The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 15, 2017
Many of us believe that God cares about us and takes care of us. But we believe that wishing we could believe it with more conviction and constancy. The truth is we sometimes believe it; and sometimes, don’t.
Faith comes by hearing – says the Bible, the word of God – and hearing by the word of God. Some of us have in our own experience seen that come about by means of Psalm 23. In a hard time we turned to this word of God, heard from God through it, and gained thereby the faith to believe that God would see us through it and bring us to a good end.
Though the appearance of things might suggest otherwise, and though our emotions might commend dark thoughts, many of us have held on to this Psalm, and it has enabled us to be alright even when all sorts of things are all wrong – when the injustice seems more than we can bear, the pain more than we can endure, and survival more than we can expect.
In this Psalm David sings of wanting for nothing. And yet he often enough went wanting – for the presence of a dear friend, family harmony, peace among his people, self-control, success in his ambitions, intimacy with God.
In this Psalm David also sings of fearing no evil. And yet he suffered from much evil, including that of his own making
So what is Psalm 23 saying? And can we even hear it out after having grown so familiar with it?
The Lord is my shepherd, it begins.
Whatever else we know about shepherds, we know that the good ones faithfully supply their wooly darlings with all the food and drink they need. They settle them down in green pastures where they can fill their tummies and lead them besides still waters where they can quench their thirst, in order that the strength of their little, bleating souls might be restored, and they might thrive is this rough and tumble, dangerous and difficult, world.
Like sheep, you and I hunger and thirst. We hunger for physical nourishment, good health and bodily strength. We also hunger for friendship, fulfillment of our potential, a sense of making a difference, a little respect, a little appreciation, happiness for our children, comfort for aging parents, a modicum of security in the face of much uncertainty. Last but not least, we have a hunger for something that not even having all those other things can satisfy. It turns out that what we’re the hungriest for is the Shepherd Himself, and we thirst to drink in His friendship, companionship and love.
Because David found his soul’s satisfaction in knowing the Shepherd, David goes on to say, I shall not want. He isn’t lying or exaggerating. And yet he isn’t denying he sometimes finds himself in want – even in such dire want that he wonders whether he’ll make it out of the dark valley through which he’s passing.
In what sense then can David say he does not want?
I once heard of a Sunday School student whose teacher was helping to memorize this Psalm. The boy kept failing to get its words quite right. For example, he kept saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; that’s all I want.”
Now maybe that boy was getting closer to what David meant than we usually do. Maybe David is saying that, if we stay open and receptive to the Lord, we will never be in want of the one thing we want more than anything else, the one thing we need more than anything else, the one thing for the sake of which we would, if we were in our right minds, sacrifice any other thing we want.
What is that one thing? It is knowing the Shepherd as a living and loving presence with us all the days of our life. Maybe David is saying that whatever God may or may not give us, He always gives us His care and concern, and His companionship. Maybe David is saying that if our deepest hunger is satisfied and our deepest thirst is quenched, our heart is filled and we are fulfilled enough to manage without having what else we want. We may continue to want what we are in want of, but we no longer need to have it in any desperate sense.
There is someone about whom I think ever so often: Joni Eareckson Tada. A quadriplegic for half a century now, she is in want of the ability to move most of her body at will and in want of relief from the unrelenting pain of decades. Yet, she radiates a sparkling joy from knowing Christ and traveling through life with Him. Having Him, she feels in want of nothing more; and for the sake of having Him, she’d sacrifice everything else she wants – and pretty much has.
Joni so values the close, intimate, uplifting friendship she now has with the Good Shepherd, that she is glad and grateful for the suffering and deprivation that nudged her toward Him. She thanks God for letting her be in want, because it motivates her to seek Christ if only out of desperation. She declares – honestly, I am sure – that, if she could rewind her life back to when she was a teenager and decide not to take that dive into the Chesapeake Bay that broke her neck and consigned her to a life of pain and paralysis, she’d pass on taking the opportunity. For the reward of avoiding all that suffering would not make up for the loss of the reward of experiencing all that grace to which her injury led. She says that her being in want of the use of her hands and feet gave her a life that is better than any she would have chosen had she had been healthy and whole. She says, “Great things can happen when God does not give us what we want.” Indeed, it is often only when life does its worst to us that we allow God to do His best for us!
How can I be alright when all sorts of things are all wrong? When everything is alright in the deepest part of me! When the God-shaped emptiness in my heart is filled with God Himself! When I experience that of which David here sings: God “with me” – to lead me on to the right paths, to comfort me in my tribulation, to provide for me in my deprivation, to make my cup overflow even in the darkest valley or in the presence of my enemies!
Any of us can be alright all the time if we can bear in mind that, thanks to God’s faithful love, we are alright at our core and will with Him be so “all the days of our life”.
The Good Shepherd never changes and never tires of being there for us and taking care of us. That’s why we can believe that goodness and mercy shall follow us our whole life long, and that we always have a good reason to be at peace and full of joy! Let us pray.