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For the last few weeks, we’ve been walking along with Jesus, observing his encounters with a variety of people—a rich man who couldn’t bear to part with his wealth and status to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus with his opened eyes, some Pharisees and Herodians who thought they could trap Jesus with a trick question but left amazed instead. This week, we were going to meet a widow who gave all she had to the temple.
It’s a challenging story, and one we should give attention to. And yet, with all that we’re dealing with, I just couldn’t get a feel for what message that story has for us right now. But, since we’d been sharing a sermon series and Lenten study with Hope United Methodist, I felt kind of obligated to keep to the plan.
Then, we made the decision to cancel the rest of the Bible Study. And, I saw that the Psalm for this week is the 23rd Psalm. It felt like I’d been offered a generous serving of comfort food for this confusing, anxious time, like being given a big plate of Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti instead of a kale salad. So, we’re going to leave Jesus’ encounter with the widow for another time. Instead, we’re going to rest a while in the embrace of the 23rd Psalm—a psalm that offers a healthy dose of the assurance and hope I think we all need right now.
The scholarly articles I read as I studied this psalm all agreed that this psalm uses two metaphors, switching in the middle. First, God is a shepherd, and we are the sheep. Then God is a host, and we are the guests. But, I’ve had a different image in mind as I’ve reflected on these verses during this week of upheaval.
Even though this psalm was created and then written down many centuries before Jesus walked the earth, it’s impossible for us to read it today without thinking about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The image I’ve had in mind is of Jesus walking with those sheep, with us as his companions. It’s a quiet, peaceful walk. The only sounds are those of a gentle rippling stream and the soft whoosh of the breeze stirring the lush, green grass. In everything Jesus does on this walk—in every place where he leads his sheep, with us walking alongside—we see reminders of his love and care for us.
As we walk with Jesus, he leads his sheep to those green pastures and still waters—places where they can eat their fill and drink slowly and deeply. They have a place to rest, not needing to endlessly be on the move to find more grass, more water. Unlike those who “drive” their animals, Jesus goes first, leading them along the safest paths. He provides food, water, and security—all that they need—for one simple reason: it’s his nature to love and have mercy on all those in his care.
From time to time as we walk with Jesus, the path takes us through some valleys. They are deep and narrow, and the sun struggles to reach the path where we walk. We don’t know what dangers lurk in the shadows and the crevices along the way. It would be terrifying if we were alone. But we’re not. Jesus is there, with rod and staff in hand. With his staff, he gently guides the sheep who have strayed, and us if we need it, back onto the path we are travelling together. With his rod, he defends us against all threats. It also suggests a royal scepter, which reminds us that we walk, not just with a shepherd, but with our king, who is sovereign over every place and time, including this one.
In the midst of our greatest fears, Jesus spreads a table—perhaps a cloth on the ground that reminds us of the five thousand he fed on a hillside. He fills our cup to overflowing, as he did at the wedding in Cana. He gives us fragrant oil to refresh our faces—oil that reminds us of the symbolism of anointing—that there is no greater distance between his Holy Spirit and our spirits than there is between the anointing oil and our skin. Jesus never pretends that threats and danger don’t exist in the darkness around us. But he does invite us to drink deeply of the assurance that he is with us.
The psalm as we read it says that he “restores” our souls. Another way to put it is to say that he refreshes our souls. Who among us right now doesn’t stand in need of having our souls refreshed and renewed? Under a constant barrage of bad news blasted at full volume, who among us doesn’t need a place to rest? Jesus leads us to that place and then sits with us as we allow the healing balm of his presence to soothe our frayed nerves and tattered spirits.
Isaac Watts wrote a beautiful hymn based on the 23rd Psalm. It’s called “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” and the words go like this:
My shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
As we sink deep into the rest that Jesus offers—as we allow his peace to saturate our souls, we know without a doubt that what he has promised us is true—that we have a place in his house, with his Father, and with all those whom he loves. We will remember that goodness and mercy are the hallmarks of his love for us. We will remember, that by God’s grace and through our faith in him, we will live eternally, no matter how long or short, difficult or easy, our earthly lives may be. Our Lord Jesus is our shepherd, and wherever we go, we know that he goes with us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young