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I wonder how many of you love reading the Psalms? I’ve always loved the Psalms since I was young and I guess one of the reasons why is because they are accessible. I felt I could identify and resonate with them, and they somehow were able to express what was on my heart. Perhaps it’s the raw emotional expressions of the psalmists or the honest and vulnerable way they shared their experiences, or the lyrical beauty of the words. The psalms seem to be quite straightforward and uncomplicated. But that is what they appear on the surface. I realize they are not easy to preach from because whatever I say in the short time that we have will not be sufficient to bring out the deep spirituality and meaning behind them. And this is especially so for a well-known psalm like Psalm 23. This psalm speaks for itself and each of us relates to Psalm 23 in our own personal way. All I can hope to do this morning is to just share some recent reflections I have regarding this psalm, and hope that it sparks your own reflections and insights.
Perhaps in this time of global upheaval, this well-loved psalm can take on new meaning and significance for all of us.
1. The central focal point of this psalm – For You Are With Me
Old Testament scholars have pointed out that in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly 26 words before and after the phrase “For you are with me”. In choosing to intentionally place these words “For you are with me” right in the middle of the psalm, perhaps the psalmist was declaring that God being with us is at the very centre of our lives. Whatever happens, it is God’s presence and companionship that transforms every situation. It doesn’t mean there won’t be hard times. There will be deathly valleys, there will be enemies, we will go through difficult times, but God’s constant companionship and solidarity is a reassurance that we will not be alone. God is with us. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. This means God with us not only in terms of presence and companionship, but God with us in solidarity with our human frailty and weakness. God knows and understands our deepest struggles and emotions, even those that we can’t express in words.
I think that’s why the psalmist is able to say without reservation, “The Lord is my shepherd. I have all that I need.”
“I lack nothing.”
Can we truly say we lack nothing? This response — I lack nothing or I shall not want – is the opposite of our culture where we are conditioned to be consumers who always lack something. Psalm 23 resets that consumer mentality. These words, “I lack nothing” is almost a revolution because these words mean trust. To trust that we already have enough. It is an act of resistance to the culture of consumerism. We don’t constantly need more. It takes deep trust to say “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.”
We don’t lack lots of things. I think we lack just one. The one thing we lack is intimacy with God.
As human beings, we long to have meaningful connections. We carry inside us a yearning for home. That’s because we were created to know God and be known by God, and to discover that our ultimate home is with God.
If “For You Are With Me” is the focal point of the Psalm, then “I have all that I need” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God. And this new life of being satisfied with God begins with being still enough to lie down and notice and enjoy the green pastures.
“God makes me lie down in green pastures.”
We are hyper-active creatures. God has to “make us lie down”, if not we will be rushing around like headless chickens, attending to the constant demands and distractions around us. During this circuit breaker period, we have been banned from the outside and ordered to go inside. I think this circuit breaker has forced many of us to go inward and not surround ourselves with as many distractions. In many ways, we have had to learn how to be at home with ourselves and with God.
I hope this period helps to reset the hyper-activity of our lives. We can stop running because our shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures. Beside the still waters, God restores our souls.
“God restores/refreshes my soul”
The word that is translated “soul” here is adequate but a fuller, more comprehensive translation is “my whole self” – the totality of one’s being. So another way to read this is “God restores/refreshes/repairs my whole being.”
That is what God offers to us as we choose to be still and lie down in green pastures – the restoration of our whole beings.
2. There is a turning point from a proclamation of who God is to an intimate, personal conversation
In the first three verses of the psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd…God leads me…God refreshes my soul.” But this shifts to a more personal and intimate conversation from verse 4. The psalmist starts to address God directly: “You are with me…You prepare…You anoint…Your goodness and love pursue me.” Instead of talking about God, the psalmist begins to talk to God. A conversation happens and a relationships grows.
How often do we talk to God? As a church community, we talk a lot about God. But how often do we talk to God? I hope this season is opening up the door for us to go deeper with God, to let more conversations with God happen and allow this relationship to grow.
As the psalmist describes how our shepherd leads and feeds us, the image is full of tenderness and attentiveness. Most may think of a shepherd as a man but the God who feeds and leads us has what we traditionally consider maternal qualities. God cares for us the way a loving mother or parent would. Wendy shared with us earlier her version of Psalm 23 based on her understanding as a parent.
Psalm 23 is inviting us to pause and find our own language for expressing how we feel about life under God’s care. What language would you use to speak of God’s love and provision in your life?
3. Rhythm of Human Experience: Orientation – Disorientation – Reorientation
Walter Brueggemann, in his book, The Message of The Psalms, proposes that all 150 psalms can be categorized into one of three movements—orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.
Each of these movements depict a part of the human experience:
I. Orientation: when everything feels right and content in our lives.
II. Disorientation: when life feels difficult, dark, and broken. There is pain, lament, despair.
III. Re-Orientation: when God pulls us out of the brokenness of life and we are brought to a deeper sense of awareness and gratitude.
Brueggemann explains that we go through rhythms of orientation to disorientation to re-orientation—it is part of the natural human experience.
This is the beauty of Psalms 23, and perhaps why it has become one of the most well-loved passages in human history. In this single psalm, all three movements exist. Psalms 23 is a succinct compilation of the entire rhythm of the human experience.
The first three verses are about orientation: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” Life is good, peaceful, blessed. The Lord provides us with lush green pastures and refreshing waters. Verse four suggests disorientation—the “darkest valley”—a description of the trauma and suffering we go through as humans and communities. And in some ways, that is what we are experiencing collectively and individually during this time. Later in verse four, there are the beginnings of re-orientation. The psalmist declares, “for you are with me”. This is an expression of trust and confidence in the presence of God in the midst of suffering and journeying through the darkest valley.
We are living in uncertain times. The future feels out of our control. In many ways, we have moved from orientation to disorientation. But, as a community of faith, we are invited towards re-orientation. We are invited into the natural rhythm of the human experience— to declare “for you are with me” and gradually move from disorientation to re-orientation. It may take us some time but we have the assurance that we don’t have to do this alone, and we don’t have to depend only on our own resources.
In verse 5, you notice the metaphor shifts from that of the shepherd to the generous host. God continues to provide and protect us in different ways. Even in the presence of enemies! God invites us to the table, no matter who or what threats surround us. If we think about it, there is no greater gesture of love than a lavish meal prepared for us by the people who love us. That is very true of Jewish and Asian cultures, and that is how my mother shows she loves us. In the same way, this is how God loves us. Not only does God prepare a meal for us and invites us to the table, the psalmist says that God anoints our heads with oil, signifying much favour and honour. And the overflowing cup signifies the abundance of God’s love.
In verse 6, goodness and mercy do not just “follow”, they pursue. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the Hebrew verb has the more active sense of “pursue.” God pursues and runs after us. This psalm is about intimacy and connection between us and God, and God is the one who takes the initiative to pursue us with goodness and unfailing love. The question is: how will you respond?
Our current situation is a real-life experience of this rhythm of life – orientation, disorientation, reorientation. We have undergone an upheaval of our lives and that is a huge disorientation, and there has never been a more crucial time for us to each reflect on our pains and realign our priorities. I hope this time is leading us towards reflection, realignment and a reorientation of how we are to relate with God, ourselves, our loved ones, our family, our friends, our faith community and the wider community around us.
What if Psalm 23 is not only about comfort, but courage?
It takes courage to walk through the darkest valleys even with God beside us. It takes courage to keep coming to the table even when we are surrounded by threats and fears. We need courage not only to keep walking and continue on with our journeys, but the courage to care for others too.
I think one thing that this Covid-19 situation is doing is drawing out the best in us. I shared in the email bulletin how I witnessed the resilience and generosity of the leaders and members of our FCC family. We are going through a collective upheaval of life as we know it but various ones were stepping in and stepping up to help in whatever way they could. Not just within our community but in the wider community as well. That is so encouraging to me!
This psalm is about both comfort and courage. I believe this is what Jesus would tell us too. In John 10, Jesus responds as the Good Shepherd.
4. Jesus responds as the Good Shepherd
Psalm 23 is not just a one-way pondering of the psalmist. We hear Jesus’ clear response to our longings and our prayers.
Jesus responds as the Shepherd in John 10:
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.”
1. My sheep hear my voice.
Jesus continues with the same message of intimacy and connection between the Shepherd and the sheep. How are we hearing God’s voice in this time? What is God saying to you?
Jesus says he loves us to the point of laying down his life for the sheep. He also says he has other sheep.
2. I have other sheep not of this fold. I must bring them also.
Psalm 23 is not just about our own personal relationship with God. It is also the springboard for us to reach out to the other sheep upon God’s heart.
Just as we have been comforted by our Shepherd, we are called to go out courageously into the world so that the other sheep on God’s heart can be brought into the fold of love and care too.
As you listen to the voice of our Shepherd, who is God putting on your heart?
If “For You Are With Me” is the focal point of the Psalm, and “I have all that I need” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God, then the end goal of our life with God is this: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Isaac Watts rewrote this Psalm in a different way that is elegant and moving. And I just want to share the last few lines with you:
“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, while others go and come;
no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”
In this time, may we “find a settled rest…no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” And as children of God, may we rest in the comfort that our Shepherd gives, and may courage rise up within us to walk the darkest valleys as we bring others into the fold of love and care too. Amen.