We all know the 23rd Psalm pretty well. And a good thing too. It’s beautiful and comforting and strong and honest and full of hope. You can say it at many different moments in our lives and it sounds loud and clear. Like almost every pastor, I take it with me to death beds and to places of trouble and I say the words – and people begin to join in and clasp my hand because they are words more precious than gold. I’ve spent time this week dwelling with these words and trying to learn them off by heart. I’ve been reading about psalms, about green valleys and shepherding, listening to music, framing prayers and just living with these words. Even the first line alone would fill a Sunday with more than one sermon.
You can certainly find lots of sentimental images to accompany this psalm. Cuddly sheep in beautiful meadows. Babbling brooks and shepherds in Persil white robes. But the Psalm itself is definitely not sentimental at all. It talks about evil and shadows, death and enemies. As one writer puts it very well, this Psalm shows us that “Even the paths of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow.” The psalm doesn’t make light of suffering or evil or death. The writer names those things but then says that he won’t fear them. For all the power that evil has, it doesn’t have the power to make him afraid.
And what makes it possible to be without fear? Simply that God is there. That’s all. God’s presence alone is enough to make the presence of enemies nothing to be afraid of. Goodness and mercy are present too, following us every single day, never to be shaken off or left behind. God is there. God’s presence means everything.
And what has really struck me this week is the way that this Psalm begins by talking about God in the third person, but then moves to the second person. It begins with phrases like: The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down. He restores my soul. This is objective ‘about’ language, descriptive, a bit distant, accurate but not personal. But then, at just the point when the psalmist says fear is gone, the language changes. Now it is second person language – ‘you’ language – I don’t fear because you are with me, you prepare a table for me, you anoint my head with oil. This is the difference between theology and prayer. This is personal. And those old fashioned ‘thee’ words which we often remember when we think of this psalm makes this so clear. Just like some Yorkshire folk still today – ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ is the language not of antiquity but of affection – , of intimacy. This is someone who can talk to God on personal terms, as though God is right there with him. I am with thee…. Thou art with me. This is someone who can talk about God, but even more can talk to and with God. He is not afraid because he can speak to God and say ‘You are with me.’
So, I learn this week that death and evil and all those things are real. But God is with me. You are with me, God, anointing my head, filling my cup and laying the table of life. You are with me; and not like an abstract theory or a divinity in the sky, but right here, at my table, as close as the person who touches my body. I will fear nothing.
But what about those enemies? The psalm says they are present too. Darn. I’d rather they weren’t – I’d rather they were banished and absent, out of my way so it could be just you and me, a picnic for two in the green meadows. But the psalm tells us that our enemies are always present – always gathered around us. We all have enemies – and they don’t all come dressed in armour with spears or brandishing a complaints procedure. There are enemies that come at us from inside; anxiety, loneliness, depression, failure, addiction, temptations, covetousness, envy. They are the knock backs we get each week of our lives. They are Covid-19, and they are those who demolish our confidence by criticising our best efforts, they are all the things that leave us deflated, cruel words and the daily disappointments that grieve us. We can each name our own enemies and we all know what it means to do battle with them. But even while we are doing battle with what people today might call our inner demons, or with the impact of a pandemic, God is there, right with us, preparing a celebration and filling up our cups so that we don’t need anything. As far as God is concerned, the party isn’t complete without you, even if those enemies you can’t shake off have to come too. And the good news is that God has some friends who come along to the feast always – and who will never leave the party or your side, never, whatever happens – and these friends, like in a Victorian novel, are called goodness and mercy. So, don’t be afraid. You will be seated at the feast of life and your cup, even if you always think it half empty, will be filled to overflowing, always.
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus is the shepherd – he, risen from the dead, is with us in the green pastures, restoring us, beside us, taking away our fear and holding our hands so that we don’t have to fear those enemies any more. He too prepares a table for us – with bread and wine this time – and his goodness and his mercy are always with us, like adoring fans who won’t be shaken off. He will never run away. Even death could not take him from us. He life is given in following us and he is with us – always.
This is a favourite story of mine about Psalm 23. There was once a woman in the US who was going to visit her daughter. She had a terrible fear of going through tunnels and this particular journey involved driving through some long ones. So when she arrived her daughter asked how the journey had been. The mother said ‘It was just the tunnels.. one of them was a 2 and a half’. The daughter said, ‘Do you mean one of them was 2 and a half miles or that you got through in 2 and a half minutes?’ “Her mother smiled and said, “Neither. I had to say Psalm 23 2 and a half times.”
I think you could say that through the long tunnel of this pandemic we will have to say Psalm 23 more than 2 and a half times. We are not out of the tunnel yet, and maybe we will never quite escape it’s shadow. But we will not fear. For you are with us God, in your Son Jesus Christ. And we will dwell in your house forever. Amen.