Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I 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 mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, about two years ago, I went hiking with a small group across the West Bank of Palestine, the area within the center of Israel that has been mostly reserved for non-Israelis. We followed what is called the “Nativity Trail” – the path that Mary and Joseph would have taken from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or at least some parts of it (http://www.toursinenglish.com/). I’d say about 80-100 miles of walking. One thing I learned from this experience is that Bible people must have been in shape, or at least better shape than I was when the walking started! From green, lush fields on the north to the deserts of the south, it is amazing how a climate can change in such a short distance.
We never went a day without seeing shepherds and sheep, no matter where we were. Over thousands of years, this entire area has known about sheep and goats. They are everywhere. It might be one of the first places on earth where sheep and goats were domesticated. Sheep and goats can provide a living for people who live in harsh places. They can give you protein and clothing. Even today, the Heifer Project probably gives away more sheep and goats that any other farm animals. There are thousands of shepherds living in the hills of Palestine.
So, it’s natural that one of the more common themes in scripture is that God’s people are a flock of sheep or goats. When David wrote Psalm 23 about 3,000 years ago, he was probably thinking about his own life as a shepherd. He was having exactly the same experience as the shepherds in Palestine today, except for cell phones and the satellite dishes on their tents.
The earliest attempts at paintings of Christ show him as a young man with a lamb on his shoulders. And he would tell a parable about leaving 99 sheep to find one that’s missing. If we’re the one that’s lost, he searches for us. He called himself “the good shepherd,” compared with shepherds who may not be so good (John 10:14). If you are lost, he will not give up searching for you.
I asked our Muslim hiking guide – does that make sense, that a shepherd would leave the flock to go find one sheep? And he said yes. By instinct, sheep will mostly stick together; if one is gone, it means it’s in trouble, that something is wrong – and sheep are expensive. They are valuable. The shepherd really can’t afford to lose one.
So, now I have this image in my mind, actually a whole collection of images. Shepherds with sheep or goats. Usually about 20 sheep or goats. Usually one shepherd. Sometimes young, sometimes older. Sometimes with a dog. Always with a stick of some kind (that’s how you know they are a shepherd – the have a 4-foot stick). Coming over a hill. That’s what they do all day. It might sound boring or unchallenging to us, but their family’s livelihood depends on them, and if they aren’t watching the sheep and giving the sheep what they need, everything falls apart.
We like Psalm 23, don’t we. This could be the most well-used part of the bible beside the Lord’s Prayer. When I was in second grade, I received my bible in front of the church and recited Psalm 23 from memory. When I’ve done services at nursing homes and read Psalm 23 out loud, it seems to be something people can remember when other memories are gone. Amazing Grace, Christmas carols, and Psalm 23. I almost always include it in funeral and memorial services. It brings comfort and peace. This is mostly because of the first few lines. But it’s also an adventure story, so get ready for some action.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
We need God to watch out for us because we are in trouble on our own. Big trouble. God takes us to green pastures and still waters. On our own, we have no idea where those things are: Green pastures and still waters. Spiritual food and water. The places where your soul is restored. We have to trust God to lead us to those places.
Up north in Palestine/Israel, it’s easy to see where the food and water is, it’s so green and lush. The farther south we walked the more I wondered, how do sheep and shepherds cope in the desert? Not much food or water there. Not much of anything there but rocks! But I just didn’t know where to look. There are springs of water in the desert, sometimes cisterns where the shepherds have collected rainwater in the winter, little patches of grass near these places, and your shepherd knows where to take you. It’s best to follow. Without the shepherd, you’re in trouble. But God will take you to the place where you can be restored.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Now the adventure starts – God is taking us somewhere. It would have been nice to stay in the green pastures by the still waters, but we’re moving. There are forces out to get us that we have no control over – and may not even know about. Nature is full of predators, and humans are no different from any other animal. We need protection! Maybe even from each other! So God leads us in the right paths… for his name’s sake – not for our name’s sake, but for his. God has to be known as the one who will take care of us – God has a reputation to uphold, for the sake of his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The shepherd is taking us to the green pastures and the still water, but we have to walk through the valley to get there. The valley is the place where you don’t want to be. At sunset, that’s where it gets dark first. The valley is where predators hide in caves and behind rocks.
We slept with Bedouins for a couple of nights in a big tent. One night, after our usual meal of chicken and rice, a few of us started throwing our chicken bones in the campfire. Our hosts asked us not to do that because the smell would attract animals we didn’t want. Maybe that’s the verse in the psalm we can relate to the best – we all have that dark valley where the “wild things are.”
So many of us walk into worship in a worried frame of mind, reliving that bad experience from last week or last year, afraid it will happen again. The valley was so dark. Someone here is in the valley right now.
Walking through that valley it gets so dark, you don’t know if you can make it through, it’s pitch-black dark and you’re breathing fast and your heart is racing and it’s hard to see what’s ahead and you start to lose your orientation… And it gets so scary that you can forget that the shepherd is right there, walking with you.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me. It got so scary, that you stopped talking about God and started talking to God. God, you are with me. God was with you all along.
And of course, this is what God wanted all along: What God has wants is a relationship with you. God wanted you to speak, so he God can have conversation with you – a relationship! It’s been a long walk and it’s about time you said something!
And now you’re at God’s table. We step into the tent and look… there’s an enormous pile of food (you’d better like chicken and rice!). And…. we are not alone! We were even less alone than we thought! You’re having a meal with all the other scared sheep – and enemies. God doesn’t eliminate the enemies; God takes away the fear of enemies. We can eat at the table in peace, even if the enemies are there. And your cup is overflowing. This is the part I really like – the overflowing cup. Just when you think you’ve got enough – God gives you more. When, God, when! Enough already! In the presence of adversity, in the presence of major trouble, in the presence of enemies, God gives you more than you were expecting. When the dark times come, remember that overflowing cup.
And now, it’s at this meal that God anoints us, which means we are chosen by God for a special purpose. In those times, only special people were anointed with oil. People with a special calling – a special purpose. The oil is usually scented – to make you smell better after a long scary walk. It’s a comfort smell. It’s all around you; it permeates you. It’s an embrace from God. It’s a step of faith to let God touch you with the oil – to absorb God through faith.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
The sheep who are worshiping in the house of God don’t have to worry. When you are with God, you are home. The green pastures and the still waters are nice, but the safest place is in the presence of God, even though God the Shepherd may give a nudge with the rod and the staff every now and then. That’s better than being vulnerable to the wild beasts who would love to be having you for dinner tonight. But you can breathe deeply. You’re safe. This was all about getting you to trust God, to give yourself to the Good Shepherd, to surrender to the care of Christ.
Psalm 23 was written by somebody on their way from one place to another, somebody who knew the good things of life as well as pain and suffering, somebody who knew that without God, they were in a dangerous place. The valley may not be something that you are walking through today, but you will. The people in this room represent many dark valleys. God knows that you have been through a dark valley; you may be there today.
None of us gets out of life without walking through the valley, but it’s clear that God doesn’t intend for us to stay there forever. The valley of the shadow is something we all go through with God, with Christ, and with each other. Let your faith be an encouragement to someone else this week. Ask God for that opportunity. Remember that there is a green pasture and still water waiting for you. God will take you there, and your soul will be restored. It’s a promise.
O God, there’s danger everywhere. We lock our houses and our cars and we never talk to strangers. But the more we hide the more dangerous the world gets and the more frightened we become. We forget that in all places and in all things, you are ready to give us the security we need. We are so preoccupied, we lock you out too.
Show us what it means to be people in your family, sheep in your flock together, depending on you together. Give us faith in your Son together; give us a new vision for worship together. Use us to make our world a safer place. Let there be at least one pocket of resistance to the temptation give in to the violence and terrorism we see all around us. Amen.