What a wonderful change of emphasis Psalm 23 brings to this season of Easter. For the second and third Sundays of the Easter season, the lectionary readings from the Psalms helped to praise and thank God for his work of salvation culminating in Christ’s resurrection. Now on this fourth Sunday after Easter, the lectionary picks a Psalm that helps us luxuriate in the comfort that comes to us from the Risen Christ, our ever-living Shepherd. The center of the Psalm linguistically and theologically is the end of verse 4, “you are with me… comfort me.”
To preach this Psalm so that folks actually experience that comfort, we must point them squarely to the source of that comfort—not God in general, and surely not the gods of the nations around Israel, but the Lord, Yahweh. The Psalm opens and closes with that identification of God. The comfort of Psalm 23 is based on the astonishing claim that “Yahweh is my Shepherd.” The great “I am what I am,” the Almighty Creator of all that is, the Sovereign Lord who lays down his law for all to obey, the thrice Holy One who is high and lifted up, that God is my shepherd.
David doesn’t use that image to convey the idea that God has humbled himself. We might suppose that, since shepherds were among the lowest classes in ancient Hebrew society. No, David plucked this image from ancient Near Eastern courts, where kings were often spoken of as shepherds who guided and protected their people. David himself had been a shepherd and now he was a King. Here he confesses with deep humility and trust that Yahweh was his shepherd. From that confession comes his and our comfort. Whatever else we say about this beloved Psalm, we must be sure to point out the centrality of that article of faith. It is Yahweh, my Shepherd, who does all the things about which Psalm 23 speaks.
The comfort of Psalm 23 is deepened and strengthened when we recall that Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd in John 10 (which is the Gospel reading for this Sunday in all three years of the lectionary cycle). Not only does Jesus crucifixion show us the Great Shepherd laying down his life so that we may have life to the full, but also his Resurrection assures us that our Shepherd always lives for us. Echoing the comfort of Psalm 23:4, the Risen Christ assured his disciples as he physically left them, “Surely I am with you to the end of the age.” To know that our living Savior is our Shepherd deepens and strengthens the comfort of being in his flock.
However, Psalm 23 is not all that easy to preach. For one thing it is so familiar that church people already think they know everything about it. So when I announced that I would preach a series of six sermons on it a number of years ago, one skeptical congregant said, “That’s a mighty thin vein to mine for that long.” How could I possibly keep the congregation’s interest for 6 weeks, when they already knew the Psalm by heart?
The second problem with preaching this Psalm is exactly the opposite. For non-church folks, particularly for secular urban millennials, the world of Psalm 23 is so unfamiliar that it is almost unimaginable. Most folks have never seen a shepherd and would absolutely freak out if someone poured oil on their heads at a banquet (even if it were extra virgin olive). How can we make connections between the 10th century BC and the 21st century AD? I acknowledged that problem when I entitled my sermon series, “The 23rd Psalm for the 21st century.”
I could try to bridge that historical and cultural gap with comments on each phrase of the Psalm. Instead, I’ll give you one of those sermons from that series. It is an attempt to explain and apply the comfort that comes from this difficult phrase: “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Hopefully, this will suggest ways you can preach the 23rd Psalm for the 21st Century.
In Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain, a soldier named Inman is trying to make his way back home from the horrors of the Civil War. He has been blasted, ravaged by the war, and has lost all sense of hope, even personal identity. As he stumbles along on his long journey back to his farm, he follows the path of a creek down a hill. “His eyes kept to the bright thread of water before him. The path it found to make its way to lower ground was as coiled as a hog’s bowel.”
That is a bit inelegant, I grant you, but it struck me as a vividly accurate metaphor for the journey of humanity into this 21st century. Blasted and ravaged by the bloodiest century in history and by the upheaval of our cultural wars, many people are stumbling along a path as coiled as a hog’s bowel. From the conventional religiosity of the 50s, to the revolutionary 60s, to the me-generation of the 70s, to the “Greed-is-good” philosophy of the 80’s, the pluralistic, New Age 90’s, followed by the crisis filled 00’s and the terrorized 10’s, people have wandered from one thing to another in search of identity and fulfillment and happiness, trying to find the right way to live. But, as diverse as the last 60 years have been, there is a common stream running through each new development. All of them were self-referential; you will find the directions for life within yourself.
Into the confusion of the 21st century comes the 23rd Psalm with this good news. Life is not a self-guided tour; there is someone who will give me the guidance I need. “He guides,” Yahweh guides. You might think that the King of the Universe would have something bigger and better to do, but Yahweh has committed himself to be my personal Shepherd. He guides me—by giving me a written record of his will, by putting his own Spirit in my heart, and by governing the developments of my life with his invisible hand. An old hymn puts it well. “He leadeth me, O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught!” What Good News in a complex and confusing age!
But there’s a big problem here. Our text says that God guides “in paths of righteousness,” but some of the things I’ve done and some of the places I’ve been surely cannot be called paths of righteousness. I can’t believe God led me there. Does God lead us no matter what we do or where we go? What exactly does “he guides in paths of righteousness” mean?
That’s not so easy to say. The word “righteousness” here can mean moral righteousness. God leads me to do his moral will, so that I become a righteous person by what I do. Or we could read as though it were Pauline. God leads me to find righteousness in Jesus Christ, the righteousness that comes through faith in him. Then this text means that God guides me in the paths of obedience and faith. But that doesn’t seem to be what the context is talking about, with its picture of green pastures, quiet waters, and the valley of the shadow of death. Besides I’m not always obedient, nor is my faith always so strong. David himself had his terrible crisis of immorality and unfaithfulness with Bathsheba. Did God not lead then in paths of righteousness?
The word “righteousness” can also mean “prosperity and security.” Then our text means that God does not let me wander in ways that lead to trouble and ruin. He leads me away from rugged and torturous roads into paths that are smooth and easy. God always leads me into places that are just fine, just RIGHT. But who of us has a life like that? Who of us has been spared rugged and torturous paths? Does that mean that God has not led us then and there?
David himself says in the very next verse, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” He had walked often in that valley: when Saul pursued him, when his first child died in infancy, when his family fell apart in murderous competitiveness, and when his beloved rebel son, Absalom, was slaughtered. How can the path of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow of death? How can we square the reality of our own journey on paths as coiled as a hog’s bowel with the express teaching of God’s Word in the 23rd Psalm? “He guides me in paths of righteousness….”
The story of Israel in Exodus 13 points us in the direction of an answer. Israel is just beginning its wilderness journey. They have been miraculously delivered from bondage to evil in Egypt and they are on the way to the Promised Land of milk and honey. It wasn’t really very far from here to there as the crow flies. But God lead them by a path that was a coiled as a hog’s bowel. He guided them step by difficult step with his light and his truth, that pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. By a long and circuitous route, God lead them to where he wanted them to go. He guided them in paths of righteousness, that is, in the right path for them at that time in their lives.
Why the roundabout path? Was it because they had sinned? No. That would come later, when the terrifying report of the 10 spies made Israel doubt that God could actually conquer that land. Their lack of faith and obedience definitely extended and complicated their journey. So, it is undoubtedly true that sometimes we wander in the wilderness simply because we don’t follow our Shepherd. He sends out his light and his truth to lead us, but we adopt the ways of our fellow travelers in the 21st century. We are self-referential, preferring to live our own way, and then like Inman we wander paths as coiled as a hog’s bowel.
Sometimes our twisted paths are caused by our own sin, but not always. When God first led Israel to the Promised Land by the roundabout way, it was not because they had done something wrong, but because they were not yet ready to conquer that land. They weren’t ready to be soldiers yet. They had the weapons, so they thought they were ready. But God knew they weren’t. They were nothing but slave laborers, who had never been in charge of anything. They needed to learn organization and discipline and trust and obedience. Otherwise, God knew, they would march up into Canaan and get soundly thrashed by the natives. That would make them doubt God and wish they were back in the slavery of Egypt, where at least they had homes and food. They didn’t know all that, but God did.
So, he led them on a path that was right, if not straight; that would get them safely, if not easily to their destiny; that would be terribly hard, but would prepare them to possess and enjoy all that God had waiting for them in the Land of Promise. Their Shepherd King guided them in paths of righteousness, though it didn’t seem right to them, even as it so often doesn’t seem right to us. The Lord is your Shepherd and he has his reasons, even when the right path seems all wrong.
The way David ends this text gives us every reason to trust our Shepherd, even when we can’t understand his leading. “He guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” He does all this stuff for us for his own sake, for his own glory and honor and reputation. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the entire universe exists simply to glorify God. That’s why it and we are here. I know that seems selfish on the surface. But think about that a bit harder. “He guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” means that he has a personal stake in our being lead in paths of righteousness, so that we arrive at the Promised Land. It brings honor to God when he blesses us.
The Bible teaches that in many places. Think of Numbers 14 where those 10 spies have given their cowardly report. The people have deserted God and mentally started back to Egypt. God is angry with such ungrateful faithlessness, and threatens to wipe them out. But Moses says in vss. 13-16: “Then the Egyptians will hear about it! And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the desert.’” And God relented, because of his honor.
That is a narrative way of saying an awesome thing. God can no sooner lead us the wrong way than he can stop being God. His glory, his honor, his reputation, his good and holy name are all tied up with our welfare. God has a very personal stake in guiding his people on the right path to the Promised Blessing. And if that seems a bit self-centered yet, consider that he was willing to stake the life of his only begotten Son on it.
In the science fiction novel, The Children of God, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz learns that his life did not mean what he thought it meant. He had been horribly abused by alien creatures on his first journey to the planet Rahkat. But when he returns many years later, a devastated and ravaged man, he learns that he really hadn’t understood anything that had happened to him. His friend and fellow priest, John, offers this explanation. He refers to that passage in Exodus where God tells Moses, “No one can see my face, but I will protect you with my hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove my hand and you will see my back.”
“I always thought that was a physical metaphor,” says John, “but, you know– I wonder now if it isn’t really about time? Maybe that was God’s way of telling us that we can never know his intentions [at the moment], but as time goes on… we’ll understand. We’ll see where he was; we’ll see his back.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2016
Psalm 23 Commentary