The Power of a Song III

July 22, 2018 Speaker: Matt Benton Series: The Power of a Song

Passage: Psalm 23

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  In the history of poetry, these might be the most famous lines ever written. What images, feelings, thoughts come to mind when I say the words the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want? Do imagines of home, of family, of the faith of a parent or grandparent come to mind?  Does the image of being comforted during a time of grief?  Does a sense of unwavering faith and hope? 

Songs have the power to do that to us.  Poems have the power to do that to us.  Art has the power to do that to us.  There are things from my childhood that can just make me feel happy and safe and joyful.  Like some of the movies I watched over and over when I was a kid: The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, Little Big League, and Space Jam.  These movies are not nearly good enough to be remembered the way they are in my heart.  And yet, whenever I see one of them on TV I’m instantly transported to being a happy kid who spent summers with friends at the pool. 

Growing up, during dinner my mom would put on a Garth Brooks album.  It’s just what we did.  And on long road trips my mom would play Garth Brooks cassettes in our van as we drove down 95.  When I hear old Garth Brooks songs, like deep cuts and B sides, there’s a feeling of happiness and nostalgia that comes over me.  I’m a kid having my mom’s mashed potatoes.  I’m a kid driving down 95 towards North Carolina. 

Songs, movies, art can connect us to our past.  They can create us in feelings and memories and resonances.  They can transport us to places and make us feel things. 

For many Christians, Psalm 23 has that power.  For many people, some of whom might no longer have faith but have grew up with this Psalm, these words are comforting, beautiful, and creates a sense of hope and faith and love. 

There are also people who hear Psalm 23 and it carries different memories, different resonances.  They remember this Psalm being said at a loved ones funeral.  This Psalm carries with it the sadness of grief and loss. Yes it is hopeful, yes it is beautiful. But it reminds them of the people that were such an integral part of their lives that are no longer here.  It reminds them of the hole, the space in their life that they long to still be occupied. 

We’re going to talk about Psalm 23 this morning and from the start I want to acknowledge that as powerful as this Psalm is, equally as powerful might be the memories or things or times you associate with this Psalm.  Maybe you remember your mother or grandmother reciting this Psalm from memory and it is, for you, the encapsulation of what faith is.  Maybe you remember a Pastor reciting this Psalm as you said goodbye to your mother or grandmother and this encapsulates what it is to grieve and suffer loss.  Maybe you don’t have any associations with this Psalm and right now are feeling a sense of loss for events and experiences you never had.  Whatever feelings you have as I read this Psalm, just feel them. Just experience them.  Let them wash over you.  And then we will talk about what it is that creates these feelings and experiences, what it is behind the Psalm that makes it the among the most powerful, certainly the most popular, and the most quoted of all the Psalms. 

Psalm 23:1-6

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will 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. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Now let’s go back through. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 

The bulk of this Psalm is an extended metaphor.  Metaphors by nature compare two things that are not related for the sake of the one defining the other.  It’s been World Cup season which means we have heard things like Christiano Ronaldo is the LeBron James of soccer.  Ronaldo and LeBron are nowhere near the same person, in fact there aren’t many points of comparison between them.  Except for the fact that they are both among the best ever to play their respective sports and their physical dominance, we just haven’t seen athletes like them in soccer and basketball, is a key to their dominance.

When the Psalmist says the Lord is my shepherd he’s employing a metaphor.  But he needs to explain the ways in which God is like a shepherd because there are many ways in which God is not like a shepherd. Shepherds stayed out with the animals in the fields 24/7 so they were smelly, dirty, and unkempt.  Being a shepherd was not really a prized profession in ancient times.  There’s a story where the prophet Samuel goes to find the next king of Israel and God sends him to a man who has a number of sons.  And all the elder sons are paraded in front of Samuel and Samuel sees some potential in the group, but God doesn’t pick any of them.  He says to the father don’t you have any other sons?  And the father says there is still the youngest but he is out with the animals.  Being a shepherd was the task given to the lowest, to the one who couldn’t say no.

 

So saying God is like a shepherd is a metaphor that needs defining.  Which is precisely what the Psalmist does next.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

We got part of the definition in the first part I read and here we get it in full. God is like our shepherd in that he takes care of us the way a shepherd cares for sheep.  A shepherd’s job was to ensure that the sheep of his fold where well cared for.  That they wanted for nothing.  When they needed rest, the shepherd called them to rest.  When they needed water, the shepherd brought them to water.  When a sheep was hurt or sick, the shepherd oversaw their care until they were restored. 

Now here’s the deal friends, we should hate this metaphor.  Because in this metaphor God gets to be the good shepherd and you know what we get to be?  Sheep. And sheep are dummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmb. Sheep are some of the dumbest animals there are.  In fact the fluffy sheep that we have that make us wool and we can make pictures of using cotton balls don’t exist in the wild.  They don’t exist outside of protected conditions offered by human beings. Wild sheep are thinner, have much shorter hair, and have giant curved horns.  And their hair is auburn or brown.  Not the cute things you let your kids feed at the petting zoo. 

The reason that sheep that we would recognize couldn’t exist outside of human protection is partly due to the fact they have no natural ways of defending themselves and also because they are really dumb.  They will wander off right into danger if left unattended.  So when the Psalmist talks about the shepherd leading the sheep in right paths it is precisely because sheep lack direction. And the ways in which they would lead themselves will more often than not lead them right into danger.

When we talk about God being our shepherd, when we talk about Jesus being the good shepherd, how often do we think of ourselves as sheep?  When we say we need God to lead us in right paths how much are we acknowledging our own inability to lead ourselves? 

The domesticated sheep, were it not for human domestication and protection, would not exist in the same form it is now.  It either have been devoured by predators or it would have had to adapt.  It would have had to mutate.  It would have had to physically change to be able to defend itself, to be more agile, to hide itself from the threats nature provides.

How often do we realize this is precisely the case with us?  If God did not provide for our needs, if God was not in our lives, if God wasn’t leading us, healing us, and loving us, where would we be?  Would we become changed, mutated?  Would we hide ourselves away lest we get hurt?  Would we develop ways of hurting others before we ourselves got hurt? Would we become more agile, leaving people, places, or situations before we were hurt?  In my life, I have done all those things.  I have become more defensive, I have put up guards and built walls.  I have become agile, able to sense the possibility of my being hurt so that I can leave preemptively. 

When God is our shepherd we develop an ability to trust.  To risk.  To be vulnerable.  Being in a herd, being in an open pasture is to be vulnerable.  You are out in the open, in full view of predators, just sitting there hanging out.  Being in a herd in a pasture is to trust.  It is to trust that the shepherd will keep the things that can harm you at bay. Keep them away from you.  And that even if ill should befall you, the shepherd will make you whole again.

It is this feeling, this sense that the Psalmist turns to next.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The way some of you have heard this translated is that even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.  You see, this Psalm doesn’t suggest that being in God’s fold means life will be fine.  It doesn’t mean that our existence is safe forever in green pasture and beside still waters.  Threats exist.  There are dark valleys.  Following the good shepherd, being in the fold doesn’t mean we won’t face danger. Or threat.  Love and trust don’t promise safety and security.  What it does mean is that we won’t fear.  As Brenda put it so wonderfully last month, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but it’s fear.  Having faith in our shepherd doesn’t mean we insist that harm won’t befall us or we doubt our safety; it means we don’t fear walking through the darkest valley.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

In this next line the danger and the threats still remain.  We are still in the presence of enemies.  We are still surrounded by those who seek to do us harm. But what does our God, our shepherd do? Prepares a table.  There is a table prepared in the presence of our enemies. 

When I think of a table prepared I think of peace.  I think of comfort.  I think of love.  When do we sit at prepared tables?  It is in the company of loved ones, be they friends or family.  The love, the friendship, and the respect that is needed in order for someone to prepare a table for you are great.  A prepared table takes time.  A prepared table takes effort.  A prepared table takes space and freedom to prepare the table.  

Could you imagine sitting down to a prepared table whilst surrounded by your enemies?  What hedge, what measure of protection would you need to sit down at a prepared table in the midst of enemies?  When we sit down to a prepared table we are again vulnerable.  We are lounging.  We are indulging.  We are just chillin.  Sitting down at the prepared table is to take leisure in the presence of those who wish you harm.  The same level of protection, time, and freedom that would allow a table to be prepared is required to sit down and enjoy the preparations.

 

When we can trust at that level, we taste of the goodness of the Lord.  We see that our cup runneth over.  We see that we are anointed and blessed.  We can see the abundance of our God.  We see gift where others see scarcity or fear. And we learn the lesson on which the Psalmist ends.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Did you notice how I called it the valley of the shadow of death a couple moments ago and then didn’t talk about death?  I just went back to darkest valley?  Well I want to bring back now.

One of the things we fear most, if not the thing we fear most is death.  Our own death.  The death of people we care about deeply and rely on.  The darkest valley can refer to many things but chief among them is the valley of the shadow of death.  And this final line connects trusting and loving our shepherd with how we approach death.

Based on all we have talked about thus far, on how God sees to our needs, how God cares for us and provides for us, how God leads us to health and happiness and we do not fear even as danger surrounds us, it is not too far of a stretch to say that if we truly believe this and follow our shepherd goodness and love will be our constant companion.  Goodness and love are the attributes of the shepherd we have spoken of thus far and if we stay within the herd we will be surrounded by the goodness and love of the shepherd.  So it is with God.  If we love and trust and follow, we will be surrounded by the goodness and the love of our God.

Then the writer talks about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.  This is a reference to the afterlife as I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan to live forever.  In the valley of the shadow of death our writer fears no evil and then professes faith that even in death he will dwell with God forever.  I think the greatest test of our faith is in how we face death.  Do we shrink from it in fear?  Do we let anxiety cripple us?  Is it the great enemy against which we need to fight with all our strength? 

I’m rereading the Harry Potter books this summer and in the first one Dumbledore has this great quote.  Harry has just reacted incredulously at the notion that someone might welcome death, or at least make a choice that would ensure their death.  Dumbledore remarks, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”  If the goodness and love of God follow us all the days of our lives, then I imagine we will feel that death is but the next path our shepherd leads us down for his name’s sake. 

I think this is why we read this Psalm at funerals.  Because it speaks of a hope and a faith that few of us possess for very long and many of us only feel from time to time.  But it’s a faith that leads, guides, and sustains through all of life’s trials, death most especially.  If we can believe that goodness and love are with us, even as we face the death of a loved one, surely we can face our own death believing that we will dwell with God forever.  

Can I be honest with you as we close?  I don’t always have this faith.  I don’t always believe everything I read here.  If our words and actions betray our innermost beliefs, mine would betray the need for self-reliance rather than a desire to be led by my shepherd.  More often than not I’m a sheep that tries to go off course, go my own way, and sees the rod and the staff as annoyances.  As barriers to the life I want to lead.  I’m terrified in dark valleys.  I’m on guard in the presence of my enemies.  Toil and hardship follow me daily and death is to be feared chief among all else.

This Psalm is told from a first person perspective but I don’t think it is a personal Psalm.  I don’t think this Psalm is chiefly to be read by individuals.  Rather I think this is a Psalm of the church by the church for the church.  I think this is a Psalm to be read in community.  And here’s why.  There are many days that I want to believe this Psalm, but deep down don’t.  There are many days when I feel like I’m a sheep on my own.  And I have to make my own way.  I have to find my own pastures and waters.  I can’t risk resting.  And on those days I need you to believe this for me.  I need you to model this for me.  I need you to show me what this faith looks like.

 

One of the beautiful things about church is that we proclaim things that on most days seem unbelievable.  And yet they are things that are so beautiful we desperately want to believe them.  And we need each other precisely for the days we don’t have faith.  We don’t quite believe.  But on those days, someone in the church believes.  On the days you don’t believe, I believe.  On the days I don’t believe, you believe.  And on the days neither one of us believes, the rest of the church believes.  And we pull each other along until that time when we all believe all the time that the goodness and the love of God will follow each and every one of us all the days of our lives and we have sure faith that we will all dwell within the house of the Lord forever. 

So today I want us to end reciting this Psalm together.  We might not believe all of this everyday.  There might be days we really want to believe it, even though deep down we know we don’t.  There might be days we can’t possibly believe it, the weight of the world is too heavy. And there are those days when we surely do believe it.  For all of those days and for all of us, let us say this Psalm together, each of us coaxing the other to believe a little bit more that: 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will 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. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

More in The Power of a Song

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The Power of a Song VI

August 5, 2018

The Power of a Song V

July 29, 2018

The Power of a Song IV