A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Lent 4 ~ Psalm 23
Last Monday, at our weekly hybrid scripture conversation called ‘The Porch’ (Monday mornings at 10:30), we began the session by wondering what new thing I might say about a psalm that many of you already know by heart? What new thing can I say that will help you see it in a new way? The answer is…nothing! – Ok, so let’s move on to the hymn, I guess I’m done!
All kidding aside, Psalm 23 is probably the most famous scripture passage in the whole bible – even non-Christians know it a little – and part of the reason for that is that it already wonderfully says what it needs to say. I’m just going to amplify what’s crystal clear already, and hopefully expand our appreciation for it. We’re going to go verse by verse.
“The LORD is my shepherd,” – which makes me a sheep. But that’s just fine with me. I mean, if we’re establishing a sense of who’s who in this relationship then from the very start we’d better be clear that God is God, and I’m not. Shepherds are of another order than sheep – and if God isn’t of another order of being than you, then the rest of the psalm and the rest of your faith is utterly useless.
“I shall not want.” This one’s tricky, isn’t it? It seems like everything about modern society is built on “I want!” – and yet the psalmist – the person of faith – claims that with God as shepherd there will be no want. The Hebrew literally translates as “I shall lack nothing”. So it’s not talking about stuff you might want, or desires you might have, but about the sense that you don’t lack anything you really need – like Presence.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” These are pretty wonderful things that a shepherd can do for their sheep. Ever felt restful when sitting by water?
Who among us (what sheep) wouldn’t want to lie in green pastures, be led beside calm waters, and have their soul restored? Not to mention being led in a life-giving, meaningful way just because the shepherd knows that if you go that way you’ll flourish rather than flounder.
And then the psalm shifts from “he” language for God – he does this, he does that – to “you” language for God – or, in the older vernacular, ‘Thou’ language. It shifts from descriptive to personal conversation with God.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” No punches being pulled here. The ‘fearing no evil’ part means that you won’t be over-awed by calamities, distress, adversity. There’s no guarantee that being a sheep avoids having to travel through the dark spots, the hard times – just an assurance that as you travel you’re not alone. We’ll come back to this verse in a minute. It’s really important!
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Images of protection and blessing despite life’s hard circumstances – of not just being blessed but that the blessing will be so obvious that even people who you feel are against you will see it. And not just ‘enough to get by’ in your cup – not even just a full cup – but an overflowing cup! – of Presence.
And finally, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
An interesting translation note here – the word ‘follow’ is actually better translated as ‘pursue’. “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life” – not just follow you around, not just be there in the background, but actively pursuing you – chasing you – hunting you! I absolutely adore that! That’s what a shepherd does for their sheep. It’s not passive, it’s active. And if I could add a word there I’d add the word ‘relentlessly’!
Also, the NRSV says we shall dwell with God our “whole life long” – but that translation is mediocre. Literally the Hebrew words say ‘for the length of days’ – but not just your days – ALL days – as in forever and ever, in this life, and in the life to come.
So, have we learned anything new about this psalm yet? Maybe. But I suspect that for most of you all we’ve done is amplify just how comforting and encouraging this psalm is. My title for today is Assurance. Assurance means having confidence and certainty about something. What are we so confident and certain about in this? That God will take away every obstacle? Nope. That God will make everything all right? Nope. It’s this:
Psalms are musical poems, and poems sometimes have deep meaning in their structure. Structurally this psalm has a very important centre point, or focal point, which has exactly 26 Hebrew words before it and 26 Hebrew words after it. It is literally the heart of the psalm. Are you intrigued? Are you curious what the absolute centrepiece of arguably the most beloved passage of scripture ever written is?
“Thou art with me.” I love that language. Thou art with me. Our United Church creed begins and ends with this assurance too – “we are not alone”. Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican mystic (c. 1260-1327) says, “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” Thou art with me. With me. With me! With you! Close your eyes right now and out loud say “Thou art with me”. That’s our assurance. That’s what we’re confident and certain about. Thou art with me. Surely, God is in this place. It’s no wonder this psalm is so beloved.
We’ve been drawing on the Lenten journal prayers of spirituality author Henri Nouwen throughout this season. I hope you’ll hear some Psalm 23 themes ringing through this. Here’s Nouwen’s prayer:
“O Lord, this holy season of Lent is passing quickly. I entered into it with fear, but also with great expectations. I hoped for a great breakthrough, a powerful conversion, a real change of heart; I wanted Easter to be a day so full of light that not even a trace of darkness would be left in my soul. But I know that you do not come to your people with thunder and lightning. Even St. Paul and St. Francis journeyed through much darkness before they could see your light. Let me be thankful for your gentle way. I know you are at work. I know you will not leave me alone. I know you are quickening me for Easter – but in a way fitting to my own history and my own temperament.
“I pray that these last three weeks, in which you invite me to enter more fully into the mystery of your passion, will bring me a greater desire to follow you on the way that you create for me, and to accept the cross that you give to me. Let me die to the desire to choose my own way and select my own cross. You do not want to make me a hero but a servant who loves you.
“Be with me tomorrow, and in the days to come, and let me experience your gentle presence. Amen.”
“Let me be thankful for your gentle way. I know you are at work. I know you will not leave me alone. Let me experience your gentle presence.” If, like Nouwen, our goal this Lent is to prepare ourselves for Holy Week and Easter, and to become more fully grounded in our faith so we can enter that season more authentically, then embracing “thou art with me” is critical. That’s why it’s the centre of the psalm. Whatever came before, thou art with me. Whatever will come after, thou art with me. God is with us, on the mountaintop bathed in light, in the valley of the shadow of death, and everywhere in-between.
This psalm is all about the assurance of God’s Presence. The focal point is “thou art with me” – but that also infers the converse – “I art with thou”! It’s our most famous psalm precisely because it doesn’t fuss with belief or thinking, nor does it implore us to do anything in particular. It’s just about being. It’s a psalm about the glorious and wonderful sense of peace and harmony that a person knows, and enjoys, and revels in, if they’re aware of and are present to Presence.
Every week I conclude worship with a commissioning that says: “Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are…” I don’t say “go forth, believing the right stuff,” and I don’t say “go forth, doing the right stuff,” I say “go forth, knowing who and whose you are”. And who are you? You are God’s beloved. You are the sheep of God’s pasture. You are not alone. “Thou art with me, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Thou art with me, I shall not want.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002).