Nothing to Fear But...
Life is fragile. It doesn't take much to remind us of that fact: perhaps a close encounter with the ditch under poor road conditions or unexpected moves by passing motorists. The refusal of a stubborn cold or flu to leave, even after weeks have passed. An unfavourable test result from your doctor. The threat of changes at work that would make positions such as yours 'redundant'. Fears are common for all ages.
A little boy had a part in the school play that was supposed to read, "It is I; be not afraid." But when the actual performance came, and he came out on stage in front of all those people in the audience, what he actually said was, "It's me and I'm scared."
Tests, midterms, interviews and exams cause anxiety for students. At Southern Methodist University during finals week, a nervous hand had left this message scrawled across a blackboard: "We have nothing to fear but F itself."
Or our fear may be less overt, not associated with any physical crisis such as sickness or death, or immediate stress such as exams. With so many choices to make in modern life, we may be anxious instead about whether we're heading the right direction, to find fulfilment in life. After a Billy Graham crusade meeting, Ray Stedman slipped into a seat on a bus beside a young man who had gone forward in the meeting that night and given his heart to Christ. Pastor Stedman spoke to him of what his new life would mean, and that he could now be free from all fear of death. The young man turned, looked him in the eye and said, "I have never been much afraid of death.But I'll tell you what I am afraid of -- I'm afraid I'll waste my life." Ray Stedman comments, "I believe that fear is deep within each of us. It has been put there by our Creator. No one wishes to waste his life."
Whatever our fears may be, God's promises in Scripture offer us great comfort. Perhaps no other passage has been used to comfort the fearful as much as Psalm 23, The Shepherd Psalm. It's widely used at funerals and deathbeds, in sickness and all kinds of emergencies. As a shepherd boy charged to protect vulnerable sheep from wild animals, and as Israel's great King plotted against by foreigners and even family members, David had experienced stress and mortal danger many times. In Psalm 23, he sings of God as a strong, capable shepherd in whom we can find provision, peace, power, protection, priority, and a lasting place.
A fundamental concern in life is whether we'll be provided for; 'physical security' is one of the most basic human needs. David addresses this right off the bat, saying, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." Other translations say, "I will not be without any good thing," "I don't need a thing"; the idea is that there's no lack. A primary concern of a shepherd is to find feed for the flock. V2 says, "He makes me lie down in green pastures..." The Hebrew carries the idea of tender green vegetation; Peterson's The Message paraphrase states, "You have bedded me down in lush meadows..."
[photo] Here's a contemporary picture of a rural Palestinian shepherd and his sheep. Note he's got an assistant [young boy] in the background. The Shepherd is carrying a staff or walking stick by which he can direct wayward sheep, dig up thistles from the pasture, or ward off predators to some degree. I couldn't help but notice the colour of the grass the sheep are grazing: looks quite brown and dry. However, in the background you can see some longer, lusher, greener pastures. If I were a sheep, I'd be eyeing the grass in the next field over!
By contrast, God's provision, v2 says, will be green pastures fit for lying down in -- that is, with somewhat longer grass that will make a comfortable spot to crash. Down in v5, the imagery is more explicitly lavish, saying, "You make ready for me a table before me in the presence of my enemies...my cup overflows." NLT: "You prepare a feast for me...My cup overflows with blessings." This is no Scroogey snack, but an ample dinner. God's not a grinch to those He loves. Isiah 25(6) says, "On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines." That's pulling out all the stops! Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (Jn 10:10) Abundantly. This doesn't mean a Winnebago in every yard; believers in developing nations would be very happy with much less than we here take for granted. But God promises He will make provision for our needs, when we're doing His will.
A second way God's shepherding care is expressed for us is the PEACE He provides. V2 says, "He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters." Sheep won't lie down if there's danger threatening; they'll lie down when they know the shepherd's on duty, providing security. "Quiet" or "still" waters can also be translated "waters of rest". The Message adds, "You let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction."
We experience God's peace in the context of His guidance, His leading, letting Him be in charge. The obedient, co-operative sheep are the ones that stay close to the shepherd and so are easier for Him to look after. John the Baptist's father Zechariah prophesies that through the ministry of the Messiah, God's tender mercy will "shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace." (Lk 1:79) Peace is found when we allow Him to guide our steps.
WM Thomson, having observed shepherding practice in Palestine, wrote: "Some sheep always keep near the shepherd, and are his special favourites...They are in no danger of getting lost or into mischief, nor do wild beasts or thieves come near them...Others...are restless and discontented, jumping into everybody's field, climbing into bushes, and even into leaning trees, whence they often fall and break their limbs. These cost the good shepherd incessant trouble."
The apostle Paul instructed the early church to "let the peace of Christ rule [or umpire] in your hearts." (Col 3:15) He wrote, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Php 4:6f) So we can know peace by sticking close to the Shepherd, constantly looking to God in prayer, seeking His direction. It's when we depart from that on selfish or wilful initiative that we're asking for more stress.
Knowing God's in charge and on duty gives us peace. Victor Hugo said, "Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones. And when you have finished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake!"
Psalm 23 also implies God gives us POWER to live for Him. V3, "He restores my soul;" "He gives new life to my soul;" NLT, "He renews my strength." The Hebrew verb can mean to return or refresh; today we'd say Got helps us get 're-charged'. Further on in v6, "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life..." NLT says they'll "pursue" me; The Message, "Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life." This isn't just meekly trailing along after, but active pursuit: God sends His blessings to track us down and restore us.
Psalm 51(10,12) asks the Lord, "...renew a steadfast spirit within me...Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."Psalm 85(6) asks Him to "revive us again..." God is our unseen secret energy source for being about Kingdom goals. Paul even wrote, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Back in the time of Israel's Judges, Samson had performed some remarkable exploits in warding off the Philistines who exploited the nation. But he liked to joke around and made some unwise choices, particularly in his association with the deceitful woman Delilah. As a consequence, he was taken captive, blinded, and made into an object of sport and ridicule. In many ways, we was a defeated failure. But Samson hadn't forgotten how to call on God for strength. He prayed, "O Sovereign Lord, remember me.O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." (Judges 16:28) He then pushed on the pillars and "brought the house down", killing more when he died than while he lived. So God is merciful and can restore us with His supernatural strength when we turn to Him.
When bad things happen, we scramble looking for protection. So do sheep, who are particularly defenseless and vulnerable to predators. I've heard of sheep ranchers keeping a donkey to graze with the sheep because they'll help fend off wolves, but my guess is that sheep would likely prefer a human shepherd with some deadlier form of protection.
It's not surprising that protection figures prominently in the 23rd Psalm. V4 says, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." The staff is the longer walking stick, sometimes with a hook for retrieving animals by their neck; the rod is a shorter club-like piece of wood, used both for discipline and protection. The Message translates this section, "Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I'm not afraid when You walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd's crook makes me feel secure." Kind of like having someone 'riding shotgun' in the old westerns!
We may not be used to thinking of shepherds as 'tough guys', but they'd have to be in order to take the risk of warding off hungry wolves, lions, and bears from juicy wool-clad lamb-chops-on-the-hoof. JL Porter, another writer who observed life in Palestine, noted: "The shepherds themselves had none of that peaceful and placid aspect which is generally associated with pastoral life and habits. They looked more like warriors marching to the battlefield -- a long gun slung from the shoulder, a dagger and heavy pistols in the belt, a light battle-axe or ironheaded club in the hand. Such were the equipments; and their fierce flashing eyes and scowling countenances showed but too plainly that they were prepared to use their weapons at any moment."
Hmmm..."The Lord is my shepherd:" "they looked more like warriors marching to the battlefield," eh? Point to consider for our Wild at Heart small group! God may not need a "battle-axe or ironheaded club" but He is a warrior, One who contends with His enemies and protects His flock. He can be gentle -- as Isaiah (40:11) says, He "gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young;" but this Shepherd can also be stern, dealing with trouble-makers in the flock as Ezekiel 34(12) says, "I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice..."
The sheep are protected as long as they stay close to the shepherd, heeding his voice. WM Thomson observes of Palestinian sheep husbandry, "I notice that some of the flock keep near the shepherd, and follow whithersoever he goes without the least hesitation, while others stray about on either side, or loiter far behind; and he often turns around and scolds them in a sharp, stern cry, or sends a stone after them. I saw him lame one just now. Not altogether unlike the good Shepherd." The Lord protects us, but also disciplines us so we learn to stay close to Him.
Switching metaphors to that of how people welcome guests into their home, David points out how God treats us as PRIORITY and gives us honour. V5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." Or as Peterson paraphrases it, "You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies." Pulling out all the stops to honour me in front of others, sort of the way the Olympic officials honour champion athletes by awarding medals and flowers in front of many others. The enemies (more literally, things that cause distress) are still there, not taken away -- but they're kept at bay; the Lord is holding them back from interfering. They can only watch as God lavishes love on those who serve Him. Psalm 31(19) says, "How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you."
Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper as we celebrate today, is one way we participate in the "table" God prepares for us. This special meal anticipates the future heavenly banquet which those redeemed will enjoy.
Psalm 23 says, "You anoint my head with oil." In the New Testament, anointing becomes figurative language for the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Counselor and Guide. We hear the Shepherd's voice through the agency of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 1Jn 2(27) says, "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him." Are we taking time each day to let the Father refresh His anointing of us through our spirit?
Finally, Psalm 23 promises God has a PLACE for us. This is true in a couple of ways: we have a place with Him, He's at our side; also, in the longer term, we have a permanent home with Him in heaven. V4 says, "I will fear no evil, for You are with me..." Or (Peterson), "I'm not afraid when you walk at my side." Being CLOSE to God brings incredible strength and safety. Isaiah 41(10) says, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Chapter 43(2) adds, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." When Paul was being opposed and abused for teaching about Jesus at Corinth, one night the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said, "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you..." (Ac 18:9f)
Besides the security of this protective place at the side of the Good Shepherd, having Him with us, there's also the comfort, hope, and assurance of by faith knowing one day He'll welcome us into heaven permanently. The Psalm closes with the words, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." BBE puts this, "I will have a place in the house of the Lord all my days." Coming to the New Testament, Jesus said, "Trust in God; trust also in me.In my Father's house are many rooms...I am going there to prepare a place for you.And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (Jn 14:1ff) Praise God for this wonderful hope of every believer, that we may be with Him and enjoy Him for eternity! Trusting in Jesus, believing He died for our sins and can put us right with God, is all it takes.
Charles Spurgeon comments, "While I am here I will be a child at home with my God; the whole world shall be His house to me; and when I ascend into the upper chamber I shall not change my company, nor even change the house; I shall only go to dwell in the upper storey of the house of the Lord for ever." Just moving upstairs.
Strictly speaking, Lent is not "Biblical" in that it was introduced by the ancient church after the New Testament was written. Lent was invented as an aid to piety, an extended period of preparation leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday each year. But the concept of taking a special time apart to focus on spiritual matters is Biblical: Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days; Elijah made a pilgrimage for the same length of time to the same mountain; Jesus fasted for 40 days at the outset of His ministry (Ex 24:18; 1Kings 19:8; Mt 4:2). So over the next 6 weeks, let's make a special effort to examine our spiritual disciplines and renew our zeal for walking with our Good Shepherd. Meditating on Psalm 23 may suggest some questions for self-examination. What other pastures are we running off to? Are we content with the "tender vegetation" God offers? What are the inputs we're consciously or unconsciously allowing to shape our thoughts and lives?
This Psalm talks a lot about safety, security, coping with our fears and stressors. What is your one biggest single fear that you're hesitant to entrust to the Lord? What is the anxiety you need to give over, believing His 'rod and staff' can handle it?
Can we be content with the priority the Lord gives us, quieting our souls in fellowship with Him, rather than chasing the wind trying to find importance, fulfilment, or status of our own making? What fall-out do "quiet waters" and "lying down" have for our crowded calendars, our over-stretched chequebooks? What can we get along without; what do we not need, and can give away, if truly with Yahweh as my Shepherd "I don't need a thing"?
As part of our re-focusing time, can we allow heaven to be more real to us, that we may put this passing world in its true perspective? If it be the Lord's will, are we ready for that "move upstairs"? What do we need to do, what do we need to pay up or put right with other people, so that we're ready to walk "the valley of the shadow of death" at any time? Pray about these things, and the Lord will show you what you need to address. That's part of knowing His peace.
I'd like to close with Spurgeon's comments on v4, about the difference faith makes when it comes to dying. The 'prince of preachers' said, "We go through the dark tunnel of death and emerge into the light of immortality. We do not die, we do but sleep to wake in glory. Death is not the house but the porch, not the goal but the passage to it...It is not 'the valley of death,' but 'the valley of the shadow of death,' for death in its substance has been removed, and only the shadow of it remains. Someone has said that when there is a shadow there must be light somewhere, and so there is. Death stands by the side of the highway in which we have to travel, and the light of heaven shining upon him throws a shadow across our path; let us then rejoice that there is a light beyond. Nobody is afraid of a shadow, for a shadow cannot stop a man's pathway even for a moment. The shadow of a dog cannot bite; the shadow of a sword cannot kill; the shadow of death cannot destroy us. Let us not, therefore, be afraid." Let's pray.