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Apr 25 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

April 22, 2012 – Psalm 23

He makes me lie down in green pastures . . . Psalm 23:2a

INTRO: A while back, book on prayer was released that became wildly popular

The author focused on one particular prayer in scripture and from it created a formula
– the implication was, people could use the formula to get their prayers to work
– books like this feed our inner desire to use prayer to get what we want

What if prayer is not for getting what we want?
– what if it’s for getting what God wants – what he wants from us, what he wants in the world

This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. (1 Jn. 5:14)

What if  “His will” is to use prayer to transform us rather than our circumstances?

When we pray, what is primary in our minds?
– I can be concerned about myself, thinking of others, preoccupied with the world, or focused on God
In the Hebrew Scriptures, when God is central in prayer, it generally takes one of three forms:

  • to praise God – for who he is and for what he has done
  • to seek God – attention is focused on making a conscious connection
  • to wait on God – surrender my agenda and be open and attentive — t0 “watch”

In our spiritual community, we have been learning to seek and to wait
– last week, we began looking at Psalm 23 as a description of this type of prayer
– how we experience it, the benefits we derive from it, and where it takes us

David used the metaphor of shepherd as the general theme of this poem

Before getting into verse 2, let’s look at where we’re going

God does two things for us in v. 2 that produce the state in v. 3, “He restores my soul”

The soul gets weary – gets injured, neglected, and depleted
– to keep going and loving others, takes all the soul’s resources
– there comes a time when the soul has to be restored

Then what? Once the soul is restored, what comes next?
– we’re ready to continue the journey – in paths of righteousness or through the valley of the shadow of death

This is what we need to get from prayer
– an experience of God that restores our soul and prepares us for what’s next

Verse 2, “He makes me lie down in green pastures”

The psalm will take us to six different places — pasture, water, path, valley, table, and house
– the question is:
• what did these spaces evoke in the imagination and feelings of those who first heard this poem?
– this is strong visual imagery
• what sort of experiences did people associate with these images?

First, “green pastures” were a rarity in David’s arid climate
– I’ve been in Israel in spring, after winter rains, and been surprised to see that grass had sprouted from Jerusalem almost all the way to the Dead Sea
– but a few days of sunshine or warm wind and it was gone
– the image of green pastures was more lush than the normal experience of a shepherd and his flock

Green – the Hebrew word means “grass,” or to spout, to grow green
– it is used poetically for life, which is fragile but can also flourish

One commentator made the observation that “Sheep do not eat lying down”
– but that’s the mistake of taking the language too literally

Robert Alter, says of the phrase makes me to lie down, that the “verb used here (hirbits) is a specialized one for making animals lie down . . .”

– we find the same expression in Song of Songs 1:7 and Ezekiel 34:11-15 (which deserves to be read at this point to reinforce the message of the psalm)
– to lie down is to settle in

The green pasture is not a permanent residence; we’re not always lying down, but we need these times of inactivity

The word we’re looking for to describe green pastures: Rest

Even if we’re not ranchers, one thing most of us know about sheep is that they’re skittish
– it is a challenge to get them to rest

We can’t lie down or rest – our wants nag at us, our fears worry us
– when we try to settle into prayer, we panic because it seems we’re being “unproductive”
– we’re going to miss out on something
We can’t rest, because we assume that we’re on our own
– no one else is watching out for us — no heavenly Shepherd will look after our needs

In scripture, not being able to rest is a punishment from God (e.g., Cain, the wandering vagrant, Ge. 4:9-14)
– the lesson of Israel not entering the land: they did not trust God
– he had everything already prepared for them, but they were not able to enter because of unbelief (He. 3:19)

Do we find the green pastures in our external environment?

For most of us, that would be a “no”
– Barb and I live near a busy street – one that people tend to drive too fast
– even if I get up early, there are distracting sounds of traffic — not very conducive for the silent stillness my soul craves

The good news – our external environment doesn’t have to be perfect

A couple of weeks ago I quoted Esther (Etty) Hillesum, a Dutch woman who was also Jewish
– prior to being shipped off to Auschwitz (where she died at twenty-nine years old) she volunteered to work in a transit center in order to provide encouragement, kindness, and compassion to other Jews on their way to the labor camps
– during that time, she wrote to a friend:

“I refresh myself from day to day at the original source, life itself, and I rest from time to time in prayer. And what those who say, ‘You live too intensely’ do not know is that one can withdraw into a prayer as into a convent cell and leave again with renewed strength and with peace regained.”
And further down,
“Life here hardly touches my deepest resources–physically, perhaps, you do decline a little, and sometimes you are infinitely said–but fundamentally you keep growing stronger.”

The green pasture is a place we have to look for within ourselves
– one of my teenage jobs was working for a landscaper
– we went into backyards that had not been tended for years and were overgrown with weeds and cluttered with broken toys and gardening tool
• we had entered a mess of chaos and confusion

We need to give more attention to the inner landscape of our souls
– do we even realize how much junk enters our minds every day?
– it adds to the clutter and confusion that’s already there
• our souls find relief when we can empty fifty, sixty, or seventy percent of that stuff

We can grow into people who go through life at peace as opposed to being high strung and uptight

CONC: What does it cost us to lie down in green pastures?

To lie down I have to lay down – my cravings, fears, and resentments
– I learned something about resentment recently from Annemarie Kidder’s book, The Power of Solitude:

“It seems that the art of forgiveness is so hard because it might let someone off the hook who doesn’t deserve to be. We ‘retain the sins’ that others have committed against us as future ammunition and dividing walls. The only problem is, unless we let go and forgive, we are not going to find the peace that Jesus breathed on us.”

To lie down I have to lay down – my busy thoughts
– thoughts are like molecules – millions of them are crammed into a small space
• all of them moving, jostling, going in different directions
• the molecules move slower in an object that is cold and in something frozen they can only vibrate, but they can’t be still
– we need breaks from our constant mental activity
• we need to create a space where God is central – where he is everything

When you settle into prayer or the Bible, think of the time you spend there as your soul resting in a green pasture
– give your self permission not to worry or think of anything else
• you are taking a break from the barrage worldly messages
• you are “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)

When we have been at this kind of prayer long enough, there is a peace and restfulness that remains with us afterward
– that, in time, encroaches into our minutes, hours, and days

In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For You alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

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