This Psalm is one of the most beautifully faceted and polished gems in all of scripture. For generations the 23rd psalm has been memorized and recited, recalled, sought out for comfort and reassurance.
It is a truly inspirational piece!
And Id guess we would all have our own particular set of associations that come to mind when we hear it again.
For me, just now it reminds me of how Margery and I have been shepherded around Korea for 10 days, over these last two weeks. We were never left in want, we were led beside green pastures, streams and had our souls restored by the warm, gracious Christian hospitality we received. Many tables were set before us, cups kept flowing, we met much goodness and mercy in many houses of the Lord. But Im not here to tell travel stories; that will follow in two weeks.
I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear this psalm? I wonder if its helpful for you or not?
Because, to be honest, we have trouble with this psalm today, perhaps with most psalms.
I had this Psalm as part of a lesson in my Religious Education class with 6th graders. We got as far as the first line before I ran into trouble.
One girl meekly objected that she didnt like the idea of being compared to a sheep if God was like our shepherd.
Another joined in with "arent sheep dumb animals that follow blindly." I bravely tried to explain the imagery, but you can see where their thinking was going.
Later, I thought, fair enough too! The image of a Lord is not a popular one in itself, in our world today, let alone the picture of a lord who seems to want to make people lie down - "Ill lie down where and when I want to, thanks very much. And certainly I wont be lying next to what sounds like a stagnant billabong, its bound to be mosquito infested."
As well, rods sound like instruments of violence, setting a table in the presence of enemies sounds arrogant and dangerous, being smeared with oil, especially with middle eastern connotations the way they are is a most unattractive proposition. And to cap it off, for most young people a trip to church for an hour is a big sacrifice; the concept of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is inconceivable!
Forgive my parody of this most beautiful of psalms, but our context today requires us to translate it in new ways if we are to have a hope of passing it on to another to generation - and I dont just mean we need to play with the words! Let me tell some stories and employ some other familiar images to explain.
Six and a half years ago, when I first came here, we bought a house to live in. At the time, some of you will know, the second manse was being renovated to accommodate the John Macrae centre. That house which had served a number of families and different purposes needed to be remodelled to fit its new purpose - most appropriate and wonderful use for the facility.
We were happy to buy a home and by a stroke of guided good fortune, found a lovely home in Glen Iris. Of course a seventy year old home had some problems though and the pressing need for some renovations be came clear to us very quickly! Smile and nod sagely. Yes, thats the way it goes isnt it. As you get used to a place, as it ages or as the needs change we need to restore and renovate.
I think our score now is two bathrooms done, one hall, one bedroom and a long way to go - we have to be people of faith and hope! Most people seem to have their own horror stories of renovations - of mess and delays, expense and inconvenience, but in the end, almost always its worth it.
Id be so bold as to suggest, that if God were to use real estate vernacular to describe the state of our souls, the descriptive phrase would be something like, "little used soul, renovators delight!"
Psalm 23 tells us directly that God is in the business of soul restoration. We desperately need to be restored, for many Australians the soul is a forgotten and ill treated part of us that we undernourish on a diet of randomly selected tidbits from the supermarket shelves of popular culture.
This gem of a psalm affirms the astonishing truth that God wants to restore our souls, wants to nourish us, want to set a lavish table to feed us so that our cup runs over.
It tells a needy generation that there is food for the soul, that there is a God who wants to lead us all in ways that will restore and renovate our spirit even in the face of the darkest things our world can throw at us.
Even in the darkest valleys of hopelessness, fear or depression - we have nothing to fear ultimately because the God of all goodness and mercy is with us, is our comfort and our strength.
Indeed, if our souls are presently a "renovators delight", then God is the one who delights to restore us!
God gives rest and refreshment for the soul beside calm and renewing streams of living water, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Too good? How can this be possible? Where is the catch, the expense in it all, the modern cynic in us asks?
These valid questions are answered for us today in the reading from Revelation. In his vision of the action in heaven, John the seer describes for us the scene at the final accounting.
Before the throne of the Lamb is a great multitude that no-one could count. The angels and the people worship.
The elder explains to John, "these are those who have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. - For this reason they are before the throne of God. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
So, when we ask how can God restore our souls, how can we be made clean, renewed and what is the expense - this second gem from the Apocalypse of John assures us that the answer is in the person and work of Christ - the lamb that died and is risen for us.
Is this too good to be true, of course it is !!! But that is the meaning of grace! This is the true nature of the Good News.
May Gods grace continue the ongoing work of restoring our souls - bringing us healing and wholeness to the delight of the renovator.