The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;* you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,*and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.Psalm 23
As I am sure all of you are aware, these are strange times we are living in. Things have changed so fast, and at the same time so painfully slowly, that it is difficult to express in words, especially mere letters on a page, the cognitive dissonance that grips our collective psyche. Every day we are treated to new stories of the worst aspects of humanity emerging, panic, selfishness, willful ignorance, callousness. Within the same breath, we hear tales of heroism, self-sacrifice, love, community, singing from balconies, and concern for the well-being of the whole world. One story that my wife brought to my attention is that some people are hanging back up their Christmas decorations.
It’s hard enough already to know how to feel, given that the world has seemingly been turned upside-down, and I suppose nothing should surprise us at all anymore, but I genuinely did not expect such fragrant disregard of the liturgical season. To hang Christmas decorations in the middle of Lent…makes a surprisingly profound theological statement, though I would guess unintentionally.
I know that myself and other clergy have spent many a sermon bemoaning and bewailing the manifold sin and wickedness of our society’s commercialization of Christmas; rending our garments and wagging our fingers at the faithful to not put up their decorations until at least Advent. Yet this time is different, these decorations are appearing not from consumer culture, but an attempt to bring joy, to share a little light, in a time when we do not yet see the light marking the end of our troubles. It is an appeal to nostalgia, to a time of warmth, of family together, a time of wonder, joy, and excitement for the future, rather than dread of what the future might bring. Though it may seem wildly out of place, perhaps even offensive, to drop the liturgical weight of self-reflection and penitence that Lent usually brings in favor of hiding under the covers of nostalgia, the decorations in their own way remind us of true meaning of Lent: that God took on humanity and dwelt among us. The immortal, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable God became man and knew the warmth of family, nostalgia, wonder, joy, as well as fear, sorrow, isolation, and suffering. Through Christ, God knows and has experienced the full breadth of the human condition.
The profound, though likely unintentional, theological statement being made by those who hung their Christmas decorations again is that even in the darkest, most uncertain times, God is with us. The small twinkle lights on the porch are the light of Christ breaking through the darkness. That while all the foundations of society, our sense of control, and understanding of the world are shaken and lost in a cloud of confusion, the Light of the World still shines. In the small kindnesses, humor, sacrifice, and love that cannot be contained, the Light of the World breaks through all darkness, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
The truth that God is with us has perhaps never been more plainly spoken as in today’s Psalm. Much like Christmas decorations, Psalm 23 has been a source of comfort to many in dark times. It comes equally wrapped in a thick coating of nostalgia that it can seem sentimental, or childish to draw on for comfort. Though the poetry is brief, light, easy to memorize, the weight of the words is heavy. Though we usually shy away from the King James Version when doing contemporary Bible study, Psalm 23, as well as the Psalms generally, is so well done (and impossible to get away from) in the King James Version, that even the NRSV keeps the more archaic language. Here is the King James Version:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, 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.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.Psalm 23, King James Version
Because the psalm is so iconic and its general meaning so plain, it is difficult to hear it. For many, this is the psalm for funerals, and rarely sees the light of day in other contexts. While it is well and good for it to be used at funerals, it is fundamentally a song about living with God. The first three verses speak to what God does for the psalmist, in both the Hebrew and Stuart English the phrases “I shall not want”, “leadeth me beside the still waters”, and “restoreth my soul” are poetic ways of saying “God keeps me alive”. The green pastures represent food, the still waters represent water, the paths of righteousness represent shelter. There is a very literal trust that God provides for all our needs, both worldly and spiritual. The phrase “for his name’s sake” again in both Hebrew and Stuart English does not mean that God does all of these things out of pride or self-glory, “name’s sake” is a reference to God’s fundamental character: a person who out of Goodness and Mercy provides for His people.
The fourth verse is the literal, poetic, and theological center of the psalm. There is a striking contrast between God as the Shepherd and Evil. In Hebrew, the difference between “evil” רָ֗ע (rā‘), and “my shepherd” רֹ֝עִ֗י (rō·‘î), is one vowel. The intended effect is to pit the shepherd against evil. The psalmist recognizes the significance and reality of the evil, but shows how it is not to be feared, the Shepherd holds it off. The center of the verse, the center of the center if you will, is “Thou art with me”. This is a case where modern English has lost the depth of meaning from the Hebrew and the Stuart English, the psalmist is shifting from a more general third-person relationship with God, to an intimate, second-person relationship with God. God is being addressed as a family member or close friend. Though these days we think of “thou, thee, etc.” as formal, they are actually informal (the formal addressing would be the plural, you, ye, etc. monarchs would be referred to in the plural, hence the concept of the “royal we”). The psalmist recognizes that for all the might and majesty of God, God is always present.
The close of the psalm returns us to the beginning, emphasizing God’s presence in a sinful and fallen world as a central aspect of God’s character. The Hebrew word is hesed which is sometimes translated as “love” and sometimes as “mercy”, and is meant to represent who God is. The one place where the King James fails to convey the meaning of the psalm is God’s goodness and hesed “following” us; a better translation would be “pursue”. In the same way we are pursued by Evil, God’s Goodness and hesed are equally pursuing humanity. The final phrase “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”, is meant to recall God as the perfect host (see verse 5), as well as the Temple in Jerusalem and all of God’s people. Psalm 23 was likely sung as part of the worship in the Temple, but the composition and easily memorized structure also suggests it was meant for home worship. It literally and theologically brings the community together with each other, and with God.
Much like Christmas decorations, Psalm 23 conveys a theological depth that cannot be overshadowed by nostalgia. The truth of the matter is, despite all the subtleties of the poetry, the cleverness of the writer, the simple truth conveyed by the psalm has always been plain. God is Good, God loves the whole world, God is with us, we need to trust in God’s goodness and love, especially when we are most afraid.
In the spirit of breaking the mold, daring to go even into sentimentality, in service of a larger theological point, I’m going to do the homiletical equivalent of putting up Christmas decorations in Lent; I must confess that out of the many sermons I have given, I have never once preached on a psalm. I’ve even been asked about it before, especially given my love of preaching the Old Testament, to which I would always respond, “The choir preached the psalm better than I ever could.” While I still hold that generally to be true, I secretly feared that I would have nothing to add. Though it is true that even here I have not really added anything or changed the meaning, for the meaning of Psalm 23 has always been clear, I have learned that is not the point of the Psalm. To sing or say the psalm is to live it, to let it take you and meet God face-to-face through the emotion of the psalmist. Whether that emotion be love, praise, anger, sorrow, and in the case of Psalm 23, comfort and trust.
I share this with all of you, the Communion of Saints in Blacksburg, to thank you in being with me as I crossed this milestone, preaching a psalm. In this time of uncertainty, it is easy to forget milestones, traditions, even ourselves. Yet it is precisely times of uncertainty that we should celebrate our milestones, traditions, and each other. As the news grows darker and fear takes hold, there will still be birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, milestones. Though we may be separated, and their light dimmed, these little moments of joy, tradition, even nostalgia remind us that even through the valley of the shadow of death, the Goodness and Love of God will follow us all the days of our lives. Amen.