There’s peace and calm in the 23rd Psalm

Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all doing well today. I’m so glad you’re here!

It has been a full and busy week. We had our big craft fair yesterday. I’ve had people coming in to my office to talk to me and ask me to pray with them.

I’ve been working this week to find a solution for some homeless people who camped out in our woods. Winter’s coming on, and that’s no place for them to stay.

I’ve talked this week with people who have illness in their family. I talked with tradespeople who were here to do work at the meetinghouse and across the street at the Allen Jay house.

I’ve corresponded this week with one of my cousins who’s in Israel right now. On the night of the big attack, she saw the rockets passing overhead, and took her family to a bomb shelter. She asked me to pray for the hostages – she knows one of them, personally.

I’ve got a prayer list as long as my arm this week – people here in the meeting, people I know in other places. Prayer is something which pays no attention to distance. You can pray for people anywhere, all the way around the world.

We’ve been talking for several weeks about passages from the Old Testament. Today I’d like us to look at another. It’s a famous one, a familiar one.

If you ask people what part of the Bible they remember, people tend to say the same thing.

  • Most people remember the Lord’s Prayer. Most people remember at least two or three of the 10 Commandments.
  • Most people remember the two Great Commandments that Jesus taught – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
  • You get extra credit if you remember some of the blessings in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in heart, those who mourn, the meek and humble. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart. Especially blessed are the peacemakers – Jesus called peacemakers the children of God.
  • Most people remember John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that everyone in the world might be saved. . .”
    Everyone, not just a few. God wants the whole world to be saved.
  • People remember stories – about the Good Samaritan, about Jesus feeding the 5,000, about Jesus healing the blind, the deaf, and the lame. Jesus didn’t ask to see their passports before he healed them. He didn’t ask what religion they were, or what group they belonged to. As far as Jesus was concerned, they were all his brothers and sisters. They came to him, and asked for help, and he gave it.
  • Most people remember the Christmas story, and the Easter story. You know about Adam and Eve, and Abraham, and Moses. You actually know quite a lot from the Bible.

Today, we’re going to look at another familiar Scripture, one I have no doubt you’ve heard many times before. Many of us know it by heart.

It’s one of the Psalms of the Old Testament, the shepherd Psalm. And it’s provided more help, and more comfort, and more strength to people, than almost any other.

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 right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
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.

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.

Psalm 23

That picture of the Lord as a shepherd isn’t unique to Psalm 23. The prophets talk about God as the shepherd of Israel. Jesus looked at Israel and grieved for his country – he saw them as sheep without a shepherd.

In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me. I lay down my life for my sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. . .” (John 10:11-16)

Jesus told a story once, about a flock where one sheep wandered away, and the shepherd left the whole flock, and spent the whole night, seeking up hill and down, never resting till he found the one that was missing.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what Jesus does.

But in the 23rd Psalm, God is the shepherd. And the whole psalm is all about what God provides.

We don’t spend most of our time thinking about what God does for us. In our world, we focus on things like independence and confidence and competence.

Competent people are confident. Competent people face fearful situations with confidence.

Incompetent people, which is how I feel a lot of the time, have to fall back on courage. Courage is when there’s nothing you can do, and you can’ t run away, and you stick it out anyway.

Competence is much better. I recommend it. Or at least, I would like to recommend it. I’m still working on it.

But you see the distinction. Courage and confidence are what most people run on. They’re built into our culture. They’re what we try to get. Our sports, our professions, our metaphors for living, are all built around skills and staying power, around competence and courage .
And neither of those is what Psalm 23 is really about.`

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…

Psalm 23 is about faith. Or, if you’d rather, Psalm 23 is about trust.

It says that God provides for our needs in every way. It says that we will be led, from place to place, throughout our entire lives. And everywhere we go, at the time we need it, what we need will be provided, close at hand.

People aren’t t sheep, of course. We don’ t eat grass. We need food, and clothing, and a place to stay. And we worry about those things, all the time.

We worry about whether there will be enough money to pay all the bills. We worry about whether we will be provided for, when we grow old. We worry about whether we can afford medical care.

And we have lots of less tangible needs, which are essential to our well-being all the same. People need justice. People need to learn to practice right living, for their own sake, and for the sake of their neighbor, and for the sake of the world.

The Bible says that we need more than just bread. We need the living word of God. We need to be fed, not just in our belly, but in our spirits, in our hearts and minds.

And against all those needs, the 23rd Psalm says, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want

We can face our fears and our needs with courage and competence. But those will only get us so far. The 23rd Psalm also speaks to us about faith, and trust.

When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re usually expecting to have to work for it. But there is also a very deep level, at which we realize that our own efforts won’t be enough. Skill and stick-to-it-iveness don’t fully address our needs and our fears.

The strongest person among us, the most skilled or the most clever, can be knocked down in a moment, by circumstances outside our control. A lifetime of good planning and careful management, can be undone by an accident, by a simple breakdown, or by a moment of carelessness.

It’s against those uncertainties, it’ s against the great unknowns, the dark and fearful and terrifying realities, that the 23rd Psalm is addressed.

God deals with us, by providing for us and guiding us, by knowing our needs, by knowing us intimately, by knowing us where we are right now , and by meeting us with what we need to be alive.

The 23rd Psalm is about living under the care and provision and protection of God. It’s about trusting that what we truly need will always be at hand.

There may be dry patches. There may be some awfully scrubby pasture along the way. But before we are reduced to extremity, before we are parched and starved and laid out to dry, what we need will be found – whether it’s food, or clothing, or comfort, or whatever.

That’s a pretty daring claim to make. Because we can all see people, who do not seem to be provided for. They’re all around us. And there are times when all of us feel that we’ re not so well provided for, ourselves.

The 23rd Psalm is a statement of faith, and trust.

“I will trust in God,” it says, “even when it appears that I am lost. Not only will I trust, when I am surrounded by God’s goodness, when everything that I need is visible around about me, when everything seems hunky-dory.

I will also trust, when it appears otherwise. I will continue to trust, when all the goodies seem to have evaporated. When it seems impossible for me to know right from wrong, when the right path is blocked or overgrown, I will not give up on God.”

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…

The 23rd Psalm takes us to a deeper level than simply trusting that we will be provided for. It’s a whole lot more powerful than simply saying, “Don’ t worry – be happy!”

That promise — Thou art with me — is an active presence. It’s not like a fire extinguisher, or an alarm button, that’s always around, but you hope you never have to use it.

It’s not like saying, “Lord, I’m going to keep on going my own way, but I’m not going to worry, because I know that if I ever get in trouble, I can just push the little prayer button, and you’ll be right there…”

That’ s not what it’s all about. The 23rd Psalm says that God is right here, at all times. God is right beside us, wherever we are, whether the place we happen to be is a sunny field filled with daisies and dandelions, with a swimming pool and a snack bar right next to it. Or whether the place we happen to be is a place of death and desolation.

We tend to use that language of the valley of the shadow of death in a very stereotyped or conventional way. It’s a quotation you always hear at funerals.

But it’s meant to have a much broader application than that. The valley of the shadow is every place where we don’t feel bright and sunny. It’s mental depression and panic attacks. It’s lowness of spirit. It’s failing physical faculties. It’s persecution and imprisonment.

It’s all those places which weigh so heavily on us, that we feel that the light of life is shut out.

The valley of the shadow can be a brightly lit and antiseptic place, like an Intensive Care Unit.

Wherever we are, in that place of death, where nothing seems to help us, God promises to be present.

Thou art with me…

Our whole faith and trust in God is built on that.

I am with you always, Jesus said, even to the end of the world… [Matthew 28:20]

Whoever believes in me, even though they die, yet they shall live; whoever lives and believes in me shall never die… [John 11:25-26]

That is the kind of trust we’re talking about. Trusting God in the very presence of death.

“You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows… “

The 23rd Psalm is more than a statement of hope. It is a statement of fact. God is really present. God is here, setting us free, healing our hearts, lighting our steps, opening doorways, lifting our thoughts.

Rufus Jones, the great Quaker writer, put it really well. Rufus Jones said, “If God ever spoke, [then God] is still speaking. If God has ever been in mutual and reciprocal communication with the persons [God] has made, [God] is still a communicating God as eager as ever to have listening and receptive souls…[God] is the great I AM, not a great HE WAS…”

We live in a world where God is an I AM, a God who was present before us, who is present in any moment that we call now, and who promises to be with us always.

“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… “

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