A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Psalm 23.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge Beatles fan. I know I don’t look old enough, but my older sister loved them, and I caught it from her. Whether it’s their early stuff, Love, love me do, She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah, all the way to Let it Be and the Long and Winding Road, I can’t get enough. A lot of contemporary music is just rubbish. A lot of rock or pop is just musical pornography, but the Beatles make me feel young again.
That’s why I always get a little nervous when I hear someone try to sing a Beatles’ song. It doesn’t matter how famous or how talented they are, they are always competing against my memory, my nostalgia, my idea of how a Beatles’ song should go. So I always get nervous because no matter how hard they try, no matter how well they do, I’m just afraid that they are going to make the song worse. I’m afraid that they are going to ruin it.
That’s why I always get a bit nervous when I’m preaching on Psalm 23. Because I can tell you that when I’m visiting someone in hospital and they are afraid for their life and they are reaching out for strength and comfort from the Scriptures it’s usually Psalm 23 that they turn to. And when I’m conducting a funeral and people are groping for hope and light in the midst of the darkness of grief, they often want the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord’s my shepherd, I will not be in want.” It just has to be the most famous chapter in the whole Bible as well as a lot of people’s favourite. So I can’t help feeling nervous when I’m preaching on it, because I think that in a lot of people’s minds, I can only make it worse. I’m afraid that I’m just going to ruin it. But here goes anyway.
The Lord is my shepherd.
Australia is the country that rides on a sheep’s back. So most of us are familiar with the great sheep stations of the Australian outback. Tens of thousands of sheep roaming tens of thousands of acres of barren land, hemmed in by fences and driven by dogs or quadbikes or choppers. But before the wide availability of barbed wire fencing in the 19th century, fences were too expensive and not sufficient to hem in such large flocks. So for centuries before that, smaller flocks were cared for by shepherds. A shepherd’s job was to provide his sheep with four necessities: food, water, shelter, and protection from wild animals. He knew his sheep by sight. He knew their idiosyncrasies. He knew when one of them was missing. And he probably knew where to find it. He led them from the front instead of driving them from behind. They trusted him and they followed him.
David, who wrote this Psalm, had been a shepherd as a boy. And when he thought of what the Lord had done for him, and of what the Lord had provided for him, he turned to this picture that still strikes a chord today.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.
It is more than just a promise of what we think we need, green pastures, quiet waters, representing the necessities of life, food and water. But it is the promise of everything we actually need, of all that we could possibly want, including rest, renewal, the restoration of all we are. Not just a busy day and enough food to stuff my face with and enough hydration so I don’t pass out. But it is an abundant life. It is our creator’s promise that he will provide the fulfilment of his plans for his creation. Peace. Harmony. All in alignment with his will and his good pleasure. The world thinks it chases after pleasures. But what it chases after is only an illusion, pleasures that cannot last, that cannot bring lasting fulfilment. The real tragedy of the life of sin is not that it wants so much, but that it is satisfied with so little. When all that we could possible ever need or want is the gift of the blessing of our good shepherd. The world imagines that happiness is for sale, when the truth is that happiness is free in a life in harmony with the will of our creator.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
David had been a shepherd in the land of Israel. It is a rugged hilly place. Arable land is rare and pasture can be distant. It isn’t a desert. It’s not that it never rains. But rainfall can be patchy so that the flock must often travel over that rocky terrain to the places where the pastures are green and the waters are still. It is a reminder that the whole of life is a journey. We experience moments of rest and renewal in between periods of wandering in dry places for the soul. Where we thirst for life and ache for joy and hunger for justice. But along all these paths our good shepherd leads us along the right paths. Those paths are right because we are where we belong because the Lord leads us and we are with him. Where his will prevails and we live in harmony with our creator.
We do it for our own good but more importantly for his name’s sake. And he does it for his name’s sake as well. Not that he doesn’t care for us. But he cares for us because he cares for his purposes in the world he has made. So that evil and wickedness and sin may be banished and his creation restored. He does it for our good but also for his name’s sake. He isn’t behind us driving us with his dogs so that we are the first to go into harm’s way. But along every path he leads us.
This is what the gospel teaches us. That the Lord Jesus, our good shepherd, has trod every path of life. Laid in a manger. Raised in an ordinary home. Learned a trade. Walked the dusty paths. Treated as mad by his family. Despised by the leaders as a glutton a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners a trouble maker, a blasphemer. Abandoned by his disciples. Condemned to the cross. Laid in a stranger’s tomb. “My God, my God,” he cried as he died, “why have you forsaken me.” A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Who knew what it was to be hungry and thirsty and tired and sad. Who drank the bitter cup that his Father handed him. It was no accident, but this was the right path that the Spirit led him along in order for him to become the source of blessing for many. He does not drive us where he is not willing to go, but he calls us to follow him along his Father’s right paths where he has already been.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for your rod and staff they comfort me.
The valley of the shadow of death is a place where the fear of death comes close. It is a place we must all visit at least one more time in life if we haven’t already. Speaking personally, I’ve been afraid I was going to die three times and one of those times I was right. I was having an x-ray to find a kidney stone and they were going to inject me with a dye to show it up. “Are you allergic to anything?” the kind people asked. “Are you sure you aren’t allergic to anything? Are you absolutely certain that no one in your family is allergic to anything? We only ask because some people experience a mild reaction when we inject the dye.”
“No, no, no,” I assured them. “I’ll be absolutely fine. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, seriously, allergies only happen to the weak and inferior.” So the dye went in and I stopped breathing. And I have to say that a medical centre is almost the perfect place to stop breathing. An injection of adrenaline and I was fine half an hour later. I didn’t die, but believe me, when you stop breathing, the fear of death comes very close. It was the valley of the shadow of death. Where life is drained of all colour and fear and alarm are on every side. And, please, feel free to share your own story over morning tea. But if you haven’t been there yet, you will one day.
But even there, says David, he will not be afraid. Why? Because he is only there because the Lord’s right path has led him there and it means that the good shepherd is with him, and even if he can’t see him, he can hear the tap of the Lord’s staff and feel Lord’s rod upon his back. The Lord is with us. He only calls us to follow him. And where we follow, he is already there. So that every path that leads into the valley of the shadow of death will just as surely go through and lead us out.
You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
In the rest of David’s psalm the picture changes. No longer is the lord our shepherd. Instead, he is the host of a great banquet. And David is his guest at his table. It reminds us that the kingdom that we are invited to enter, that we are commanded to join and to be a part of, isn’t like work or school or prison but a party. A banquet. A feast. A place of joy and singing and dancing and pleasure. What we have been promised for in heaven is not a life of idleness on clouds playing harps but the wedding party of the Lord Jesus who will be united as one with his bride, the church. The world believes that only Satan knows how to party. But they are wrong. Satan knows how to promise, but he cannot deliver. And all his ways lead to loss and regret and endless sorrow. Do not believe his lies, because only our creator knows what we really want and need.
At this feast in the kingdom, there is a cup. Now people talk about the cup that is half full or half empty when they are gauging people’s personality. Optimists look at the cup and see it half full, because they are looking on the bright side of life. They focus on what they have, not on what they never had or no longer have. A pessimist looks at the same cup and says that it is half empty. They don’t see the water. They only see the air. Because they focus on what they do not have.
But David is neither an optimist or a pessimist but a realist who knows that every cup in the kingdom is full of blessing and overflowing. For the Lord is a host in the middle eastern culture. If you haven’t ever enjoyed middle eastern hospitality, you haven’t lived yet, because the most dangerous thing to do when you are enjoying middle eastern hospitality is to empty your plate, because you are just asking for more and they will keep filling your plate and it is rude to say no. The only way to escape without exploding is to leave a little on your plate and apologise that you aren’t ready for more because you haven’t finished what you’ve had.
The cup of God’s blessing in his kingdom isn’t half full or half empty but full to the top and overflowing. I mean, do you fully appreciate what it means to enjoy the forgiveness of your sins, and to be adopted into God’s family as his children and to be the vessel of his Spirit and to be led by the truth of his Word and to be invited to walk in the footsteps of Christ and to be welcomed into the fellowship of his church and to enjoy the privilege of prayer.
Too often we are dragged reluctantly to prayer like being called to the principal’s office at school, instead of rushing to our heavenly Father’s presence like rushing home after the last day of school. Too often we are miserable like prisoners on a hunger strike because we are avoiding the one thing that will bring us our soul’s delight: the presence of our Lord in prayer. Where our cup is full and overflows. Reminding us that we have not only been blessed, but blessed to be a blessing to others. To forgive as we’ve been forgiven. To give as we’ve been given. To love as we’ve been loved as the Lord’s love fills the cup of our hearts and overflows into all our relationships.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the Lord’s house forever.
The devil promises much: wealth, fame, and freedom. But none of these are his to give. They belong to the Lord. The devil can only entice us to take shortcuts to these blessings that lead to dead ends. The Lord’s right paths, however, lead to these two great promises. For now and forever. Firstly, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life. For when we follow the good shepherd, the Lord of goodness, the Lord of mercy, then he is with us and his goodness and mercy is always with us.
But wait, there’s more. And secondly, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Because wherever else the Lord’s right paths lead, they lead to him, so that where he is, we may be also.
What this all means is that the Lord Jesus is our good shepherd who laid down his life for us, because we belong to him and he belongs to us. And having laid it down he took it up again so that the dark valley that we must all pass through does not end in death, but in life. He is our good shepherd. Wherever he leads us, whether through the valley of joy or the dark valley of fear, he is with us, leading us from the front to our journey’s destination which is his eternal presence. All we need in this life and for the life to come.