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Monday, March 27, 2017

A Song for the Road (Psalm 23)

Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2017

            The 23rd Psalm is commonly read at the funerals.  It might be the passage I have read more than any other in funeral and memorial services.  This makes sense.  It is an incredibly comforting poem and when people are grieving, they need comfort. 
            Psalm 23 is such a favorite that artists have used it as a part of their photos and paintings.  There is a serene nature scene; maybe a field of wildflowers; or the waves at twilight, when all the colors are soft, relaxing.  The words of the Psalm are gently superimposed over the idyllic picture, which is then framed and carefully arranged on the mantel.  An aura of calm falls over the room.
            There’s something quite beautiful about this.  Every time a guest in your homes pauses to take in that picture, they are reading scripture. 
            However, I think Psalm 23 has more power than as a comfort or as a decoration.  Those uses are fine, but it might time to get Psalm 23 off the mantel piece.  It has something to say to people when they are away from home; when they are on the move in the world.  It is time to turn to Psalm 23 in places other than the funeral parlor because it really speaks to people who are alive and facing life as it is in the world in which we live. 
            To say, “Life is a journey,” sounds cliché, but for followers of Jesus the journey is much more than a saying that goes on coffee mugs.  We have a mandate to spread out over the earth.  This mission is from God and dates back to the time of Noah.  Right after the flood and Noah and his family came off the ark onto dry ground, God promised to never again destroy the world in this way.  The next thing God says after this promise is “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  In order to fill the earth, we have to travel to every part of it and make our mark there.
            This mandate to spread over the earth is repeated by Jesus when he meets with his disciples after the resurrection.  The command to Noah was an act of re-creation.  Jesus inaugurates new creation.  He tells the disciples and this message is conveyed from them through the centuries of the church to us.  This is from Jesus to us.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
            Following Christ, we have a sense that we are headed somewhere and our movement has purpose.  This is true for people who spend their entire lives in the same small town as well as for people who live many different places in their lifetime.  Jesus declares we will be his witnesses.  We will give our testimony about who we know Jesus to be – Savior, Lord, Comforter, Guide, Leader.  We will share this testimony “as we go,” as we move through life.  This is for all Christians. 
            Psalm 23 is a word of encouragement for us as we go.  Note the promises and declarations and what these word imply.
            Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  Who says, “I shall not want?”  Or, “all my needs will be met;” who takes the creative initiative to put that phrase in a song about God?  That singer has a fear that his needs might not be met.  He has to look to God and declare his confidence in God’s provision.  Maybe you are in a life situation where your job provides the paycheck that provides the food, the shelter and clothing, the insurance – all of life’s needs.  But you also have needs only God can meet.  This is as true for the affluent as it is for those who struggle.  Do you believe will those specific needs?  Can God be trusted?  That’s the song’s declaration.  Because God guides me, all my needs will be met.[i] 
            The Lord is my shepherd.  I am terrified that I will be filled with emptiness, an unsatisfied hunger, but no, I rebuke that terror.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.
            He makes me lie down in green pastures.  I look around me, at my life, at the world.  I see dead places.  Aleppo, Syria; a humanitarian hunger crisis in South Sudan; reduction of help for the poor as policies change in our own government.  We see barrenness.  No!  God sees all God’s children.  He sees us and gives us rest in lush, green pastures. 
He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.  Why do I need my soul restored?  Because I get so weary.  My own failures weigh on me.  My worries settle heavy on my shoulders and I stoop.  No.  God is with me and leads me to refreshing waters, lifting my burden off me.  God leads me on right paths.
Who sings this song people know so well, these words we hang on the wall in picture frames?  People who fear the looming darkness; people who feel the shadow of death as it swallows the light of life. 
We – followers of Jesus – encounter all these things: uncertainty, worry, threats, failures.  Following Jesus does not remove us from the life’s toughest obstacles and grayest days and longest nights.  We experience these depths, but when we are in Christ, we do not go through these trials alone.  The declaration of this Psalm is that the promise of God’s presence can be believed and will help us.  God can be trusted.  God is, as Jesus says in the Great Commission, with us always, everywhere, for our good.
            In the middle of the Psalm, the singer switches from praise about God, to praise to God.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  He leads me beside still waters.”  And then in verse 5, it is “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  No longer does the singer talk about God, but rather to God.
            What’s more, notice what else is present in the midst of this Psalm of comfort.  The enemy!  If I didn’t talk about the Psalm, if I wasn’t setting this up, but just mentioned Psalm 23 among a group of seasoned church goers; and then, after mentioning it, asked what feelings the mention of the Psalm evoked, what might these lifelong Christians say?  “Psalm 23.”  What comes to mind?  Peaceful.  Comfort.  Well-being.  Rest. 
            Now, picture your enemy.  Who is in your mind’s eye?  A neighbor with whom you’ve had a property dispute?  It’s sad when that’s who comes to mind when we think of enemies, but it is true.  Some of our most consistently negative interactions are with neighbors; or family members; maybe an overbearing boss.  Maybe, your opponent is someone prejudiced against you.  It could be that “enemy” represents someone who tries to bully you.  I have even seen situtions where members of a church were opposed to each other.  When I say, ‘enemy,’ do you see someone related to you?
            Some people might say, ‘extremists,’ or ‘terrorists.’  I don’t think that’s realistic.  Do you realize how slim is the likelihood you’ll ever encounter a violent terrorist?  It’s highly, highly unlikely.  If I say, “picture your enemy,” and you have in mind a terrorist you saw on the news last night, then you’re dodging the question.  With whom do you have direct conflict?  Who do you believe has intentionally made your life hard?  When you picture that person, you don’t think, ‘peaceful.’  Comfort.  Well-being.  Rest.  You think, ‘I need to be on my guard.  My adversary is near.  It is not safe.’
            The Psalmist sings of a table, a meal, a banquet.  The feast can only come in a place and time of safety and yet in this song, our cherished 23rd Psalm, the festive dinner is in the presence of our enemies.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. How can this be?  When God is present, the situation changes! 
            The light of our savior spills over erasing the shadows that threaten.  We are in want?  No, our shepherd provides.  The storm clouds rumble?  No, our Lord leads us beside calm waters and green pastures.  The darkness opens its bottomless chasm?  No, our God gives light and walks with us and we are on safe ground.  Our enemy is here!  To arms!  No.  Our Savior sets the table.  Not, ‘to arms,’ but rather, to supper!  And when we know our God through His coming – through Jesus, crucified and resurrected – then we see our enemy transformed.  We see ourselves transformed.  He who was the enemy has a new heart as do we.  That relationship, which was a battleground, now, in Christ, is part of the new creation.
            We can only enter life hoping for radical transformation when we live by faith and live in complete trust in God and dependence on God.  We commit to a life in which we are dependent and we trust that God will provide what we need.  God will make sure our bodily needs are met.  God will be the one who gives our lives meaning.  God, and not some other thing, will be our source of joy.  We believe we will have happiness because we trust that God is here and God is good and that is enough.
            Walter Brueggemann hits this point forcefully.  He’s writing about the relationship ancient Israel had with her land.  Israel only came into the land when God performed wonders to force Egypt to free the Israelite slaves.  Then God opened the Red Sea.  Then God gave the wandering Israelites the ability to take the land.
            Centuries later, Israel had forgotten God and God allowed the people to fall into exile in Babylon.  However, that would not last.  God would bring His people back to the land.  This time it happened when God touched the heart of the Persian monarch and he permitted the people to return. 
In both Egyptian slavery and Babylonian exile, the people desperately wanted to return to the land, but that could only happen by an act of God.  We can only hope God will act if we trust God.  Many of the people then and now stopped doing that.  Brueggemann writes, “God’s people always want to settle for something short of promises, because promises being fulfilled remind Israel how vulnerable it is, how exposed it is, and how precarious it all is.  Promiseless existence is safer.  The Bible knows promises are always kept in the midst of threats.”[ii]
When we take Psalm 23 off the mantel and out of the frame and see it as a song of promise then we find ourselves in the exact position of ancient Israel.  We are vulnerable to heartbreak.  We can lose our faith if life gets too hard.  We are exposed to evil because sin has run amuck in the world.  Our lives are precarious and it seems awfully risky to bank on the idea that 2000 years ago a Jewish peasant really was God in the flesh, defeated death by dying, and brings hope because he rose from death and promised we will too.  Furthermore, he promised that he would be with us in the form of an ever-present Spirit that opens the way for each one of us to have a personal relationship with God. 
That’s all crazy.  That’s what ungirds our life, gives us hope, inspires our songs, and fills us with happiness and joy?  Seriously?  Yes, because it is true.  Israel was on a pilgrimage to the land and we are on a pilgrimage too.  In this season of Lent, in worship we journey toward the cross.  This is a journey of worship.  We walk with Jesus to his destiny and our salvation.
In our life beyond Lent, we are sent out to bear witness, and we’re sent everywhere.  Every place we go, every grocery story, friend’s kitchen table, bar stool, plane ride, unfamiliar hotel, and distant shore is for us the “ends of the earth.”  In these places we tell the story of the ages.  Jesus is Lord.  His coming is the coming of the Kingdom of God. And, people have life in his name, abundant life.  But even in this scattering to Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth where we give our testimony, even in this “going out” we have a destination. 
We are headed to dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.  In resurrection, our lives have no end. 
As we move toward this destination, we hit bumps in the road.  Our feet get snagged.  We lose our way.  But when it gets hard, when we think we can’t go on, when we lose confidence in our own stories, and when we are ready to completely give up, God is with us.  This song, Psalm 23 is a reminder that God goes before us, God walks with us, and God holds us in His hands.  When things on the journey get tough, Psalm 23 is our song for the road. 

[i] The observations in these paragraphs come from Craig Broyles (1999), New International Bible Commentary: Psalms, vol. 11 Hendrikson Publishers (Peabody, MA), p.123.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann (1977), The Land, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.68.

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