NOTE: This service occurs on or around December 21.
This may not be a night for preaching. Rather, the acts of remembrance and the scriptural and liturgical acknowledgement of acceptance, even in the midst of brokenness might be the appropriate proclamation of grace that is needed here. Maybe space for silence or contemplative music could round out the service in significant ways. This is not to say that preaching is inappropriate for this service. It could be a fruitful way to bring a word of affirmation and acceptance during a difficult time for many attendees.
There are also many scripture texts that could be used in this service; check the planning notes for some suggestions. Words of comfort and assurance can be found in many places in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.
The twenty-third psalm has been a beacon of the comforting grace of God for many. The six verses of the twenty-third psalm are probably among the most familiar, if not the most familiar, in the whole Bible. Even people who don’t claim faith seem to know these words. Even more, we all seem to take comfort in them somehow. You think you know them, and maybe you do. But it just might be time to take another look. Just in case there are surprises in store.
Verse one: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. Some translators render this as “I lack nothing” or “I shall not be in want.” Wanting is not a bad thing in and of itself. This isn’t a prohibition to aspire to higher things or to desire something new and different. This is an acknowledgment that claiming God as shepherd, letting God lean, letting God provide, changes your desires. To lack nothing is to have basic needs met and to be satisfied with that. Verse one is about contentment, about finding the source of fulfillment not in the stuff of the world, but from God, from that fundamental faith relationship that tells you that you are whole, you are complete, you are loved just as you are. What else could you want?
Verse two: He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. Frankly, lying down anywhere sounds pretty good to me most days. We get so tired running here and there and then staying up late, worried about tasks left undone. Or responsibilities on the horizon that daunt you and wear you out even before you get to them. Lying down sounds nice. But in fact, this verse is about more than rest. It is about sustenance. Green pastures mean plenty to eat; still waters mean safe water to drink. God provides. But what is the “he makes me lie down” mean? Well, I’m not sure. But it sounds like God provides but invites us to discover. He doesn’t bring it to our lips; he makes us lie down and get it ourselves. He leads us to the water, but the choice to drink is still ours. God provides an abundance; we scarcity, so we hoard and fence out and overprice. There is another way it could work, but God makes us lie down. God leads us there.
Verse three: he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. An odd shepherd, don’t you think? Sure, making the sheep lie down and eat, leading them to water to drink, that sounds shepherd-y. But restoring souls? Leading in right paths, ok, but for his name’s sake? Do sheep bleat out a salute to God when they walk the right paths? Do we, for that matter? Let’s come back to that later. Let’s restore a soul for now. What’s interesting here is that “soul” could also be translated as “life.” He gives me my life back. Or it could even be translated as “passion.” He makes life worth living. He makes me alive—not just living, but alive—if you know what I mean. Another book full of shepherd images is the Gospel of John. We can’t help but hear Jesus as the Good Shepherd when we Christians read Psalm 23. “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” That’s the Good Shepherd talking, in John, chapter ten. Wow, it’s like Jesus read the Psalms or something.
Verse four: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. We are used to reading the Valley of the shadow of death. But the original just says the darkest valley. Or a valley of deep darkness. It represents the worst fears. For most, that is death, of course. But maybe your worst fear is something else. Abandonment. Shame. Rejection. Our fears are almost too numerous to mention. Now here is the sobering part, the Good Shepherd doesn’t keep us out of the valleys. I know that is our preference. But it isn’t the promise. God doesn’t say, “Follow me, and there will be no valleys.” That almost makes you wonder what the point is. I mean if God isn’t going to keep us out of the valleys, what good is following God? Why bother? Psalm 23, and almost all of the rest of scripture for that matter, says valleys are inevitable. Unavoidable. They are the result of living in the world. They are the consequence of being human. The question then is not how to avoid valleys, but do you want to walk them alone? The promise is that you will never walk those valleys alone. The shepherd is there, with power. The rod and the staff are the tools the shepherd uses to keep beasts at bay. Tools like love and grace and acceptance keep the beasts of self-doubt and rejection at bay. Tools like life eternal keep the beast called death at bay. You are with me. Evil cannot win.
Verse five: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. The scene shifts, we leave the sheep field and now move to the big house, the banquet hall where we are the honored guest. I don’t know what the phrase “in the presence of my enemies” means to you. But I used to imagine it was a taunt. A table was set up in the battlefield, and we would thumb our noses at the bad guys while we dined on fancy food. But I don’t think that’s what it really means. I think it is simply an acknowledgment that we don’t have to wait until everything is fixed before we can celebrate being God’s family. We don’t have to have everything in proper order; we don’t have to have everything figured out and all the answers and all the doubts erased. In the presence of these struggles, God invites us to the table. And then God blesses us. We are the anointed ones; we are the ones whose cups are never empty because God stands ready to fill us up again. So, drink deeply, live powerfully; God will fill us up again.
Verse six: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. Dwelling in God’s house always sounded like a vacation home kind of image. But what it really means is that we will belong to God. We will be a part of the family. We will bear God’s name. How long? The original Hebrew says, “for a length of days.” Most translate that as forever. And that’s not a bad translation. I came up with a clumsy one: “As long as I have days.” As long as there is life to live, I will belong to God. And what does that mean, that belonging to God thing? Well, it means goodness and mercy shall follow me all those days. Really? Sometimes the opposite of mercy seems to follow us. Sometimes the absence of goodness seems to follow us. What I love in this psalm is that the word follow is a bad translation. Elsewhere in the Old Testament. it is translated as pursue. Chase after. Hunt down. It is, frankly, usually a negative image. Bad things are coming after you. But here, it is the most positive idea ever. God is relentless in bringing us goodness. God is tireless in offering us mercy. Even when we run away, run in the opposite direction, goodness will hunt us down. Just ask Jonah. Even when we give up in despair, mercy will find us at last. Just ask Peter. Goodness and mercy pursue us, even when our lives seem to be a denial of those very ideas. Just ask Paul, who came to write “In everything, God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. He might have said, God pursues with good those who dwell in his house, those who are part of his family. How long? For a length of days. The long days that never end. The short days that are gone too soon. As long as we have days – and the promise is there is no end to the days we have.