A sermon on Psalm 23, preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter
(Good Shepherd Sunday)
How many here can cite Psalm 23 from memory? (pause for responses) Ok. Here is another question: in today’s environment, where are you most likely to hear Psalm 23 read? (pause for responses). Precisely. William Holladay has called Psalm 23 “an American secular icon.” It has become so popular that it appears in picture frames on walls and on plastic placards placed over desks or work areas. It is the stuff of many a bible bookmark and sympathy card. When we hear or see Psalm 23, most of us think first and foremost of the funeral – since that tends to be the context where we see and hear this Psalm most. And rightly so. It is surely a prayer of comfort. It is most assuredly a confession of hope and reassurance. It is most definitely a confession of faith in times of trial, suffering, and death.
But today I want to help you see that it is also more. Today, I want to help you see this psalm as a prophetic oracle. Today, I want to help you see this psalm as a pledge of allegiance. Today, I want to help you see this psalm as a radical, counter-cultural creed. Today, I want to help you see this psalm as a prayer of protest. In other words, this psalm is not just about death and dying; it is about life and living. It is not just about comfort; it is also about challenge. It is not just about assurance; it is also about defiance. It is not just about an individual receiving solace; it is about a community receiving salvation.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. With one stroke of the scribe’s pen, the psalmist dismantles our consumerism, our idolatry, and our reliance on anything or anyone other than God. Can you imagine anything more controversial? More subversive? More radical and unnerving? The Lord is my shepherd, my king, my sovereign, my Lord and my God. Thou shall have no other gods before him. Paul went further in one of his letters: “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:3). To utter such a thing you have to be supernaturally endowed with power; spiritually filled with courage and boldness. The Lord is in charge – not me, not you, not American presidents, not sitting world leaders, not CEO’s of large multinationals nor Wall street insiders; not nation-states nor military powers. God alone. Yahweh.
Therefore, “I shall not want” – or more literally – “I shall lack nothing.” The writer of this psalm is not interested in our modern debates about “felt needs” and “real needs.” In God’s schema, everything you need is provided by God. The people who put this prayer on their lips must reject the world that is driven by greed rather than need. Most people who live in the more affluent West can’t even imagine life with no more than food, drink, shelter and protection. We secretly scoff at Jesus’ words:
therefore do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear – but strive first for the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you (Matt. 6:25,33).
In other words, if the Lord is your shepherd, and you pursue his reign and rule, you will lack nothing. In a consumeristic world where enough is insufficient and more never satisfies – these words unveil our false gods and expose our sin and greed.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. God alone is our bread and butter. Not the elusive job or salary that remains outside our grasp. Not even our good, hardy work ethic that proves we are not lazy, that we a go-getters, and that feeds our legitimate pride in a hard day’s work. But the pastoral imagery here can imply more. God leads us into green pastures and still waters, not only providing us with food and drink but inviting us to live in harmony with the land. Who would of thunk it?
Psalm 23 is a tree-hugging environmental statement about stewardship of creation. Think it is a stretch? Not if you look closely at the canon of Scripture from Genesis all the way to Revelation. God has given us dominion over the earth, not the authority to exercise domination. God provides food. God provides water. God is the one and only true source of life; the only one who can restore our soul and the only one who can renew the face of the earth. “Restores my soul” – not just words for the funeral because it also basically means that God is the only thing keeping us alive and sustaining all living things by his grace and mercy.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. In other words, the shepherd helps the sheep avoid danger. The shepherd guides the sheep from taking a wrong turn. Sometimes the path is a nice, green, lush valley – but other times the path is a treacherous, mountainous route with falling rock on one side and a certain death over the cliff’s edge on the other. The early desert monks knew well the danger of going too far to the left or to the right, particularly concerning the matter of destructive thoughts. In one tradition, monks would seek to renounce destructive thinking about 8 things: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia (sloth), vainglory and pride.
This radical prayer in Psalm 23 announces that the Lord can and should direct everything in our lives: our words, our thoughts, our relationships, our habits, our budgets, our time, and our actions. When we pray “hallowed be thy name” in the Lord’s prayer each week, we are also petitioning God to hallow, or make holy, our lives – from the top of our heads to the bottom of our feet and everything in between.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. The Israelites had seen the darkness of oppression and slavery. God said “fear not” and liberated them through the sea. The Philistines descended upon Saul and his army threatening to destroy God’s people and ravish their homes. God said fear not and sent them a boy with a slingshot. Nebuchadnezzar issued an executive order to execute three men for refusing to bow down and worship him and God said fear not and made them fire proof and burn resistant.
In case you missed it earlier in our choir’s anthem, God is still in the blessing business – and if this prayer of protest in Psalm 23 is any indication, God is also still in the deliverance and salvation business. To fear-mongers who provoke individuals and nations to act evilly out of ignorance or suspicion – God says FEAR NOT. To people whose bodies are ravaged by disease, sickness, and anxiety about their quality of life now or their prospects for the future – God says FEAR NOT. To people who are unemployed, underemployed, or worried about tomorrow – Gods says FEAR NOT. For those who are uncomfortable with difference, who have anxiety about their neighborhoods, who wonder what the world is coming to, who are concerned about security or safety – God says FEAR NOT – I AM WITH YOU.
If you prayer this prayer, you are praying away fear, praying away violence, praying away a reliance on human beings, principalities and powers, or any other false source of comfort, protection, and shelter.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Food again. God is busy feeding. God is busy being host. You pray it here. We gather at table here. Not my table. Not Reconciliation’s table. Not a United Methodist’s table. God’s table. Jesus’ table. God as gracious host – even in the midst of times of trial – even in the midst of what is going on in your life – even at the end of a crazy week, a frazzled day, or a sleepless night. There may be a war going on all around us, but get this – at the same time, God is busy setting the table for company! In the presence of enemies – not just in defiance of my enemies. Beware of this prayer when you think of your enemies, because it doesn’t just suggest God’s protection from enemies, it also suggests God has a couple of places left for them to pull up a chair.
You anoint my head with oil; Anointing fall on me. It was an ancient sign of blessing, of consecration, of chosen-ness, of belonging. God blesses, God chooses, God consecrates, God embraces. Not just once, but with a dogged tenacity that will not let you go.
my cup overflows. The world’s economy of scarcity is thrown-down here in favor of God’s economy of abundance. The market says there is bread for those with capital; God’s word says there is bread enough for every hungry mouth. The market says that good clean water is a rare commodity in some parts of the world; God says that water is from heaven and everyone’s cup will overflow. Don’t think for a minute that this prayer is mere sentimentality and spiritual imagery – it is also the prayer of a people who anticipate a Messiah’s reign who will “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. Who will send the rich away empty and fill the hungry with good things.” Things to overflowing.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the day of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Goodness and mercy shall “follow?” No that doesn’t’ quite capture the Hebrew word radaph. It is more like “pursue” – “harass” – “run after” – “chase.” That changes things a bit, right? God’s grace and goodness and mercy will harass you your whole life long! Pursue you no matter how fast you run away. Chase you down though you turn away, you rebel, you do your own thing, or you try to shrug your true identity in God. God wants you back in the house of the Lord; to leave the life of private individualism and enter the covenant community of faith; to see you have a large family of brothers and sisters in the faith who will walk with you, praise with you, cry with you, laugh with you, and even pray with you this prayer of protest.
A story: a just man decided he must save humanity. So he chose a city, the most sinful of all cities. Let’s say it is Sodom. So he studied. He learned all the art of moving people, changing minds, changing hearts. He came to a man and woman and said, “Don’t forget that murder is not good, it is wrong.” In the beginning, people gathered around him. It was so strange, somewhat like a circus. They gathered and they listened. He went on and on and on. Days passed. Weeks passed. They stopped listening. After many years, a child stopped him and said, “What are you doing? Don’t you see nobody is listening? Then why do you continue shouting and shouting? Why?” And the man answered the child, “I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I was convinced that if I were to shout loud enough, they would change. Now I know they won’t change. But if I shout even louder, it’s because I don’t want them to change me.” – Elie Wiesel
That story captures it well. Praying Psalm 23 is like shouting in the midst of a world gone awry. We pray this prayer not just as a way to comfort the afflicted, but also as a prayer that afflicts the comfortable. It may have its uses in the funeral home, but it also has its place in the public square. So travel to the center of the city with the town crier and shout this prayer for all its worth. Even if no one listens and it appears that no one changes. Pray it all the louder. Pray it so that you can be in the world but not of it. Pray is so that it might change the world, and even if that seems impossible – pray it so the world will not change you.
 New Interpreter’s Bible.