4th Sunday after Easter – Psalm 23
Vicar Matt Huckel
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,3 he refreshes my soul.He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley of deathI will fear no evil, for you are with me;your rod and your staff, they comfort me.5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23. One of the shortest psalms in the Bible but clearly the most versatile and most loved. If it could be likened to a pop song it would be number 1 in the charts for years on end. If it could be likened to a Swiss army knife, you could pull it out to use in nearly any situation involving danger or perhaps even death. This was certainly the situation when I went to visit a terminally ill elderly lady on placement a few years ago. She was very near death, and I went with the chaplain to see her and pray for her. Having my guitar with me I volunteered to sing something to her if that might help, but the trouble is I had no idea what to sing to someone I hadn’t met or knew much about. And so I pulled out my Swiss Army knife Psalm 23 and decided to sing the old hymn version. When I saw her she was so still and hardly seemed to be breathing. After a brief prayer I began to sing matching the timing of my voice to her chest that was barely rising and falling. I was astonished when suddenly her breathing changed, and her eyes opened wide. I was only on the first verse, and yet her lungs filled with air and she became very alert and her face seemed intense. And as the tones began to slowly fade at the end of the music, so too did her breathing and her eyes closed, and she returned to the peaceful state she once was. There was something about that Psalm, the music and the Holy Spirit that caused her to breathe so deeply. Here was comfort on a plate for her to take in, the assurance of protection and presence of the Lord as she went through those final days.
Our Psalm this morning is a Psalm about movement and transitions, and ultimately about destinations. But as our situations change in our daily lives, so too does our breathing. I have to continually remind myself to breathe deeply when I’m stressed, anxious or worried. Something that really does the job well is an embrace from someone who loves us. In someone’s arms and we can finally let out that long sigh that helps let out all the tension and worry. In verse 4 the Psalmist says that God’s rod and staff will comfort him. The Hebrew word behind comfort literally means to ‘breathe deeply’. He can take deep breaths as he enters a dangerous valley of darkness because he is protected by a shepherd who is actually armed and dangerous. I read an article recently that challenged our gentle pastoral image of a shepherd. In Old Testament times a shepherd was highly skilled, brave, and could take on wild animals such as lions as well as thieves and thugs. Protecting sheep meant survival of a family or society and so a shepherd was the symbol of a strong man who protected his family. It wouldn’t be far off to say ‘The Lord is my Arnold Schwarzenegger’, or from the recent Marvel films: ‘The Lord is my Captain America’. And we certainly get the strong impression that the Lord in our Psalm is in real control.
Firstly our shepherd is such a good provider we lack nothing whatsoever. He is such an assertive leader that he makes us lie down to rest, before we know that we need to. How many of us need someone to nag us to take a holiday? He is such an effective persuader because he makes us turn our life around towards the path he wants us to take. When it says ‘he restores my soul’, the Hebrew behind ‘restore’ also means to ‘turn around or change direction’. When we see a dark dangerous valley ahead we do a runner and scatter like scared sheep. Our shepherd and protector however guides us on a well-trodden path into that valley done by those before us and he throws his rod on the ground each side of the flock to startle us and keep us on the right path. But it’s not easy. Valleys in those days were not only dark and treacherous, they also contained robbers and criminals who would attack, kill and steal. It would be very hard not to have rapid breathing, but our shepherd knows the way and is strong enough to take anything on; we should be able to breathe deeply.
But suddenly the scene of the Psalm changes. There is no obvious destination or safe sheep pen, and now we have the strange scene of someone who is laying down a table to eat in front of a bunch of people wanting to kill him. For a long time I held this image of a man unafraid of anything because of God’s protection but this week I discovered that this table setting with enemies could be what’s known as a ‘shulcan’ which is an old middle eastern custom of a reconciliation meal. Clearly the Psalmist had picked up some enemies along the way, and a way of dealing with that was to have a meal laid on the ground and discuss the offence. If the hurt party accepted the apology then they would eat or drink the offered food showing that there was forgiveness and literally the issue was so forgotten they could pretend it never happened. This is maybe why his cup overflows with joy, and why the Psalmist feels that love and compassion will chase after him all the days of his life, reaching a final destination of being in God’s presence forevermore.
If only life could be like this. Could any of us really invite our worst enemies over for dinner? And if they ate our food would it really mean that everything was going to go well from now on? But note who actually lays the table. It’s God. That means it’s his timing, and his initiative and not ours. Relationship ruptures and especially breakdowns such as divorce are like the darkest valleys one can ever know. It can leave you breathless. Seeing a person at the shops that has an issue with you, can suddenly send your heart racing. No one ever wants to go through the valley, but God is there protecting us from things we may not even know about. When we have to go through them God takes us on safe paths others have trodden, and he also provides help from others along the way. Many times God can provide a table to reconcile but as the saying goes: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’.
We may not be able to control all the outcomes of broken relationships but the good news is that we have the ultimate reconciliation meal: Holy Communion. When we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood at his table all our sin, garbage and mess is gone, as if it didn’t happen. We can’t control or force others to want to fix things in all our relationships but we can go to Jesus to be fixed with him. His mercy and love that we receive enables us to breathe easier when we see someone who is angry with us or bears a deep grudge. We are freed by the Gospel of grace and forgiveness for others because we have received it ourselves. Jesus our strong shepherd, also known as the beautiful shepherd in John’s Gospel is the one who takes care of us in all our pastures and dark valleys. He is the one who helps us breathe deeply, and one day he will receive our last breath in the final valley that takes us to a heavenly pasture that will utterly defy our imagination. We welcome little Adeline to that journey too as she has been washed in Baptism and adopted. The Lord will never leave Adeline, and will always protect her, and he will never leave all of us either. We all want that security, so let us go with Jesus and let his rod and staff comfort us as we sigh a deep breath of relief and intimate trust in him.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley of death
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Sometimes God calls us to go on a path we would rather turn away from and yet he promises his protection and help. What dark valleys has God led you through and how have you experienced those times?
It’s very hard to have a relationship breakdown and a sense of hopelessness about the outcome easily sets in. They can feel like dark valleys with no hope of exit. Have you had moments of God’s peace along that journey? How has God helped you cope and strengthened you?
It would be wonderful if we could all reconcile so easily over a meal. Sometimes it can work others times relationships are too complex. Reflect on the Lord’s timing of moments of healing and reconciliation if any. Have you had experiences of God keeping you safe and secure whilst He works on the other hurt party or individual?