Dwelling in the House of the Lord -- A Sermon for Pentecost 9B (Psalm 23)

Note:  This sermon was shared as part of our annual outdoor service, which is less formal. Because of the nature of the text for the day, it is laid out as a more participatory sermon.

Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
These opening words of the 23rd Psalm are deeply embedded in many hearts and minds. We turn to this Psalm in times of grief and doubt and fear. We look to this Psalm in the hope that the Lord is with us, restoring and protecting us, as we journey in life.

Since most of us are deeply familiar with this Psalm, and because we’ve gathered for worship in a different space, I want to make this a more participatory sermon. We’ve already heard the Psalm read from the NRSV, but I’m going to read it again a couple of times from other translations, including the King James, and then I have some questions for us to discuss. 

There are different ways of dividing the six verses of this Psalm, but I’m going to follow a traditional three-part division. We’ll start by focusing on the first three verses after I read the Psalm again from the King James.

The Lord Is My Shepherd:

Most English translations begin with the words “the Lord is my shepherd,” and so the King James opens in much the same way as the NRSV. As you listen to the reading of the Psalm once more, I invite you to pay attention to the Psalmist’s use of the third-person pronoun “he?” The Psalmist begins with phrases like “he makes me lie down  . . . ” “He leads me  . . . ” “He restores my soul.” “He leads me in right paths.” The point here is not the maleness of the pronouns, but the third-person nature of the pronouns. The Psalm begins with a description of who God is and what God does. Before we have a conversation about the first three verses, let’s hear the King James Version of the Psalm:

23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 
         he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: 
         he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
         I will fear no evil: for thou art with  me; 
         thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: 
          thou anointest my head with oil;
         my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 
         and I will dwell in the house of  the Lord for ever.

Q. 1: How is the Lord Your Shepherd?
Q. 2: How does the Lord lead you and restore you? 

Darkest Valleys

Having heard the declaration that Yahweh is our shepherd, who leads us and restores us, we move on to the second section of the Psalm. Did you notice that the pronouns change in verse four from third-person to second-person? Now, the Psalmist speaks directly to God. We hear the Psalmist confessing that when he walks through the darkest valley, he doesn’t fear evil or harm. Even though the path ahead might be dangerous, the Psalmist isn’t afraid, because God is present.  Let’s hear the Psalm again, this time from the New Living Translation:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows; 
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3  He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.

4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

5 You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil. 
My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.  (NLT)

Perhaps verse four is the key for many of us. Whether we follow the traditional translation of the “valley of death” or “darkest valley,” the point appears to be—when we find ourselves in the deepest and darkest points in our lives, there’s no need to be afraid, because God is present with us, protecting us and comforting us. Having head the Psalm from a third vantage point, let’s consider a couple of questions that focus on verse four.

Q. 1: What are your darkest valleys? 
Q. 2:  When you find yourself in these darkest valleys, are you afraid? If not, how is God’s presence a form of comfort and protection?   

Dwelling in God’s House

The Lord is our shepherd, who leads us through dark valleys, protecting us and comforting us along the way. Having heard this promise, we come to the final two  verses of the Psalm. I took the title of the sermon from the last phrase of the Psalm, which speaks of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. Sometimes we get hung up on that word “forever” or the word “eternity.” It sounds good at one level, but eternity doesn’t fit well with the way we mark time. We tend to think in terms of years, months, days, and hours. We mark time by celebrating birthdays and moments of transition like graduations, weddings, and retirements. But, how do you mark eternity? Fortunately, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “forever,” really speaks of length of days. In other words, this life! 

As you hear the Psalm, did you hear a word about God’s abundance, even in the face of one’s enemies? The Psalmist recognizes that dangers lie all around us, and yet we hear that the Lord is hospitable, setting a table of abundance in the midst of our enemies. We hear that God anoints our heads with oil, which is another sign of hospitality. Yes, we even hear that God provides us with a cup that overflows with wine. This Psalm celebrates the God who is hospitable, showering us with abundance, all the days of our lives, as we dwell in the house of the Lord.  So, before we get to our final questions, let us hear the Psalm from The Tanakh, a modern Jewish translation:

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3 He renews my life; 
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.
4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; 
You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.
6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me 
all the days of my life, 
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord 
for many long years.

Q. 1: What signs of God’s abundance do you see around you? 
Q. 2: How does dwelling in the house of the Lord give you confidence for the present and the future? 

Now that we have reflected on the message of Psalm 23. I have one more question: In whom do you trust? What does that mean?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 9B
July 22, 2018


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