We have certainly heard a lot of Psalm 23 over the past few weeks. I think, with the only exception being Tony’s funeral, this will be the 8th time in only 3 weeks or so that many of us have either heard or participated in reading the psalm. Let’s face it. It is one of the best known pieces of Scripture. It’s one of those pieces of Scripture which seems to be as well known by the unchurched as it is by the churched. Why?
For its brevity, Psalm 23 takes up a number of themes. Better still, as with all great poetry, its few words convey all kinds of depth of meaning. For example, one of the messages of this psalm, I think can be argued, is the idea that life is a journey. Certainly, the Hebrews understood much of their existence to be a journey. Often, they referred to themselves as “wandering Arameans,” a clear reference to the fact that Abraham and Isaac and the rest of the first family were called out of their homeland by God on a great journey. Their life in Egypt, both the good times and the bad, was considered a “sojourn.” Certainly their experiences in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt was a wandering. They did get a few generations of life in the Promised Land, but their rejection of the covenant with God earned them the punishment of the Exile. Throughout their journeys, both physical and spiritual, Israel was reminded that they were just passing through. Their focus was supposed to be Yahweh, both in the good times and the bad.
Similarly, you and I as Christians are often reminded that we are “wandering Arameans” and “pilgrims.” What we were and what were are now are not our final destination. At some point, you and I will be re-created and called home to be with our Lord. But, as we journey through both the wonderful experiences of life and its terrible tragedies, you and I are called to keep our focus of God and His promises.
Another beautiful image in these 6 short verses is the promise that God is preparing a table, a feast, for us, sometimes right in front of our enemies. For the people of Israel, this promise was to be expressed fullest in their possession of and continuing existence in the Land Promised to their forefathers and foremothers. For us, of course, this idea is realized differently. Certainly, unless we are among those fortunate to be alive when our Lord returns, we will all walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As I noted earlier, death has touched all of us at least once in the past three weeks, and some of us have been touched as many as 8 times! Death is always stalking us, as are many of the sufferings of this world. How many of us are fighting diseases? How many of us are worried about provision? How many of us wish that certain relationships could be restored?
Just as God fed Israel with manna and quail during their journeys and led them into a land with vineyards and milk and honey (and lots of enemies), you and I are fed in the midst of our trials. Each week, although some of us a few more times than just once, we gather at the Eucharist and remind ourselves of the pledge God has given us. We remember His faithfulness and remind ourselves to trust Him, wherever He leads us. More than infrequently we hear of amazing provision or miracles in the midst of this world, and oh how those stories inspire us! Think of Fr. Jeremy’s story of healings and protection towards the end of Lent. Think of the wonderful stories of how “money appeared” or “bills got lost” or whatever in our midst that allowed us breathing space, rest, in the midst of our cares of provision. How many times do checks happen to appear from those who watch our ministries just when we need them the most? How big is our prayer list because people notice that our intercessors get clear answers from God? And how intent are we in sharing those stories of miracles of provision or of healing? We each need to hear them in the midst of our enemies so that our faith will be strengthened and our confidence in God will be increased. Better still, for just a few moments when we hear of these amazing acts and gifts of God, the jeers and taunts of our enemies, and His, are muted.
Of course, perhaps most importantly, one of the themes of this psalm is the idea that we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Certainly, there is a peek-ahead to the end times, when His people are called home into restored communion with Him; but there is also included here, I believe, a reminder that we are already experiencing some of the benefits of that future state. His goodness, we are promised, follows us all the days of our lives. Just as such a promise would have been hard for a non-Jew to accept in the face of the Exile and any number of persecutions, so, too, might a non-Christian find our claim absurd. You have just talked of death, of disease, of broken relationships, and of privation. How can you claim that you dwell in the House of the Lord? Much as Ann Vosskamp’s book suggests, you and I are called to look for God in the seemingly insignificant events in our life. Maybe we work ridiculous hours each week. But maybe, in the midst of that work, we take time out to spend time with a beloved child or grandchild. Perhaps, if the sacrifices we make while working directly benefit that beloved youth in our life, we can begin to understand a bit better His work on our behalf. Our Father in heaven. Maybe, if we have heard of His actions in the world around us, despite the attacks and hassles of the enemy, you and I might come to look at those bad events in our lives as places where God is most at work in our lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, we may be given eyes to see and ears to hear with excitement how He will redeem the newest problem in our life. In other words, our problems become opportunities for us to see better His handiwork in our lives and opportunities for us to give Him increasing thanksgiving and praise for what He has done for us! That is a dwelling place to which we should all aspire!
Six short verses--such incredibly, densely-packed verses! Yet they are verses which provide amazing comfort. Though we often forget it, such is part of what they were intended to do. In the order of the psaltery, 23 naturally follows 22. You and I as Christians may know the numbers, but we might forget the meanings. Psalm 22 begins with the Anointed’s words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” While it is by no means a psalm of failure, but rather a psalm that reminds us of God’s promises and powers to act, Psalm 23 reminds us each of the specificity of His promises. Yes, we are on a journey, surrounded and attacked by enemies of God who would like nothing better than to see us stumble or be misled. Yes, death stalks us. But, in the end, God triumphs! Through the death and resurrection of His Son our Lord, you and are reminded that He has the power to see us each safely home and that, from time to time, we will be given glimpses into His future victory. Armed with than knowledge and restored by His food, we are once again sent back out into the world to share His story of grace, His story of love, His story of provision with the world around us. Better still, we are sent as ambassadors to seek others and call them into this amazing relationship and journey with Him!