Living the Abundant LifeApril 13, 2008, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Easter
Today's psalm is surely the most well known of all 150, and one of the two most familiar texts in the entire Bible.1 Though the occasion we most frequently hear it is at funerals or memorial services, it is first and foremost about life--living the abundant life. Hearing it today, on this fourth Sunday of Easter in conjunction with Jesus' words about being the Good Shepherd who has come to give us life, gives it even greater dimension and power.
The Lord is my shepherd...."In the West, we are wont to move immediately onto the second phrase: "...I shall not want." But that misses the psalm's first point: there is only one authentic shepherd in life. In the ancient world, kings were known as the shepherds of their people.2 In this world, for Christians in Uganda it was important for them to remember it was the Lord, and not Idi Amin who was their shepherd, just as for Christians today in Zimbabwe, to read this psalm is to remember that regardless of Mugaube's insistence that he is their liberator and shepherd, they have another more trustworthy and sure. Who are the false shepherds we must fend against: career, political saviors, Wall Street? To confess the Lord is my shepherd is to reject these as our ultimate source of hope, remembering we have a Lord who has made our welfare a commitment even greater than his own life--a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.
I shall not want." In this day when the newest charlatans of religion are promoting a prosperity gospel, it is important to hear what this does not say. This does not say that because the Lord is our shepherd we are going to get everything we want! In the narcissism of twenty-first century western culture, that regularly confuses wants with needs; we need to listen to the way several modern translations render this: "I shall not be in want."3 One modern paraphrase reads: "I have everything I need."4 This first verse affirms that God is the only necessity in life!5 Everything we need for life comes to us from the Lord, and with him as the shepherd of our lives, we shall not be in want.
But, this promise is about more than subsistence living. The image of green pasture and still waters is probably lost on us, living as we do in a land rich in the gifts of both. But in the place this was written, lush, green pasture land and rivers so deep and full you can hardly see them move, are very scarce. This is saying that God's provision for us is rich and full beyond our imagining.
"He restores my soul." How is it with your soul? It is a question I am fond of asking folks bearing the severe stress of chronic health or employment problems, or other seemingly insurmountable challenges. It is a question I'm asking of my Wall Street and financial services friends these days. And behind that question lies the promise that only One has the power to restore our souls--give us back our lives.6 Only the one who gives life has the power to restore it. This is not only true upon our deaths, but also in those situations in life when death walks right alongside of us, in the pressures, challenges and collateral damage of the bruising moments of the market, of daily living in family, business or public life. The Lord is the one who has power to raise us up from these deaths.
He does this in two ways. First, "he leads us on right paths"--this is what the more traditional phrase, "paths of righteousness," means. When we listen to his voice and follow his word, he sets our feet on the right path, a path that not only produces righteous living--life squarely justified with all around us--but also the path that leads to life.7
Notice why God does this: "for his own name sake." Can you hear the assurance and comfort that lies within that confession? God does this, not in response to what we have done, but because it is God's nature to do so. Each of us does things differently and with greater intention when it is our integrity that is at stake. So too for God, who does what he does for us for his own name's sake. That then poses the question of what we do to God's integrity when we claim his name but do not follow on his path. What do Christians do to God's reputation when we are not faithful, when we walk the wrong path among non-believers in this world, whether family, business or public life?
Even though I walk through the darkest valley...;" this valley is about more than the shadow of death. Indeed, it includes the shadow of death. But the promise here is bigger, for there are moments of darkness in life more terrifying than death, moments when death seems a more acceptable alternative than the evil being faced. Have you not watched someone, perhaps someone you love, suffer to the point that you think the unthinkable--death would be better? And, of course, there are those whose lives are so filled with the darkness of evil--so captive to it--they are ready to give life up--take it in order to leave that captivity behind. When the Lord is our shepherd, we need fear no such evil.
And now we come to the center and very heart of this psalm--"for you are with me."8 This is the whole point. Notice: until now the Lord has been named only in the third person. Now, there is a vivid shift to the second person singular; God is addressed directly. To pray this psalm is to confess, "No matter what Lord, you are with me."
Your rod and your staff...." For years I wondered how the two were different; they sounded the same. As I talked with children about this psalm in my Kids' Club class last Wednesday, I asked them what shepherds carried and why. They rightly said, "A shepherd's crook to pull back or in the wayward sheep and a staff or club to drive off the wolves." That is pretty good biblical interpretation. There is comfort in knowing that when we get off the right path, the good shepherd has a crook with which to draw us back, as well as a club to deal with the wolves in our wilds that would attack us. But this shepherd's rod is more than a club. It is a shepherd king's scepter, a sign of his sovereignty and power.9 What comforts us is our Shepherd Lord's sovereign and powerful presence in our lives--"you are with me!"
"You prepare a table before me...." The Lord is not only our shield and defender--the guardian of our souls10--but also our host, preparing a table before us even in the presence of our enemies. I discovered that in Syria and Lebanon, shepherds of that day used the phrase "set the table," to refer to what they did to prepare a field for grazing: clearing it of poisonous weeds and thorns, and driving out predators, shakes and scorpions.11 To set a table in the presence of our enemies is even more astonishing
Our heads are anointed and our cups filled to the brim. The anointing here brings two-fold meaning. Oil was used medicinally for the healing of wounds. This Shepherd Lord heals our wounds. But when oil is placed on the head it became a sign of special selection. The anointed of God are his messiahs--his chosen ones. As in baptism we mark the head of the new Christians with the words, "You are a child of the covenant, marked as Christ's own forever." So, too, God anoints us at the table spread--a sign of our eternally belonging to God in Jesus Christ, and an eternal sign to our enemy--the one whose power Christ overcame in his suffering, death and resurrection. At this table our chosen-ness is affirmed and our cups filled; we have everything we need.
The table spread in thanksgiving is also this table of thanksgiving, where bread and wine are set before us. This psalm is especially powerful and comforting in a funeral or memorial service when the Lord's Supper is celebrated. For then it reminds us that even in the face of our last enemy--death--the Lord sets a table and continues to feed us, for the one being remembered is now seated at such a table in our Lord's nearer presence, being fed by him. God's hospitality and care lie beyond death as well as in its shadow.
Goodness and mercy...;" The psalm ends as it begins, for these are the two attributes that best describe God's character. Twice God describes himself in this way to Moses.12 Four different psalms give thanks for God's goodness and mercy.13 The Lord is not only great and faithful, he is good and merciful. As good shepherd, he not only leads, but follows us--all the days of our lives.
No wonder the psalmist expresses the desire to "dwell in the house of the Lord forever." At the time this was first composed, there was no notion of life beyond death. In all probability this referred to living within the Temple, home of God's presence, or was intended as a metaphor for living consciously in God's presence with every breath, one's whole life long. But, after that first Easter Day, followers of the Good Shepherd can rightly say, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
This shepherd Lord, who leads us in right paths, invites us to his table spread, to give us everything we need, that we may live the abundant life in and with him now our whole life long, and forever in the abundant life to come.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!
- I would suggest John 3:16 as the other.
- J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 767.
- Both the New International Version, and the New International British Version translate the Hebrew word haser as “to be in want.” It means “to have a need, be lacking, or in poverty.”
- Today’s English Version, “Good News for Modern Man”.
- J. Clinton Mc Cann, Jr., op cit., p. 769.
- The word is nephesh, and means “the innermost, most vital, and intimate part of a human being—the part that is sentient, decision-making, morally responsible, subject to emotion and feeling, susceptible to religious experience, and liable to divine judgment. It is considered one’s true self, what causes on to be alive. See Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Vol. 2¸ Jacob Neusner, Editor in Chief, and William Scott Green, Editor, (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillian, 1996), p. 599.
- Psalm 119:105; 16:11; Proverbs 10:17; 15:24; 19:23
- At the very center of its twenty-six words in Hebrew, stands the affirmation “you are with me.” See Toni Cravens and Walter Harrelson, “The Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.771, footnote 23:1-6, p. 771.
- Genesis 49:10; Psalm 2:9; 45:6; Isaiah 14:5; Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15.
- 1 Peter 2:25
- John H. Hayes, Preaching Through the Christian Year—A, (Philadelphia: Trinity International Press, 1992), p. 170.
- Exodus33:19; 34:6-7
- Psalms 100:5, 106:1; 107:1; 118:1.
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