GOD, my shepherd (Psalm 23) [Sermon 6-23-2017]

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June 22, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday June 25, 2017. From an ongoing series, “Psalms: The Prayers of the Saints.”

Text is Psalm 23.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Teachers, mentors, and friends

In this series, we’re letting the Psalms teach us to pray. So far we’ve talked about how the Psalms are tools that give us words to say to God. This time I want us to see another important way the Psalms equip us for prayer: they give us new ways to experience God as we’re praying. They give us pictures, mental images, of the God we’re in conversation with when we pray.

I hope as we continue this journey through the Psalms, we’ll come to think of the saints who first prayed them as teachers, mentors, and friends in prayer. As our Mr. Miyagi of prayer and Mr. Rogers of praise—wise elders who come alongside us and discipline us. In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san how to fight with courage and honor. Mr. Rogers has taught generations of children how to be caring, mindful neighbors. In the same way, the Psalms teach us to pray courageously, in ways that honor God. They teach us to care deeply about how we pray, being mindful of the kind of God who speaks with us.

Today’s prayer lesson is Psalm 23. Probably the most familiar Psalm ever. Who doesn’t know: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures? Even people who’ve never cracked open a Bible or darkened a church house door know it! I almost agree with the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann that it’s “almost pretentious” to talk about Psalm 23. [1] After all, we already know what it’s all about.

Or do we? I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance from memory by the time I was two years old. I had no idea what I was pledging. What does a toddler know about liberty and justice for all? Maybe the same thing can happen with portions of scripture we think we know by heart. Maybe we can recite Psalm 23, but it’s like a two-year-old reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Maybe we need to let Psalm 23 come alongside us as a teacher and mentor, who models prayer for us; and a friend who prays with us.

Mixed metaphors

Question: What’s a metaphor? [A figure of speech, where a word or phrase is used to compare two different things that have something in common]

Examples: You see a white blanket of snow. You’re on an emotional rollercoaster. I’m a grizzly bear when I’m in pain.

The Bible is full of metaphors for God. And that makes sense. We need to speak to God and about God. But God transcends everything. We literally can’t get our minds around someone eternal, so powerful and holy and wise, whose love endures forever. The only way we can make sense of God is to use metaphors.

There are lots of metaphors for God in the Bible that we’re familiar with. Jesus told us to call God, Our Father. We probably also know how the Bible describes God as a king, a rock, and even a consuming fire. But did you know the Bible also describes God as a Mother several times? Isa. 42.14 pictures God as a woman in labor. Isa. 49.15 compares God to a mother nursing her child. Isa. 66.13 portrays God as a mother comforting her crying child.

Another one of my favorites is Ps. 59.8, which shows us God as a comedian, mocking and laughing at his hecklers. The joke’s on them!

What’s the primary metaphor for God in Psalm 23? [A shepherd]

Now, here’s the thing your English-Lit teacher will tell you about metaphors: You’re not supposed to mix them. Usually, mixed metaphors don’t make sense.

Here’s an example. If you want to tell someone that something is simple, you might say, It’s not rocket science. You might also say: It’s not brain surgery. But it gets weird if you say, It’s not rocket surgery. Or, Don’t judge a book before it’s hatched. Or, Every cloud has a silver spoon in its mouth. [2]

My favorite mixed metaphor is, Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall. Wake up and smell the coffee is a figure of speech that means, Stay alert! And reading the writing on the wall means acknowledging the bad news that’s right in front of you. Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall probably means somebody splashed coffee beside your bed. [3] 

But here’s the thing: The Bible mixes its metaphors about God all the time. For example, Deut. 32.18 calls God the rock … who gave birth to you. Well, which is it? Is God a rock, or a parent? God is like both. Like a rock, God is strong and stable and sturdy; a hiding place that protects us from our enemies and the weather. But God is also like a parent, who gave you life and nurtures you. Both are true, so it’s okay to combine them. Then you get a fuller, more vivid and colorful picture of what God is like.

Well, Psalm 23 also mixes its God-metaphors. Throughout most of the Psalm, God is portrayed as a shepherd guiding and protecting his sheep. But the last two verses change the metaphor. Instead of being a shepherd, now God is imagined as a gracious host who wines and dines us and invites us to stay in his house forever.

Both metaphors teach us something important about God. And when we put them together, they reveal more about who God is and what God does than either of them could do on their own.

Shepherd [4]

The guiding God-metaphor of Psalm 23 is shepherd. The person who first prayed this prayer said because God is their shepherd, they don’t need a thing. That’s because God leads his sheep where they can find plenty of food and water, and safe places to rest.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that Our Father will give us the bread we need for today (Matt. 6.11). We learn to pray to God as children who trust our father to provide for us. Likewise, Psalm 23 invites us to imagine ourselves as sheep, and God as our shepherd who lies us down in lush meadows, where sheep have more than enough food. And who finds us quiet pools to drink from, and lets us catch our breath.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we also learn to ask Father God not to lead us into temptation (Matt. 6.13). Psalm 23 assures us God, as our good shepherd, will never do that. The Psalmist says God always sends him in the right direction.

The prayer then moves from how the shepherd God provides for his sheep, giving them food, water, rest, and direction; to how he protects his sheep. Now the Psalmist tells God:

Even when the way goes through

    Death Valley,

I’m not afraid

    when you walk at my side.

He doesn’t pray, Even if one day I might walk through a dark, scary place, I won’t be afraid. It’s not something that might happen one day. It’s something that has happened and will happen again. The one who first prayed Psalm 23 was speaking from experience, how God the shepherd had led him through many dangers, toils, and snares, as we sing in the famous old hymn.

We don’t have to be afraid when God is our shepherd because he’s fierce and ruthless against anyone or anything that would harm his sheep. When David was a young man getting ready to slay Goliath, the Philistine killing machine, he said:

I’ve been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I’d go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I’d grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I’ll do the same to this Philistine pig who is taunting the troops of God (1 Sam. 17.34-36).

Psalm 23 says God is that kind of shepherd. Tender with his flock. But also fiercely protective of his flock. That’s what the trusty shepherd’s crook is for. Other translations say thy rod and thy staff. The staff keeps the sheep from wandering. Sometimes the shepherd would also knock down low-hanging olives with his staff, as a snack for his sheep as they traveled. But the rod is for beating off any enemy or predator who attacks the flock.

The Lord’s Prayer ends with us asking Father God to rescue us from the evil one. Psalm 23 shows us God with his trusty shepherd’s crook, protecting his sheep from evil.

Host

Between vv 4 and 5, the metaphor suddenly shifts. Shepherd God has brought his sheep through the dark, dangerous valley of death, protecting them with his rod and guiding them with his staff. Now the Psalmist is gathered in safely at a table, where his says God serves him a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. God is seen as a generous host, a king offering hospitality in his own palace, at his own table.

The one who first prayed this prayer acknowledged he had enemies. There were people and circumstances and bad things that threatened him. But God is right there with him through it all: welcoming him, feeding him, comforting him as an honored guest. That’s also what the Psalmist is saying when he says: You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. The one who prays this prayer imagines himself as a tired traveler, and God as the good host who anoints him with sweet oils, and fills his wine glass to overflowing.

The prayer ends this way:

Your beauty and love chase after me

    every day of my life.

I’m back home in the house of God

    for the rest of my life.

Now the Psalmist has tied the two metaphors—the shepherd and the host—together at the end of the prayer. Predators and other evils are always threatening us. But God’s love and beauty are also always chasing us, shepherding us toward God’s house. Where we can dwell with God in safety, and bask in his hospitality. One day, we’ll dwell there forever.

Just imagine that … God chasing after you with love and beauty. Every day of your life. There’s so much hate, so much ugliness and evil around us. We do walk through dark, lonesome, dangerous places. But God is there in it with us—pursuing us, even in our darkness. Guiding us home with him forever.

And if you get nothing else from this sermon, I hope you remember that image. I hope you learn to pray to the God who always has your back. Who in a world of darkness and danger and death is always chasing you with love and beauty.

New ways to experience God

Psalm 23 is called a Psalm of David. That makes sense—before he was a king, David was a shepherd. And David is the one who wanted to build a house for God. But these titles aren’t part of the original Psalm. They were added later. And while the Hebrew phrase translated of David could mean it’s a Psalm David wrote; it could just as easily mean it’s a Psalm written in honor of David; or a Psalm written in his style.

Whoever wrote it, Psalm 23 is much bigger than David. It tells the story of God shepherding his people home, which is something God is always doing. It’s the story of God guiding Israel through the wilderness, protecting them from their enemies, giving them them Torah to live by, and gathering them home to the land he promised. It’s also the story of God leading the remnant back home from exile in Babylon. And it’s our story, too. Yours and mine. We heard in John’s Gospel today, Jesus called himself the shepherd of the sheep, who knows his sheep by name (John 10.1-4). Through Jesus, God is leading us home to dwell with him forever.

Psalm 23 embraces all of these ideas. We should allow this Psalm to come alongside us as a teacher, mentor, and friend who gives us a new perspective on prayer. Who gives us colorful new ways to imagine the God we’re speaking with when we pray. And the more ways we can see God as we speak with him, the deeper our relationship and conversations will be.

Doesn’t imagining you’re speaking to a gentle shepherd and generous host change the way you think about praying? Doesn’t it give you deeper confidence in God’s goodness and faithful love? More assurance that God is really listening?

The Psalms open up all kinds of metaphors that give us new ways to imagine God. For example, Ps. 121.5 says God is both your shade, and a warrior at your right hand protecting you.  Ps. 16.5-6 says: You, Lord, are my portion, my cup—in other words, God is like food and drink to you.  Ps. 131.2 invites us to think of God as our mother, and ourselves as babies at our mother’s breast, fully satisfied.  The Psalms are a kaleidoscope of images for God. There’s a way to picture the God you speak to as you pray, for any need you’re praying about.

As we go forth this week, my challenge to you is look through the Psalms for the metaphors for God. Pray to God using the metaphors the Psalms give you. And find your relationship with God evolving, expanding, and deepening as you learn new names to call God, and new ways to experience God.


[1]The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 154.

[2] These “malaphors” and others came from Livi Prendergast, “What is a malaphor? It’s not rocket surgery!” OxfordWords blog. May 24, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2017. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2017/05/malaphors/.

[3] This one came to my attention via Mignon Fogarty, “Mixed Metaphors.” Quick and Dirty Tips. October 22, 2013. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/mixed-metaphors.

[4] The next two movements of the sermon rely heavily on John Goldigay’s analysis in Psalms 1 – 41, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 344-54.

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