Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lord is My Shepherd

A Sermon on Psalm 23.

Do you know the story of the USS Indianapolis? A circle of men, floating in the open water in the vast, Pacific Ocean, and full of fear, of course one survivor tells how he prays the best known passage in all of Scripture. It’s a passage that brings comfort to any and every situation, whether pleasant or fearful. It’s pleasant: little children in their soft sleep as their mother tucks them in with prayer. It’s both pleasant and fearful: the elderly woman who lies dying on her bed, ready to depart this world and go to be with her Lord. It’s fearful: the prisoner, alone in his cell, arms on the back of his neck, curled up in a corner. To wit, this passage carries the unique ability to bring peace and hope to those who, for one reason or another, are afraid, doubtful, insecure, or just in need of some comfort.

It’s a Psalm of David, and we often picture lush, green valleys, cool streams, and clear skies with a gentle breeze on a fine, sunny day. It’s Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Back in the Pacific. Floating in the water in the suspense of horror, a sailor prays this prayer. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The sailor is a survivor—so far—of the USS Indianapolis, the battleship sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 30 1945. You know what it delivered: the 1st atomic bomb which dropped over the city of Hiroshima, and the 1st weapon of mass destruction used in war. This action helped bring WWII to an end, but for the survivors of the USS Indianapolis, the horror had only begun. There were 1200 men on that ship. 900 of them fell into the water that day. 300 came out. The remaining 600 men died of shark attacks, dehydration, and poison from drinking sea water, both because of the water itself and the contaminants from the battleship’s fuel-oil.

There were sea water ulcers on their legs, on their backs, and in their throats. Their mouths were like cotton from lack of water. The sun burned them, the cold night chilled them. Many lost their minds in delirium from drinking the sea water, shouting, “The ship’s right over there! There’s cigarettes and candy! Let’s go!” Leaving the circle of men, they entered what is inconceivable: even more vulnerable, open waters, where the sharks had their savage way. This was the worst of the whole ordeal. Men screaming. Men helpless.…

This soldier tells the story of being in a circle with the other men. “Pray for us,” they say. Not all of them are believers, but they know he is. So he prays. He tells us that he prays the prayer, and each time, he emphasizes a different word.

  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want
  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want
  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want
  • The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want

And they all listen and pray….

David’s Psalm is a Pastoral one. That is, it evokes a sweet, sense of an idyllic, countryside, rolling with green, lush hills, and clear, refreshing streams. But the Psalm isn’t all fields of clover, with milk and honey. Oh no. David speaks of dark things as well: he travels through the valley of the shadow of death. And David couples the Psalm on either end of it to give us a clue to what it’s all about. And it’s all about contentment & hope.

Remember that David’s life was one racked with battle. As a shepherd, he battled against the bear and the lion to protect his sheep. Then he had to kill a giant. Shortly after, as the newly anointed king, he had to run from King Saul, who wanted to kill him. Then there was the ordeal with Bathsheba. Not long after that, his son Absalom tried to murder him. David seemed to be always on the run. He was on the run from the Philistines. He even joined them at one time. He pretended to be insane by letting spittle run down his beard so his enemies would let him go and not kill him. I wonder if he felt secure doing that? He made the mistake of taking a census, and the Lord destroyed many of David’s people as a result. David never seemed to quite have that security; never that total peace; never that “Ah, life’s good” moment; never a lack of trouble in his relationships: his wife Michal dismissed him as a fool for dancing in public when the ark of the covenant came back to town. Maybe he had his moments of peace, but his life seems racked with conflict. And yet, David prays this prayer,

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

My daughter asked me the other day—and I recall this was one of my first questions about the Bible as well: “What does “I shall not want” mean? Stump the Dad. "Ummm... I'm going to have to look that one up, honey."

The Hebrew of “I shall not want” is a verb that can be understood in the present tense or the future tense, and means, “I do not lack anything” or “I will not lack anything.” It means that in his present situation, David is OK. And as far as the future is concerned: he is going to be OK. Why? Because the Lord is his Shepherd. YHWH is his shepherd. YHWH, the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator of all things, the Almighty God—this God, has an intimate relationship with David, and David knows the Lord and loves the Lord, and David knows the Lord loves him on a deep, intimate, personal level.

David says, “I shall not want,” and he means he’s content. But how can he be content with all of the mess going on? What if he composed this Psalm in one of those caves he was hiding in when Saul was hunting him down? Maybe he wrote it in the later years of his life as they drew to an end. Perhaps he wrote it when Nabal wouldn’t help him, and David was on his way to make war against him. It seems to me that David wrote this Psalm in the midst of his life's span, because his life had troubles, and life is simply full of trouble. And David says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Why? “Because your rod and staff, they comfort me.”

When the Psalm says, “I shall not want,” we can understand this to mean that David will not lack anything. This is what it means in the ancient Hebrew. And in the ancient Ethiopic texts, it means, “I will not be diminished.” “I will not be made inferior.” “I will not be made worthless.”

David puts his worth, his dignity, his life—in the hands of the Shepherd.

We say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” but--we want. We lack work that satisfies, and so we want. Our relationships are not what we want them to be, and so we want. Our lives may not have turned out they way we’d liked, and so we want. We’ve made mistakes; maybe we’ve sinned and we feel guilty or shameful about things, and so we feel diminished, worthless, and without dignity.

One pastor boils our sense of “lack” down to two things:

  • Significance & Security (1)

In significance, we look to calling, reputation, and vocation. In security, we look to money, health and family. “If I just had perfect health.” “If I just could win the lottery.” How many times have we heard (or said!) that? And yet, we know that when people win the lottery, life usually gets worse.

What the opening line of this Psalm points out for us is our idols. An idol is anything where we get significance or security from that is not God himself—the Good Shepherd. People get significance and security from: work, play, money, relationships, hobbies like sports and games, even the SELF. That is to say, “I don’t need anyone or anything, I’m satisfied with my SELF. That’s idolatry too. In fact, it’s the worst kind, it's called pride.

If the Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. Do you believe that? Do I?

Our culture says we don’t have value unless we’re 1) beautiful 2) smart 3) making a lot of money 4) athletic 5) talented 6) holding significant influence, power or control 7) making a difference. We often wonder, “Has my life made any real difference?” “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”

But David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack no good thing.” I spoke with a counselor once who asked me, “Chris, what do you need in life?” He was asking me what the essentials in life were. I said, “Well, the Apostle Paul talks about food, clothing, and shelter, and that if we have those things, we’re content with that.”

He said, “No. You only need Jesus Christ. If you are naked, hungry and homeless, you have everything, because you have Christ.” At first I thought, “That’s a bunch of pious-sounding nonsense.” But then I thought about it. Jesus Christ is the author of Life. He is the Lord of Life. If I have Jesus Christ, then I really do have all I need.”

But that doesn’t mean we don’t strive to have good things like jobs, homes, etc. I mean, I want to provide for my family. I want to invest and leave an inheritance for my grandchildren. I want to have good work, and do good in this world and make a difference. We all should. But the point of the Psalm here is focus. What is the focus of our lives? What is important is that Christ is the center of our lives. If we focus on Christ and his kingdom, then we've got things in order.

At the same time, that's good news, especially for a guy like me, who has struggled with insecurity in life. I often wonder: Am I good enough for God? Am I pleasing him by doing the right things in life? Am I making a real difference in the world, or doing anything significant? But the Scripture says, The Lord is my Shepherd, and I lack nothing. If I have Jesus Christ--I have all I need. I have him and he has me. He leads me, and he guides me.

The Lord leads David through paths of righteousness, just as a good shepherd led his sheep through the wilderness in Palestine. When we think of sheep in a field, we see lush, tall, green grasses dipping with dew, and sunlight basking through full, magnificent trees. But this is not the case in Palestine. The sheep were totally dependent upon the seasonal rains for the grass, and when summer and fall came around they had to eat the stubble and weeds left over until the rainy season. Then the shepherd would have to take the sheep to new pastures. The sheep were vulnerable to getting lost, getting impatient, getting bitten by flies on the head, getting eaten by wolves and other predators. Sheep would fight with each other, and bite one another. They would bicker and holler at one another. Sheep are stupid. They’re dumb animals and they need a shepherd. They’ll even follow one another over cliffs, plummeting to their deaths—just by following.

Sheep were totally dependent upon their shepherd. Sometimes, in order for the sheep to not get parasites from the grass, the shepherd would prepare a table for them to eat. “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies.” He would rub oil on their heads to heal their skin from the insect bites. “You anoint my head with oil.” He would call them, and they knew his voice. If they got mixed up with another flock, the shepherd would call, and they would hear his voice. Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice,"(John 10:27). Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

The paths of righteousness go through the valley of the shadow of death. The paths of righteousness are literally, “just, normal and straight” paths. Some commentators say this has only to do with the nature of the path: that it is straight—it leads somewhere, and it is not harsh terrain. Others say that the “path of righteousness” has a moral component to it. That is, God is faithful to lead his faithful flock in a certain moral direction.

Calvin comments that the phrase, “the paths of righteousness” means that God leads us and sustains us for this present life. So we walk these paths—these good, plain paths that God leads us on, and lest we think we have earned it ourselves, David adds that God does so for the sake of his name.

And lest we should also think that the “plain and straight paths” mean an easy, carefree life, we need to look at verse 4: the plain and straight paths go through the valley of the shadow of death. But, “You are with me.” God’s presence is with us—even closer—when we are going through the valley of the shadow of death. In the wadis in the desert, the deep valleys cause long, tall shadows. Who knows what lurks there? Bandits? Ravenous animals, ready to attack? Sometimes life brings us suspense and danger, but the Lord’s presence is even greater with us.

"Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. "

This last part of the Psalm really struck me. The word “mercy” here is the word hesed. In some translations of the Bible its translated as “lovingkindness.” Hesed is God’s covenant love.

I want to challenge you with something. The other day, a friend of mine said, “I don’t respect a pastor who doesn’t fast.” He didn’t mean anything by it, but I thought I should take up that challenge. I hadn’t fasted in a while. So I did. (Actually, it just turned out that I woke up late for work, and didn’t feel like making any breakfast. Plus we didn’t have any food in the fridge: I guess that’s what happens when you have three jobs, and a wife who’s getting her doctorate. So, I didn’t pack a lunch either. A perfect day to fast!).

So, after the girls went to bed (making it through dinner while fasting was really hard) I went back to my study—which is just a corner room where the furnace and water heater are. But anyway, I was meditating on this Psalm, and I was struck by the word hesed. And as I closed my eyes and prayed, I saw myself in a green pasture, with a gentle stream, and clouds up above on a sunny day. And then I felt something incredible. I felt the presence of God. And you know what I felt? Love. I felt the love of God. It was like ecstasy. And it only lasted for a split second. As soon as you can snap your fingers, it was gone. But oh, it was good. Just experiencing the God’s love. It’s no wonder why John the Apostle wrote “God is Love.” He really is. He leads me, he guides me, he comforts me.

May I challenge you to do this? Take a day and fast, and meditate on this Psalm. Jesus promises us that if we go to our quiet place and pray to our Father who sees us in secret, that our heavenly Father will reward us (Matthew 6:6). That was my reward: experiencing that love, that presence!

Delivered at Bethel United Church of Christ, Mountain View, NC 3/14/2001.
1) Sean Michael Lucas. His excellent sermon can be heard here

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