Saturday, 27 April 2013
Psalm 23. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..........
My apologies that this didn't get posted last week. It's been a busy week with a lot of funerals taking place at the moment. Prayers for the families involved please.
So here's what I should have posted last week. This week's to follow.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The implications of being referred to as a sheep in this day and age are pretty negative. Sheep have no minds of their own. Sheep are easily led. Sheep do what everyone else in the flock does. Sheep are basically bland, mindless, uncreative souls who just go unquestioningly where they are told to go. Is that fair? And how much does that bias our understanding of Psalm 23? Just this last week there was a story in the news of a sheep that has been saved from the pot when its farmer discovered it loved to jump fences and apparently relished the challenge of being set ever higher jumps. There is more to sheep than meets the eyes. But the issue still remains that there is an awful lot of baggage around being referred to as a sheep because it’s quite derogatory. So in order to get more at the depths of what is being said in this psalm we need to look again at the meaning of being a sheep, but this time through the eyes of the psalm’s composer.
Psalm 23 is referred to as a Psalm of David. What that means is that the compiler of the book wants us to believe that this psalm was a song written by King David. Now it’s fair to say that there is some scepticism about how many psalms David actually composed. After all it would have been considered quite an honour to have one of your own compositions ascribed to King David. But with this one there is every reason to think that actually he may well have written it. Two of the things we know about King David are this; before he became the greatest king Israel ever had he had been a simple shepherd boy. The second thing is that he apparently played the harp. It wouldn’t have been quite the instrument my Alison plays, but the principle would have been the same. Now the fact that this psalm begins with the words, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ suggests that the composer knew what he was talking about. He is drawing on his own life’s experiences to say something about God. However, in order to understand it more clearly for ourselves we have to get our minds away from the images we have of sheep in this country which are pretty bland creatures that get shoved in a big green field or on a hillside where they hoover up the grass and turn it into wool. They don’t need a great deal of care as basically the grass is there for the taking. But David was an Israelite and Israel, particularly in its southern regions, is a pretty arid country. There’s not a huge amount of grass and so if you leave sheep to their own devices they will probably starve. When I was last there we were lucky enough to see a traditional shepherd and he was leading his sheep across some arid ground looking for food, and that’s the whole point.
In Britain you can stick a flock of sheep anywhere in the country and they’ll find food. In parts of the highlands they get taken out in the spring and brought back when the weather turns for the winter, but they don’t need anyone to take them anywhere. In other words there is no bond of trust needed, so the sheep don’t have to get to know or trust a shepherd. But in the arid Middle East it’s a totally different picture. There the sheep utterly depend on the expertise of the shepherd to find them food. There is a relationship. The sheep know the sound of the shepherd’s voice and will follow the shepherd because they trust him. Now the adage of being a sheep is no longer insulting; it’s a good thing because it is about being in a relationship where one is being accompanied.
Now for me what follows is quite important. What does the shepherd do? He makes the sheep lie down in green pastures. He leads them by still waters. He restores them. But it’s that first one that really speaks to me because of the cessation of activity that is implied. There was a report in the papers last week that people in protestant countries suffer more psychologically when they are made redundant. The so-called protestant work ethic means that we really wish to work hard, and some people will work at levels which are to the detriment of their health and the well-being of the their families. I know of too many occasions where overworking has broken up marriages. I know of too many people who feel guilty if they are not seen to be working ridiculously long hours, and it is just as prevalent amongst Christians, if not more so, as amongst the rest of society. And the trouble is we don’t take this psalm seriously and allow God to do what he wishes to do, which is to make us lie down in green pastures; simply to stop and take in the scenery. I gather that it has been shown quite categorically that people who are denied access to the countryside, or who live in cities and rarely venture out, are damaged in their sense of well-being by the absence of the country. We need rest. We need the kiss of nature, and we follow a God whose desire it is to make us stop, to lead us to places of rest.
If we truly call ourselves sheep following the Good Shepherd, then actually we ought very much to listen to him. Yet we have an expectation, a business assumption, that normal people are always busy, that this is a good thing. We might even judge someone as lazy if they’re not working very long hours. Is that right? I don’t think so but I’m as guilty as the next person.
But it’s not just the promise of rest that God brings. There is another side to the coin of being a sheep, and that is that some of the places we are led are not safe. Yet within the psalm we also find the promise to be with us in the dark places. There are valleys in Israel that are dangerous places to go, but the psalmist affirms that even there the Shepherd is present. His rod and staff are essentially weapons which he carries in to the dark places with the sheep.
This, then, is the other side of following the Shepherd. In last week’s reading about Saul on the road to Damascus you may recall that when Jesus spoke to Ananias about how the calling that Saul was given would mean that he would have to face some real difficulties because Jesus was going to ask a lot of him.
This is the other side of the coin of being a Christian. Sometimes God calls us to go into dark valleys where there is danger and difficulty. Each of us has had, at some time, to face up to some of life’s harsh realities and some of us are called deliberately to go into situations as Christians where our faith will be tested. We have been in the darkest valleys, also known as the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes we are called to go to those places to accompany another who is walking there; to go as the presence of Christ for them.
And the promise which is made in those places is this, ‘God is with us,’ which, incidentally, is a name given to Jesus: Emmanuel. That is not the same as saying God will always keep us physically safe. Remember that all but one of Jesus’s remaining eleven apostles died for their beliefs. But we are promised that we will never be left alone, that whatever we are called to do or whatever life throws at us we are not left to fend for ourselves.
So the central message of this psalm is one of never being left alone, but of always knowing that God is present, wishing to lead us to places of refreshment and promising to be with us when darkness draws near. Our role in this is simply one of learning to listen, of spending time in prayer so that we know what the Shepherd’s voice sounds like. Only as we learn to do that can we find security in being in the different places that life takes us. Only then can we know that we are not ever left alone and to our own devices.