March 19, 2023 homily on Psalm 23 by Pastor Galen
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 23 feels as though it could have been written during the pandemic. It was exactly 3 years ago this week that everything shut down and our lives were forever changed. And, although the pandemic affected each of us in different ways, the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” resonates with many of us, since many of us experienced very real moments of fear, and pain, and grief and loss in these past 3 years.
I don’t know exactly what David was going through when he composed the words of this psalm, but we do know that David faced quite a few challenges and difficulties throughout his lifetime that could very well have been described as valleys “of the shadow of death.”
One such time was when David was probably a teenager, and he faced off against the giant Goliath in 1 Samuel chapter 17. In that instance, David acted with boldness and courage (and perhaps just a bit of youthful brashness). When David heard Goliath calling out for a warrior to come out and fight against him, David volunteered, even though he was merely a lad, with absolutely no military experience. David rushed out into the valley of Elah, in the shadow of the giant Goliath, with no armor, armed with nothing but a shepherd’s sling and a few small stones. In that instance, God did indeed deliver David from that valley of the shadow of death, not only preserving his life, but also allowing him to defeat Goliath, and in so doing, heroically freeing his people from the threat of tyrannical rule.
In that very same passage, David referenced the fact that at various points in his time as a shepherd boy, he had been forced to fend off lions and bears who attacked his sheep as he watched over them in the field. David told King Saul, “whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it” (1 Sam 17:34). The fact that he said, “whenever” indicates this had happened to him on numerous occasions! So David was no stranger to the valley of the shadow of death, and yet each and every time God had delivered him.
David faced countless other life-threatening situations in his life-time, as a warrior and as king. King Saul tried several times to take his life. Enemy armies attacked and threatened to overtake them, and towards the end of his life even his own son Absalom rebelled against him (2 Samuel chapter 15).
And so David was very much aware of what it was like for his life to be in danger, and so he could have written this psalm at any point during his life. Perhaps he wrote this as a young child or teenager, as he sat watching his father’s sheep. Or perhaps he wrote this towards the end of his life, as he reflected back over all the years and all of the dangers that God had brought him through.
But no matter what point in his life he wrote this psalm, David wrote it out of the realization that he was not in control of his own life, but that all throughout his life he had been under the constant care and protection of God.
The Valley of the Pandemic
Three years ago, when the pandemic began, none of us had any idea that three years later we would still be living with the effects of the pandemic. In the beginning, it was almost a novelty. Schools were shut down, we had to shift our church services online. We all learned how to use Zoom, and everyone started making banana bread. Yes, there were moments of panic – but the panic was mostly around how we would be able to find enough eggs or toilet paper to survive.
And then, things began to get more real. People close to us got sick, and we couldn’t visit them in the hospital. There was a fear that we would get COVID, or that we would unknowingly pass it along to those we love. Social isolation started to set in, and we craved human connection.
And then, the political polarization that was already present in our society drastically increased. Fault lines fell along the lines of masks, vaccinations, systemic racism, police brutality, and of course the presidential elections.
I know of family members who stopped speaking to each other because of tensions around any or all of these issues. I’ve talked with people who stopped going to church because of something their pastor said or didn’t say. I know of employees who changed or lost jobs due to a disagreement in the policies and procedures of their employers, and the list could go on and on.
The pandemic forever changed us individually, and as a society, and we know that in many ways things will never go back to “normal”.
But this is why I believe we need Psalms like Psalm 23 – psalms about experiencing God’s presence in the midst of our grief and sorrow and loss. About experiencing a sense of peace in the midst of violence and political turmoil. A psalm about God’s trusting in God’s protection and provision even when we’re experiencing scarcity and isolation.
You see, for David, in imagining God as his shepherd, David was drawing from one of the most tender and intimate images from his own life experience. David knew firsthand the love and care and concern that shepherds had for their sheep.
In Biblical times, shepherds would often work and sleep outdoors for days on end, allowing the flocks to graze on the steep green slopes, and spending the nights guarding the open sheepfolds, often lying across the opening to the sheepfold to make sure that no sheep got out, and no wild animals got in.
I like to imagine David as a young boy, spending what seemed like endless days in the pastures, accompanied by nothing but his own thoughts. Perhaps sometimes David wondered what exactly his purpose in life was. Why had God made him the youngest brother, and why did he have to stay and take care of these dumb sheep, when his older brothers were off fighting and doing grand heroic things?
And yet, he had to admit that he loved his sheep and he would do anything he could to protect them. He probably had little pet nicknames for all of them, and he knew their unique likes and dislikes. He knew that the littlest lamb liked to be scratched behind her ears, and that the oldest ewe only liked to drink from water that was perfectly and completely still.
I imagine that sometimes David would pull out his harp and make up songs, to soothe his sheep when they became frightened by some strange noise or sound or some startling movement in the grass. And many times, perhaps the psalms he wrote were to ease his own fears, as imagine he felt scared many times when he was alone in the fields at night.
I imagine David would stare up at the stars in the sky, drifting off to sleep to the sound of bleating of the sheep as they settled down for the night, listening for any sounds of danger, and he had a moment of realization that the care and concern he felt for his sheep was just a tiny inkling of how God felt about him. God loved him, just as he loved his sheep. God cared about him, and would do anything to protect him, just as he would for his sheep. And God knew every intimate detail about his life, even more than he knew his sheep. God was constantly looking out for his well-being. And so the next day, when David pulled out his harp and began to play for his sheep, he began to sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures to sleep…”
God is all that, and more
This morning if any of us were going to write a Psalm, very few of us would naturally gravitate towards the image of a Shepherd. I know I personally have never really spent much time around sheep.
But perhaps you’re a parent or grandparent who loves your children or grandchildren, and you would do absolutely anything in the world to protect them. The love, care, and concern that you have for your children or grandchildren is just a small taste of how God feels about you. So if you were writing this psalm, perhaps you would say that “The Lord is My Parent/Grandparent.”
Perhaps you’re a teacher who has devoted your life to training and equipping the students under your charge. You would do whatever you could to see them succeed. So perhaps you would say, “The Lord is My Teacher.”
Or maybe you’ve spent time in the military, or as a healthcare provider, or as a first responder. Perhaps you might say that “The Lord is my protector” or “The Lord is my healer.”
For me as a pastor who cares deeply for each and every one of you, it gives me so much hope and encouragement to realize that “God is My Pastor.”
This morning, as you think about the people in your life that you care about the most, and as you think about how much you love them and would do anything for them, know that that is exactly how God feels about you. Hold on to that image, and remember that no matter what life brings your way, God is looking out for you, and even when we face the valley of the shadow of death, we do not have to be afraid, for God is with us.
“He Restores My Soul”
But David doesn’t just say that God is concerned about our physical needs and well-being. He also says that the Lord “restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2). The word “soul” here is “the breathing substance or being,” it’s our inner self, the seat of our appetites and emotions and passions, the activity of our minds and wills and character.
You see, David realized that God wasn’t just concerned with looking out for his physical safety, but that God was also concerned with the state of his inner soul. God is the creator and sustainer of our lives, and God can restore whatever it is in our life that is dead or dying.
This is why, in the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-17). In taking on the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling us that he is in fact the image of God, and that he indeed cares about us. And as our Shepherd, Jesus willingly laid down his life for us so that we can be raised to new life — eternal life with God.
And so, this morning, no matter what you are going through, no matter what you’ve experienced, know that Jesus has been right there with us. He sees, he knows what we’ve gone through during this pandemic, and throughout our lives. He knows the fears and in securities we feel, has has been and will continue to be with us, no matter what. And no matter what we experience in this life, Jesus has promised to restore our souls, and to give us eternal life with him, if we will only put our faith and trust in him.
So this morning, will you trust him? Will you let him be your shepherd, your grandparent, your teacher, your friend, your companion? Know that he is always there, always looking out for us, and he will restore our souls. Amen.