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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Psalm 23
February 3, 2013 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

         “Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life.” If you’re old enough, you may remember Bobby Bare’s creation in 1976 of the only “Christian-football waltz.”

         Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life,
         End over end, neither left nor to right.
         Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights,
         Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life.

So on this most sacred of Sundays, I probably should be interpreting our text today along Bobby Bare’s lines. Those green pastures? What could those be but that 100 yard expanse of emerald Astro Turf? Those paths of righteousness? They have to be the holes opened up in the defense by good offensive blocking. And that valley of the shadow of death. What else but two big linebackers closing in on your poor quarterback?

         Yet as heretical as it might sound today, you know, I really don’t care much for football. So I’m not really well-equipped to get you all the way through this psalm with football analogies, culminating with dwelling in the house of the Lord forever being something like celebrating a touchdown in the end zone. Let’s forget all that, like the bad idea it was when Bobby came up with it nearly forty years ago.

         And as I said a few weeks before Christmas when we had another text about Christ as our Shepherd, I also don’t have any agrarian experience to offer you first-hand, no personal insights about what it might be like to be a sheep cared for by a shepherd. If you want that, to walk through this psalm verse by verse and unpack all the images in terms of what a literal shepherd does, then by all means get ahold of Phillip Keller’s classic little book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

         All I propose to do with this gorgeous, famous, always comforting song from Scripture is to briefly talk about some bits of it and share a few thoughts about how these words bless me and how I’ve seen them work in other people’s lives.

         Let me begin by inviting you to put this Scripture passage to memory if you haven’t already. I can’t remember when I first memorized this, but nearly thirty years of coaching Confirmation students through it has burned it into my mind, and into my heart.

         These days, memorizing Scripture is a little more complicated because the question immediately arises, “Which version do I memorize?” With this psalm, I think it’s simpler. Like the Lord’s Prayer, the English words of the King James version of Psalm 23 are etched into English-speaking Christian life, into our hymns, our worship books, and into most of our minds. There is still even a residual awareness of these words in the broader culture around us.

         Sure, change the “thy”s and “thou”s to “your” and “you,” but there’s no need to make this text sound like it’s being spoken by a 21st century American. Memorize it pretty much like it appears in the back of our hymnal, except feel free to use the King James word for the ending, saying “forever,” instead of “my whole life long.” The Hebrew words are literally, “for length of days,” which means basically “a really, really long time.” I’ll leave it to scholars like Marlon to sort out the fine points on that.

         I suggest memorizing this because I have found this text, like almost no other part of Scripture, to be the words I or others need to hear, need to hear in those times and places described in verse 4 as “the valley of the shadow of death.”

         For myself, it can be as simple as the shadows of 3 a.m. some nights, when I come awake and find my mind churning with some worry, whether it’s about one of my daughters or about my own health or about one of you. Or some other sort of difficulty or conflict has awakened me with fear about what the next day or days will bring.

         To say, to pray, those precious words, “I will fear no evil: for you are with me,” has taken me through those sleepless minutes or hours more often than I can count. That goes right to the heart of the Gospel, right to the heart of our faith, right to the heart of what you and I and every human being needs, the comforting, healing, saving presence of God.

         Remember how in Advent we sang “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” That name for Jesus means, “God with us.” “For you are with me,” is a simple and almost complete confession of faith in the Good News that God Himself came to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. And because He rose again and lives forever, He is still and always with us, to “length of days.”

         These words are not magic, because they are stronger than that. Magic is nonsense words like “hocus pocus” or “abracadabra.” But this Psalm is the mighty Word of God speaking to us the living Word of God. To remember and repeat these words is to grab hold of the One who is powerful enough to see us through any darkness.

         So I always like to tell how I’ve found that I can visit some poor old soul in a nursing home, in the memory care unit. I can greet that person and see in their cloudy eyes that they don’t remember me, that they don’t know my name. It may be that they scarcely know their own name. The shadow of death is heavy across that room, across those eyes.

         But sometimes all I have to do is take hold of a wrinkled, spotted hand and say, “The Lord is my shepherd…” and something comes alive in there. Lips move and I hear a whispered, “…I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” This psalm, learned decades before, connects that wandering mind once again to the Shepherd, puts her back in the path of righteousness, assures her once again that the Lord is with her.

         So I invite you to learn it, to say it over and over. It’s not ritual, it’s not empty words. It’s a way to cling to the truth, to hold fast to the Lord when what you need most is to know that He is holding on to you.

         The whole Gospel is here in this Psalm. The images of rod and staff are probably pictures of a shepherd’s correction and protection of his sheep. But at least one church father saw simply two lengths of wood and then in his mind put those two pieces together in the Cross. The good Shepherd gives up His life for the sheep, as Jesus says in John 10. The rod and staff remind us that our Lord died for sins, gave Himself for us.

         And that table spread before us in the presence of our enemies. Jesus Christ gave Himself to us. He gave us a Table set before us in the presence of all those enemies we fear, whether they are literal people who hurt us, or spiritual enemies like our own sins. Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body,” took the cup and said, “This is my blood,” and invited us to a feast that no enemy can prevent, no shadow can hide.

         As I hope you’re seeing, I’m encouraging you to memorize this Psalm because it’s a path and a help to faith. It calls you ever deeper into that personal relationship with Jesus Christ which we evangelicals talk about and cherish so much. These words are a constant opportunity to meditate on how our Lord supplies all that we really need, guides us through the complexities of life, is constantly with us even in the darkest valleys, and who nourishes and blesses us all through our lives.

         Ultimately, the promise of this Psalm is the hope we have as Christians. It’s the promise that the affirmation of verse 4, that our Lord is with us, will be true forever. Or rather, that we will be with Him forever. The goodness and merciful grace of God in Jesus Christ is meant to guide us, to finally guide us to our home, the house of the Lord.

         Thirty years ago, about this time of year, I took my wife to the opera in Chicago. We lived two hours away in South Bend, Indiana. We got there just fine and saw the show. You’ll have to ask Beth what the opera was. But while we were in the theatre, cold wind began to blow down from the north across Lake Michigan. When that happens, the wind picks up moisture off the water and drops it as snow nearby. Our route home was around the southern shore of the lake.

         It was late, nearly 11 p.m when started out. Things were O.K., just flurries. But just out of the city, as we turned round that southern shore to head east, the wind blew sheets of snow across our path. In a few miles we could hardly see the lines or the edge of the road. What to do? We saw nowhere to cross safely and turn back. If we stopped we would get covered in snow and sit in the cold all night. We knew very well that people sometimes died like this.

         As we crept along, I was gripping the steering wheel and praying. And then a truck came up behind us, not real fast, but moving steadily, confidently. We picked up speed just a little and fell in behind him. The bulk of the truck blocked a bit of the snow blowing at us and we could see his taillights perfectly. We managed to follow for miles until we were finally out of the lee of the lake and things began to clear. Another thirty minutes or so, around 2 a.m., we were in the warmth and safety of our apartment, pulling off our coats and hugging each other and giving thanks for that trucker.

         Trust in Jesus Christ and His goodness and mercy will follow you and guide you all the days of your life. It may be a frightening, hard journey sometimes. But He will be there, will be with you. And He will get you home to His house, forever.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated February 3, 2013