Sunday, July 22, 2018
Full Service Audio
I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on the most famous Psalm of King David, Psalm 23, this summer because, while I’ve used this passage in the context of a funeral service many, many times – and even once for a wedding – I’ve somehow never managed to explore the significance of the text for a regular, Sunday morning worship service. There’s only so much you can say about it during a funeral service, but there is so much depth and beauty to the Psalm, and it has so much relevance for our day-to-day lives right now, and not just for our experiences of death and bereavement.
Psalm 23 is full of vivid images that so many of us can relate to and that paint a picture of our life and walk with God. The image of God as a shepherd is one we’re quite familiar with – we know that Jesus also said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” differentiating himself from the many bad shepherds who are self-serving, as the shepherd who truly loves his sheep. In Psalm 23, David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
Now, whenever a preacher talks about the Lord being our shepherd, we’re faced with the uncomfortable reality of comparing us – the people – to sheep, which most of us think of as slobbering, dirty, dumb animals who we think only exist to be shaved to make our clothes or slaughtered to make our dinner. But sheep are not that dumb – I’m told that’s just a nasty rumour started by cattle farmers because sheep don’t behave like cows. While you drive cattle to move them (often with a prod or using dogs who nip at their heels), sheep prefer to be led, and they will gladly walk along behind someone who loves them, but will not go where someone else hasn’t gone first. Not so dumb after all, eh?
So, we know that God is our Good Shepherd, who loves his sheep and leads them with great tenderness and care; but I want to spend some time this morning exploring some of the other beautiful and vibrant images found in this well-loved Psalm. The images of “green pastures” and “still waters,” for example, are especially meaningful to me, as someone who grew up out in the country; but I think for anyone these images can bring up happy memories of peaceful, carefree times.
My childhood house was just on the outskirts of the small town of Elora, ON and was surrounded by green pastures – hay fields, corn fields, grasslands, willow trees and cedar trees, and about a half-acre of lawn with a big vegetable garden, tended by my mother. (When she wasn’t looking, I’d get into the garden and pop a few fattened peapods off the plants and crack them open to eat the ripe, raw sweet peas!) In my mind I kind of imagine that this may be what the Garden of Eden was like!
I loved to go outside and lie down in these green pastures; I’d lie on my back in the hayfield or on the grass, and feel the earth under my back and the sun on my face, and the gentle, cooling breeze; and I’d look up at the expanse of blue sky, often with beautiful white clouds that looked good enough to eat! And sometimes I’d imagine what was above the clouds, or how big Heaven must be, and how small I was; but often I wouldn’t really think of anything in particular – I’d just experience the wonder of the Universe. For me, it was an incredibly happy, peaceful, safe feeling.
You don’t have to have grown up in the country to know what I’m talking about – probably many of you have had similar experiences as children lying on the lawn, or in a park, or when you were camping or at the cottage, staring up at the sky without a care in the world!
“The Lord is my shepherd: there is nothing that I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.”
“Still waters” is another beautiful image that David uses to evoke the feeling of peace and tranquility that life with God brings. Water, in the Christian tradition, is a symbol of life, of rebirth, of salvation, of being cleansed and refreshed and made new.
The calming effects of water are well-known: that’s why so many spas offer water therapies, and meditation or sleep CDs and apps have the sounds of rainfall, or babbling brooks or ocean waves. (At first, they make you have to pee, but once you get past that, the sounds of water are very peaceful.)
Water can connect us with God in many ways – when you see the force of the water at the top of Niagara Falls as it rushes toward the cliff, it evokes a sense of great beauty mixed with awe and wonder (even terror): this is a quality that philosophers such as Kant would call “sublime;” and you can’t help but reflect on the power of God and our helplessness in the face of that power.
But it’s not only the power of water that connects us with God. There is something serene and deeply spiritual about the stillness of a lake at dawn, when you’re at the cottage having coffee on the dock; or camping in Algonquin Park; or even strolling alongside Lake Ontario with the Toronto Skyline in the distance. No matter how stressed out, agitated or worried we may be, being in the presence of still water “restores our souls.” The Psalmist David knew that; knew that this is the place of perfect peace that God takes us to when we walk with Him and we let Him lead the way.
For many of us, green pastures and still waters are where our minds go when someone tells us to think of our “happy place!” They were for David too, because this was where he would always take the sheep that were entrusted to his care.
So, David begins the Psalm by calling these kinds of images to mind and recalling these kinds of memories, of God being the one who guided David to these places of calm, peace and safety, as though he were a helpless lamb under God’s loving care. “The Lord is my shepherd…He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” As with last week’s Psalm 85, and many of the Psalms, the important starting point for David is who God is. Once we have it clear in our minds who God is – the loving shepherd who knows how to take care of us - only then do we dare to look at the other circumstances of our lives. So it is with that image in mind that David then turns to the next image, which is the Valley of the shadow of death.
David knew that in his life – both as a shepherd and as God’s anointed king – there would be troubled times: times of fear, times of uncertainty. As a shepherd, he may have to fight off a wolf at any moment. He would be called on to selflessly protect his sheep from danger just as God protected him. As King, David knew that at any moment, someone may try to take his life; and not just enemies, and not just in battle. Even King Saul, who David loved, threw a spear at him and chased him through the countryside seeking to kill him; even David’s own son, Absalom, tried to kill his father, wanting to usurp the throne.
David knew fear and he knew heartbreak. He knew that being God’s Anointed King did not exempt him from adversity, but because of who God is – His loving shepherd – the adversity would not have the last word in his life. That’s why he calls it – not the valley of death – but the valley of the shadow of death; because we know that a shadow cannot hurt us.
Bethlehem – the city of David – is located in the Judean desert in Israel. The area where David would have been tending his sheep was known for a meteorological phenomenon known as a “rain shadow effect.” In this area, the valley is protected from high winds and storms by a mountain. Although the people there might stand in the shadow of the clouds, they don’t feel the effects of the storm, the strong winds and the rain, because the mountain causes them to lose their power.
Now, this is desert area, and it’s not likely where David would be feeding his flocks…he’d be on the other side of the mountain, where the abundant precipitation provides green pastures and still waters! But even – he says – even if I do wander away like a lost sheep; even if I do find myself on the other side of the protective mountain, in the dry and barren desert, in the valley of the shadow of death; even then I will fear no evil, for God is with me. The clouds produce a shadow, but they are not the storm. The valley of the shadow of death may feel like death itself, but it’s not, because even there God is with me…and who is God? The one who leads us back to the green pastures and the still waters.
This knowledge of God helped him to walk through fearful situations in life with confidence – not necessarily without experiencing fear; not with confidence in his own abilities – but with full confidence in the power of God. He doesn’t say “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear,” but “I will fear no evil.” Even when feeling afraid, he knows that there is no evil that is as strong as God –evil is a shadow over us, but not something that has any power over those who walk with God.
Even though we know that, it’s not a sin to feel fear, despite what some Christians may believe. Some would say that feeling fear demonstrates a lack of faith, and I have worried about that myself…if I fear getting cancer, if I fear death, or getting into a car accident, or some other bad thing happening, does that mean that I don’t trust God enough?
Fear is a natural emotion that is part of the human experience and is sometimes a good thing because sometimes it actually protects us from real danger. But how could it be a sin to feel fear, if Jesus himself was sinless, but in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faced his impending execution, the Bible tells us he became fearful and agitated (Matthew 26:37)? So there can be no sin or shame in feeling fear if Jesus himself did.
You may be experiencing a time of fear or worry or anxiety in your life right now. It is okay to feel fear! It is natural to feel fear – even for you tough guys out there, who have sadly been taught that you’re supposed to “man up.” Sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to admit that we feel fear; to acknowledge our vulnerability – to acknowledge that we actually need the Lord to be our Shepherd.
It’s what we do when we feel afraid that matters: do we become frantic and self-defensive and try to control everything around us? Or do we turn our eyes to our good shepherd, and lean into him, take a deep breath, and put one foot in front of the other, walking the way that he leads us, trusting Him, even though for a time he may lead us through the valley of the shadow of death?
One of my favourite poems, which I found a few years ago in a book of anecdotes (with no author named, unfortunately) is inspired by the words of the 23rd Psalm, and reflects this very human feeling of fear. (I quite often read this at funerals.) It says:
In “pastures green?”
Who knoweth best, in kindness leadeth me
In weary ways, where heavy shadows be.
And by “still waters?”
No, not always so;
Ofttimes the heavy tempests round me blow,
And o’er my soul the waves and billow go.
But when the storm is loudest;
And I cry aloud for help,
The Master standeth by,
And whispers to my soul, “Lo, ‘tis I.”
So where He leads me, I can safely go,
And in the blest hereafter I shall know,
Why in His wisdom He hath led me so.
As Christians, we are not guaranteed a life that is always free of struggles, or free of fearful situations. Our lives are not always green pastures and still waters. But God promises to always care for us and to walk with us through our trials to the abundant life He has prepared for us. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil – for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Even while walking through the dark valleys of life, God is there, providing comfort. And the hope that keeps us walking is found in the knowledge that we don’t remain in the dark valleys. God does not lead us into the valley and leave us there, rather He leads us through to the other side. When we walk through our dark valleys, trusting in God, following the way of our good shepherd, being comforted by Him, he leads us safely to the other side.
And what is on the other side of our darkest valleys? The final image of Psalm 23 is one of glorious fellowship with God: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Some versions of the Bible translate that last word, “forever,” as “my whole life long.” This is not just a Psalm for funerals, where we think of the rest of forever: forever starts right now. David knew that walking in trust with God when life is green pastures and still waters, and continuing to walk with God when life is dark valleys leads to a glorious communion with God, where God himself is our gracious host. “My whole life long” means that we can be - and are – dwelling in the house of the Lord right now, in this life, and not just later, after we die.
Whatever dark valley you may be walking through at this time – maybe you’re confused about a difficult decision you have to make; maybe you’re experiencing financial difficulties or relationship problems; maybe you’re grieving a loss of someone you love; maybe you have an addiction and are despairing that it may never release its grip on you; maybe you’re worried about a loved one who is sick; maybe you wonder if there is any hope for your future – rest assured that you are not alone!
There is rest and comfort to be found when we lean into God and trust in Him; and there is glorious fellowship and friendship with God to be experienced as we walk with Him through the dark valleys of our lives. Thanks be to God, who is our guide and our hope. Amen.