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
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
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
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj