Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

If you have never preached on Psalm 23 — or if you haven’t preached on it recently — this is the week.

Illuminated Manuscript, Gospels
Illuminated Manuscript, Gospels, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.592, fol. 24a, by Walters Art Museum licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

March 30, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 23

If you have never preached on Psalm 23 — or if you haven’t preached on it recently — this is the week.

Why? Glad that you asked.

Psalm 23 is one of the cannot-miss texts for living the Christian life Monday through Saturday. Simply put, the psalm is one of a small set essential texts for the daily living-out of the Christian faith.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a group at Luther Seminary that researched the complex issues of biblical illiteracy-literacy-fluency in our culture. As part of the research, roughly 1,500 people were surveyed and about 200 people were interviewed in two rounds of interviews in 12 locations around the United States.

One question the survey posed was, “Is there a text that is important for you in difficult times?” Not all people answered the question, but of those who did, 15 percent of respondents named Psalm 23 specifically. Another 10 percent named “the psalms” in general. The psalms, and especially Psalm 23, speak powerfully to and for God’s people in troubled times.

The message from the everyday saints to “walk the walk” of daily faith in our time, the message is clear: Psalm 23 is essential. The putter is the essential club for golfers. The chef’s knife is the essential tool for cooks. And Psalm 23 is the essential text for the daily life of faith. Sure, you can golf without a putter, cook without a chef’s knife, and live the Christian life without Psalm 23. But who would want to?

This is your chance to equip your congregation with this essential psalm.

So, Working Preacher, let’s say that I have convinced you to preach on Psalm 23 this week. What then? Well, the obvious question is, “What is a sermon on Psalm 23 supposed to accomplish?”

My answer to that question is related to what I have already written above. If it is true that Psalm 23 is an essential text for living the Christian life — and especially for living the Christian faith when the bridges have been washed out by a flood of troubled waters — then the aim of a sermon on Psalm 23 should be to render the poem available to congregants for their daily lives. The sermon should equip people to pray and confess the psalm in daily life — especially in times when, as Psalm 69 says, “the waters have come up to my neck … and the flood sweeps over me” (verses 1b, 3d).

The sermon should equip people to imagine themselves as the one speaking or praying the psalm.

In order to do this, of course, a person would need to understand both the form and the theology of this psalm.

Psalm 23 is usually described as a psalm of trust. Trust psalms presume a particular type of life setting and regularly include two types of language.

The Situation. Similar to the Psalter’s prayers for help (also called laments), trust psalms are spoken in the midst of dire crisis. Most prayers for help include expressions of trust, but these expressions are not usually the main emphasis of those psalms. In prayers for help the emphasis is usually on crying out in complaint and requesting help. As the name indicates, in the psalm of trust the emphasis is on trust.

The Language, Part 1. The psalms of trust regularly include metaphorical descriptions of the crisis in which the psalmist is stuck. In Psalm 23, the crisis is described as “the darkest valley” and “a table … in the presence of my enemies.” Other psalms describe crises as “an army [en]camped against me,” or “the foundations are destroyed,” or “the waters have come up to my neck,” and so on (Psalms 27:3; 11:3; 69:1).

Part of the power of Psalm 23 is the dynamic power of these metaphors for crisis — they can apply to many different situations.

Especially since this is the Lenten season, if you preach on the psalm, it might be appropriate to invite them into the rich metaphorical imagery of the psalm. When have they been the lost sheep, walked the dark valley, or sat at a table surrounded by enemies (readers and viewers of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones story might picture the Red Wedding here).

The Language, Part 2. In addition to metaphorical depictions of a situation of crisis, the psalms of trust also include language that expresses trust in God’s presence and deliverance. In Psalm 23, the person in crisis confesses: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” (more on God’s name momentarily), and “You prepare a table before me … my cup overflows.” Other psalms confess that God is “my light and my salvation,” “the Lord is in his holy temple … his eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind,” and “the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalms 27:1; 11:4; 46:7, 11).

The main aim of a sermon on Psalm 23 might be to make this language of trust available to God’s people, so that these or other words that confess trust in God might be words that they can speak in the midst of their daily lives — especially when they are in crisis.

One more word needs to be said. In order to make the language of Psalm 23 available to God’s people, the preacher also needs to address the theology of Psalm 23 — and more generally the Psalter’s theology of trust.

In a word, the theology of Psalm 23 assumes a divine promise.

Trust — whether we are speaking of the ancient trust of the psalmist in Israel’s God, or the contemporary trust of a Christian today — trust is evoked by a promise. And the only possible responses to a promise are to believe it or not to believe it. To trust it or not to trust to it. To live as if the promise is real and trustworthy or to live as if the promise isn’t real or trustworthy.

The promise to the ancient psalmist was simple. “I am with you.” In response, the psalmist confesses, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” I may be surrounded by enemies, but “you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”

Let God’s people know that God is still with us. The God who drew near to us in Immanuel is with us still. In spite of our lack of trust and our failure to follow. Jesus has promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).