The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; In that society very familiar with sheep and their shepherds, these words would surely have had HUGE meaning & impact… Desperately vulnerable to predators like wolves or to thieves, and needing help to find safe pasture to eat as well as to be kept away from dangers such as crags or cliffs. They would have immediately understood how without the guidance/ protection/ nurturing of their shepherds, sheep could literally not survive. Shepherds would in fact have been responsible for their entire existence!
But I wonder why the Psalmist chose to begin by emphasizing this? What were those early worshippers tempted to believe was responsible for their entire existence? What were they being warned against embracing in the place of God?
Perhaps more relevantly, I wonder: where do we place our Hope? To what do we look mostly to govern us, to control and protect us? What is it that gives our life ultimate meaning? THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION! For some, it seems that it may be maintaining their social media presence? Or checking on how their investments are doing? The status of the bank account? Closer to home, for me, I think I’m probably tempted to believe it’s all about my family and how they are all doing: If they’re OK, I’m OK, if not, I’m not… Or how about my latest health report? While of course most of those things – and others besides – really do matter, the Psalmist begins by saying that it is their sense of Sacred Presence – God – ‘The Lord – who alone – is ultimately their shepherd!’
Most of us have at least SOME sense of God in our lives… But God as our most central guiding, controlling, protecting reality? How dare we allow anything else to denigrate that SACRED CENTRALITY to some optional place of merely marginal religiosity? As if all this God-stuff is simply some cute add-on that we may take seriously, or not, kata our whim. Do we do that? Is God and living lives formed by our spirituality essential to us? It was to the Psalmist! The Lord IS MY SHEPHERD! Nothing else! Which is the whole reason for ‘I SHALL NOT WANT!’
And then they go on to describe what they believe God actually does:
God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul.
THAT, the Psalmist says, IS THE POINT! Notice how it’s not so much that God creates as restores our souls! It’s for us constantly to be coming back to a renewed sense of who we actually are!…which – as Fr Richard Rohr and others have said – is the whole point of all and any religious faith worth its salt! The Psalmist is saying that there are those times when they believe stuff happens and they are FORCED to stop: …lose a job! …lose a loved one! …face a global pandemic! They are saying that wherever they are may perhaps be just about exactly where they need to be, right there where they are being FORCED to ‘…lie down in green pastures, so that some good may emerge! I wonder of that isn’t Paul’s point in Rom.8:28?
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit movement, describes a time when, as a fiery Proselytizing Christian Inquisitionist Warrior, he suffered a major war injury and was forced to spend months convalescing in a sick bed. That, it’s understood, was when he produced the most beautiful Ignatian meditations… Sir Isaac Newton: They say that during the Great Plague of London in 1665 Cambridge University was forced to shut down and Isaac Newton was forced to stay home. It is anecdotally believed that it was during that time of enforced isolation that he invented calculus, parts of optic theory and, while sitting in his garden, saw an apple falling which inspired his understanding of gravity!
Could this Covid-19 virus be a time when we are all being forced to lie down? I wonder what global good may be coming of this? I wonder what recalibration of our lives we can allow our God to help us to be making? What re-setting of priorities? Don’t you just love seeing our Federal and Provincial leaders moved with emotion as they call on us all to kind as we care for one another…?
Did you see that list of daily quarantine questions doing the rounds?
For what am I MOST grateful, today?
…here in my social isolation…
Who am I checking in on, or connecting with, today?
What expectations of ‘normal’ am I letting go of, today?
What beauty am I either creating, cultivating, or inviting in, today?
God leads me in paths of righteousness for God’s own name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. …this beautiful imagery both of God’s rod and God’s staff – perhaps representing discipline and guidance. The shepherd’s rod which was used as a fighting stick for protection, to beat back any threat – as well as a measure for guidance – in the sense of how the Greek word ‘kanon’ meaning ‘rod’ was used as a yardstick by which we measure our lives – from which we get the concept of ‘Canon’ as in the guiding ‘Canon’ of scripture! And the shepherd’s staff which was used for helping sheep who may have stumbled or slipped into dangerous situations…
And then the verse: ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Notice how Psalm 23 is not suggesting that all our enemies go away. So often, those things that threaten us remain – kind of like the thorn in Paul’s flesh that he learnt to live with, or like the wheat and the tares which Christ later teaches in Matthew 13 are to be allowed to grow together – the point is that we are given to thrive DESPITE the presence of those threats!
Thou anointest my head with oil, My cup overflows. This describes us believing we are not only loved but chosen – that’s what the anointing of our heads with oil is all about: as with the old prophet Samuel anointing a young David, or even Jesus as God’s Christ – ‘THE ANOINTED ONE’ So too us: We are – according to 1Pt.2:9 – a royal priesthood, a chosen nation…
And then there’s the attitude that we find forming within us looking ahead…
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. FOLKS, WE ARE LEFT WITH HOPE! As the overriding hallmark at the very heart of all believers’ orientation… And so as we close today, set to deal with whatever we are currently facing, hear again this beautiful and comforting scripture:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2020.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon summary with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.