overflow with stuff, with things, with wealth and toys and trinkets, not at all.  It does run over with a full measure of God’s presence.

In fact, the promise of “God-with-us” is the central claim of Psalm 23.  Literally, in fact.  It bears repeating that Psalm 23 is a poem, and in Hebrew poetry, the very structure of the poem is part of the message.  James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, "Thou art with me." Just as God’s presence with us is the center of the Psalm, so too do we boldly declare that God is with us at the very center of our lives.

Following the shepherd is a matter of getting our will in line with God’s will.  We’ve already said that sheep will nibble off in their own direction – sometimes out of stubbornness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of blindly following the crowd. 

Have you ever thought much about the shepherd’s staff?  “Your rod and your staff, they protect me.”  The shepherd’s staff typically had a crook on one end, and a blunt knob on the other.  The crook could be used to rescue a sheep that had gotten away.  That blunt end was pretty useful, too!  It could be used to fight off predators who wanted to do harm to the sheep, but it could also provide guidance to a sheep that didn’t want to follow.  The blunt end of the staff gives wayward sheep a little nudge in the rear to get them moving in the right direction.  Not a hit, not a whack, just a little nudge.

Other translations say, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  There are times when God has to comfort us right in the backside to get us moving in the right direction – sometimes because of our own stubbornness, sometimes because of our blind following of the crowd, sometimes because we just don't know any better.

 In my home church, there was a lady who brought her 10 grandchildren to worship every Sunday.  She was a bigger lady, had some difficulty getting around, and walked with a hickory cane.  Some of her grandchildren could be a bit, energetic, so how did she possibly keep them all in line?

When she came into worship, she would sit at the end of one pew, and place five of the grandchildren down the row next to her.  The other five would sit in the pew immediately in front of her, and if one of them started to act up, you’d see her cane come up, and she’d gently tap – not hit – the child on the shoulder.  One tap was a warning.  Two taps meant you’d be sitting directly next to Grandma the next week.

Over time, the children learned what was expected of them from Grandma.  That’s sort of how it is with us and God, too.  On our own, we don’t know what God wants!  We don’t have the instincts to know what God wants or to do what God wants us to do.  Despite our best efforts and intentions, we still go nibbling off into danger, or into places where the grass looks good today but will run out tomorrow, but the staff of our shepherd comforts us and protects us, nudging us and guiding us toward the places where our lives will flourish.

In every flock, there are a small handful who do seem to follow the shepherd closely without a whole lot of nudging.  They didn’t start out that way!  They were just as stubborn and wayward and headstrong and ignorant as the rest of the sheep at first!  But, over time, they have spent so much time with the shepherd, grown accustomed to his voice, have grown to love the shepherd and trust the shepherd, that they willingly follow.  That maturity only comes from spending time with the shepherd.  You spend enough time with the shepherd, and you’ll recognize his voice, you’ll trust him, you’ll know that the shepherd loves you and wants what is best for you, and you’ll willingly follow.

In the church, these are the people we look to as leaders.  As those who are trying to follow our Good Shepherd, we follow the teaching and example of those who are walking closest to him.  We have the example of the disciples and the apostles, the early church, the saints through history – all people who have walked close to God, each in their own way, but providing a pattern and example for the rest of us.  We should be looking to people whose lives evidence a close walk with God, not those who are nibbling off in their own direction.

The promise of the Psalm is simple: God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us." John Wesley's dying words were, "The best of all, God is with us." God doesn't shelter us from trouble. God doesn't magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious reality that God is with us is unchangeable.

When we trust and follow our Good Shepherd, we find that we are able to face the challenges of life simply because we are walking in the way of the shepherd.  Verse 4 – “I fear no danger because you are with me.”

It doesn’t say that a relationship with God insulates us from hardship or danger or evil.  We are not promised an easy journey through life just because we have faith in God.  God’s promise to people of faith is NOT that we will have a problem-free life, that’s not it at all.  No, the promise is that we won’t face life’s problems alone!  Evil is real, and it is scary, but we won’t fear it, because God’s love is constant, and it is stronger than evil.

God isn’t a magician who makes our problems disappear with a wave of his wand.  No, God’s promise is to be there with us, to not leave us alone, especially when life is at its hardest.

So perhaps,

“I’m uncertain about what is going on in my life, but the Lord is my shepherd.”

Or,

“I may be struggling to make ends meet, but I will not lack because I have God.”

“I might have trouble sleeping because of everything going on, but God causes me to lay down in good pastures.”

“The storms of life are raging, but God will lead me to still waters.”

“I might be beaten down and hurt and broken right now, but God restores my very being.”

God gets the last word.  The problems of life are inevitable, but they will eventually go.  The steadfast love and presence of God, however, will always be with us.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray, and we need help: the help of a shepherd.  The Lord is our shepherd, providing us with all the help and comfort and guidance we need and cannot provide for ourselves.  In a world where we are told to be self-sufficient, Psalm 23 offers the refreshing reality that a life of reliance solely on ourselves is unwise if not impossible, because we can never be good enough, smart enough, wise enough, holy enough to get by on our own.  We need the grace-filled loving guidance of our shepherd.  Self-guidance is no guidance at all, other than the slow nibbling into oblivion, further and further away from the flock.

There is no need to go at it alone, especially when our shepherd lovingly provides us with everything we need: rest, safety, security, food, and life-giving, cool water.  Indeed, when we walk in the paths of righteousness behind our Good Shepherd, we find our lives full, complete, and lacking nothing.

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  I lack nothing.  God is our satisfaction.  God is enough and then some.  

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