A Table in the Battle

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Sun, 05/07/2017 - 11:00pm

Psalm 23, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church

May 7, 2017 

            The 23rd Psalm shows us three scenes: the green, the shadow, and the battle. God is present in all three. The question this morning is which scene you find yourself in.

            The first line is almost the thesis statement of the poem: The Lord (Yahweh) is my shepherd, therefore I shall lack nothing. It’s personal, almost intimate: my shepherd, not just the shepherd of his people. My God-guide takes me to verdant pastures and still ponds; he takes me to grass to eat and water I can drink. The “soul” that he restores is a Hebrew word that means not some inner spirit but life. God keeps me alive.

            The verb in the familiar phrase “I shall not want” is often translated “lack.” In Deuteronomy 2:7, Moses is talking about the period in the wilderness we often refer to as wandering: “These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.” Well they certainly lacked some things, but they were kept alive. They did not lack anything necessary to live, for God led them to water and provided manna in the desert. Their shepherd kept them alive when it seemed they would die.

            But it is not wrong to see the first part of the psalm as peaceful, a scene of lush grass and undisturbed pools. Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes Block Island is like that, but not always. This is just one part of the journey. We can be thankful for the times we spend in the green, soaking it in, but we can never imagine that all of life is supposed to be like that.

            We are traveling on winding paths like the trails here on the island, and it is the Lord who guides us to the right paths. You know, in the New Testament, whenever someone says “the Lord,” it almost always means Jesus. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, and in the epistles Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20) and “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). It’s fair to read the psalm as saying that Jesus leads us in right paths. That’s what we mean when we say we are followers of Jesus. He goes before, he clears the trail for us, and we make progress by imitating him. As preacher Stan Mast has said, “Life is not a self-guided tour.” We need a guide to find our way.

            We sang earlier, “He leadeth me! O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught!” It is comforting to know that we are being led and that life is not a random walk. But sometimes we wonder, don’t we? Our path through life is not often straight. If I asked you to draw maps of your life story, there wouldn’t be many with a map that goes from Point A to Point B with no detours or wrong turns. Our path is more like the path that God’s people took to get from slavery to the Promised Land, forty years of circuitous travel in the desert, wondering as they wandered, “Are we there yet?” But all the time God was leading them. They said that he gave them a cloud to follow in the day and a fire to follow in the night. But what a long, strange trip it’s been, right?

In the science fiction novel, The Children of God, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz learns that his life did not mean what he thought it meant. He had been horribly abused by alien creatures on his first journey to the planet Rahkat. But when he returns many years later, a devastated and ravaged man, he learns that he really hadn’t understood anything that had happened to him. His friend and fellow priest, John, offers this explanation. He refers to that passage in Exodus where God tells Moses, No one can see my face, but I will protect you with my hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove my hand and you will see my back. “I always thought that was a physical metaphor,” says John, “but, you know– I wonder now if it isn’t really about time? Maybe that was God’s way of telling us that we can never know his intentions [at the moment], but as time goes on… we’ll understand. We’ll see where he was; we’ll see his back.”

Maybe you know the old gospel song: “Farther along we'll know all about it, farther along we'll understand why.” Right now, all I know is that he is leading me. And that is true even when Jesus leads us from the green place to the dark valley, the valley of the shadow of death. Don’t think “How Green Was My Valley” but rather a deep canyon through which John Wayne or Indiana Jones must pass. This is not a place where sheep can find grass or water, but a dry and rocky passage. It is also a place where bandits hide in the rocks. There is no notion in the Bible that God saves us from evil or tragedy; instead is says that God is right there with us. That is what the cross tells us and what the bread and cup are intended to remind us of.

All of us pass through the shadow. Some people seem to walk in the sunshine most of the time, but they have darkness too. Others seem to create their own shadow over their lives, but sunshine people need to understand that it is the shadow of evil or trauma they cannot simply wish away. Still, the shadow is a passage and not a destination. This is not where we live forever. This is a place we have to get through.

There’s not a Sunday that someone here is not walking through deep darkness. Sometimes it is the shadow of the death of a loved one; these words bring comfort at the graveside, so that we associate this psalm with funerals. Sometimes the shadow of death is the shadow our own death casts backwards over our lives as we become aware of our mortality and face anxiety about what comes next. Sometimes we discover the shadow side of our own souls, and understand that we are not what we advertised ourselves to be. Sometimes deep darkness is a financial hole or career hopelessness or a marriage coming apart.

But here is our resolve: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The poet changes from talking about God to talking to God. You are with me. There is no darkness I can pass through that can separate me from you. As Paul says in Romans (8:38-39 NLT), “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you are in the shadow this morning, that is the promise to you: God is with you. That is the promise the Lord’s Table communicates: God in Christ experienced the shadow and passed through death and is risen so he can be with us now and forever.

Now we come to the third scene in the psalm, one that is not emphasized much: the battle. We shift completely from thinking about God as a shepherd to God as a host, and we see a picture of the hospitality we were talking about last Sunday. We have already said that there is evil out there, people out to get us, but now we name them as enemies. If you read much in the Old Testament, there is no shortage of enemies, and most of them are connected with nearly-annual warfare. Israel is surrounded by enemy nations, and David or the psalmist often complains about enemies who want to take his life.

I think this third scene shows us a table in a battle. There is a war going on all around us, but God is protecting us from our enemies. But God does not just want us to survive; he wants us to have abundant life. He wants a life that is more like a feast than a fast. So in spite of the fact that our enemies are real and nearby, God fearlessly sets his table for a banquet. Or maybe this really is Jesus, who often talked about banquets and loved to eat with friends.

There is no denying here that conflict is real in this life. Sometimes we live in a peaceful green place; sometimes we pass through the shadow; sometimes we find ourselves in a battle through no fault of our own. You know, I can hardly remember any enemies from my younger days. I thought everybody liked me until I was in my late 40’s. But once I grew up and started taking a stand on some things, once I cared less about being liked by absolutely everyone, I got an enemies list I didn’t write. I imagine some of you think I create my own battles, and that’s one way to read it. But I bet Tom Wiles would tell you that this is the experience of most pastors, and most pastors would tell you that this is the experience of most of their members. Everybody is fighting, as they say, a battle you know nothing about.

Sometimes the battle is not with personal enemies but internal ones or invisible forces or political realities. But whatever battle you are in, the Lord has set a table for you. Here it is! Jesus is the perfect host. As they did in ancient times, the host would rub perfumed oil into the hair of his guest as a tender act of welcome and smell control. He would fill your cup with wine until it overflowed. Free refills! The Lord is not a stingy host but an Italian mother: “Mangia, mangia!”

All this joy in the midst of a battle. The last verse says, traditionally, that goodness and mercy shall follow me, but the verb translated “follow” is usually translated “pursue.” Most of the time it’s about tracking down someone to kill him. What the poet is saying is, “It will not be my enemies who will pursue me, but only God’s goodness and mercy, generosity and faithful love.” With this bread, this cup, and the anointing of the Spirit, our attention shifts from our enemies to the one who is determined to bless us, chasing us down to give us his love.

 Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of this verse in a hymn text is touching: 

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest
(While others go and come),
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.

That is our response to God’s hospitality: to react to the meal he spreads before us in the midst of our battles not as if we were strangers or guests in his house but as if we were one of his own children, at his table in his own home. This is your home. This is your family table and Jesus is the one who has set the table. Come and enjoy.