Saturday, April 28, 2012

Depending on His Good Care - Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
   He guides me along right paths,
    bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23 may be the single most famous chapter in the whole Bible.  Christians and nonChristians alike know and appreciate its images.  Today, I feel the burden of working with this heavy and honored text.  
However, I find some help from a preacher-scholar named James Mays.  He is the former president of the Society of Biblical Literature and the founding editor of the Interpretation commentary series.  But before his chapter on Psalm 23, he wrote, “Any interpretation seems presumptuous.  ... Why undertake to explain a psalm that ... so rightly speaks for us and interprets us?”
  If he can’t interpret this Psalm, then I am not going to even try!  
But maybe like he said, Psalm 23 actually interprets us.  Maybe, we identify with Psalm 23 on such a deep heart-level because it clearly and profoundly speaks the truth of our hearts.  So today, I don’t want to explain Psalm 23.  Instead, I want to let Psalm 23 explain us and our relationship with God.  (I’ve been really helped this week by Phillip Keller’s little book called, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, so much of what I’ll say flows out of that.)
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.  Behind this familiar statement is a humbling truth.  If “the LORD is my shepherd,” then I am a sheep.  This sheep and Shepherd relationship explains so much about us.
First, we are owned.  I am a sheep, and I belong to God, my Shepherd.  I am not my own; I am owned.  We may not like it, but we belong to God.  That is a simple and fundamental truth of reality.  

Second, we are dependent.  One of the realities of sheep is that they are totally dependent upon their shepherd.  A sheep depends on the shepherd for food, water, guidance, and protection.  We are sheep, and we are dependent.
Third, God cares for us.  Being owned by a bad owner is really bad.  Being dependent on an unreliable person is big trouble.  But God is a Good Shepherd.  God cares for us tenderly and faithfully.  
I HAVE ALL THAT I NEED.  We are well familiar with the differences between wants and needs, but like little kids, we need to be reminded again and again.  We have everything we really need.  
The old English translation here is really unfortunate: “I shall not want.”  But in modern English, we could really say, “I shall want.  I shall want all the time.  I shall want this and that and almost everything I see.  But with God as my Shepherd, I already have all that I need.”
HE LETS ME REST IN GREEN MEADOWS.  A sheep will rest only if basic conditions are met.  They must be free from fear, free from aggravations (like flies), free from conflict, and free from hunger.  For just a moment, let’s look at hunger and conflict.  
“A hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and satisfy its gnawing hunger.”
  That’s a perfect picture of our lives when we try to find satisfaction outside of God’s love and care.  On the other hand, a good Shepherd knows where the green grass is, and good sheep will eat deeply in the meadow and find rest in the Shepherd’s care.
But conflict can keep the sheep from resting as well.  Chickens have “the pecking order.”  Sheep have “the butting order.”  They fight over the best ground and the best ewes.  But when the Shepherd walks among the sheep, they all stop fighting and relax in the safety and care of his presence.  God sets our hearts at rest and quiets our need to have more and to be better than our neighbors.  When we trust our Shepherd, we can rest in his love.
HE LEADS ME BESIDE PEACEFUL STREAMS.  Every animal needs water, and every animal feels this need because of thirst.  On a spiritual level, thirst is that itch inside that something is not right.  In The Matrix, Morpheus says it’s “like a splinter in your mind.”  The only water that will satisfy this itchy thirst is the Living Water that Jesus offers.  In his words, “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14).
One day Phillip Keller saw a shepherd leading bunch of sheep down to a beautiful mountain stream with clean, cold, clear water.  But all along the path, some stubborn sheep kept stopping to drink from the muddy puddles that had been stepped in by a thousand hooves.
We are just like that.  Our Great Shepherd is calling us deep into our hearts and into his Word for the Living Water, but we keep trying to quench our thirst with the first mud available.
HE RENEWS MY STRENGTH.  The Hebrew word for “strength” here can also mean, “soul” or “life.”  God restores our souls or returns life to us.  Part of life for shepherds is hunting for stuck sheep.  Sheep can get stuck because they got a little too fat and comfortable and rolled over on their backs and got stuck, or because they got their wool stuck in the bush, or because they wandered away and fell.  No matter how it happens, a good shepherd always goes after the sheep to rescue it.  The shepherd puts it back on its feet and massage its legs to get the blood flowing again.  The shepherd literally gives the sheep another chance at life.
We may be too fat and comfy in our old ways.  We may get stuck in the bushes and thorns of life, or we may wander into trouble and need rescue.  But our Good Shepherd is faithful to find us, to renew our strength, and to restore our souls.  
HE GUIDES ME ALONG RIGHT PATHS, BRINGING HONOR TO HIS NAME.  “If left to themselves [sheep] will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites.  Many of the world’s finest sheep ranges have been ruined beyond repair by over-grazing, poor management and indifferent or ignorant sheep owners.”
We humans are no different.  Left to ourselves, we will destroy our environment, our relationships, and our selves.  We abuse our neighbors, our land, our air, our water, our spouses, our health, and even our kids - all for the sake of short-term benefit or false goods. (Like false gods, false goods are things we think are good, but really aren’t so important).  
The only cure for destructive sheep habits is guidance from the shepherd.  The shepherd guides the sheep to new grounds, to clean waters, and to healthy habits.   Under good guidance, sheep are actually good for their surrounding environments.  When sheep are well tended, the sheep and the surrounding area benefit, and that brings honor to the shepherd.
When we follow our Shepherd in the right paths, everyone benefits.  We are healthier and happier.  Our relationships are better.  Our whole social and physical environment is improved.  When people look at thriving Christians who make our world better, that gives honor to Christ.
EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE DARKEST VALLEY, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID FOR YOU ARE CLOSE BESIDE ME.  Did you catch that change?  It just got personal.  Until now, David has been saying “the LORD” and “He,” but now - in the darkest valley - David says “You.”  Trouble makes God personal.  
We are going to have trouble in life.  Valleys are part of life in this broken, messed up world.  But we live in a post-Easter world.  We live in a world in which Jesus has already experienced and conquered our trouble.  He died and rose again.  As we journey through shadows and darkness, we can continue on because our Shepherd is with us.  We can keep walking through the valley because we know our Shepherd has already walked this way before us, and we can trust him to bring us through.
YOUR ROD AND YOUR STAFF PROTECT AND COMFORT ME.  In traditional shepherding cultures, a good shepherd goes into the bush and pulls up a small tree by the roots.  Then, he carves and whittles that little tree and knot of roots until he has a little club that perfectly fits his hand.  That’s his rod.  The shepherd uses the rod to protect the sheep against wild animals and to discipline any sheep that misbehave.  
The staff is used mainly for guidance - to point the sheep in the right direction or to keep it steady while passing over a difficult spot.  But sometimes, as a shepherd walks along, he will simply hold his staff on the back or side of a favorite sheep.  It’s kind of like holding hands.
We may not always like God’s discipline or guidance, but we always need it.  And when we get the rod or the staff, it reminds us that God is our caring and faithful Shepherd.
YOU PREPARE A FEAST FOR ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES.  We do have enemies.  It does no good to pretend that we don’t.  Just as wolves and lions attack sheep, there are forces of evil in this world that work to gobble us up and to grind us between their claws.  
Even so, our Shepherd defiantly prepares feasts for us in the very presence of our enemies.  We can eat in the Shepherds’ lush pastures without fear of predators.  They cannot touch us as long as we stay with Him.
Our Good Shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.  He gives us his “body” to eat and his “blood” to drink.  And through it all, his purpose is to give his sheep “a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:1-18).  
YOU HONOR ME BY ANOINTING MY HEAD WITH OIL.  Shepherds use oil in three ways.  Oil can be a basic medicine for wounds.  Oil mixed with spices can be a pesticide to ward off flies.  And last, when rams are doing battle for the best ewes, sometimes shepherds will cover their heads with oil.  Then, when the big rams crash into each other, they just slide off without hurting each other.
A few weeks ago, we talked about how anointing someone’s head with oil was a sign of God’s Spirit sanctifying - or making holy.  In ancient Middle Eastern culture, anointing with oil was also a sign of affection and honor - something the host would do for the guest.  
When God anoints us with the Holy Spirit, it works in all of these ways.  God’s Spirit heals our wounds, protects us against the little things that bug us, and increases our social grace and mercy for each other.  God’s Spirit pours out God’s love into our hearts and transforms us from the inside out (Romans 5:5).  
MY CUP OVERFLOWS WITH BLESSINGS.  As God’s Spirit begins to fill us, we begin to see God’s blessings all around us more and more.  The shining sun, the beautiful flowers, the fresh air, the new green leaves, a smile at the market, a good job, loving family, a night of sleep, forgiveness for our sins, a fresh start in life, God’s constant presence and love.  The list goes on and on and on.  Sheep that are well cared for love their shepherd, and when we are living with open eyes and open hearts, we see that our cup overflows with blessings.
SURELY YOUR GOODNESS AND UNFAILING LOVE WILL PURSUE ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE.  This is the voice of a sheep that is confident in his shepherd.  This sheep knows that whatever happens, his shepherd will care faithfully for the sheep.  Not only that, this shepherd knows what he’s doing.  He will bring goodness and mercy and love into the lives of the sheep for as long as they live.  
Are you supremely confident of your Shepherd’s love and care?  Do you have a foundational trust that whatever happens in life, the end result will be God’s goodness and unfailing love evident in your life?  
AND I WILL LIVE IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.  Some people try to interpret the “House of the Lord” as God’s Temple or the modern day Church, but remember that we’re talking about sheep and a Shepherd.  We’re talking about a Shepherd that leads his sheep from field to field, through valleys, along streams, over mountain passes.  In the voice of a sheep, David is saying, “I will live in God’s loving presence forever.  I will always be within reach of his staff.  I will always be under the shelter of his care - within this life and beyond.
When we think of Psalm 23 and our own lives, we get a poignant picture.  We are sheep created and cared for by the Shepherd of the Universe.  Through our own stupidity and stubbornness, we have all left his good care to find our own way.  But this broken world has broken us, and we are in desperate need of help.  The Good News is that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has given his own life to heal us and to set us free.  If we will turn to him and follow him again, he will give us a fresh chance at life.  And in his loving care, we will experience the real life of God.  We can rest secure in his love and faithfulness trusting that God is our Shepherd.  
This is our heart-cry.  This is the primal prayer of our souls.  The Lord is my Shepherd, and I will live in his house forever.
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