An Attitude of Gratitude: Thoughts on the 23rd Psalm and its message of trust and thanks.

An Attitude of Gratitude

Because November is the month where we celebrate Thanksgiving, Matt and I are preaching about gratitude.

Last week, we were grateful for all the saints who came before us and passed along their faith and trust in God.

This week, we will think about another presence in our lives for which we should be grateful.

God.

And the best scripture passage I could think of for this was the 23rd Psalm.

Have you ever noticed that we almost never refer to is as Psalm 23?

It’s always the “23rd” and everyone know what that means.

The 23rd Psalm is the best-known passage of scripture … ever!

Way back in ancient times I went through Confirmation at Pleasant Hills Community Church.

I have to confess I remember almost nothing about it.

The one thing I do remember was that I was required to memorize and recite the “23rd Psalm”.

I am sure many here had to do that or did it on your own just because it is so … well … comforting.

Even folks who are not church people probably can recite it verbatim, and in the King James Version to boot!

So today for a change, I want us to read our scripture passage in unison.

Recite it from memory or pull out a Bible.

Whichever version you like.

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

One of the difficulties with really familiar scripture passages is that we tend to just recite words while giving little thought to what the words really say.

Hymns are like that.

We sing the words but don’t actually pay attention to what they say and mean.

I can’t tell you haw many times I am asked what the heck an ebeneezer is after we sing “Come Now Font of Every Blessing”.

What about that cleft in the rock from the hymn “Rock of Ages”?

Anyone ever wonder what that’s about?

That is one of the problems with the 23rd.

We are so familiar with it that we really don’t think about what the words mean.

And understanding what the words means is not an easy task.

All the Psalms are antient Hebrew poetry written in a dead language and are full of metaphors, similes, exaggerations, repetition, and archaic idioms.

The Psalms are hard to translate.

They are even harder to interpret.

The 23rd is no different.

Here is an example.

Many people think the 23rd is a Psalm for funerals.

People think that because many translations talk about the shadow of death and dwelling with God forever.

Others think it is a lament.

A lament is a plea to God to be saved from difficulty.

The difficulty being that dark place where evil is found.

But I don’t think either of those things is what the 23rd is about.

I think the 23rd is about faith and gratitude.

The faith and gratitude of the Psalmist.

But when we recited it a few moments ago, we were applying it to ourselves.

So, what was it we were saying?

The 23rd opens with an important metaphor.

The Lord is “my shepherd”, says the Psalmist.

This is pretty intimate.

There is relationship between the God of all creation and me.

What is that relationship?

Well, God is a shepherd.

What does a shepherd do?

A shepherd takes care of the sheep.

And if God is my shepherd, that makes me one of God’s sheep.

That is my relationship with God.

God takes care of me because God is my shepherd and I am one of God’s sheep.

And because God takes care of me, I shall not want.

Really?

I mean I can want many things.

That word “want” reminds me of something funny someone said to me, at least I think it was supposed to be funny.

“I’m not a needy person. I’m a wanty person.”

If we are “wanty” people, the 23rd might sound like a prosperity gospel meme that means God gives us everything we want.

But that is not what the Psalmist is talking about.

The idea is that the shepherd will make sure we have access to everything we need.

Maybe that’s what Mick Jaggar means when he sings “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

You need something?

The shepherd will make it available.

But it is the shepherd who decides what it is you need.

What needs does the Psalmist say the shepherd supplies?

There is a list:

Green pastures.

A place where we can be fed.

Still waters.

A place where you can find rest.

A place where we will be restored, fed, rested and refreshed.

How does the shepherd to this?

The shepherd leads us there.

And the shepherd knows the way.

The right way.

The safe way.

It’s the way of the Lord.

And God the shepherd does this because God has promised to do it.

God staked God’s name on it.

The opening words of the 23rd might be the most powerful statement of faith in the Bible.

God provides sustenance, rest, restoration.

Everything we need.

We trust that God will do these things.

And when we are done with these words, don’t we want to insert, “Thanks be to God”?

I do.

But then the Psalmist takes an interesting turn.

Just a minute ago, we were in green pastures by still waters getting fed, rested and restored.

Now, where are we?

We are walking in a really dark place.

The darkest valley in the NRSV.

The valley of the shadow of death in other translations.

Either way it’s a dark place.

A place where evil is found.

How did we get there?

That is just what the world throws at us from time to time as we live our lives as we follow the shepherd from place to place.

But even when we are there, we need be not fear any evil.

Why?

Here is where the 23rd is most powerful.

Right here in the middle we find the true meaning of the Psalm.

The true confession of faith.

The true reason for thanks.

“[F]or you are with me”.

For the shepherd is with us even in those times.

There are some folks here who are in one of those dark places right now.

The 23rd should give you those words of comfort.

“God is with me”.

Make that your mantra.

God is ever present.

Always there.

Leading you.

Protecting you.

Guarding you.

With rod and staff.

I like that image.

The staff was to direct the sheep to make sure they stayed on the safe path.

I have this image of that.

I had a friend who told me that as a little girl she entered her pet pig into a pig goading contest.

The object of the contest was to lead the pig through a maze by goading it with a stick.

She would tickle the pig’s ears or nudge its rear end to make the pig turn the corners and get through the maze.

She did not whip the pig, she guided it.

Once out the other side, the pig got some food.

And maybe she got a prize.

That is the shepherd’s staff.

The shepherd’s rod, on the other hand was a weapon used for protection of the sheep.

A rod is a thick stick with a big heavy ball on the end.

The rod was not used on the sheep.

If a wild animal went for one of the sheep, the shepherd would take the rod and beat the predator away.

That’s what God does for us.

So, God should be comforting, right?

Not frightening.

As I heard one preacher put it, the Psalm does not say, “Thy rod and thy staff, they beat me!”

God guides us on the right path and keeps us safe.

And again, aren’t we compelled to add, “Thanks be to God?”

I think so.

Now the Psalmist gives other reasons for thanks and trust.

God is no longer a shepherd, but a dinner host.

A dinner host who brings us food while in the presence of enemies.

The one’s who besiege us on a daily basis it often seems.

I have an image of God standing between the wolves and the sheep, keeping the wolves away while feeding the sheep.

Maybe pouring oil on wounds acquired along the way.

And there is more than enough food and water.

Enough to survive the siege.

Don’t we want to add, “Thanks be to God?”

And now the Psalmist turns to hope.

Because God is good and loving and caring, God follows us.

But a better translation is that God pursues us.

Why is that important?

Because even though God provides for and protects us, sometimes we wander off, right?

And when we wander off the safe path, we want the shepherd to pursue us, right?

To come and save us and put us back on the safe path, right?

And we want that pursuit to keep going for as long as we live, right?

That is what God does.

God pursues.

Which should be comforting to those who know folks who have wandered off the path.

Or have never been on the path.

Know this.

God pursues them.

All the days of their lives.

And when we get to the end of our shepherd guided journey, where will we be?

In the dwelling of the Lord.

With God.

In God’s presence.

For how long?

The Hebrew words used to answer that question can mean many things: perpetually; the length of my days; for all time; forever; my whole life long.

Regardless, the main point is that at the end of our journey through life, with God feeding us, resting us, restoring us, leading us, protecting us, pursuing us, we end up in the dwelling of God.

The Psalmist does not describe what that is like, but Jesus does.

Paradise.

So, the 23rd is comforting.

It’s kind of describes the journey of our lives with confidence and trust and faith that God will be with us.

And so, we should add again, “Thanks be to God!”.

But we are New Testament people, aren’t we?

Does this Psalm speak to us?

You bet.

Listen to Jesus:

John 10

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. …

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.

Did Jesus have the 23rd in mind?

No doubt.

Was he equating himself with “the Lord”?

You bet!

The shepherd?

Absolutely!

Was Jesus saying we are his sheep?

Unequivocally!

If we hear his voice and follow him, Jesus leads us to sustenance, rest, safe paths and protects us from evil, he pursues us and takes us into God’s presence.

That is a reason for thanksgiving!

That is a reason for gratitude.

An attitude of gratitude!

For green pastures.

Still waters.

Life restoration.

Guidance.

Protection.

Provision.

Pursuit.

Paradise.

And for that, like the Psalmist, we should have faith and gratitude.

For God is with us all along the way!

Which brings me to Thanksgiving.

When you are sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, maybe you should recite the 23rd.

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.

Thanks be to God

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

Thanks be to God!

5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.

Thanks be to God!

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

Thanks be to God.

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