Sermon Text - Psalm 23: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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 love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
A number of years ago, a member of a congregation died. As was customary in this particular church, after the service was over, the preacher asked if anyone would like to say something. At first it was the normal stuff – grandchildren talked about what a loving person this man was. Friends attested to his faith and brought even more comfort that because of Jesus, the man was now in heaven. And to close all this, two men stepped forward, and they could not have been more opposite. The first was a twenty-seven year old man, a business professional, decked out in a fancy suit. The man who had died was the first to go out of his way to welcome him into the congregation. The businessman had an impressing speaking voice and a presence so powerful that when he entered the room, you knew it.
So this man stands before the people and, fittingly, reads Psalm 23. He began the Psalm with a bang: “The LORD is My SHEPHERD” thundered through the church. Anyone who may have been dozing was no longer. He continued, the volume of his voice increasing. His inflection was spot on. The walls and windows seemed to reverberate, so powerful was his tone. He looked people in the eyes. He pointed. He raised his arms to heaven. None of this was meant to be showy or pompous – it was genuine. And after closing a resounding “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER” you could see the effect his reading had on the congregation. Some actually stood and cheered. Must not have been Lutheran. This reading of Psalm 23 gave them confidence and joy and hope and a vision of a glorious future.
After he sat down, the other man went. He, though, was short and his back bent due to his many years. He had been the best friend of the man who had died. And, not having talked to the young professional previously, also recited Psalm 23. His start was rockier than the 1st reading. His voice cracked, so he started again. He read slowly. His volume level was just above a whisper, sounding very monotone. It sounded like this: “The Lord is my shepherd. (pause) I shall not want. (pause) He makes me lie down in green pastures” (pause)… As he read, the congregation hushed itself. No one spoke. And as he closed with “I will dwell in the house of the Lord (pause) forever” there was hardly a dry eye in the house. The old man quietly closed his Bible, sat down, and no one moved for well over five minutes.
Why such different reactions to the same words? Well, think about the speakers. The young man had his whole life ahead of him. And his confidence was the Lord. He knew how many dark valleys he would walk through. He knew he would need God to fill up his cup regularly. He knew he had to be fed by the food that is the Lord’s Word and Supper if he had any chance of making it. He knew enemies, spiritual and physical, would do everything to stop him. But he, with God given confidence, knew he would live on in heaven forever.
The other, the older man, had been through those wars. Year after year God had fed him, protected him and saved him from danger. He had story upon story about him being in want and God providing some how, some way. He had been through death’s valley numerous times before. With a loving family, a church home, with fifteen grandchildren and with Jesus as his Savior, his cup of blessing was full. And he knew his time was close. So as he read the Psalm, he was almost like Paul at the end of his life. I have run the race. I have finished the task. And every day, Lord, when I wonder if today will be the day, I find great comfort in knowing that I will be with you.
So how do we approach this Psalm today? Are we looking for soaring joy, a smile bringing hope and enthusiasm about the future? Or is it like the old man – keep me close, Lord, one more day. See me through, for I cannot make it alone? Honestly, is it not both? Isn’t Psalm 23 one of great joy and amazing comfort? Of course it is. And thank goodness, for we absolutely need both.
During Easter 1973, a dictator, Idi Amin, terrorized Uganda. His soldiers beat, burned and killed Christians. But that Easter Pastor Kefa Sempangi preached the risen Lord in a soccer stadium to seven thousand people. After the service, Amin's Secret Police followed Sempangi to his church and closed the door, rifles in his face. “We’ll kill you for disobeying Amin" said the captain. "If you have something to say, do it now." Kefa, thinking of his wife and daughter, was shaken. But God strengthened him to speak. "Do what you must. God says in Christ I’m already dead. My real life is hidden with Him in God. My life’s not in danger but yours. I’m alive in the risen Lord. You’re dead in your sins. May He spare you from eternal destruction." They looked at him for a long time then lowered their guns and said, "Pray for us?” Kefa did, and those who saw his brave witness, protected him with their lives.
Years later, Sempangi, in a book, noted that what came to his mind as he faced those soldiers was Psalm 23. He had no confidence in himself. It was all in the Lord. He found the courage to speak because he knew the mighty, powerful Lord was at his side and would work all things for his good. He knew the Lord would see him through this dark valley. In the face of evil, he did not have to fear that evil, for, by rod and staff, his Good Shepherd would comfort him. Psalm 23 helped him confidently move forward. God is with me. I will not fail.
Aren’t we so often in that same situation? We are struggling, in any and every way possible. Despair robs us of joy. Problems abound, problems of body and soul, of heart and mind. And worst of all there is that conscience, the one that records our sins and regularly brings them up. You will pay for what you did. God cannot want you, sinner. You know the hatred you have felt for others. You know the improper things you have looked at or said to others. You know how often you heart is not God-centered during church. And you know that breaking one law is the same as breaking them all. You have no shepherd. You have strayed too far, lost sheep. He will give up on you, and bar you from his sheep fold.
And who of us can disagree? Just take the First Commandment: have no other idols. God calls us to respect and revere him – to fear him – above all else. Do we always approach him in reverent humility, fully understanding our sins? Hardly. God also calls us to love him with heart, soul and mind. Another word would be devoted. We are to be fully devoted to him. Are you? Am I? Has anything else captured our affection more than God? Or anyone else? Has God ever been anywhere but first on your list of priorities? Me too. And finally we are to trust him in everything. I just had an issue come up last week. I got angry, frustrated, annoyed, sad, and when I got over that, it was, “What must I do about this?” It took a full two hours until I realized I had not taken this matter to God in prayer and found guidance in his word. Is that trust, trust in the almighty to be with, comfort and guide me in all my way? And have you ever been there, that your trust is everywhere else but in God?
So, don’t we need a rousing Psalm 23, with the joy that comes from knowing Jesus IS our Good Shepherd? Of course we do. We are lost sheep, destined to slaughter. But the Shepherd, by becoming a lamb, has freed us from sin, death, Satan and hell. In going to that cross, First Commandment sins and every sin died with him. Get that? They no longer exist. Every one has been paid for and wiped away from you by your Good Shepherd on account of his work for you. And with sins forgiven comes so many more blessings, the blessings David talks about here. He will lead us in his word. He will protect us physically as he sees fit, but will perfectly protect our souls from harm. As we walk through those dark valleys, he will be there, whatever those valleys may be. And because Jesus did all this, we can move forward with hope and joy – God is with me, I will not fail. Doesn’t that pick our spirits up? Doesn’t that make our hearts want to sing? Doesn’t that bring us hope for the future, since God is with us? Most certainly it does. Like that young businessman, we can walk without our shoulders hanging low and our heads down. No. In Christ our heads will be held high, for no matter what, God will see us through.
So yes, God wants us to draw immense hope, joy and confidence from this, he wants joy in our hearts, praise on our lips and resounding alleluias. But then are those other times, times when we feel like we are just hanging on. We feel so weak, so powerless, so helpless. Like the old man, we’ve fought the battles – winning some and losing many. We have seen friends die. We’ve seen families blown apart. We watch immorality slowly but successively creep into society. We are worn out and are afraid we cannot keep the fight up much longer. We don’t need a rousing Psalm 23. We need a comforting Psalm 23, one that assures us that in spite of everything that is going on, we will make it.
And we have. In our funeral liturgies, this Psalm is read every time. And every time, it has not a leaping and dancing effect but a solemn, quiet comforting effect. My dad ran the race. And in Christ, he won. My mother, by that same grace, fought the good fight, and now knows nothing but peace. God kept them strong. God did not let them stumble. And, Lord, I thank you that the Good Shepherd will do the same for me, and that I will dwell with them in your house forever.
Psalm 23 brings great joy, but it also reminds us of that fact: we will make it. And the Lord reminds us that he will give us all we need to make it. When we are weak, he takes us to the green pastures of his word. When we hunger, physically or spiritually, he feeds us with His Body and Blood. Evil is all around us but it will not win. For he will bless us on our way himself, through family, through friends and in so many other ways. He who has anointed us as his own through Christ will shepherd us home, a home in heaven forever. Do not despair. You will make it. God promises this, a promise that is fulfilled in Christ alone.
Rousing and comforting – that’s Psalm 23. Draw immense joy from it and quiet confidence as well. For the Lord, wherever you are in the stages of life, is always your shepherd. He led you to the quiet waters of your Baptism and in that marvelous simplicity welcomed you into his kingdom: “I am your shepherd. You are my sheep. When you fear, remember me. Find joy in my cross, in the life I gave for you that you will forever have life with me. Cling to that cross, cling to me, for I will never let you down. Enemies, attacks, dark valleys or moments of blessings and joy beyond belief, I will be there. For you are my sheep and I am your Shepherd.”
At times he does set our hearts on fire for him. At other times he douses the flames of sadness and despair. And we in the world will always need both. Thank God we have it. So with great joy and with great comfort, let us hear one more time: “the Lord IS my shepherd.” Amen.