~ Sermon ~ July 22nd, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
A Song of Trust
“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude . . . And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is . . .” (1 Cor. 13:4) Where do these words take you? Memories of young women dressed in white, young men in formal attire?
There are some scripture texts that transport us to specific places and times.
We hear the words: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .” and we are back at a Christmas Eve service the children have presented their pageant and we’re about to sing “Silent Night” while the light of the Christ candle is passed on from one person to the next.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For some of us we hear these words and we can remember the smell of flowers, perhaps fresh dirt, the quiet sounds of sadness, and the embrace of those who have come to comfort. These words are most often recited when the heart is weighed down with grief and we are at a loss for other words we might say. Throughout generations, when the faithful have walked through the valley of the shadow, the psalm listed as 23rd of the 150 in our Bibles has provided words of comfort.
Even a cursory reading of the Psalm the point is clear that God’s care is like that of a faithful shepherd. If God is described through the metaphor of the shepherd then by default, we become sheep and one does not need to know much about sheep to understand what this image means. This is evident in the popularity of Psalm 23. Sunday School classes memorize it. No fewer than six arrangements of this Psalm are readily available in hymnals. It is requested for services bearing witness to the resurrection. And yet many who have uttered these words as faithful confession or prayed them in times of trouble, have known nothing about shepherds, or even seen a real sheep! Those who have known such creatures will describe them in less than flattering terms.
Sheep are herd animals. They are defenseless. They are vulnerable. Most commonly noted, sheep are not necessarily the brightest animal in the barnyard!
But these are not the characteristics the psalmist has in mind when speaking of the shepherd and sheep. The psalmist speaks of the sheep’s reliance on the shepherd. Sheep cannot survive making their own way. Sheep are absolutely dependent on the shepherd for life. Sheep can trust the shepherd. Knowing this dependency between sheep and shepherd bring to focus the central testimony of the psalm: the shepherd Is faithful.
When we bring our hearts to the edge of the grave, we become aware that we cannot make our own way through the grief. When we face the end of our own days, our dependence upon the Shepherd stands before us with more clarity than perhaps at any other time. We are not the Creator, we are the created, and the prevailing reality for the creature is our dependence upon God for life. Perhaps this is why we find Psalm 23 so comforting at the time of death.
But it is crucial to note that the witness of Psalm 23 is that the Shepherd is faithful throughout the whole of life. What we confess in the presence of death remains true in every stage and season of life!
Sheep-like dependence would be paralyzing, if not for the knowledge that the One on whom we depend is the good shepherd. This shepherd leads, restores, comforts, and prepares. Under this shepherd’s care there is no want.
Often in funeral and memorial services I will suggest that if Psalm 23 is to be used we say it communally. But this psalm is not presented in scripture as a “communal credo.” Like the song “In the Garden” this psalm is filled with first person singular pronouns.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
This shepherd makes me and leads me and restores me and anoints my head, and I shall dwell.
This is a “song of trust” by someone who knows in the midst of the vicissitudes of personal life and over the course of the years that they have been carried in the bosom of God, sheltered from harm, and given rest. This is not so much a theological confession or statement of belief, as it is a personal testimony to the faithfulness of God.
In the middle of this psalm we find what some have referred to as the “gospel kernel of the Old Testament” the good news that turns tears of anguish and fear into shouts of joy, that glad tidings given to by the angelic choir to the shepherds, which itself echoes a word first given to the patriarchs and repeated again to Israel in moments of distress and fear: “You don’t have to be afraid.” This is the word of salvation in a nutshell in both the first(Old) and second (new) Testament!
There is perhaps no more relevant message for our time than the invitation to set aside fear. Consider how much fear there is in our world.
Governments trade in fear of terror or evil empires.
The markets trade in fear of there not being enough. (We give it this innocuous term “supply and demand” but at its root it is fear.)
The church often trades in fear of exclusion or judgement or our numbers dwindling to the point of irrelevance.
And there are many things to fear. Our culture is becoming increasingly prone to violence. The environment is struggling to breathe under the growing effects of abuse. Families are fragile. Every minute of our schedule is filled to the point that the honoring of the Sabbath seems an unrealistic practice for many.
And yet, in the midst of these struggles and more, this psalm offers the testimony of a gracious God, a faithful shepherd with whom we will lack nothing and we need not fear. This is indeed good news! Here with the witness of author of Psalm 23. I hear and I hope you do as well, echoes of other moments recorded in scripture when messengers have said, “Be not afraid.” Such a declaration in our time should sound to us, as it has to others, like nothing less than the voice of angels.
When I read or pray the 23rd Psalm I always slow down and really hear the promise of the last verse:
And I shall dwell . . .
Where? . . . in the house of the Lord . . .
For how long?. . . forever!
For this I think we can all breathe an “AMEN!”
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