I was watching Alfred Hitchcock's film “Lifeboat” the other day. It is about a group of people from a torpedoed freighter during World War 2 trying to survive in a lifeboat. They don't all make it and at one point as they put the body of one of them in the water, one person asks if anyone knows a prayer. I thought one of the character would say the Lord's Prayer but instead someone starts reciting the 23rd Psalm. And it makes sense. That is probably one of the best known passages of scripture.
This upcoming Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the agricultural world of the Bible, kings often thought of themselves as shepherds of the people. So how much more appropriate was it to use the metaphor of shepherd for God. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors for God (father, husband, potter, castle, shield, etc) but shepherd is one to which the writers return again and again. And Psalm 23 is an extended exploration of that metaphor.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” If the Lord is our shepherd, he will provide what we need. Faith is just another word for trust and if we are following God , we have to trust that he will take care of our needs.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” As the shepherd leads his sheep to meadows of green grass and pools of clean water, so God leads us to to places where we can get refreshed and renewed. Notice it doesn't say that the shepherd pre-chews the grass for the sheep or pours the water down their throats. He leads us to what we need and then it is our responsibility to feed ourselves. Sometimes people expect God to do everything for them or to do it magically.
A flood was coming to this small community. The authorities sent a bus to evacuate people in the area. This one man refused to get on board because he said, “The Lord will take care of me.” So the bus went to get his neighbors. When the flood waters were up to the man's porch, the Coast Guard came by in a boat to rescue him. He refused, saying, “The Lord will take care of me.” The boat took off to find someone else. Finally the floodwaters covered most of his house and the man was standing on the roof. A helicopter flew over his roof and lowered a rope ladder to him. He refused to climb it, saying, “The Lord will take care of me.” The helicopter flew off to save someone else. The floodwaters rose and the man drowned.
When the man got to heaven, he was mad. He goes up to God and says, “Why didn't you take care of me?” And God said, “Whoa! I sent you a bus and a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?”
God provides but he won't necessarily spoonfeed us. A lot of the time he expects us to use the gifts he gives us. And he often works through other people.
“He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.” I am so impatient to recover that the therapists here have to remind me to take breaks between exercises. They know I need to rest at times. God knows we need to rest and so he actually commanded us to knock off work one day a week. The Sabbath is meant to be a time of rest and refreshment. We are also supposed to spend time with God. And just as hikers use their rest breaks to check their maps and compass and landmarks, we need to use our time with God to check on our direction in life. Are we following him or have we got off track? Have we parted ways with God? Are we heading into situations he wants us to save us from? It doesn't hurt to get reoriented and make sure we are on the right path.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God doesn't promise us that every day will be sunny. We will go through dark times in our lives. Our options might seem to narrow and the only way out is to go through the constricted, stygian valley, “the dark night of the soul” as some have called it. Again we can trust God to get us through those times. The shepherd's rod was a club he carried in his belt to defend the sheep against predators and thieves. The staff, the shepherd's crook, which is what a bishop's crozier is based on, could also be used as a weapon but in addition it could be used to snag and pull up sheep who had fallen into a crevice. So the psalmist is saying that we can trust God to protect and support and rescue us.
“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.” Here the image switches from a shepherd and his sheep to a host and his guest. God is a gracious host whose hospitality protects his guests from enemies, who anoints his guest's head with perfumed oil and who is not stingy when it comes to keeping the glass filled. So God doesn't merely give us the bare bones necessities we need to live but provides an abundance of good things.
“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.” If we follow the shepherd, if we stay in the right pathways, then God's goodness and his mercy (or a better translation, his steadfast love) will follow naturally. Following is the key. If you are sick, you need to follow doctor's orders. If you are lost, you need to follow an experienced guide. If you want peace and refreshment and protection and abundance, you follow the Lord. And when you arrive at your destination, you will find it is the house of the Lord, and you are his guest. He will wash your feet, and anoint your head, and spread a table and fill your cup. And he will wipe away any tears you have from the long hard journey of life.