I would like to dedicate the sermon series on the 23rd Psalm to Mrs. Kay Metz, a dear friend of our church and mother of Kathy Metz Heckel. Kay was the one who inspired me to preach the series when she gave me the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by Phillip Keller.
Thank you and God bless you, Kay.
The Twenty-Third Psalm:
“A Rod, a Staff, and a Table”
July 30, 2006
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! We’re looking these summer Sundays at one of the most beautiful and precious passages in all of the Holy Scripture, the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” And as we look at it on a deeper and deeper level, we can come to love it more and more.
Today is the wrap-up day for our series. If you’ve missed any of them, you can take a look on the website, www.montgomeryumc.org. Today, we need to cover quite a bit of ground. So today’s sermon will be a bit like the grand finale of a fireworks show. I’m going to throw a lot of ideas out, and you take home with you the ones that are most important to you and a blessing to you.
“Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” What’s a rod? What’s a staff? Are they the same thing? What do they do? Why would they be a comfort?
“My cup runneth over.” Does a sheep drink from a cup? Well, maybe.
“Thou preparest a table before me.” Do sheep eat at tables? What do we mean by that?
Well, if you have wondered about the answers to any of these questions, stay tuned, because we’re going to explore the answers to those and several others today.
Friends, as I’ve been preparing these sermons to study with you, there are two elements of this psalm that I’d never encountered before. I want to point them out to you. Number one is protection. There is so much in this psalm about God’s protection of us. He protects us from amazing things, things perhaps we never even dream of or know about. Have you been in a situation, perhaps, where you’ve been delayed for some reason? You couldn’t make it to an appointment, or there’s been some sort of holdup. How do we know that it isn’t God protecting us from some sort of situation that would not have been good for us? I’ll bet that the invisible powers of God have been protecting us in ways that we’ve never dreamed of. The immune system of our body works silently day and night protecting us from incredible amounts of invaders. The Lord is protecting us, and there are so many elements of that idea in the 23rd psalm. Take that to your comfort, won’t you?
The second thing that I’ve learned, that was new for me, was the future nature of this psalm. Have you noticed how many references to the future there are? In the Hebrew tradition, a very good tradition, it’s important to remember the past. “Lord, we remember how you led us out of Egypt. We remember this; we remember that.” Look at this psalm. It’s amazing! “I shall not want.” There’s a future cast to that. “You prepare a table.” That’s a future thought. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” “I will dwell.” Consider all the future references in this psalm! I invite you to take that to your consideration and meditation.
Let’s take a look, by way of review, at the sermon notes that we have today (the following was part of the Sunday, July 30 Bulletin):
1. My leader, my protector, my provider is the King of the u_______.
2. “I have everything I n___.” “I shall not be in want.”
3. To “lie down” is to be in a state of relaxed balance. My shepherd addresses my fears, frictions, and anxieties. God is my C________.
4. Green pastures symbolize p_________.
5. Still waters are c____ waters. Will we choose to drink from the p______ or God’s crystal fountain? God is our r__________.
6. He restoreth my soul: “He gives me my l___ back.”
7. He leads me in good, wise paths. His very name means “g______.”
8. When walking the valley, it is important to remember that we do not dwell there forever; we are walking “t______” and we always have the Lord by our side.
9. The rod is the symbol of p_________.
10. The staff is the symbol of d________ and c_______.
11. The “table” is shorthand for t_________.
12. The oil of anointing keeps annoyances away by reminding us of who – and whose – we are.
13. The cup is the symbol of a________.
14. We are forever surrounded by God’s good w_______.
Maybe you’ve gotten many of these answers already. Number 1…My leader, my protector, my provider is the King of the universe. Somebody figured out how far it is from the earth to the center of the Milky Way. Our galaxy is the Milky Way, and the distance is 184 quadrillion miles. In other words, if we were to leave Princeton Airport in a rocket ship that could go the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take 30,000 years to reach the center of the Milky Way. And that’s just one galaxy among billions of galaxies. Our God is an awesome God. Amen! That’s the God that you invoke when you say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” There’s nothing small about that.
But hear the good news. The same God that created those stars, that created those galaxies, created you. And you are no less of a wonder. You are made of the stuff of the stars. There is nothing simple about you. Anyone who has ever studied medicine on any level, to any degree, can marvel at the incredible microcosm of the universe that every one of us is. You are a walking miracle of God. And this God who created the galaxies and created you is the one we invoke as our shepherd. It’s powerful stuff.
Number 2. I have everything I need. I shall not be in want. Another way to translate that is “I have what it takes.” I have what it takes to do the job, the reach the goal in front of me. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have what it takes.
Number 3. To “lie down” is to be in a state of relaxed balance. My shepherd addresses my fears, frictions, and anxieties. God is my Comforter.” He makes me to lie down in green pastures. And look at the gospel in John 6, verse 10: “Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place, so they sat down, about five thousand in all.” For years, I wondered what that sentence was doing there. What difference does it make that there was grass in that place? But now, I discovered, St. John probably had the 23rd psalm in mind. “Thou makest me to lie down in green pastures.” Even as the shepherd of the sheep makes them lie down and relax in the opulent place, Jesus made the people sit down in the green pastures and fed them miraculously from the lunch that the little boy gave. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Jesus is the picture of the Good Shepherd.
Number 4. Green pastures symbolize prosperity and plenty. God wants you to have prosperity. God wants you to be in a plentiful place. He wants us to help the poor; He wants us to help those who are in need, so that the can be in a plentiful place, too, so that they can say “the Lord makes me lie down in green pastures” as well. God wants prosperity for you.
Number 5. Still waters are clear waters. Still waters don’t move around; they don’t contain bits of mud and pollutants; still waters are clear like God’s ideas. Ideas that come from God are not polluted by negativity or anger or frustration or jealousy. They’re pure and good. So the question is, do we drink from the potholes, or do we turn and drink from the crystal clear fountain of God’s ideas. He leads me beside the still waters; God is our refreshment.
Number 6. He restoreth my soul. He gives me my life back. And anybody who has had a broken heart, anybody who has been scared silly, knows what it means to have one’s life given back. Anyone who has been crushed by grief knows that only God can restore us. He restoreth my soul.
I heard a wonderful illustration of still waters after the service last week. Someone came up to me and said that her pool in the backyard was filled with green and looked like a pond. The pool folks came and put some kind of chemical in it, and the next day the pool was clear as crystal clear could be. So it is with Christ. Christ comes, and He makes us clear inside. He gives us clear ideas.
Number 7. He leads me in good, wise paths. He leads me for His name’s sake. That means we don’t go in circles. God’s very name means goodness.
Number 8. When walking in the valley, it is important to remember that we do not dwell there forever; we are walking through the valley. And why do we fear no evil? Because “Thou art with me.” God is with you. Oh, Christian friend, when you go through times of grief and heartbreak, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. You are accompanied by the everlasting God of the universe, who cares for you.
Number 9, something new here. The rod is the symbol of what? Shepherds had two tools that were very important to them. One was the rod, and one was the staff. The rod is a tool of protection. A skillful shepherd really knew how to use one of these things to keep the enemy away from the sheep. He could also throw it with enormous accuracy and speed to defend the sheep from a predator on an instant’s notice. Shepherd Phillip Keller, who wrote the book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, talks about an incident when he was first watching sheep. He had a local shepherd boy helping him. He was preparing some land for his sheep, clearing rocks away from a stream that had been stopped up. He needed it to flow so that the sheep could drink. Keller moved one of the rocks out of the way, and as he did so, a cobra jumped out, ready to strike. The shepherd boy had the rod handy, and bang! no more cobra. No wonder the rod gives comfort. Again, this is God’s protection. Maybe God helps us smite the negative ideas before they can take root in our hearts. Perhaps God helps strike down the ideas of helplessness or defenselessness, the feeling that “I can’t do it.”
Number 10. What about the staff? The staff is unique to the shepherd. No other career uses it. The staff is the tool of direction and connection. If a shepherd wants a sheep to change direction, he’ll just take the staff, or crook, and gently push the sheep along in the right direction. Also, if a sheep comes to the edge of cliff or wanders away or falls off a ledge and the shepherd can’t climb down to get it, the shepherd can use the staff to gently hoist the sheep up and bring it to safety. And the staff can be used as a petting tool. If the shepherd just wants to be friendly, he can give the sheep a little back rub with the staff. The staff, for connection, direction, and affection, comforts the sheep, and those attributes of God comfort us.
Number 11. The table – do sheep eat at tables? The 23rd psalm is the story of bringing sheep out from the sheepfold, from the farm, through the valley, to the green pasture, to the tableland. There’s a word in Spanish, mesa, which means plateau. Mesa also means table, in Spanish. The tableland is the high plateau that would flourish with grass in the summertime. This time of year, the tableland would be filled with grass. So the shepherd, in advance, would go up and clear the rocks from the stream and would pull up the poisonous weeds so the sheep wouldn’t get sick. That’s what it means, to prepare a table before me. Dr. Bell played “Higher Ground” for us at the offertory. There’s a verse in that song that goes,
Lord, lift me up and let me stand
By grace, on heaven’s tableland.
A fairer place than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Tableland is the rich, fertile ground that the shepherd prepares and leads the sheep to in the summertime. It’s a symbol of God’s preparation of goodness for us.
Number 12. The oil of anointing keeps annoying bugs away from the sheep and also reminds the sheep that they are protected and loved by the shepherd.
Number 13, the cup. Does a sheep ever drink from a cup? My cup runneth over – what does that mean? Well, in wintertime, it would be very cold, and sometimes the sheep would almost freeze to death. The shepherd of old would go out and look for the almost completely frozen sheepsicle. He’d go over to it and take some wine from his own flask, take a cup, pour a little wine into the cup and mix it with water and give it to the sheep. And the sheep would drink and come to life again, maybe dance around a bit and feel all right again. If the cup overflows, it means the shepherd’s mercy is so great. You see, sometimes we’re frozen with fear or with indecision, but God gives us courage and strength with His wine (spiritual wine, thank you very much). The cup symbolizes the rich blessing of God who takes care of even our fears.
In the wintertime of the soul, God provides us with refreshment and insight and new courage. “My cup runneth over.” God cares about every aspect of my life. The cup is the symbol of abundance.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Think of those words, won't you, the next time something good happens to you. Maybe there was an unexpected mercy - a divine favor that we really didn't deserve - or a blessing greater than what we had hoped for - or the realization of how precious each moment of life is. At times like this, remember these words.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Can you imagine a sheep saying that? Surely ‘Goodness-and-mercy’ is back there. Who is he referring to? The shepherd! It’s like a sweet name for the shepherd. Here comes Goodness-and-mercy. He’s back there. He’s following me. He’s looking out for me.
Do you have sweet names for the people you love? Maybe you call somebody Sunshine. It’s not the given name, but it’s a sweet name. Can you imagine calling God by a sweet name? “Goodness-and-Mercy” – here comes my Lord, “Goodness-and-Mercy”; He’s following me every day of my life.
Also, for the Christian, it’s important to have a second meaning for the ‘goodness and mercy’ phrase—that is, wherever you go, make it your aim to leave behind you the wonderful atmosphere of goodness and love. Because you are a follower of God, because you follow the shepherd, wherever you are, something wonderful lingers there. There’s a special spirit in the house, in the house where you live, because you are of the shepherd’s flock.
Many years ago, my home church was the First United Methodist Church of Rahway. Unfortunately, that elderly and dwindling congregation needed to disband, but in another way, they live on. I joined that church when I was 19, and, several years later, when I decided to become a minister, they voted unanimously to affirm my ministry. (I am thankful that there was a bit of competition among the members regarding who would actually make the motion to recommend me for ordained ministry, and who would second it!) I had found a spirit of deep love and warm caring in that church, and I promised them that wherever I went in the ministry I would try to evoke the spirit of love and joy and peace and encouragement that I found in that family in Christ. I've been so blessed to find and encourage that spirit here- and in the congregations I have served over the years. Goodness and mercy have followed me. It is God's doing.
The 23rd Psalm is the story of the journey of the sheep from the sheepfold in the springtime, through the valley, to the green pastures, to the high tableland of summer, and then in autumn, back down to the sheepfold and into the corral, the house of the shepherd.
"I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." It's as if the sheep is saying, "I want to live here forever. I don't want to go anywhere else. I don't want to be part of any other flock but God's flock. I don't want to be part of any other family but the family of God. This is where I belong. This is where my heart feels at rest and at home. I want to dwell in this place, this house of God, forever." When we affirm these words, we are saying here is "home" for me - in the presence of God, now and always.
The main point of the 23rd Psalm is this: that we are not alone. Wherever you are, God is. His presence is not simply passive - it is protective, providing, loving and caring. His loving attention is upon you, watching over you and ready to bless you. As a shepherd cares for each of his sheep, so the Lord cares for each of us. That's what the 23rd Psalm is all about.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of God forever."
Indeed, the Lord is our shepherd. Thanks be to God. Amen.
God loves you. I do, too, friend. Have a blessed summer. Amen.
© 2006 Anthony J. Godlefski