Psalm for the Living

“Psalm for the Living”
Psalm 23
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Is there no better way to hear Scripture proclaimed than from the mouth of a child?
Psalm 23 may be the most loved psalm, if not the most familiar passage from the entire Bible…
Nearly every person raised in the church can recite all or part of this song from memory.
Even if you don’t know it by heart, you have certainly heard it read countless times.
It is the most requested Scripture passage to be read at funerals.
These are comforting and hopeful words that often help a grieving family get through a difficult day and make some sense of the passing of their loved one.
I use this passage frequently and love the way that it speaks gently about the care God provides at the time of our passing from one life into the next.
However, because of its familiarity, I think that it’s important for us to examine this text
with fresh eyes…
I believe it is important for us to hear this psalm as a song about living.
It offers rich images about routine activity like eating, drinking, and resting.
It challenges us to seek a new perspective – God’s perspective – that might deepen our sense of the most comforting words ever written.
There are nuances we may have missed…
There are different ways of hearing the language that we may not have noticed…
There is an obvious poetic symmetry that offers balance for our whole lives…
This morning let us open new eyes and ears to discover Psalm 23 as The Psalm for the Living.
Let us pray…
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.
I am not afraid when you walk at my side.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I am home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
Walk with us this morning, Lord, and help us hear your words with fresh ears.
Send us in the right direction and chase after us if we get off track.
We are listening for you now, O Lord…
…Amen
A fresh reading of Psalm 23 really requires us to go back in time a few thousand years…
We need to hear this psalm as the ancients heard it…
Most of us cling to the lofty language of the 1611 King James translation that “maketh” and “leadeth” and “restoreth”…
The problem with this is that it also “changeth” some of the nuance of meaning found in the original Hebrew.
For example:
In the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly 26 words before and after, “you are with me.”
Maybe the psalmist was boldly declaring that “God With Us”
is at the very center of our lives
These are prophetic words for Christians…God with us, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ…
There is Messianic truth in the concept of God with us at the center of life.
The Bible doesn’t promise that God will shield us from trouble…
God doesn’t manipulate life so that bad things never happen to us.
BUT – God’s presence, WITH US, in the midst of our trouble and pain is GUARANTEED!
No wonder the psalmist says: “I shall not want”…
God provides everything we need that is of real and lasting value.
With God at the center of life nothing that matters is missing.
The image of God as Shepherd and us as sheep is palpable…
We can almost feel what it might be like if we hear the original words…
The words for “lie down in green pastures” really mean “to sprawl”…
To be surrounded by the lushness of God’s bounty and to sprawl into it…
To roll around in it like children on the lawn…
Ya know, sheep really aren’t very smart…
Left to their own, they will nibble around from pasture to pasture and wander off until they are lost…
Without an attentive shepherd they will step off a cliff or be devoured by wolves.
If we are sprawled across God’s goodness, we are less likely to wander off.
The “still waters” are better translated “the waters of quietness”…
A place to be still and listen for God…A place where our thirst for God is satisfied…
God is our satisfaction. God is good enough. God exceeds whatever we may think we desire.
Another significant point is that the original is not about the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”
it is “the valley of dark shadow”
We might imagine David fleeing from his enemies and staying in the shadows to avoid detection, all the while not knowing who might be lurking around the next corner.
Yes, this can be a scary and dangerous situation, but it is not overwhelming if we trust God to get us through.
This isn’t an image of certain death; it is an image of LIFE in God’s hands.
That both God’s “rod” and “staff” are a comfort requires our understanding…
The rod is like a slap in the face; it is discipline and correction.
The staff is like a crutch that supports us when we are weak.
They are of equal comfort because we need them both; we need a balance of discipline and help to mold us into the people God wants us to become.
Preparing a “table in the presence of our enemies” isn’t “neener, neener, neener!”
This isn’t about gloating…It’s about showing what God has provided us so that others might see what they too can enjoy by accepting God as the center of their lives.
And, finally, the idea that goodness and mercy will “follow” is really much more urgent…
The word is “hesed” – to pursue…
God’s goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life…
Sounds a lot like prevenient grace…God pursues us and invites us to place him at the center of our lives so that we may dwell in his house for ever and ever.
As comforting as it may be to hear this psalm at someone’s funeral, I hope you now hear it as a psalm for the living…
It implies that God is with us, but God is not ours to own.
The God who shepherds us to life also gives life to the world.
The table to which we are invited is one to which the whole world is also invited.
When you place “God with us” at the center of your life, your every need will be satisfied and there will be no need to be selfish or exclusive about the abundance God offers.
Amen.
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