Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Psalm 23

Peter Lockhart

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”

Is this really so?
Is this how you experience and think about life?

I know that ‘I want’ and that I live in a society that plays deeply on those wants. Just think about it for a moment... what do you want, what are you taught to want?

Psalm 23 begins with the notion that the sheep will not want because they have things provided for them by the Shepherd: a chance to rest, green pastures and still waters.

We live in a consumerist society that thrives on teaching us to want. Wanting more and more and more:

I want a new car.
I want a flat screen TV and a Blue Ray player.
I want more apps for my iphone.
I want to win lotto.
I want a bigger house.
I want it all...

But it’s not just that we want possessions either – we want things of an emotional and spiritual nature as well.

I want a happy life.
I want to live in safety and security.
I want to be left alone.
I want someone to show that they care about me.
I want someone to visit me.
I want the best for my children and my grandchildren.
I want my husband to be more considerate.
I want my wife to understand me.
I want worship to be more fun.
I want to know God loves me.
And I want to die peacefully in my bed.

I want and I want and I want.

All this wanting seems somewhat ironic when you think about how comparatively wealthy and free we are in Australia. When you consider our access to housing, to food, to education, to healthcare, to freedom in worship and so on.

One would think we would have realised that we do not really want for much. It brings to my mind that great Rolling Stones song, “I can’t get no satisfaction”.

There are signs of this everywhere: the increasing size of houses, people constantly upgrading their technology, a growing proportion of the population with obesity, the increase of anxiety disorders in our Western culture.

The cost of saying “I want” is great. Not just to our culture but also to those places around the world where our Western materialism is propped up by people who earn next to nothing, who could even be considered slaves and sometimes literally are, who live in squalor and poverty to provide us with the things that we want.

So with all of this wanting around us and in our own lives us wel and with the consequences it brings. How do we read those well loved words?

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

For so many of us this Psalm is so special.  We hold it dear: it has been a source of comfort for us in difficult times.  In my experience, it is the most commonly requested Psalm for funerals.

Yet it is precisely this familiarity with the words and possibly even our sentimentality about them that makes it difficult to hear just how challenging they are.

Often they come across like just another platitude; words to make us feel good when we are feeling down.

For those of us with faith continuing to want. Whether it be at a material, emotional or even spiritual level somehow seems at odds with the message:

“I shall not want”

As much as we would desire our faith to be a straightforward thing being realistic for most of us it comes with just a little more than a modicum of confusion and struggle. Most of us seek to keep up our appearances in terms of our faith. We avoid exposing our doubts or fears or the fact that we want all these things.  When the 23rd Psalm seems to tell us we should no longer want anymore.

Maybe it would help us to think in a different direction as we consider what it means not to want.

The context given for the Psalmist not wanting is:

“The Lord is my shepherd”

As Christians we naturally read the idea that the Lord is Shepherd through the lens of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd”

In John’s gospel this becomes a clear point of contention with Jesus’ audience who do not miss the connection that Jesus’ makes between the notion of the Lord, that is to say God, being a Shepherd and Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd.  In the same chapter Jesus goes on to make the claim, “I and the Father are one”.

It is here that we begin to tread on Trinitarian ground.  The unity of the Father and Son is expressed in their common title of Shepherd and Lord who watch over the sheep so that they do not want.

Returning to Jesus’ word, “I am the good shepherd.” He then goes on to assert, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Given we have just traversed Good Friday and the Easter story the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection remains fresh. What does it mean for Jesus to lay his life down for us as the Good Shepherd?

It means that Jesus himself becomes one of the sheep as is inferred in Isaiah 53.  This is often read on Good Friday:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

This is completely consistent with the opening theme of John’s gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or of the words in Philippians 2 which describes the self emptying of Jesus as he takes on our human flesh and shares in all that being human means:

Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Here is something astounding and amazing which comes to us as good news, "The Lord who is my Shepherd" exposes himself in Jesus to all of the fears and anxieties, our sense of alienation and yes even our Godforsakeness in death and so says to us, "There is nothing that you will face that I have not.  There is no where that you will go that I have not been."

Understanding what it means that Jesus is both the Shepherd and also identifies himself with the sheep have a couple important implications in terms of all of those things that we think we want.

First, We will not be left wanting for a God that does not understand us.  We not be left wanting for a God who wants to stay at arm’s length, in heaven, as it were, untouched by what means to be created. God’s love for us is just so deep that Jesus, the Shepherd himself, walks through valley of the shadow of death as one of the sheep.

This connection of Jesus life with ours is a two way street.  Not only does Jesus becomes one with us but we become one with him in both his death and his risen life.
Jesus, in John 12, indicating the kind of death he is going to die, declares

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”

Being drawn into Jesus’ death means that we are also given a share in his risen life.  No longer counted as lost sheep we have been led home in him.

The Spirit poured out on the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, that same Spirit that came upon the people at Pentecost, opens our hearts and minds to this new reality.

This is a message of hope, that our relationship with God has been reconciled and restored, that God does not desert us when our enemies are before us nor when we are facing the horror of our mortality.  God has lived and died with us as one of us – he is both shepherd and sheep - and so we are not left wanting in our relationship with God.

Secondly, when we consider all of the things we want we can put them in a new perspective.

Given that we know the good news that God has reconciled and renewed us in and through Jesus we can begin to understand that life isn’t just about what I think “I want”.
Just as Jesus gave himself for the sake of the world, so we who have encountered this good news are challenged to think upon our not wanting. Not simply because what we want has been provided by God but because it is the starting point for considering whether what we want should be the focus of our existence rr whether we should first consider what others need.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

These words can reassure us: the Shepherd walks with us; we are not alone. In our union with Jesus we can say with confidence

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

These words can also call us to share in Jesus ministry, reaching out to those who are in desperate need and as we do so proclaim God’s compassion for those whom may not yet know Jesus as their Shepherd, even though he has already laid his life down from them.
As Jesus declares in John 10 verse 15 and 16

And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,
and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Words of love, of hope, of compassion, of challenge, of liberation for all peoples on the earth.

So I wonder, in the midst of your wanting on this day, "What do you hear in these simple yet profound words of hope?"

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

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