Today’s sermon focuses on Psalm 23, one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. A few of the ideas are similar to my sermon on the same passage from internship. The other passage discussed in this sermon is today’s Old Testament reading looking forward to God’s great heavenly banquet, Isaiah 25:1-9.
Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Did anyone feel like something was just a little off when we read the Psalm today? Psalm 23 is one of those well-known Bible passages that many of are familiar with, but not always in this translation.
I’m more used to the old King James version, where it talks about the valley of the shadow of death and uses words like maketh me to lie down and restoreth my soul. It might be a little bit of an adjustment for some of you to hear this poem in modern English, even if it’s more accurate to the original Hebrew.
We often read this Psalm at funerals, probably because of the last verse about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It’s about more than life after death, though. This whole Psalm is a beautiful promise that God is with us. We need that promise in times of death, but we also need it just to get through life, don’t we? We need to hear about the hope we have in God, because that hope frees us to live life without fearing death.
If you’ve been following the news, and I think it’s just about impossible not to right now, you know it’s been a rough couple of months for our country and for our world. I’ve felt overwhelmed just trying to decide when to put inserts about disaster relief into the bulletins! [If you’re looking for a way to help, I encourage you to give through Lutheran Disaster Response.]
First we had Hurricane Harvey causing flooding in Houston, then a few days later Hurricane Irma struck the Bahamas and Florida, then Hurricane Maria wiped out the entire electrical grid in Puerto Rico and many there are still without power weeks later.
We barely heard about the 40 people who died from Hurricane Nate, and this week, it looks like Hurricane Ophelia might hit Ireland!
In between hurricanes, we’ve had wildfires in Montana, earthquakes in Mexico, threats of nuclear war in North Korea, and of course, the largest mass shooting in modern US history in Las Vegas. This week, California is fighting their worst wildfires ever, with literally thousands of homes burned up.
It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? And that’s just the stuff that makes the news. All of you have people you’re concerned about in your own lives, you have neighbors in need, maybe you have family in the hospital.
In the midst of all of that, we hear this familiar promise from Psalm 23: 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.
I asked the WELCA women’s group on Thursday morning to write down images that came to mind to describe God, and several ladies’ first response was the Good Shepherd. It shows up in paintings, in hymns, all over the place. It’s in the Psalms like we read here, and Jesus uses it in the New Testament as well.
There are good reasons this image of the good shepherd watching over the sheep shows up all over the Bible.
It’s a comforting promise: The Lord is our shepherd. A shepherd’s job is to watch over the flock. There’s a reason that when the angels came at Christmas to announce Jesus’ birth, they found shepherds awake and watching. Shepherding is not a part-time job.
To say the Lord is our shepherd is this incredible promise that God is always with us, always watching over us, when we’re awake and when we’re asleep.
The thing with saying the Lord is our shepherd, though, is that that makes us the sheep. Sheep aren’t that widely respected. They might be cuddly, fluffy, and even useful, but they’re also not that bright.
And they’re vulnerable. They need a protector. They’re not in control. Sheep don’t defend themselves very well. It’s kind of insulting to be called a sheep!
If you’re like me and you like to be in control, that’s challenging. I like to make my own decisions, to do things my way. Admitting I’m one of the sheep and therefore, that I need the shepherd is not always easy.
Maybe giving up control is actually easier in situations like hurricanes or floods or fires. Sometimes it’s when you feel overwhelmed that your need for a shepherd is most clear.
The shepherd in this psalm is not a passive observer. He’s not just somewhere out there watching to see what happens to us. Instead, the shepherd is right there with the sheep, experiencing what they experience, living with them, walking through the darkest valleys with them. “You are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me,” the Psalmist says.
I’ve known this psalm for a long time, but I never thought that much before about the rod and staff. Why are they both there? I learned this week that a shepherd uses a rod and a staff for different purposes. The rod is a club, a weapon. It’s there for defending the sheep against the attack of a wolf or bear.
The staff is what you usually see in the pictures of a shepherd. It’s the crook, designed for gently guiding the sheep in the right direction and for hooking a sheep and pulling it back if it gets stuck in a bush, or falls into a pit. Remember, sheep aren’t that bright. We need both God’s protection and God’s guidance, don’t we?
And the shepherd isn’t just watching over and protecting the sheep; as we say at funerals, the Lord is going ahead of us to prepare a place for us. The image here is a feast, a banquet right in the midst of enemies, in the midst of all the bad news and the storms and the trials of life.
It’s a banquet where we’re anointed with oil (a sign of luxury and comfort), where there’s so much abundance that your cup overflows. The promise that one day we shall dwell with God in the house of the Lord forever is given to us to cling to and rely on throughout our life’s journey.
I love that this Psalm is paired with the reading from Isaiah 25, because that reading also uses the image of a banquet to describe God’s kingdom.Now, remember, the background here is that Isaiah is writing to people living in a kind of turmoil way beyond anything we’ve experienced. Their nation has been ransacked by enemy armies, and the people have been sent into exile. They’ve lost everything, their homes, their freedom, their identity as a nation. They need hope.
Now, remember, the background here is that Isaiah is writing to people living in a kind of turmoil way beyond anything we’ve experienced. Their nation has been ransacked by enemy armies, and the people have been sent into exile. They’ve lost everything, their homes, their freedom, their identity as a nation. They need hope.
And in these incredibly dark times, Isaiah shares a vision of this great heavenly feast on God’s holy mountain, a feast of rich food, well-aged wines, bones filled with rich, delicious marrow.
The fascinating thing about this passage is that it’s not just for the Israelites. It’s not just for God’s chosen people; it’s a feast prepared for all people, for all nations.
The hope is not just that they’ll be rescued from their exile and restored to their former glory; the vision is far more grand than that. On that day, at the end, after all the suffering and the storms and the pain and the sorrow and the death, the Lord will destroy death itself. God will restore all of creation to the way it was meant to be.
As we celebrate communion today, we get a tiny foretaste of this feast to come. Come to the table and taste and see that the Lord is good. Jesus promises to give us the strength to continue on the journey through both the darkest valleys and the green pastures. In this meal, in this tiny sampling of the great feast, in this small piece of bread and this sip of wine, Jesus promises to meet us.
As the people of God gathered here today, this promise is our hope. God is with us, watching over us as a good shepherd.
In Jesus Christ, God has come to be with us, to bring us back safely to the fold. And that fold is better than we can possibly imagine. It’s the end of all the suffering, it’s the great feast, it’s the death of death.
We look forward to a time when all tears will be wiped away. The Lord for whom we have waited is coming. Because of Jesus Christ, we have hope. Amen.