A sermon on Psalm 23, given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on March 22, 2020 the fourth Sunday in Lent.
A Song of Comfort If There Ever Was One
I saw on the news this week that Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist, is leading a Coronavirus-related endeavor called “Songs of Comfort.” The way it works is that people post an online video of them singing or playing the song which brings them the most comfort during this tumultuous time.
Man, I have got a song of comfort for you. David’s psalm, Psalm 23, is the ultimate song of comfort. It has fed millions down through the centuries. Amazingly, it has consistently been prayed and sung since the time it was written, and it comes resounding down to us into our time and place. Into this season of Lent. Into this season of fear and uncertainty. Into this time of disruption, when the illusion of autonomy and control have been stripped from us in a matter of weeks.
This Psalm today asks us a singular question: Is the Lord our shepherd and what would that mean if he was? In our time together, we’re going to meander through the passage, meditating on just a few aspects of what that looks like.
Taking the Lord as Our Shepherd (vs. 1-2)
“The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I can lack nothing. He shall feed me in green pastures and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.” (New Coverdale Psalter)
Verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I can lack nothing. He shall feed me in green pastures.” We have to look at this carefully. Hidden in David’s statement is the recognition of two things: 1) a hostile environment and 2) his own personal need for a shepherd so that he’s led to good food and good water.
Sheep often dwell in deserts, and so do we. God’s designation as shepherd means that we have to acknowledge ourselves as sheep. We are in need of a shepherd. We wander off, we get lost. We need guidance. And in life, we will, in fact, choose a shepherd – the question is, who will it be? Each of us must repent and come back to the Good Shepherd if we’re to be led in good paths. Repentance, as Ken Bailey puts it means simply “accepting to be found.” Not hiding, not wandering, but accepting to be led home by God.
So, who are you looking to as your shepherd? Friends, we are poor shepherds of ourselves. Sheep do not know how to shepherd properly themselves. Others cannot shepherd us the way the Lord can, either. Jesus, THE Good Shepherd, points to this reality when he says in John 10:1, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.” (ESV) Oh how often we fully entrust ourselves to aspiring and yet false shepherds. Social media cannot be our shepherd in this time. The government, however thankful we are for it, cannot be our shepherd in this time. In the deepest sense, only Jesus can be the shepherd we need. Only he can lead us to pasture the satisfies and quiets. Only he can give us the still water we can drink, bringing refreshment.
The New Coverdale Psalter we prayed from earlier translates verse 1 like this: “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I can lack nothing.” I want to boldly say this morning, with David, that if you take the Lord as your shepherd in life, it is impossible that you should lack any good thing. What do you need that you do not have in Jesus? This psalm’s answer is loud and clear: nothing.
As we’re going to see though, that doesn’t mean life necessarily gets easier. I’m not talking about a Prosperity Gospel approach to life here. That brings us to verse 4.
Walking Through the Valley of Death (v. 4)
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.” (New Coverdale Psalter)
Life is not all pasture, all leisure. We will go through valleys, even the valley of death, and it is particularly there that the sheep must stay close to Good Shepherd. For only he, the one who lays down his life on their behalf can be trusted in that place. Only the one with nail-pierced hands can bring the sheep through that. Only the one who says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades,” can go before us in the valley. (Rev. 1:17-18, ESV)
Something interesting happens here in verse 4 – did you notice it? The language shifts from the third person to second, from “he leads me” in verse 3 to “you are with me” in verse 4. Ken Bailey writes that, “At this point in the Psalm God dramatically ‘walks on stage’ and the psalmist addresses him directly.” (The Good Shepherd, pg. 49) What does this point us to? One thing: Incarnation. Only a shepherd who has faithfully walked in our shoes and stood in our place can lead us through such a valley. And there is only one shepherd who did that for us.
Furthermore, only the sheep of this Good Shepherd can say with confidence, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Here we see that the valley of the shadow of death, although utterly real, is never contemplated by David as a destination or end point. God takes us through the valley. Implication: he will never abandon us nor forsake us in the valley.
From Ken Bailey again: “The valley of … deep darkness is a section of the trail that cannot be avoided. There is no bypass road and no magical escape. The only way forward is through the valley of sin and death. But the psalm does not say ‘This valley is where the trail ends, get used to it!’ Rather it is a valley through which the singer of the psalm may need to pass. But the psalmist knows that his journey does not end there.” (The Good Shepherd, pg. 48)
Feasting With…Feasting On the Shepherd (vs. 5-6)
“You shall prepare a table before me, in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (New Coverdale Psalter)
The end of the Psalm brings us back to see clearly what having the Lord as our shepherd is really all about. Having the Lord as our shepherd means just that: having him. Feasting with him, feasting on him.
If we’re just after good pasture in life, we will wind up, as John Piper says, worshipping the grass rather than the Shepherd who gives it. In the end, the greatest gift the Good Shepherd has to give is himself. In John 6:55, Jesus tells us that his flesh is true food, and that his blood is true drink.” He gives himself for us and to us. Jesus himself, in his body laid down for us is our very dwelling place, the house of the Lord – now and in the life of the world to come.
Now, we are a deeply eucharistic family at New Creation, and I know that many of us are feeling bereft without the celebration of Holy Communion, possibly for the next eight weeks. I want to say to all of us that we must be sure in times like this, that we can have the inward reality, when the outward sign is not in reach. We still feast on Jesus, even in the absence of his Table. In a moment, we’ll pray the Collect for Spiritual Communion, and I hope you’ll join me in that.
So, when take the Lord as our shepherd, trust him through the valley, and come to feast on him alone, we too can say with confidence with David and with all the saints, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Listen to that one more time: from transcendence (The Lord – YHWH, the eternal God) to intimacy and personal knowledge (MY shepherd) in a single sentence. The Almighty condescends to become a lowly shepherd of people. Will we receive him as such today? It’s my prayer that every single person watching and listening to this receives Jesus as their Good Shepherd this day. Amen.
Prayer for Spiritual Communion
Dear Jesus, I love you above all things, and I desire to possess you within my soul. And since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to you, together with all your faithful people gathered around every altar of your Church, and I embrace you with all the affections of my soul. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.