THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD

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The following meditation is taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on March 22, 2020.

The twenty-third psalm is the most beloved of the one hundred and fifty psalms in the Psalter and possibly the best known and most memorized chapter of the Bible.  

The KJV version of the Psalm has been read and recited by generations of Christians whose language is English. The Psalm originally was written as a prayer in poetic form in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry does not depend on rhyming, as many poems do in English, but on the rhythms of the verse and the parallel structure of the verses that build upon one another.

The opening verse of the twenty-third Psalm is composed of four words. The Hebrew name of the Lord God of Israel, the “I am who I am”, is the first word.  “My shepherd” is the second word.  “Not” is the third. And the last word is the verb that means,” I lack.” So literally it reads, “The Lord God is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” 

When you look closely at the psalm you will note that it begins with the pronouns “I” and “my.”  It switches next to the pronoun “he” when talking about God. Then suddenly and without warning the psalmist addresses God in the second person familiar, “you” (or “thou” in the KJV). Finally, it returns to the first-person pronoun, “I” of the psalmist and the second person familiar, “you,” referring to God.  

This is what gives the 23rd Psalm its particular character. It is a poem that is at the same time a prayer and a statement about the faithfulness of God even in the most difficult and trying of times.  

The Psalms may be categorized into several categories.  It may surprise you to learn that this Psalm is usually categorized by biblical scholars as a “psalm of lament.” It is an individual lament, that is the prayer for help of an individual.   

The biblical commentator Jerome Creach offers this helpful analysis of the psalm as a prayer of lament. Psalms of lament or complaint:

“have faith and trust as their cornerstones. Those who are praying feel free to haul all their baggage to God because of their intimate relationship with the Lord. They are certain God will hear and answer. The complaint psalms move swiftly from plea for help and description of enemies to assurance that the Lord will deliver. Though Psalm 23 contains no complaint and is thoroughly a statement of trust, it still belongs to the category of lament. Behind the confession of faith in Psalm 23 are trials that required the psalmist to seek the shepherd’s staff and tent for protection and shelter. All that we have of the psalmist’s experience, however, is the beautiful poetic expression of confidence in the aftermath of threat and danger. That is, surely the psalmist experienced an unspecified threat, survived, and then composed this poem.”[i]

Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, worked for eight years as a shepherd. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, he illuminates the meaning of the Psalm for us in a more practical way Sheep, notes do not lie down easily. 

“It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”[ii]

“The sheep must be free of fear, friction, flies, and famine to be contented.”[iii] And as Keller notes. The shepherd is the only one who can “provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that is needed to free the sheep. God is that shepherd. God is our Shepherd. God is your shepherd.  

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his work and ministry as being the shepherd of God’s new covenant people saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” 

Jesus is our Shepherd. Jesus is your shepherd. 

Notice that Psalm 23 begins with rest and not with frantic activity. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

We sometimes assume that our work for God and in response to God depends on our own activity. But here is a reminder that whatever we do for God or in response to God begins with us trusting God so that we might rest.  From that deep rest and refreshment comes the energy for us to do the work to which God is calling us.   

The biblical commentator J. M Boice observes:

“It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.”[iv]

Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to that fear? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties. 

At the beginning of the Psalm, we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But at the end, we read, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [v]

“We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[vi]

We are living in extraordinary times. The normal order of our everyday lives has been disrupted.  The social fabric that holds us together is stretched as we keep a certain bodily distance from one another so that we might protect not only ourselves from infection but also those who are the most vulnerable to it. 

We are passing through one of life’s valleys. Our shepherd is the one who can protect us, God’s sheep, and calm our anxieties and fears as we traverse that valley full of so many unknown dangers. In this difficult time, may you seek rest and comfort from the good shepherd who is with us always in every circumstance of our lives. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”  (Psa. 23:1–6 KJV)

Notes

[i] Jerome F. D. Creach, Psalms. Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville, KN: Geneva Press, 1998), 34.

[ii] W. Phillip Kellner, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, (Zondervan, 2007). See J. M. Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 209.

[iii] J. M Boice, 209.

[iv] J. M Boice, 211.

[v] J. M Boice, 211.

[vi] J. M Boice, 211.

EMMANUEL (GOD WITH US)

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When the Bible comes up in conversation, it is apparent to me that many people view the Bible as a book of lofty otherworldly sayings — all about spirituality and all that kind of stuff. Perhaps it is because of this misconception that when folks actually begin to read the Bible, they often are quickly disillusioned and give up almost before they try. They give up, I venture to say, not because the Bible is boring, but because it does not accord with their own preconceived notions of what they think should be about.

The Bible is not a very heavenly book; it is, in fact, a very worldly book — a this-worldly book. The Bible tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of families. It tells of greed, corruption, and sin of every kind. It tells of the horrors of slaughter, military defeat, and tragedy on a mass human scale. The Bible, in short, tells us what it is like to live in a world structured by human pride and insolence, by greed and corruption, and by power gone mad. Our very Christmas story—the story Jesus— is, we proclaim, the story of God’s involvement in our world.

Yet, human beings do not recognize this fact and cruelly execute the one God sent.  The story of the Messiah’s birth, while joyous and happy at the outset, comes with ominous signs. The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas Season tells the story of the travels of the Magi who follow the star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadow Jesus’s life, ministry, and death.  Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for his burial anointing. The child born to be king is also a child born to die.

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matt. 2:12). 

Immediately following this story, Joseph receives a similar, more ominous, warning. We read:

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. …When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:13-16). 

It is this description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, that I find a particularly good example of the worldliness of the Bible. Shortly after his birth, Jesus becomes a political refugee. Herod, according to the story Matthew relates, undertakes a mad, jealous search for the child who has been born. Joseph and Mary, being warned in a dream, take their newborn child Jesus and flee with haste into Egypt. In his failure to find the child, he orders the execution of all Hebrew infants under two years old. 

The story of Jesus’s birth, in other words, is no fairy tale. The harsh realities of the world — its political upheavals and violent repressions — are never far from Jesus.  Should we be surprised then that Jesus’ own ministry is cut short by the forces of political repression and power? All of this was foreshadowed by the events of his birth.

When I look at the world we live in today, I see a world that is not much different from that of the time of Jesus’ birth. A number of years ago, we had a “Code Orange” terrorist alert during the Christmas season. I remember thinking at the time how sad and incongruous it seemed to have such an alert during the Christmas season. Reflecting on this gospel reading, I realized that a Code Orange during Christmas is nothing new. It was that way for the children and parents of the Hebrew Innocents at the first Christmas.

This realization alone does not somehow make everything all right. No one wants to live in fear, in any fear, whether from political repression or terrorism. The story of Christmas is that into the world of sins and evil comes God enfleshed — made incarnate in a real human person, the person of Jesus. The joy of Christmas makes its greatest impact when it is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of human existence. Because then, the truly good news of the gospel shines like a single candle burning in the night. Referring to the incarnation of God’s Word into the world, the writer of the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV).

The light of God incarnate in Jesus shines in our world as a candle in the night. Sin and evil still exist in this world, and although God never desires that kind of life for us, we human beings bear the responsibility for our arrogance, pride, avarice, will to power, hatred, and for our wars and aggressions.

God nowhere in the Bible promises us a world without suffering. God never promises — even God’s most faithful servant — a life without pain, suffering, or difficulties. Just look at Jesus, if you want proof of that. What God does is descend to our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our loneliness, and take it all on, and into, God’s very being. That is the story of Christmas.  God became flesh for us and for our salvation. 

That is the hope of the Gospel this Christmas season. God is with us. The Hebrew word Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” encapsulates the meaning of Jesus’ birth for us. Now God is with us. In our deepest hurt and need God is with us. In sorrow or pain, God is with us. In fear and anxiety of every sort, God is with us.

Into our midst, God has come. Come let us adore our Emmanuel and give thanks on this last day of the Christmas Season. God is with us.

LISTEN, WATCH, AND WAIT: AN ADVENT MEDITATION

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One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms.  This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God.  When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.  

The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)

The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts.  If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.

All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M.  At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M.  While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year. 

The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray.  It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.

While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush.  I hadn’t.  I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark. 

In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.

At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).

The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast.  It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  

In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent.  The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.  

Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us.  Every day is a day in which God might speak to us.  Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us.  Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you.  Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God. 

 

In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.

May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.

 

NEW BEGINNINGS

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Moses was a prince in Egypt, an adopted son of Pharaoh. As such, he had access to power and wealth. But after killing an Egyptian in anger, whom he saw beating a fellow Israelite, Moses fled into the wilderness to avoid arrest and punishment. Things did not look good for Moses, a fugitive from justice, who now tended sheep far away from the life of privilege he had known.

God, on the other hand, had a plan for Moses. God searched Moses out and revealed God’s self to Moses in a burning bush. God then said to Moses, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)

The call of God came as a great surprise to Moses. He had resigned himself to tending sheep in the wilderness. How could he ever expect that God could use a murderer like him to fulfill God’s plan? Moses “found favor” in God’s sight and God called him by name (Exodus 33:17) to a task so arduous Moses had no idea how he could accomplish it apart from complete trust in the God who called him.

The story of Moses is a story of new beginnings like no other. It reminds us that nothing in our past can hinder the ability for God to use us as God wills.  Nothing we have done or failed to do can stop God from calling us to something new. And, nothing we have done can prevent us from starting over again. God never gives up on us and God always gives us the chance to start over again.

Don’t listen to those who tell you that you are forever stuck in your past. Don’t listen to those who tell you it’s too late to start something new. Listen instead to God who says to each of us in God’s own way, “you have found favor in my sight and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:17)

God is with us in our beginnings and our endings because God is a God of promises. So, don’t get stuck in the past. Look forward to the future with hope. Look forward to your future with hope. It is never too late for God to use you in God’s own way and for God’s own purposes.