Saturday, May 19, 2007

God knows what you need (psalm 23)

A famous preacher, William Sloane Coffin, once noted that just as there is finally only one hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, there is only one Psalm, the 23rd. Perhaps you would choose a different hymn, but most likely the Psalm that is on the hearts and lips of most believers is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is My Shepherd”. Why does this Psalm speak to us, why do its words go down into the deepest places in our hearts, why does it continue to sing of God’s presence to us? I am not sure, but I know that there is a power in this psalm. It is one of the passages of scripture that is most often read at memorial services, and most often it can be read, recited and shared by those present from memory. There is something about this brief writing that resonates within us, at our time of greatest need. It is profound.

But the 23rd Psalm speaks of more than death; it also speaks of life, and especially of the One who is the Lord of life, the Good Shepherd (John 10). It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd”. God provides for us. We know this. But sometimes we forget. Those who prayed these psalms remembered their history: in forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel lacked nothing. God provided enough each day for that day.

Do we know what life will be like tomorrow? No. But we know that there are provisions for today. The Lord, our shepherd, will see to that. Scholars teach us that the term shepherd was also often a reference to royalty. The rod and the staff were the signs of office, and the title “shepherd” had associations with the Lord’s leading and guiding Israel through the wilderness. Rulers, kings are supposed to shepherd and care for their people. Because the Lord is our shepherd, we have all that we need. God provides.

I will never forget an experience that occurred shortly before I left home for seminary. I had finished college, and I was working several jobs: I taught guitar, I delivered flowers, I worked in a sheet metal shop, running a drill press. I did a little bit of everything. But I just did not see how I was going to have the money to get started in school. I mentioned the possibility of delaying seminary to the mother of one of my guitar students and she said “Oh no, don’t put it off, you will never go”.

One day one of my cousins, who was a couple of years older than me, asked if I wanted to have lunch. I said sure. I wondered what this would be all about.

He picked me up from work and off we went. On the way be said he needed to stop by the bank. He made a withdrawal, put it into an envelope and gave it to me. “This is for your expenses”, he said. It happened to be enough for the first semester’s tuition. He did not know that. But I knew that God had provided, through him. The first great affirmation: God provides for us.

There is a second one: Thou art with me. We need to know that we are not alone in this life’s journey. It helps to sense that someone walks beside us, even, at times, in the words of the familiar “footprints in the sand” saying, that someone carries us. And this psalm voices that truth. Do you hear it? It teaches us that:

Even in the dangerous places, we are not alone

Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone

Even as we are being carted into surgery, we are not alone

Even as we are taking that long walk to the graveside, we are not alone

Even as we watch the slow deterioration of a loved one’s faculties, we are not alone

Even as we face economic uncertainty, we are not alone

Even as we get used to life in a new place, we are not alone.

We can pray with Christians and Jews throughout the ages: Thou art with me.

A third affirmation: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Here we see a shift in the psalm: God is no longer the shepherd to the sheep. God is now the Host, and we are the guests. Those hearing and praying this psalm would have known about the desert rule of hospitality. If I were in danger, and enemies were pursuing me, I would come to your door, and according to the desert rule of hospitality, you would be required to take me in for two nights and a day in between, and my enemies would have to stay outside the circle of light cast by the fire.

The Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. The Lord provides a place of safety. A few years ago I was meeting with a group of people and we were struggling with the meaning and mission of the church of Jesus, and our congregation in particular. One of the words that came to the surface by a couple of those present was the word “safety”. I didn’t quite grasp the meaning at first. But people verbalized it: the church needs to be a safe place. And that is one of the meanings of the word “Sanctuary”.

People are looking for sanctuary. They are looking for a community that embodies the qualities of the Shepherd who watches over, protects, provides for, creates a safe place for those under his care. Providence works hard and makes no apologies for being a safe place for children. In years past, the Christian witness has been compromised because the larger church has not always been a safe place for children and youth. People instinctively realize that when God is with us, we are in a safe place, we are in a sanctuary.

A fourth and final affirmation: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. The 23rd Psalm is a psalm about our destiny. There is a truism about small groups that says that we feel most confident and least anxious when we know where we are going. The psalmist cries out: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. Now the “house of the Lord” has three meanings: for those who originally prayed this psalm, it meant the temple, in Jerusalem. I have stood at the wall of that temple. It is an amazing place.

Most of us will never journey to the temple in Jerusalem, but we are drawn to some other holy place. Shortly after arriving at Providence I was waiting for a wedding rehearsal to begin one Friday evening, I had only been here a few weeks, and one of the directors was orienting me, and along the way she paused and looked around the sanctuary, and spoke of her children, and her parents, and what the church meant to her, what worship meant to her, what music meant to her, and then she said, “this is home”.

But “house of the Lord” carries an additional meaning for the Christian who prays it: God has a destiny for us, echoed in the words of Jesus, “I go to prepare a place for you” (see John 14. 1-3). The shepherd guides us safely to a home not made with hands, whose builder and maker is God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land that he had been promised…For he looked to that city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11. 8-10).

What does this Psalm say to us, this morning? Some of us listen to the psalm and we are wondering about how we are going to find the resources—material, spiritual, financial, psychological—to make it through the next week. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Some of us listen to the psalm, and we sense that we are all alone in the world. Maybe we feel all alone in our homes, all alone in our struggles, without a sense that we truly matter to any other person. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Some of us are gripped by a fear that will not go away, and we need to draw a circle around ourselves or our families or those we love that will keep out violence or drugs or danger or stress. If we find ourselves in this place we can believe the good news: Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.

And some of us are anxious about the future, and we have lived long enough to know that there is more to life than this life, that heaven is a reality for which we pray and to which we find ourselves being drawn. And if we discover ourselves in this place, we can believe the good news: I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in this life’ s journey, God can speak to you through this psalm. Let’s pray it together.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. AMEN.

Sources: William Sloane Coffin, “The Twenty Third Psalm”, Sermons from Riverside Church, November 11, 1979; James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation Series).


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