Psalm 23 – I Have Everything I Need

Psalm 23 by John August Swanson, 2010

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in fields of green grass
    and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths,
    as he has promised.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness,
    I will not be afraid, Lord,
    for you are with me.
Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.

You prepare a banquet for me,
    where all my enemies can see me;
you welcome me as an honored guest
    and fill my cup to the brim.
I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life;
    and your house will be my home as long as I live. (Good News Translation)

I once had a neighbor named Art. Art was a shepherd. He spent a good chunk of his day, every day, leading his sheep around his five acres of property across the road from me. On occasion, Art would politely ask if some of his sheep could come to my backyard and feed on some of the wild plants that were in abundance. I was amazed how “artfully” he cared for his sheep.

Sheep get a bad rap, in my opinion. I have often heard others refer to them as stupid. Having grown up on a farm, I realize there are animals that are not so bright. Sheep aren’t one of them. Cows, however, are. I think when God created cows the raccoons came along and stole some of their brains. 

There’s a reason sheep possess the reputation of lacking smarts – they are prone to being afraid. Sheep get spooked and upset easily. And, when they are skittish and scared, sheep tend to panic.

More than once I’ve seen a flock of sheep run full-steam head-first into a stone wall. If you don’t know much about sheep and come along and see this, they most certainly appear to be downright stupid. Yet, sheep are really, quite intelligent.  It’s just when fear overcomes them, they can do some nonsensical things.

Jesus the Good Shepherd by Solomon Raj

The presence of a faithful shepherd makes all the difference.

Sheep become familiar with their shepherd and learn to depend on them. There were times that Art had to leave the sheep alone and I would do a sort of babysit with them. Around me the sheep were cautious and had their guard up. The presence of anxiety was clear. But when Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word. I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.

God Pastors

God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we sense the presence of God’s Spirit, there is faith, trust, and confidence. This, then, brings a settled conviction of calm and comfort. Whenever that sense is absent, we do things like buy two pallets of toilet paper and try to bring it home in a compact car. It’s non-sense.

Psalm 23 is a beloved portion of Holy Scripture for a reason; it helps us as sheep to settle down and trust, even in the middle of uncertainty and anxiety. 

God’s presence + God’s provision + God’s protection = God’s providential care. God’s presence is constant, not sporadic; his provision is enough, not stingy; and his protection is total, not partial.

To know and feel God’s presence watching over us and giving generously to us is the very balm we need. It melts our fear in the face of adversity and opposition; it helps us relax in tough economic times; and it inoculates us from believing the sky is falling. 

Our courage and confidence cannot be ginned-up through sheer willpower; it comes as we get to know the great shepherd of the sheep standing there watching over us with compassionate and competent care.

God Provides

God is personal, not generic. God is the great “I AM,” the God who is. The Lord is my shepherd – not was or will be – is. God is not just somebody else’s God and shepherd, but my shepherd. 

The Lord is My Shepherd by David Hinds

Shepherd is an apt term because a shepherd cares for the sheep – watches over them, is present with them, protects them, and provides whatever they need to both survive and thrive.

God benevolently leads us; and does not act outside of his character and attributes. If we believe this about the great “I AM,” then worry and anxiety begins to diminish. Too many of us suffer from the heebie-jeebies because we don’t see the shepherd standing in the field watching over us.

The answer to our worry is not to keep telling ourselves to stop being anxious. With God on the job as shepherd, I shall not be in want; I have everything I need. 

Troubled times will always be with us, this side of heaven. Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled intentions and reasonable plans toward the future. Every day we see folks running headlong into a stone wall. 

It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to let fear rule our lives. The solution is to speak, despite your fear; to act, despite your worry; to live, knowing God has your back.

God Is Present

Within much of Hebrew poetry, the focus of the writing is found smack in the middle. Everything before it builds toward it; everything after it points back. Smack in the middle of Psalm 23 is that God is with us. 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it may seem that everything is bleak and that all things are against me – God is with me, which is why I do not succumb to fear. 

We walk through the valley, not around it. God does not cause us to avoid difficult circumstances. Instead, God promises to be with us through them. The way to deliverance is to confront our fears and walk with God, rather than expecting God to take away everything unpleasant that we don’t like.

My neighbor Art had a shepherd’s crook. He mostly used it as a walking stick. Yet, I did see times when he fended-off predators seeking to get to the sheep. More often, Art used his shepherd’s crook as a way of guiding the sheep where they could feed and be protected. 

The discovery of God’s guidance comes from movement and creativity. We aren’t going to experience the leading we want apart from embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

God Protects

Even with enemies of disease, death, and disorder surrounding us, God’s presence is such that his protection and provision are providentially working to create blessing in the middle of trouble. Whereas fear and panic believe in a culture of scarcity, a culture of abundance discerns that there is plenty for all – and will thus work toward equitable distribution and fostering an egalitarian spirit.

God refreshes, encourages, and restores. There are abundant blessings – even within troubled times. God’s provision is right here, amidst the worst of circumstances. We don’t have to pick a fight with someone in the Costco parking lot, who has what I want, to get the things we need.

It’s easy to believe that God’s goodness and love will follow me when my health is good, my income is solid, and I have plenty of friends around me. It is another thing to have an awareness of that goodness in dark days.  Yet, God’s love and goodness hasn’t sequestered itself.  God providentially uses each life situation and bends it to redemptive purposes.

Experientially knowing God brings contentment and confidence. The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship.

With a settled conviction that God indeed has our backs and stands as the divine sentinel watching over the beloved sheep, we find the ability to relax and trust that all is well with my soul.

Lord, help me to relax.

Take from me the tension
that makes peace impossible.
Take from me the fears
that do not allow me to venture.
Take from me the worries
that blind my sight.
Take from me the distress
that hides your joy.

Help me to know
that I am with you,
that I am in your care,
that I am in your love,
that you and I are one,

Through the mighty name of Jesus,

In the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Amen.

Leviticus 23:1-8 – There’s More to Life Than Work

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: These are my appointed times, the Lord’s appointed times, which you will declare to be holy occasions: Work can be done for six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of special rest, a holy occasion. You must not do any work on it; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord. These are the Lord’s appointed times, holy occasions, which you will celebrate at their appointed times:

The Lord’s Passover is on the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight. The Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread is on the fifteenth day of the same month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you will hold a holy occasion and must not do any job-related work. You will offer food gifts to the Lord for seven days. The seventh day will be a holy occasion; you must not do any job-related work. (Common English Bible)

When I was kid, watching the cartoon The Jetsons was a Saturday morning ritual. The futuristic family featured George the husband and father, an employee of Spacely Sprockets. 

In one episode, George comes home and is met by his dog, Astro, and wife, Jane, looking tired and haggard from a day’s work. George’s comment when he entered on the treadmill through the door was, “Jane, these 3-hour work-days are killing me!”

Indeed, the technological progress of post-World War II America had led to the common belief among many that with so many advancements, workdays would become smaller, with leisure time growing. In the 1960’s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that technology would provide the masses with unprecedented amounts of discretionary time for whatever they would want to do.

Sixty years removed from The Jetsons, and we now know what Americans and people across the world would do with time-saving devices: We simply work a lot more. 

Just the opposite has occurred from having loads of leisure time. People discovered that greater efficiency with technology has brought an equal competition for business and making more money. Time saved has translated into accomplishing more work, and not in taking vacations or indulging in new hobbies and ventures.

The fourth command of God’s Ten Commandments is needed today more than ever. It is high time that we come back to this basic instruction of the Lord and engraft its wise counsel into our lives. 

The point of God’s command for a Sabbath-rest is neither to squash commerce, nor to be a curmudgeon about fencing one day a week of doing nothing. Instead, the Sabbath command is designed to be a life-giving day where we discover that: There is more to life than work.

The word “Sabbath” literally means “to rest.” God built into creation a rhythm of rest and work. God rested, not because of being tired but so that there was enjoyment of the earth and everything in it. 

Everything in life is done in rhythm. We walk in rhythm, talk in rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm. The earth cycles in rhythmic seasons of the year, and the animal kingdom mates and lives in annual rhythms. All creation is rhythmic.

Whenever we keep going and do not live according to the rhythm laid out for all of God’s creatures, we break. Therefore: Rest from work is needed.

Even machinery needs a break. I find it more than ironic that we treat our cars and vehicles with the regular maintenance and care that we don’t even extend to ourselves. We care for our cars because we don’t want to experience a breakdown on the highway. Yet, much more important is the care of our souls and our bodies. 

Without regular intervals of work and rest, in a consistent rhythmic pattern, we breakdown, burnout, and, like little children who have missed a nap, we have epic meltdowns of anger, frustration, and passive-aggressive behavior because we simply ignored God’s fourth command.

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

Maya Angelou

Legalistic observances of the Sabbath miss the point through a continual, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, can’t do anything fun on Sunday,” as if God were some divine curmudgeon who frowns with a deeply furrowed brow at anything happy on the Sabbath. (Mark 2:23-3:6) 

To rest means to have a change of pace from the regular weekday activity of work. To rest and enjoy the difference of a Sabbath’s day is avoided by so many people because it brings this question to the forefront of our minds: Who am I if I’m not working?

Our identities can be so tied to our jobs that we compulsively check our multiple e-mail accounts on a day off; tie ourselves to our smart phones and iPhones on vacation; and allow work to bleed into our time away from the job. 

God has wisely placed loving boundaries around us. But like Adam and Eve, who were not content with enjoying the entire garden, we obsessively pluck the forbidden fruit from the one tree that is off limits.

Work brings money, influence, power, relationships, industry, and a host of good things. The problem is not work; the problem is that we humans can create an idol of it.

Whenever work and all that comes with it, consumes our attention, we are on a one-way road to nowhere. I have heard many deathbed confessions. I’ve yet to hear anyone wish they had worked more.

No, the confessions typically involve something out of rhythm and out of whack – that they let their jobs and their ambitions surrounding work call the shots in life, without stopping to enjoy the vast creation, the gifts of God, and the emotional wealth that can come from relationships.

“If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop, because our work is never completely done… Sabbath… liberates us from the need to be finished.”

Wayne Muller

Because we aren’t sure who we are if we’re not working, we just keep working. If we feel bad, we work harder.  If things are tough at home, we just put more hours in at work. If we need more money, we pick up a part-time job. 

When work becomes the catch-all answer to our many problems, it has become our god and we will worship at the altar of money and activity… until we can learn to stop and rest. 

One day out of seven. Just one-seventh of your life is needed to allow a divine rhythm into your existence. 

The temptation, however, is to take a day off from work so that you can do other work at home. So, the challenge, for many people, is to allow the one day of the weekend to be the time you get stuff done, and another day to truly rest.

This is not easy. For me, it is terribly hard. I can easily slide into working seven days a week for weeks, even months, at a time. Few people bat an eye at my constant working, except my wife and a few friends. In fact, many people seem impressed when I work all the time. But what gets lost in all this is God’s grace to us through rest.

God wants enjoyment, not avoidance – for us to be still and know God. The Lord longs for us to connect with the Divine. This means we must plan and prepare for it. Maybe we need to put God on our calendars, to make an appointment with God like we would anyone else. That will often involve being out in God’s big creation.

Whenever we get down to practicing the Sabbath, we find that the world didn’t stop. Then, when we return to work, we discover that the earth is still spinning on its axis. 

Life doesn’t cease when we submit to a Sabbath rest; it’s just that we cease from participating in it for a short time. Our delusions of grandeur dissipate and disappear when we finally come around to consistently obeying a good old Sabbath rest.

Work is noble. But there is nothing noble about working without rest. 

We are still human beings when we aren’t making money, and still valuable when we don’t have jobs. Folks in healthcare facilities aren’t any less important because they no longer hold a job. Work doesn’t define us – God’s image within us does. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a George Jetson 3-hour workday, and that’s probably a good thing. Work’s inherent goodness can only be truly appreciated when we plan and prepare to live and enjoy a Sabbath’s day rest. 

Because I belong to you, God, and not to myself,
I will rest from worrying about the future
and rest in your never-ending divine presence;
I will rest from frustration at things not working out as I want them to;
I will rest from fear
and rest in my experience of courage when days are hard.
I will rest from complaining
and rest in the beauty and pleasure all around me.
For the Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden is light,
and I will find rest for my soul. Amen.

Leviticus 25:1-19 – Your Well-Being Is a Priority to God

And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the Lord. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land—all its produce shall be for food.

‘And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field.

‘In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another. According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you. According to the multitude of years you shall increase its price, and according to the fewer number of years you shall diminish its price; for he sells to you according to the number of the years of the crops. Therefore, you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

‘So, you shall observe My statutes, keep My judgments, and perform them; and you will dwell in the land in safety. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill, and dwell there in safety. (New King James Version)

Our continual well-being and rest are not optional; it is absolutely essential.

If a car is driven day-after-day and never gets an oil change, the engine will eventually seize and die. And if a person insists on driving their life every day with continual work, and never practices a Sabbath rest, that person will inevitably burn-out and die an early death. 

In this busy world, far too many persons are putting the pedal-to-the-metal with no thought to the consequences, and no plan for any kind of Sabbath rest. Many people throughout the modern world are slowly draining their souls, causing themselves physical harm, and are on the precipice of emotional and spiritual death.

Perhaps you raise a Mr. Spock eyebrow and wonder if I am being too dramatic. Yet, if we are to take today’s Old Testament lesson seriously, we will see that all of life is to be governed by a healthy rhythm of life which benefits both the individual and the community.

Yes, I fully understand that neither the contemporary person nor the Christian is currently living under ancient Israelite law. However, every single law in the Old Testament is grounded in the character of God. 

This means that, although we may not be obliged to hold the detailed specifics of the seven years system and a year of Jubilee, we are still beholden to observe a Sabbath rhythm of rest because God rested. And we ignore this built-in rhythm to our own peril.

Sometimes I watch the news, see all the upset people at one another and think, “Dude, you really need to sit down, relax, and have a sandwich. Just take a breath, man!” I sometimes wonder if God looks down from heaven at all the world’s conflicts and sees the people involved as a bunch of toddlers who simply need a snack and a nap.

Just as God loves, we are to love. As God is holy, so we are to be holy. And the same holds true for a Sabbath rest. Just as God rested from all the work of creating the world, so we, too, are to rest from our work. Laboring 24/7 will only give us regrets, not results.

If I haven’t been explicit enough, I will say it plainly: We are commanded by God to rest.

It is high time we begin building into our weekly planners, smartphone calendars, and long-range goals, a deliberate and purposeful inclusion of Sabbath rest. 

That means not just doing this biblical rest thing once-in-a-while, that is, if I can fit it in somewhere. A complete Sabbath rest entails making it a real actual event on a regular basis in our life, on our calendars. No excuses, no fudging of appointments, and no lame *sigh* about how busy we are. 

Set aside time today to build a Sabbath into your schedule for the rest of the year, and maybe beyond. I’m not saying this is at all easy; in fact, it is terribly hard for me to get this practice into my own life. 

Because I am a church pastor, hospital chaplain, husband, father, and grandfather, my times of scheduling meetings, events, and visits looks more like a Sudoku puzzle than a calendar. Engrafting some serious biblical rest into my life sometimes feels like hacking through a jungle, looking frenetically for some time.

But, without that rest, I am much less the person I need to be for all the people and responsibilities I care for. The people in my life deserve better than that. They don’t need my leftovers. And I suspect the people in your life want you to rest, too, because you matter to them.

Creator God, you formed the earth in six days and then rested on the seventh. Help me not to put Sabbath on some wish list of things to do someday but enable me to practice it with courage and without apology, through the name of Jesus, I live and pray. Amen.

Hebrews 4:1-11 – Enter God’s Rest

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,

“So I declared on oath in my anger,
   ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” And again, in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Therefore, since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (New International Version)

“I’ll rest when I die” was a phrase one of my congregants used to say whenever he was encouraged to stop moving for a while and rest. He is now gone, having died at a relatively young age. It is common in American culture to define rest as almost optional. Many people feel guilt when they sit still, living with the belief that unless they are constantly busy and doing something that they are lazy or selfish.

The kind of rest the author of Hebrews was talking about was not just a future time of finally sitting in some kind of celestial recliner after a life of constant work. Rest is available now; and it’s encouraged.

Today we have the opportunity to enter into God’s rest for us. The ones who had the good news preached to them before didn’t enter rest because of disobedience. It is not just contemporary people who have a problem with Sabbath; rest itself has had a rather unrestful history.

It seems to me we need to ask ourselves why we have this tendency to interpret “rest” as only occurring after a lot of hard work has happened. 

If Sabbath rest has relevance to us now, perhaps our cultural model of work-is-greater-than-rest is really to be reversed as rest-is-greater-than-work. Consider this: God created humans on the sixth day. God rested on the seventh day. So did Adam and Eve. That means the first people rested before they even had a chance to begin working the garden God created.

Maybe instead of inventing new ways to overfill our schedules and erase any margin from our day to day existence, we ought to create ways of ruthlessly eliminating hurry from our lives. 

It could be that our world’s many ills and woes come more from our inability to rest than anything else. God not only calls us to an active Christian life; God calls us to rest, too.

In our daily work-a-day world we poke, prod, push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things. To separate ourselves from our typical routine is akin to an addict’s withdrawal. Some folks are tired, cranky, and negative all the time. Methinks it is because we find all kinds of reasons to not rest, and even when we do we’re still trying to impose our will on God.

What Christians need most is simply Jesus – to know Christ, be with him, and experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with the Lord. And that cannot happen, at least not fully, unless we practice rest.  To rest means to relinquish all our plans and agendas to God for a time and just come into the divine presence and enjoy one another.

Our compulsions for performance and perfection are the real culprits to rest. We want to do everything right.  We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right instead of coming to Jesus like a little child who needs him. 

Perhaps we are so profoundly discontent with so many things because we are not really content in Christ. Maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all be content together no matter the circumstances. Only then might we find our burdens are light.

Jesus modeled the life of rest for us. If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest, it was Jesus, and yet, he continually did so. So, if Jesus created a sacred space to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a Sabbath rest and a place to do it? 

Jesus rested to connect with his heavenly Father. There was no multi-tasking or juggling other responsibilities. There was simply the radical pursuit of intimate rest.

If we do not rest and intentionally practice times of Sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need, rather than God.

Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with Jesus and a good gracious Father. Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a particular place and a certain time set aside to pray and enjoy God.

Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we don’t have it all together – that we are helpless and need Jesus. Apart from Jesus, the blind man cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin. I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.

As long as we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, rest will be elusive. Enjoy Jesus today, my friend, and leave the results to God.

God of the Sabbath rest, just as you rested on the seventh day, help me to alter my life in such a way as to engraft new avenues of rest into my busy schedule. In doing so, may I connect with you more deeply and find greater health and fulfillment in myself and my relationships. To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.