A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
May 14, 2022
Main Idea: God empowers us.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The 23rd Psalm is the best known and arguably the best loved psalm in all of Scripture. It may be the most familiar text in the whole Bible. Its beauty and simplicity bring comfort and hope to people in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, and even to those outside of those traditions. It brings peace whenever it is read. And we all need peace, yes? But the 23rd psalm is about more than respite and a glimpse of heaven. This morning we will look at this beloved Psalm and recognize that while, of course it brings us comfort and assurance, the Shepherd’s Psalm empowers us to live our lives sustained by God’s love and grace.
The place of the 23rd Psalm in our collective understanding has evolved over time. Ancient Kings were known as the Shepherds of their people. And certainly shepherds were a well known profession in the ancient world. The Israelites understood the psalm to be speaking about the Israelite people as a whole. The Early Christians heard Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd and recognized him as our Shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus claims that title and calls us to act as Shepherds as well. (Remember last week when Jesus said “Feed my sheep.”) In the earliest Christian art, images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd were more common than images of the cross. In modern history, the 23rd Psalm really entered the wider public consciousness in the 1850s when Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, NY preached a sermon on the psalm and his words were then printed in several books which each sold millions of copies. In the sermon he preached “The twenty-third psalm is the nightingale of the psalms. It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, O, it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive. Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born.” (quoted in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years by William L.Holladay, p. 363) Beginning in the Spanish- American War of 1898, the 23rd psalm has been used to comfort both those injured in the war and those who mourned the dead. Its images from the King James Version, especially ” the valley of the shadow of death” and “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” have helped to shape our understanding of what heaven is like. And it continues to bring peace and comfort to those facing death. But it is not just about death.
One of the reasons that the 23rd Psalm continues in popularity is that on the surface, it does not require much of us. It is short and easy to memorize. It does not mention sin. Its beautiful images can be seen as simply a personal expression of faith. But when we take a moment to reflect a bit more, we realize that the 23rd Psalm expresses a deep and compelling relationship with God that radically reorients one’s life. Psalm 23 empowers us to depend solely on God.
“The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The psalm starts out with this profound and simple statement of trust. The LORD, YAHWEH, who created the world, the friend of Moses who led the people out of Egypt, this YAHWEH is my Shepherd, my protector, my guide, my provider of safety and sustenance. And because of this, “I shall not want.” I do not want. I require nothing else. Everything I will ever need will be provided by the LORD, my Shepherd. We like to say this, but do we really believe it? And do we believe the flip to this, that whatever the LORD does not provide is not needed by us? That requires deep trust and commitment! And a firm resistance to Capitalist marketing! The psalmist is content, requiring nothing but God.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” Ahh! We picture these bucolic images without noticing the movement required to reach these places of peace. The Shepherd guides us from unsafe places to places where our needs can be met. Green pastures, of course, mean places where food is available. Still water is contrasted to the churning waters of chaos. The restoration of the soul requires caring for the body. The Shepherd’s tasks include finding these safe spaces and then guiding us there! Our task, as the sheep, is to follow the Shepherd’s leading, not just once but throughout our lives.
“He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” God’s purpose in guiding us is simply God’s nature. God desires our wellbeing. These paths may not be the straightest or the shortest. Remember that the Isrealites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness! The right paths sometimes are not the easiest but they are the “right paths” that lead to our health and wholeness.
The next verse is the heart of the psalm. “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.” The familiar KIng James version of the psalm reads “Ye, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death” and points us to our final transition from life to death. But “through the darkest valley” is closer to the original Hebrew and this translation lifts up that God is with us throughout our lives, especially when we are in times of trouble or challenge. “By viewing the valley of verse 4 in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the rest of the psalm addresses not so much the time when we are “ready to lay our burdens down,” but the everyday, even ordinary, experience of life. Green pastures and still waters are not just for the sweet by and by, but for the here and now. Our soul, our “life force” (Hebrew nefesh) need not wait until the other side of the grave to be restored or renewed or refreshed.” (Joel LeMon, workingpreacher.org)
While God’s “right paths” may lead us to times of trouble or challenge, God’s sustenance for us can be depended upon. God prepares an extravagant table for us in the presence of our enemies, honoring us with sweet, fragrant oil and filling our cup to overflowing. Not only do we need not fear our enemies but we can trust in God’s abundant protection and provision for us even in the midst of challenges.
The final verse is so beautiful and yet its power is a bit obscured by our translation. Rather than “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”, the Jewish translation, Tanakh says “May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life…” (https://www.chabad.org/library/bible) Usually in the psalms, it is the enemies that are pursuing the psalmist but here it is God’s goodness and loving kindness that pursues each and every day. Let’s think about this. In every moment, God’s love, and only God’s love,(not God’s wrath or God’s judgment), God’s love is not just following us but pursuing us, making sure that we need only notice and reach out to be enveloped and held in God’s grace. When we recognize this, we realize that we can dwell in the house of the LORD beginning now, our whole life long, both now and forever.
Last week we talked about how Jesus’ call to us sometimes might get us in trouble. Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” meaning if we love him, care for them, those whom Jesus loves. And our Baptist principles encourage us to speak out about the issues of the day, which may also get us in trouble. The 23rd Psalm reassures us that, whether we are shepherds called to feed the sheep, or we are the sheep ourselves, God is with us, providing all that we need. This empowers us to follow Jesus’ call.
Psalm 23, this beautiful nightingale of a psalm, brings us such comfort and peace. May it also empower us in our daily lives to trust radically in God’s providence and grace, and to fulfill our calling to share God’s love with the world.
Let us pray,
Graceful Shepherd, thank you for your loving kindness, your guidance, and your grace. Thank you for your care and sustenance. Help us to rest in you. May we be restored and re-energized to serve you bringing hope to the discouraged, justice to the oppressed, and peace to all. May your goodness and kindness be experienced by all. Amen.