"The Psalm 23 Test Audience" on Psalm 23 - Sermon by Joe Ellis — July 18, 2021
The last number of weeks we have been reflecting on key ingredients that characterize the community of God’s people. We’ve looked at the church as the witnessing community, the reconciling community, the Christ centred community, the encouraging community. Today we will explore the church as the restful community. This one is really quite important in the Christian life — but one that can quite easily be neglected, forgotten, or even despised. Yet rest is vital and has been from the beginning. You may remember from the creation account in Genesis 1 that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he ceased all the work that he had been doing in all creation." The rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us that the Sabbath is the first thing God created as holy. There is nothing else in creation that was created with the quality of holiness — it wasn’t a significant tree, a vast body of water, or even a sacred mountain that God says is holy — it was a period of time in which to rest. Rest was so important to God that he set apart one day a week for rest and called it holy. The Greeks also thought rest was important. They rested so that they could work harder. The Hebrews flipped that. They worked hard so that they could truly rest.
So, why is rest so important? Why is rest important enough that God would bless a day of rest and declare it to be holy, set apart, sacred? There are a number of directions you can go in answering that question, yet I want to explore one possibility with you: Rest is necessary for us to love God and love one another. Without practicing sacred rest, our love for God will inevitably become strained, twisted, warped, or perhaps it may just fade over time. Without practicing sacred rest, our love for one another, those dearest to us, may dry up and blow away.
Let me try and put this more positively. As we practice sacred rest, our love for God grows gently, tenderly and intimately. Our love for those in our lives will flourish, and blossom. We learn to be intimate with God and with one another by practicing rest. As we grow in intimacy with God and each other, the more we will embrace His gentle invitation to rest — and as we rest in Him, we will know He is good. There are few places that depict this as beautifully as Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
In grass meadows He makes me lie down (notice that He makes us lie down)
By quiet waters he guides me
My life He brings back.”
This poem offers a vision of the deep tender love and trust that David has for his Shepherd. This poem invites us to consider the goodness of the Shepherd’s command to rest. David shows us that this restful intimacy restores us to life, strengthens us to journey on pathways of justice, gives us courage as we journey through death’s dark shadow, and helps us to even feast in the chaotic pressures of our busy lives, in the presence of our enemies. Rest invites intimacy and intimacy invites rest. This is the invitation and command we hear in this poem.
Right now, this might be simply in the realm of a good idea. Perhaps the command to rest, and the relationship between rest and intimacy does not seem something entirely crucial to our Christian walk. We might think that perhaps it is something that the strongest among us can forgo. After all, its always the most out of shape person who needs the most rest. Maybe the strong don’t need rest? The strong often do choose to forgo rest, and it’s a dangerous choice, a choice that I can all too easily make when I think I’m strong. I’d like to look at two stories that depict what happens when the strong neglect the command for intimate rest.
The first picture comes from Luke 14, in the story of the Compassionate Father, also called “The Prodigal Son." Remember, Jesus tells the story of the younger son who demands his inheritance before his father’s death. He then takes the inheritance and squanders it in wild living. After becoming destitute, the boy says to himself, “this is ridiculous, I should just go home,” and he makes the long walk of shame home with his tail between his legs. The father sees the son from afar coming up the road, runs out to the boy, cuts him off in the middle of his apology — hugs him, kisses him, and says, “Hurry bring the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again — he was lost and is found.”
Now you’ll remember that as the community began celebrating, the older brother returns from the field. He hears what has happened and refuses to come in. The father comes out and begs him to come in. The response of the older son is withering. He paints a picture of what develops when you have duty without rest, service without intimacy. Listen closely.
The son says to his father who has just begged him to come in to celebrate with them: “Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
Pretend, for a moment, that the older son in this parable knew David, the author of Psalm 23. Let’s say they were kind of friends. Imagine that after David wrote this poem, and he found the older son to read him this poem, Psalm 23 — how do you think the older son would respond to the words he heard?
Based on what the older son said to his dad, this would be my best guess: “David, what is this swill you’re giving me? The Lord isn’t my shepherd! The Lord isn’t a shepherd at all! The Lord is a slave driver. He’s the master and I’m the slave. Look here, this drivel goes on: “ In grassy meadows he makes me lie down!? By quiet waters he guides me!?” That’s a laugh! You got that all wrong — He doesn’t command me to lie down and rest. No, he commands me to work the fields. His harvest is plentiful, mind you. He doesn’t command me to stroll beside quiet waters, he commands me to water the flock. Feed the sheep, he says to me. No, he’s not concerned about me resting. The Lord is my slave master. David, you think he leads you on pathways of justice? He doesn’t care about justice. Look at my brother — is that justice? Squandering our property on prostitutes and now he gets the royal treatment? Walks me through death’s shadow? You should read this to my dad. He’s the one who’s talking about his son being back from the dead. It would have been better to just leave him in the shadow of death. No, the Lord hasn’t walked anyone back from the dead — my brother, he’s still dead to me. That’s great, the part you wrote about drinking wine and feasting with your friends. Wouldn’t that be nice. Never once has he done this for me. I just work, work, work.”
The dad is there and is listening in to his older son ranting at David. Feeling stabbed in the heart, he says, “Son, you are always with me, everything that belongs to me is yours.”
The older son says, “the Lord is not our shepherd, he is our slave driver. Slave driver!”
The older son is a picture of what gets distorted when we disobey the Lord’s command, when we forsake lying down in green pastures. We will get bitter, even as we serve him. We might wonder why the Lord is kind to others, why he restores others, but neglects me — when we forsake his command for intimate rest in Him, our vision gets distorted, our experience of justice gets warped, our experience of reconciliation is muted, our experience of joy is dampened, our ability to celebrate is extinguished. Few of us are probably as far down the road as the elder son. Yet when we forgo the intimacy of rest, when we disobey the command to rest in green pastures, we will surely begin to see the outlines of those thoughts in our own thinking. Leisure and rest leads to intimacy with God.
That’s not the only option. Listen to another story Jesus told in Luke 12. Two brothers came to Jesus asking Him to divide their inheritance. Jesus said, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told this story: “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, so he thought to himself, “Self, what should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, “you have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!”’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself? So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich towards God.”
Imagine David was discouraged after reading his Shepherd poem to the older son, so he went down the road to find another friend. He says to the man with the huge barns, “Friend! Let me read you this poem that I just wrote while I was resting under the tree.”
The man replies, “Resting under a tree? That’s different, but I don’t have time to read your little poem, I’ve got this silo I’m building.”
David says, “Come on, it’s not very long, and I really think it is pretty good.”
“Fine, sure, give it here. Hmmmm. This isn’t good. You say this Lord is making you lie down in grassy meadows? That’s no good. That’s no good at all. You know what you’ll get if you lie down in a grassy meadow? A grassy meadow! Take this bumper crop of mine. You think I got this bumper crop by lying around a grassy meadows all day. No sir. You think this silo of mine will get built by lying around a grassy meadow all day? You tell that shepherd of yours to come by and I’ll talk some sense into him. Grassy meadows!”
David leaves feeling even more dejected, wondering what to do with his poem. Yet, late into the night David is woken by a knock on the door, it’s his friend the farmer — “David! David! Wake up! I need to see your poem again… Yeah, that’s the part that I wanted to see, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me.’ David, I’m so alone right now. Your Shepherd came to me this night, and he said to me “You fool, tonight you’re going to die. Who will get all you’ve stored up for yourself?" I don’t know. None of that matters now. What matters is that I don’t want to die alone. All my friends are gone. I haven’t talked to my brother in years. I just don’t want to die alone. It looks like I’ll be lying in your green pastures after all. Sleep when you’re dead I always said, I just didn’t think it’d be this soon. This Shepherd of yours in your poem, he doesn’t seem all that bad. I like that part about setting a table before you in the presence of my foes, and my cup flowing over. If only I spent more time around the table with my friends. Glass overflowing — that’s nice. Next year, I kept saying. Too late now. I have brought some of my very best wine. Come friend, let’s raise a glass together and wait for approaching dawn.”
I’m not sure this is that far off — in his work with terminal cancer patients, Irvin Yalom often heard said, “It wasn’t until condemned to die that I learned to live.”
Our good Shepherd desires us to rest in Him. He desires us to spend restful intimacy with him, and with others. He wants us to enjoy life. He wants us to learn the kind of rest that leads towards intimacy and the kind of intimacy that leads us to rest.
Imagine you were the next person David approached to read you his poem. How would you want to respond? What are your green pastures? Where do you find restful intimacy with the Good Shepherd. Where do you find restful intimacy with others? How have you learned to obey this command? How do you experience the Good Shepherd bringing you back to life? Restoring your soul? Do you find that your intimate relationship with the Shepherd will sustain you even in the shadow of death? Even in the instability of life, do you find yourself around the table raising your glass to those you love, and drinking to their good health? Let that vision guide our lives.