One of the more beautiful passages, as well as one of the more popular passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. A liberal political activist theologian of the nineteenth century, Henry Ward Beecher, known for arming abolitionists, described this as "the nightingale of psalms", small but filling "the whole world with melodious joy." In Psalm 23 David paints a word picture teaching us the Lord is the shepherd who leads us to what is good, is with us when times are hard, and is present always. Hearing Psalm 23 again I wonder what makes post modern people push for the selfish 'take care of me' and even the 'get rich or die trying" mentality celebrated today over the life David describes when recognizing "The Lord is my shepherd." The first line says it. Since the Lord is my shepherd I will not be in want. Rather I will be well supplied with God's goodness, God's protection, and God's mercy. Nothing can be better than following the good shepherd God.
The psalm says God leads us to the green pastures and quiet waters, the places where life flourishes. I personally love and miss the desert. I concede life flourishes in the green places, the forests, the meadows, the fields. Only some pretty tough plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and insects survive the deserts. The Lord's path goes to the places of enrichment where the flock can lie down, feed and rest in God's safety. The Lord's path goes to the gentle waters that provide refreshment and well being. Similar to the desert, gushing and even raging water is fun to watch, even play in if your careful, but it is hard to drink to stay alive and be refreshed. We cannot take the pounding for a long period of time. There is no time limit at the gentle fountain. The pasture and water images say the Lord provides abundant life.
The Lord gives us what we need for sound living and provides purpose. He leads us on the paths of righteousness. We can live well and bring honor to the Lord's name. I think in the change of demeanor in someone like Reggie Jackson, who many may not have heard of today since his life grew more and more in Christ. He was a baseball slugger for the Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, and California Angels. He was said to be all about Reggie. He even marketed a candy bar named after himself. In the middle of his career he became a Christian. Gradually he shifted from marketing himself as the One and Only, to becoming a different team leader his last years with the Yankees and as an Angel. After retirement he had a good teaching show on youth in sports on Nickolodeon. For awhile he occasionally showed up on television. He walks in quiet rightousness. If one were to meet him you would never know that at one time he had an ego as big as Mount Everest.
Psalm 23 provides more good news. The Lord is not a fair weather friend. The Lord knows we brought a fallen world upon ourselves and there will be tough times and events. We can be reminded of that daily. The news, our situations, things that are happening to our families and friends, are fresh reminders. You do not have to watch and listen to the news, just read some of the prayer concerns on the bottom of the devotional in "Christ in Our Home": 'those who are homeless', 'those who feel no direction and purpose', 'those living in war torn nations', and 'those bound by chains of addiction'. Psalm 23 assures us the Lord is with us in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson that he goes all the way for us in standing up to the wolves of life, even to laying down his life for the sheep of the divine shepherd. The Lord is so present in the tough times that with David in another passage of Scripture, 1 Samuel 17:37, we can say, "The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will save me from this Philistine" whatever our Goliath happens to be.
Friday my wife Linda said I could share her experience of God's presence at the most painful time of her life. With her permission I share it. She had said good bye to her 17 year old son Brian as he went off with a cousin and friend. That day the first lines from this Psalm kept running through her head. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth beside the still waters." She received the news her son died in an automobile accident. During the service Psalm 23 was read. With all that was going on it did not mean much. A couple of days later they went to the crash sight. It had taken a bit of search to find Brian as he had been thrown out of the car. Where he came to rest was marked. She was able to see her son landed in a horse pasture and had lain beside a pasture pond. Viewing the green pasture and the still water she knew that God had told her through the Psalm 23 lines the day of the accident that he was there with Brian. For the first time since the accident she filled some comfort in her valley of the shadow of death.
In the affirmation of God being with us in refreshing peaceful times and in wearying tough times we share the psalm's truth, good places and bad, the Lord is present and will pour out his goodness and mercy "all the days of my life."
In our worship, we give thanks for God's alternative to humanity as the shepherd or me as my personal shepherd. We give thanks we are presently, and more fully can be, under the care and watchful leadership of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. See the wisdom of following the Shepherd who leads us to the refreshing places, guides us in the way of God's goodness, is companion during the hard times, blesses throughout life and beyond. See the wisdom of following the Shepherd who holds all life together. The beginning and end of Psalm 23 say it better than I can: "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....(and) I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." AMEN.