Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 22, 2018

Psalm 23 Commentary

Even though the RCL uses Psalm 23 on the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season in all three years, and even adds it to the Lenten readings in one year, the enterprising preacher should not despair when assigned this lovely piece of poetry yet again.  It is so rich that there is no end of angles one can take on it.  For examples of different approaches to Psalm 23, see my previous posts in the Sermon Commentary Archives on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website for April 17, 2016; March 20, 2017; and May 7, 2017.

For this Sunday, I have two new suggestions.  First, focus on the word “is” in the first verse.  (I know, I know.  You are thinking of President Clinton’s famous words about “is.”)  Any reader of Hebrew knows that the word is not there in the Hebrew; it is implied.  But that doesn’t remove the force of it.  What we have here is a powerful metaphor. Yahweh is like a shepherd, with the force of the Lord equals a shepherd.  In other words, this is a not a passing role, but a permanent identity.  This is what Yahweh is, all the time, in every circumstance.  That gives the rest of the Psalm a solidity and certainty.  We can count on Yahweh doing all the things mentioned in Psalm 23 because this is simply who he is.

This seemingly ordinary observation takes on homiletical power when we recall the other regular reading for this Fourth Sunday of Easter, namely, John 10:11-18.  In that text, Jesus boldly says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Those words echo not only Psalm 23, but also God’s famous self-identification as “I am who/what I am.”  Jesus was claiming to be the “I am,” who is always the shepherd who does what Psalm 23 attributes to Yahweh.

Some scholars may question that interpretation of Jesus’ words, but the crowds and, particularly, the Jewish leaders didn’t.  The hoi polloi was confused by Jesus words, but the Pharisees and their cronies knew blasphemy when they heard it.  Jesus’ claim in John 10 became a part of the mounting opposition that would lead to his death.

In the eyes of his enemies, Jesus’ death proved that he was not the “I am” who is the “good shepherd.”  The words of Psalm 23 did not actually apply to him.  Yahweh is the good shepherd, but Jesus certainly was not, because he is no more.  He’s over there, in that grave.  But then, of course, he rose from the dead, proving that he is indeed who he said he was.

Thus, Jesus’ words in John 10 give fresh meaning to Psalm 23.  Psalm 23 says that Yahweh the shepherd does many things for his flock, but John 10 (and the other Johannine reading for this Sunday, I John 3:16-24) adds one more thing, namely, laying down his life for his flock.  Or maybe it is more accurate to say that, as a result of laying down his life for his own, Jesus does all the other things mentioned in Psalm 23.  Because he rose from the dead, he always lives to make intercession for us, which includes all the beautiful phrases in Psalm 23.  In other words, an initial focus on the word “is,” combined with Jesus’ application of Psalm 23 to himself, gives us a uniquely Christ-centered, resurrection-oriented way to preach on this familiar Psalm.

Not only can Jesus do all the things mentioned in verses 1-5, but he can also, even, do the things that conclude the Psalm in verse 6.  He can walk with us all the days of our lives and even conduct us into the house of the Lord forever.  His pastoral work has eternal consequences.

That brings me to my second new suggestion.  Focus on the last words of this Psalm, as a special way to emphasize both the daily and the eternal consequences of the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep.  Let me give you some hints about how you might do that with a sermon that was part of my six-sermon series on Psalm 23.

Several years ago, I read a peculiar little novel with the intriguing title, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God.  It is a story of 3 women whose lives have been shipwrecked in one way or another.  The oldest one is a feisty blue-haired old widow named Grace. Her husband died just as he and Grace embarked on their lifelong dream of spending their retirement on a beautiful old motor yacht.  So, she tied up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the other two women now rent a room on the yacht.

Midway through the story, Grace suffers a stroke, and loses her memory.  Gradually it comes back, as the three sail the yacht to Nova Scotia to escape Grace’s daughter who wants to put her in a nursing home.  It’s a fascinating story, but it ends sadly.  Grace has another stroke, with just a bit of memory loss.  But it terrifies her.  So, one day as the other women are away shopping, Grace sails her yacht out in the Atlantic and jumps overboard.  She leaves behind a suicide note that says, “I won’t go to heaven without my memory.”

That made me wonder about my own future.  How will my life end?  How do you think your life will end?  At a ripe old age, full of years and happiness, and ready to go?  Or prematurely, as a result of some accident or a sudden illness, and bitterly disappointed? Alone or surrounded by loving family? Poor or wealthy?  And what lies between now and the end?  What does the road to the future look like to you?

How on earth can we know these things?  Well, I suppose we can look to our past as Grace did.  She knew what it’s like to have a stroke and lose your memory, and she knew she didn’t want to go through that again.  So, on the basis of a difficult past, she made a decision about her future and took her life to avoid suffering.

David does something like that in our text, but he sees his life very differently.  Looking back, he saw God’s blessings everywhere.  That lead him to believe that his future would be filled with more blessings. So, he looks ahead to the end with supreme confidence.  “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Interesting.  You can look back and despair like Grace, or you can look back and be confident like David. What’s the difference?  The quality of your past?  Did Grace have a hard life, while David had an easy one?  No!  As the earlier parts of Psalm 23 show us, David knew all too well what it was like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  His own life was threatened a number of times.  He suffered the loss of loved ones in many ways.  And he knew what it was like to be stalked by enemies of all sorts.

No, it isn’t the quality of your past that determines how you face the future.  It is the character of your God.  Grace’s God was shipwrecked.  She believed in God, but he was as insubstantial as the wreckage on a beach, a mystery at best.  David’s God was the unchanging Yahweh, his faithful covenant Lord and Shepherd.  And this side of the cross and empty tomb, we would add that he is our crucified, risen and reigning Savior.

That is why David could say these last words as he faced his future.  “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life….”  Goodness and love are covenant words in the Old Testament, words that sum up all that God promises his covenant partners, his dear friends.  Having taken Abraham by the hand and swearing to be a God to him and all his descendants, God promises that we will always be the object of his love, so that our lives will always be characterized by goodness.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to us.  The well-known words of Romans 8:35-36 give us a list of all the terrible things that can and do come into the lives of God’s people, who are often like sheep being slaughtered.  But, as Romans 8:28 put it, God will make all the bad things work together for the good of God’s covenant partners, of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.

I love the way David puts it here—“goodness and love shall follow me.”  Whenever I read those words, I think of a sermon preached by an old black preacher in which he pictured puppies, tripping happily after their master, so close to his heels that they occasionally yip with pain as those heels clip their little noses.  Maybe David was thinking of sheepdogs here, one named “Goodness’ and one named “Love,” both always on the heels of God’s children.

I like that picture; it’s cute.  But if we’re going to be accurate to David’s actual intent here, we have to picture not harmless little beagles or floppy haired sheepdogs, but immense, powerful mastiffs whose tread shakes the earth as they inexorably pursue the steps of believers.  Think of the famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” which depicts God dogged pursuit of wandering sheep.

No matter what happens in my life from here to the end, no matter how dark the valley of the shadow may get, no matter how fierce my enemies may be, God’s goodness and love will always be right there for me.  I don’t have to call them to come and attend my journey.  Nothing can separate them from me, or me from them.  In the end love will win over whatever evil may come my way and turn it into goodness.

Which David summarizes with that lovely expression, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  David was fascinated with the house of the Lord.  Remember how he wanted to build the Lord a house?  Remember how he wrote in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…”  He didn’t mean that he wanted to live in the tabernacle.  He meant that he wanted to be close to God, to live in his presence.  The rest of Psalm 27:4 explains: “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him….”

David knew that the highest good, called the summum bonum by the ancient Christians, was the beatific vision, the blessed sight of God himself, finally meeting face to face the Good Shepherd who saw him through all the scenes of his earthly life.  That is David’s confident vision of the end of his life—“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  However I close my eyes physically, I shall open them to the beauty of the Lord.

What a remarkably sturdy and sunny outlook on life!  It stands in sharp contrast to the way many of us live.  Worried about the future and our place in it, we are fearful of bad news and possible disasters. We have heard and seen so much of that in our lives.  Who knows what economic upheaval, what social distress, what theological controversies, what personal trauma we will face in the rest of the 21st Century. Our fears make us unsteady, and we react by hesitating to make commitments and plans or by compulsively trying to secure the future with balanced portfolios and strong family ties. All of which is understandable, but it doesn’t provide the kind of confidence David radiates here. He knows that no matter what happens in the future, “all the days of my life… and forever” are secure.

“Surely!”  How can you be that sure?  As I said, David looked back at God’s provision.  All his life God had led and guided him, restored his soul, walked with him through the valley, prepared a table before him, anointed his head with oil, blessed him with goodness and love, so that his cup overflowed.  His reflection on the past gave him confidence for the future.  But sometimes reflection on the past leads precisely to fear and despair.  Even if the past has been good, how do you know that the future won’t suddenly change?  I’ll never forget the words of 2 elderly members of my last church.  “Our lives were absolutely wonderful for 60 some years.  But now we’ve had 17 years of one disaster after another.”  How can we be sure about the future?

Well, as I said before, it all depends on your vision of God.  Is your God shipwrecked or shepherd, a distant mystery or a constant companion on your journey, a memory of a dead hero or the presence of a Risen Savior, an idea you believe or a person you can trust.  “The Lord is my Shepherd,” begins the Psalm, and that’s the secret to the whole thing, to a life of faith and confidence.

Illustration Idea

David had a very strong faith.  Perhaps you don’t.  Maybe you’d like to be able to say the words of Psalm 23 with his confidence, but you just can’t. Your past has been tough enough to plant doubts in your mind about your future.  How can you strengthen your faith in your Good Shepherd?  Consider this line from that novel, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God.  “It seems to me that faith and memory are one and the same thing, or at least that they can’t exist without one another.”  That latter part is suggestive—faith cannot exist without memory.

Which is why we need to do a “memory tour” every once in a while.  I learned that term from my wife, who was a special education teacher.  One of her students had a closed head injury suffered in a car crash.  The injury erased many of his memories.  The doctors told his parents to take him on a memory tour to help jog his memories.  So, one summer they took him back to all the places he had been as a child where he has especially enjoyed himself—the playground at elementary school, the beach on Lake Michigan, Disney World, his grandparents’ home, and many others—to restore his memory.

If you want to strengthen your faith in the Good Shepherd, take a memory tour. Recall all the places and times you experienced the goodness and love of God. If that doesn’t work, because there is too much bad back there and you simply cannot remember enough good times, then take your tour further back, back to that day when the Good Shepherd laid down his life for you.  Stop at the cross and repeat these words, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Because of that cross, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”


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