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Apr 17 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

April 15, 2012 – Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
Psalm 23:1

INTRO: In 2004, one of the largest churches in America launched a research project

Its leaders wanted to determine whether their programs were doing what they were designed to do
– that is, promote the spiritual growth of their members
– what they learned from 15,000 people interviewed, was that the answer was No

An assumption many pastors and church leaders make, is that the more a person is involved in church activities, the more they will experience spiritual growth

I met with a couple from New Zealand this week  who told me that the evangelistic strategies of the last generation were no longer working
– because people are not being inspired by churches or evangelistic organizations, Christianity is dying in their country
– furthermore, the churches they had attended failed to meet their spiritual needs

This situation is not unique to New Zealand
– the unmet spiritual needs of many Christians have sent them back to their roots
– what did believers have in previous ages that we’re missing?
• many have found that it has to do with being more aware of God–in prayer, in scripture, in relationships, and in the present moment
– if we want to give this greater awareness a name, we can call it contemplative spirituality or simply Christian spirituality or biblical spirituality — it makes no difference

The essence of Christian spirituality is to be as attentive to God as possible
– this does not mean always thinking pious thoughts or quoting scripture
– but to constantly bring our attention back to him and to the mystery of his kingdom that is hidden in every moment

How is this different from the structured programs of churches and Christian organizations?
– in lots of ways – e.g., it is more like natural human growth, which is not systematized
– but what I want to emphasize are the effects of Christian spirituality
– that is why we’re in Psalm 23 this morning
• in a nearby psalm, we read:

One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple.
(Ps. 27:4)

– this is contemplative prayer — to behold God’s beauty or to seek his face and to wait on him (Ps. 27:8, 14)
– Psalm 23 is a meditation on the benefits of doing those things

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems and songs

During the years of the scripture’s early formation, various people were using poetry to express their spiritual concerns
– their needs, feelings and fears, hopes and longings, praise, etc.
– eventually many of these poems and songs were collected and arranged for public worship
– this is how we came to have the book of Psalms

The Psalms are helpful in many ways
– encouragement, comfort, insight, and so on
– in them we also find examples of how to approach God, work through issues, find our way back to faith, etc.

The message of Psalm 23 is that God is the beginning and end of our spiritual journey
– we learn this message from the structure of the psalm, which begins and ends with the personal name of God, Yahweh (translated LORD–all the letters are upper case)

Halfway into the poem, there is a shift from the third person (He) to the second person (You)
– this signals a connection between the poet and God – “You are with me” (v. 4)
– poem describes the enjoyment of God’s gracious gifts
• verses 4 and 5, however, travel to two dangerous environments: the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of our enemies
• but even in these perilous situations, the poet was sheltered by God

I like to think that David began writing this poem while tending father’s sheep, that one afternoon while picking at strings of his kinnor, he saw these analogies
– then he continued to work on it, and over time, perhaps after he had become a king, it took its present form

Verse 1, This is a compelling metaphor

For all its poetic beauty, poem doesn’t glamorize the shepherd
– he does these chores to keep the sheep alive
– in other words, these verses are not just nice sentiments, there is a realism to them

Before we can look at relation of poet to shepherd, we need to look at the metaphor
– how God is like a shepherd (that is what the poem is about)
– the shepherd was a constant presence among his flock
• he guided them to pasture and water, cared for them, and protected them

Metaphors have an advantage over literal expressions
– it can be difficult to get close to God thru theological language
• e.g., God is ineffable, eternal, invisible, infinite, immortal, transcendent, . . .
• these are not bridges our soul can easily cross
– but the metaphor or parable is a bridge
• it connects my everyday world to mystery
• it connects what I do understand to what is beyond my understanding
• for example, the parables of Jesus bring the kingdom of God close to us

Do you realize, this metaphor of the shepherd is itself the result of contemplation?
– when we keep our minds attentive to God, we see discover these bridges

The poet does something unusual with the metaphor

The shepherd metaphor occurs several times in OT and is used of both humans and God
– but it always refers to a person’s role over the nation (or a segment of the population)
– here, the poet personalizes the metaphor, “my shepherd”

We study the Bible, read books, listen to teachers and learn all sorts of interesting and wonderful facts about God
– but at some point, we have to personalize all this information
– we have to approach God, sit in his presence, seek his face

To seek God’s face isn’t like looking for a familiar face in a crowd
– it is an inner exercise – a looking with the soul
– that is why stillness and silence are so important
• we want to set aside the mental clutter to focus our attention on God

Meditation and contemplation are for personalizing the truth of God

There’s one thing I want to say about God’s name

Certain Christian mystics stressed the fact that God is beyond human knowing–e.g, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul
– they tell us that we have to abandon what we think we know about God in order to experience the true God
– open themselves to infinity – and it’s all so vague and abstract

It is true that our concepts of God are not God
– but God has revealed himself to us as person — he has shared with us his name

“. . . by his own act of bestowing a name on himself, God chooses to be described as the definable, the distinctive, the individual.” (Walther Eichrodt)

– the revelation of God’s name counters the tendency to overemphasize both intellectual or mystical ideas about him
– God is neither a theological concept nor an incomprehensible supreme being
• he made us persons and reveals himself to us as Person, thereby making relationship between us possible

To have God as our shepherd means, first of all, we shall not want

In Deuteronomy 2:7, Moses reminded Israel, “you have not lacked a thing”
– he used the same word (and the same idea) that is translated want in our verse
– he promised that once they settled into land, they would “not lack anything” (De. 8:9)
• their needs would be met

It may be good to couple this situation of not lacking anything with the commandment, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17)
– in English, the old meaning of “want” meant lack, but its current meaning is desire
– we can have everything we need and still be eaten up by desire

Contentment results from one of two conditions, either:
1.) having enough necessities and extras
2.) deciding we will be content with what we have (Php. 4:11-13; 1 Ti. 6:7-8)
If we pursue contentment by striving to achieve first condition, we will never get there
– you can never get enough to be content
Contentment is not an achievement, but a by-product or side-effect
– if we choose the second condition, then we will have enough

Want is what causes us to lose our focus – it produces discontent, anxiety, and emptiness
– want is often a running from something that needs to be faced
– not analyzed, necessarily, but something we need to pay attention to, to look at directly

Paul says, the problem is not money or things, but our attachment to them — what they mean to us
1 Ti. 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil …”

CONC: Too many Christians give up on silent prayer before they even begin

They complain, “But I can’t quiet my mind”
– if you have that problem, you might try the following exercise:

  1. to begin with, do not judge yourself
  2. notice the fact that you cannot quiet your mind
  3. then notice the thoughts that are distracting you
  4. present each thought to God as it enters your mind

– you have now taken the first step into contemplative prayer

When we bring our attention to the present moment, it is not to do battle with what is going on
– it is to be aware of what is going on with an openness to God
– we are creating a space in our days, hours, and minutes to allow God to enter us and open our eyes

Becoming alive to God in the present moment gives us relief from the pressure of want
– resting in his hands we realize there is nothing else we could or would ever want

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