OTE 13: THE PSALMS

PSALM 23

OCTOBER 11, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)

 

            What is the most popular book of the Bible?  Have you ever wondered about that? Out of sixty-six books of the Bible, there have to be a few that resonate more with people than others, right?

            It turns out that is correct. It turns out that some books of the Bible get a lot more attention than other books of the bible. The folks at BibleGateway.com shared their statistics concerning the top ten most accessed books of the bible on their website. Now, I know this has to do with quantity of hits, rather the depth of ones emotional attachment to a particular book of the bible, still the number of hits does tell us a lot.

            Ill share the top five.  Number five is the Book of Proverbs.  Well take a peek at that next week as we turn to the fourteenth Old Testament Essential in our overview of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Number four is the Book of Romans.  Number three is the Gospel of John. Number two is the Gospel of Matthew, and the number one most popular book of the bible should not come as a surprise given this mornings sermon title. The most popular book on the BibleGateway.com web site is the book of Psalms.

            Let me say a couple of things about the Book of Psalms before taking a closer look at one of the psalms.  First, the 150 poems that comprise the Book of Psalms express the human condition.  They are honest and sometimes downright raw. They help us articulate our own thoughts and feelings toward God. Thats probably why we like them so much.  We like them because they are so human. John Calvin, the father of the Presbyterian Church, called the Book of Psalms the mirror of the soul because they express every possible human emotion, and as we read them they help us to understand what is going on in our own spiritual lives.

            Second, these poems, were set to music.  In fact, the word psalm literally means song. So think of the Book of Psalms as the Israelites first hymnbook.  We even have a section in our hymnbook titled Psalms. Not every Psalm is in our hymnbook but we do have one-hundred psalms we could sing from our hymnal. Hymns 158 through 258 are all based on the Psalms.  In the three years or so that I have been choosing the music for worship, we have sung out of this section four times. Why not more? Mostly because we are not familiar with the tune, and I know how much some of you love singing something new!  You would rather have to eat all your vegetables. And as a quick aside, some Protestant denominations like the Dutch Reformed Church, only sing the psalms for congregational worship never How Great Thou Art, never Amazing Grace, never Let Us Break Bread Together. Nope, they only sing from the book of Psalms.  And we thought we had issues adopting a new hymnal!

            OK.  Enough with the introductory remarks. Now lets turn our attention to the best loved psalm from the best loved book of the Bible, Psalm 23. It is the Psalm that is memorized the most. It is also the one that is read the most often at funerals, but there is so much more to the 23rd Psalm than just the part which talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil. This Psalm highlights the unique relationship that we have with God, and the unique relationship which God offers and desires for us. Its only six verses long, but it packs a great punch. Lets read it.

 

            The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

            He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

            he restores my soul.

            He leads me in right paths for his names sake.

            Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;

            your rod and your staff - they comfort me.

            You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

            you anoint my head with oil - my cup overflows.

            Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

            and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

 

            I want us to note a couple of things about this very well known psalm. First, note the unique relationship we have with God and God has with us. The first verse, by the way, is the key to the entire psalm. The first verse not only lays the foundation for understanding the rest of the Psalm but also sets the relationship we have God in motion with a bold statement: "The Lord is my shepherd."

            That statement may not mean a lot to urban and suburban people like us, but in the time when this was written people understood the symbolism of the shepherd who cared for and took care of his flock.

            Not too many of us are shepherds. Not many of us own sheep, today. In fact, is anyone here today a shepherd? Anyone own sheep? We dont have a lot of first hand experience with shepherds and sheep. Why would we? Just go to the grocery store if we have a hunkering for lamb chops. Just go to the local department store to buy a wool sweater. All that, of course, puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding this psalm. Not owning sheep ourselves, not running across sheep on a daily basis, hinders us somewhat from getting to heart of this psalm.

            Thankfully, we can read, however, and thankfully people tell us about the relationship a shepherd had with his sheep back in Davids day. By the way, did you notice who wrote this psalm? David. Do you remember what David did prior to becoming the second king in the history of Israel? Thats right, he was a shepherd. And that sling of his that he used to topple big ol Goliath? Well, he had used that sling a number of times against wolves who would come and threaten his sheep. Goliath was nothing more than a big ol wolf to David. Taking him out was no problem.

            David had a clear understanding of the role of the shepherd. He knew the care he gave to his sheep. He saw how the sheep responded to him. The shepherd is someone who stays with his sheep at all cost, guiding, and protecting. The Shepherd is someone who walks with them through the fields checking what they are eating and making sure it is the good stuff. A shepherd is one who makes sure that the sheep don't get distracted and wander off.

            Jesus, no doubt familiar with this psalm, took this psalm and applied it to himself. He called himself The Good Shepherd. Thats his relationship with us. Hes the one who stays with us at all cost. Hes the one who guides and protects us. Hes the one who looks after our welfare, and who comes and gets us when we get distracted and wander off.

            A dad was getting fed up with all of the materialism in his house, and how his kids were so spoiled. So he decided to sit them down for one of those fatherly talks. They were just young children. He said, Kids, you dont realize how good you have it. When I was a boy I had to get up before daylight to deliver newspapers. I walked to school in the rain and the snow. I then worked at a grocery store after school, and even then we didnt always have enough to eat.

            Well those kids eyes were as big as coconuts and they were in awe at what their dad had told them. That dad felt confident that his message had gotten through to them until his little four-year-old boy said, Gee, Dad, I bet youre glad you live with us now.

            Arent we glad we live with Jesus?  Arent we glad he is our shepherd? Thats Gods unique relationship with us.

            Second, note the honesty of the psalm.

            Look at two specific words in the fourth verse. They are the words though and through.” “Even though I walk through the darkest valley.  David, doesnt sugarcoat things here. David knew the truth behind that first word though." Even though. There are dangers lurking around every corner. There was no "if" about the reality of life's obstacles and problems. David did not say if I walk through the darkest valley. No, David candidly faces the truth. Life isn't all banquet tables, overflowing cups or green pastures. Sometimes our hair isn't anointed with oil, but grimed with grease. Sometimes we're not lying in green pastures but flailing in blue Mondays. Sometimes we're not resting by the shore of still waters but struggling in the darkest valley.

            Every one of us has a valley. Some have a valley given at birth - a valley of poverty, or abuse, or disability. Some dig their own valleys drugs or alcohol, violence, ignorance, prejudice. Some struggle with depression and work with crazy bosses, but while we are "walking" through these valleys David reminds us that God is with us.  Look at the words again

 

            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.

 

            "Though" none of us gets out of life without walking through valleys, David makes it plain that God does not intend for us to sojourn there forever. Valleys are not resting places, but passageways. We can walk through our problems. We can walk through our sorrows. We can walk through our pain. We can walk through our screw-ups. What Psalm 23 promises us is that, in all these journeys, the Lord will walk through with us.

            These two words "though" and "through" differ only by one letter, the letter "r." In American Sign Language the letter "r" is made by crossing the middle finger over the index finger. But crossed fingers have a history that far pre-dates American Sign Language.

            In the first centuries of the Church, when Christianity was illegal and Christians were vigorously persecuted, believers found ways to communicate their faith in subtle ways. Accompanying a greeting or farewell, crossed fingers were a code sign, identifying Christians to one another as "people of the cross. Today, crossed fingers mean something very different. When placed behind one's back, they mean that one doesn't mean what one is saying. When held in one's lap, they mean one is hoping something will or will not come to pass. It was the Christians, however, who first invented "crossed fingers," and they had nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with trust in God.

            This is what the crossed fingers of the letter "r" does. It turns a "though" into a through Though we may walk darkest valley, we are not alone. God is with us. Walking through the valley with us is the one who suffered and died for our sake: The Crucified One.

            During a Sunday School lesson, the teacher asked if anyone in the class could recite the twenty-third Psalm. One little girl enthusiastically raised her hand, stood up and began to recite: "The Lord is my Shepherd. That's all I want!" Then she sat down.

            I really like that. It fact, I may even like it as much as

 Davids version.