A sermon on Psalm 23 by Nathan Nettleton
The Lord is my shepherd. The twenty third psalm is, surely, the best known passage in the whole Bible. And like most of the really well known passages, its very familiarity strips it of any surprise value and it just kind of slides through our consciousness almost unheard. But it obviously has something of value to say, or it would never have become so popular.
Perhaps this psalm is so big because it gives expression, so beautifully and succinctly, to our deepest yearnings. Who would not sigh at the thought of our spirits being revived as we lay restfully on lush grass surrounded by ferns beside a crystal clear stream? On Friday afternoons after a week full of unpaid overtime and oppressive deadlines, it’d reduce many people to tears.
In a world of uncertainty with too many options and more information than we can process, who doesn’t long for a trustworthy guide who can show us the sure paths and whose presence takes away fear even in the dark and threatening places?
And doesn’t something rumble within us at the thought of a gracious host welcoming us to a banquet table, laden with the finest fruits, carefully prepared delicacies of every kind, and wine waiters who never let your glass run empty? Babette’s Feast, eat your heart out!
How much time do we spend feeling that we’re running harder and harder, always pursued by demands and stresses and pressures? Don’t we crave the day when all that pursues us is kindness and faithful love – pursuers to whom we could gladly surrender and take our rest as a guest of the one who lovingly revives our souls?
Even our less than admirable wishes get a mention: the desire to see our enemies – those who scoffed at us, insulted us, opposed us – to see the looks on their faces as they see us vindicated and rewarded for our faithfulness and endurance.
If you have any doubt at all that these images speak to the deep hungers and hopes of most ordinary people, just turn on your television for a few hours and watch the commercials. See how many of them use these same images, and variations on them, to lure us into associating their products with expectations of happiness and fulfilment, with finding rest and safety and satisfaction. Advertisers are the experts at knowing how to hook into the deepest yearnings of the human soul.
Fly with us and relax in quiet luxury as we refresh your spirit.
Eat here, fresh mouth watering food, all you can eat and a bottomless coffee.
Drive this car and see how jealous your snooty neighbours will be.
They lie, of course. At best these goods and services satisfy very superficial needs. The day after our purchase we don’t feel any more whole or fulfilled as human beings. One more promise has come to nothing. An itch has been scratched, but satisfaction is as elusive as ever.
This psalm is not a prescription for the answers. But it is one person’s prayer of gratitude to the one in whom they found the doorway to life. It certainly doesn’t say anything like “Go to church and all this will be yours!” But its popularity is testimony that many people have, like the writer, found that it is as they journeyed into deep communion with God, as they learned to allow God to shepherd them, that they found the source of real life, of life in all its fullness, of food for our deepest hungers and hopes.
When we gather around this table in a few moments, it certainly won’t look like a banquet spread before us to satisfy our every desire. And it isn’t. But it is a doorway, an entry point to the banquet room. You can gather around the doorway and then walk away – go back to shopping for the goods and services that promise the world. Or you can go through the doorway and enter the journey into God. For it is only in God, where deep speaks to deep, that you will discover what it is you were really hungering for. Those images in the psalm are no more than windows, no more than glimpses of what fulfilment might look like. It is only on the journey into God, the journey of prayer (this psalm is a prayer after all) that we will ever know what the psalmist meant about our deepest yearnings find their answer in God and with the Lord as our shepherd we need nothing more.