The Shepherd's Song
Scripture: Psalm 23
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Mar 26, 2017
On this 4th Sunday in Lent, we come to the midpoint of this solemn season of reflection around the sufferings and death of Jesus and the season of personal soul-searching around what the chancel choir sang last week, "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here's my heart, O, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above." That's our prayer as a church and as believers and followers of Christ this 4th Sunday in Lent historically is Laetare Sunday, "Rejoicing Sunday" in the medieval church this day relax the long penitential Lent. Some monasteries gave out extra pints of brew to the monks on Laetare Sunday. So we've spiked the coffee this morning in the courtyard.
Two scriptures that are before us today. The lectionary points us to Ephesians 5:8-14 and the beloved Psalm 23. Kathleen, thank-you for reading this Ephesians 5 lesson so beautifully: "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of the light." That will preach! But not today. I wish to look with you at the psalm assigned this 4th Sunday in Lent - the familiar and revered 23rd psalm.
I am re-reading a book called "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction." It is written by Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, writer and professor. Peterson takes his title, "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction" from the atheist scholar Frederick Nietzsche, who said that "the essential thing in heaven and earth is a result only of the long obedience, the long run. Something which makes life worth living always comes from the long obedience in the same direction."
I am also plowing through Doris Kerns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" - the tracing of four men's planning, maneuvering, and calculating toward the 1860 presidency. Underlining Peterson's point is that all four politicians in Goodwin's book, Bates, Steward, Chase and Abraham Lincoln worked for years to place themselves in a position for the nomination. Lincoln for all his kindliness and openheartedness toward supporters and rivals alike, make his way toward saving the Union because he had for years lived a "a long obedience in the same direction."
I have been ordained to the gospel ministry for 40 years now. Whether it is installed ministry in two churches over 10 years, or interim ministry in 23 churches over 30 years, my main task is to proclaim and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ to the women and men and children with whom I am living. And the only way a pastor lives out his or her calling is through Scripture and prayer, prayer and Scripture. Pastors preach and teach the Scriptures as revealed in Jesus Christ and pastors pray with and for a mixed bag of saints and sinners from Lincoln, Kansas to Feilding, New Zealand, to Westlake Village, California.
Pastors and all Christians do not do supernaturals work. We are neither capable nor competent to form Christ in another person. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our work is more modest. It is just Scripture and prayer - helping people listen to God speak to them from the Scripture and then joining them in answering God personally, honestly in lives of prayer - "the long obedience in the same direction."
The psalms are ancient Israel's prayer book. The psalms are mode up of 150 or so praises, prayers, corporate adorations and personal cries. All the joy and despair of human life are contained in the psalms. They were written and compiled over a long history, perhaps 1000 years. The oldest psalm from the day of Moses in the late 13th century BC when the people began to murmur against Moses and Aaron for taking them into a wilderness, "at least we had a home in Egypt," and the prayer of Moses goes up: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations."
It's your presence, not Egypt, or Sinai, or Westlake Village, your presence, O God, that is "our dwelling place, our home in all generations."
That is an early hymn, Psalm 90. A late hymn from the exiles living now in Babylon in the 6th century BC, Psalm 137. As they were being taunted by their Babylonian captors, "Sing us a song you Israelites. Sing. Sing us a song of your homeland." And up rises the plaintiff cry, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion" for "how can we sing the Lord's song in the foreign land?"
Seventy-three of these psalms are attributed to the second king of Israel, the great king David. Today, we have heard the most familiar psalm of all - Psalm 23. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." A pastor friend of mine told me that when she read the 23rd psalm in Sunday worship, she could see in her people's faces the powerful effect of this Psalm 23. How many times have we visited in the hospital and quoted Psalm 23, and the patient in their bed and even the family gathered around spontaneously join in together, "The Lord is my shepherd."
Without losing the majesty and beauty of this familiar poem, Psalm 23, I wish to suggest today four attributes, characteristics, sides, if you will, of God. The first shepherding side of God is that the Lord is the Lord of our guidance. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Another translation renders it, "I have everything I need." We live in a culture that teaches us to want everything. And we all fall into this. We want homes and vacations, and we want our families to love us. But the psalmist reminds us that if we have God we have everything we need. And then we have the assurance that God is everything we need. God makes us lie down in green pastures. The Lord leads me beside still waters. Maybe this is why the psalm is so comforting to those in hospitals. I don't believe we really focus on the "guiding hand" of God until we look back over life.
In hospitals or situations that make us stop the "noise of the present" that cause us to look back over life and bless God for "guiding" us: sickness as a child, rebellion in adolescence, those university years full of exciting ideas, the promises of our family, our first job, our first failure. We thought "I have to face this all alone." And then life forces us to stop and we look back and say "why, that was the guiding hand of God all along. I was not alone. The Lord made me lie down in green pastures. God led me beside still waters. God is our Guidance, the One who leads us in life.
Secondly, the Lord is our restoration. God leads me beside still waters. You, O Lord, you restore our souls. Our souls need restoration, we need repair and healing, restoring. My home in Silver Lake was built in 1926. I wonder how many families have lived in that home now 90 years old. I am sure the house has withstood rambunctious children, broken windows, but two your entrepreneurs took time and thought in 2006 to lovingly restore these 17 California bungalows to their original splendor. So we are in need of restoration. What Henri Nouwen calls our "brokenness."
What is wonderful about our blessed Westminster Presbyterian Church is that we can speak openly and honestly about our brokenness, broken health, broken relationships, broken hearts. We gave our outgoing elders and deacons Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved." Nouwen at that time was teaching at Yale Divinity School, and he was to meet a man who would interview him for the Sunday N. Y. Times, and they became friends. They could not have been more different. Henri, a Catholic priest deeply interested in spirituality, Fred a secular journalist later to be divorced and remarried. Henri later left academics and live in a community of broken people in Toronto.
Here is what Nouwen says to his friend Fred of brokenness and restoration: "As I write you now about our brokenness, I recall a scene from Leonard Bernstein's Mass (a musical work written in memory of John F. Kennedy) that embodied for me the thought of brokenness put under the blessing. Toward the end of this work, the priest, richly dressed in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the human pyramid collapses, and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off, and his glass chalice falls to the ground and is shattered. As he walks slowly through the debris of his former glory - barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt - children's voices are heard singing, 'Laude, laude, laude' - 'Praise, praise, praise.' Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time then, haltingly, he says, 'I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.'"
So God, the God of restoration picks up the broken pieces of our lives and behold how brightly this broken glass shines.
God leads me beside still waters. The Shepherd restores our souls and leads me in right paths for God's name's sake, that is a prayer for us, "God, lead me in the right path, the right direction for your name's sake, for the sake of your honor." What a prayer for us as we seek a new pastor. We are praying for the Pastor Nominating Committee for wisdom, patience, and courage!
Thirdly, God is the Good Shepherd of our comfort. "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, no harm, your rod and your staff they comfort me." David, as a young shepherd, had a tool of his trade: a staff. That shepherd's staff in the hands of experience and care did two jobs: the straight end of the staff was a rod and with the rod David would slap off the sheep's enemies: a wolf, a vulture. And then David would turn the staff to the curved, the crook side, to keep the sheep close in safety, perhaps bring a stray back into the fold. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me." Our culture tells us in no uncertain terms that God is not present in death. Death is the final tragedy, and it is the end. This Psalm 23 puts the rod to that kind of hopelessness, and slaps despair away. Death is not the end. It is the beginning with God. "You are with me." And after the rod is put to hopelessness, the shepherd turns the staff to the crook side to bring us home. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. What is your comfort, especially in the valleys of life?
What will sustain you when the billows of life's tempestuous seas break upon you? Your family? Your spouse? Your financial portfolio, your political party, or mine? "Our only comfort in life and in death" says the Heidelberg Catechism, is that, "we belong body and soul not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ." We belong to God!
Guidance, Restoration, Comfort finally from this beloved Psalm 23. God is the shepherd of our home. "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 - forever."
Isn't that the prayer of every one of us, that goodness, all of God's goodness toward us and mercy when we are not all that good to others, when we are not all that good to God's good earth? We find mercy and goodness to be our companion all the days of our lives. The psalmist concludes, "and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long."
What was the house of the Lord for the Psalmist? Probably the house of the Lord was the tabernacle. If only the psalmist could spend each of his or her remaining days in the tabernacle, there the psalmist was at home. Now you or I may not think that spending the rest of our lives inside this or any other church is such a great idea, but the truth here is that the temple was the psalmist's home because it was God's home. So those sweet times in life when we have known the near presence of God in worship, in prayer, on a hike, at the beach with our families, that's our home with God.
Isaac Watts in 1719 England renders this closing verse of Psalm 23 in his metrical paraphrase:
"The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days;
O may Your House be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
What others go and come,
No more a stranger, or a guest,
But like a child at home."
The gospel today is this, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church