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May 29 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

May 27, 2010 – Psalm 23:4b

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4b

INTRO: Before we settle into our scripture, let’s take an aerial view of the psalm

The poet is developing an analogy – God as shepherd
– his goal is to express gratitude for all of God’s goodness and to shed light on his relationship with God
– his first point is that his needs are met, “I shall not want”
• for instance, he is able to graze peacefully in green pastures and quench his thirst by quiet waters
• in these environments his soul is restored
– invigorated, he is prepared to move on, following the shepherd along “paths of righteousness” and into “the valley of the shadow of death”
• that’s where we found ourselves last week

Our interest in this poem is the insight it gives us to the spiritual experience of the believer
– in contemplative prayer, God brings us to these places, does these things for us, and secures our relationship with him

Today we have to return to the valley of the shadow of death

One aspect of maturity is learning to live with reality
– we learn to accept the fact that life is not always sunshine and smooth sailing

I received an email yesterday regarding a friend who has just learned he has pancreatic cancer
– one of the torments in going through these battles is the time lag necessarily involved in medical care
• between the initial diagnosis and its confirmation or between tests and being informed of the lab results, we are suspended in limbo with nothing grim possibilities to keep us company
• this is an instance of passing through the dark valley
• but fear can rise in any sort of challenge, stress, or difficulty
• and if we let it get out of hand, it can immobilize us or wreck our lives

We saw last week how we navigate these places without fear
– by a solid awareness of God being with us, “for You are with me”

I don’t think we could have anticipated the poet’s next move
– he introduces two more items in the shepherd metaphor, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me”
– for him, these symbols inspire hope and courage

In these dangerous and scary places, he’s not afraid because he’s not alone
– but when he turns to his shepherd, notice where his attention goes: to shepherd’s rod and staff

The rod was a weapon – a club

The old school (puritanical that tended to enter fundamentalist teaching) interpretation of the rod was that it was an instrument of punishment
• in Sunday school, we were taught that the rod was used to break the legs of sheep who consistently wandered away
– but rather than using a rod to discipline sheep, it served to defend sheep – from predators and robbers
– a branch two or three feet long, wider at the end that made contact with its target and sometimes embedded with spikes
• a leather strap was threaded to a hole in handle so that it could hang from the shepherd’s belt

When David fought Goliath, the giant asked, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?” (same word)
– he recognized the shepherd’s club that was used to beat away a pack of dogs or coyotes

Why would David choose a weapon as a symbol of comfort?
– for symbols of comfort, our minds naturally go to our mother’s lap or our “blankie” and thumb
– but the rod was a symbol of comfort because shepherd would use it on all those things lurking in the dark

At the end of first century, Christianity was threatened by imposters
– teaching wrong ideas about God and Jesus – ruining the faith for some believers
• John wrote to warn Christians, but also to comfort them

You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world . . . (1 Jn. 4:4)

– that is the protection David felt regarding the shepherd’s club

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the defense of my life;
Whom shall I dread?
When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me,
My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
In spite of this I shall be confident.
(Ps. 27:1-3)

According to David, God is committed to the care of his people

I have always been surprised and distressed at the fact that some people enter the ministry as a career option
– that they do the work of the Lord for a paycheck
– this was not the primary concern of the shepherd

Jesus, in John 10:11-13, spelled out a different model:
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.

The staff was a multipurpose stick

The original meaning of the Hebrew word was “support” and could refer to anything that gave support
– a very familiar picture in Israel a few generations ago was a shepherd leaning on his staff amid his flock
– it enabled him to stand for hours, watching over the sheep

The shepherd also used his staff to keep sheep together
– if one began to stray, he would go to it and place his staff against its side and nudge it back on the right path
– David was confident that if he got out of line God would bring him back

Both a rod and staff are necessary implements for our protection
– there’s the obvious danger of what hides in the dark – the shepherd’s club is meant to deal with that threat
– but there’s also the danger I pose to myself
– it’s good to know that if I head off in a wrong direction, I will be brought back

Charles Spurgeon somewhere said that it is God’s grace that temptation and opportunity do not come to us at the same time

You will find that while you are sitting in contemplative prayer, some unpleasant things come up
– it is like the time Jesus entered a synagogue where a man was present whose hand was useless and contracted like a claw
• this is, of course, the sort of thing most of us would want to keep hidden
– Jesus called him into the middle of the synagogue, where he drew attention to the man’s hand
– the Lord did not intend to humiliate him or cause him more pain, but to heal him

Jesus does the same thing for us
– he puts his finger on something we’ve ignored or hidden
– although it can be unpleasant and even painful to have these issues exposed, it is only so that the Lord can heal them
• his objective is to make us whole

There was another use for the staff
– when sheep returned to pen, the shepherd would place his staff in the gate and low to the ground
– this enabled him to count each sheep as it “passed under the rod” (Lev. 27:32; Jer. 33:13)
• this also gave him the opportunity to inspect their wool and skin for burs or infections

For David, the rod and staff meant he was cared for – God watched over him, took care of him, protected and healed him

In meditating on the shepherd’s rod and staff, David found comfort

So, when we get upset, suffer grief, or lose our sense of well-being, we too can find comfort in knowing we’re protected and that our lives will be taken the right direction

But I think we need to explore this part of the psalm more deeply
– the rod and staff are the shepherd’s tools
• they belong to him, but he uses them for the good of the sheep

A tool can seem like an impersonal form of touch
– what I feel at my side is not a hand, but a stick
• so sometimes it feels to us like we’re being pushed through life by blind circumstances
• it is not God’s hand we feel that is controlling our movements, but natural forces and objects and chance

As ancient men and women began to invent tools, they purposed to increase their reach and strength
– each tool was like an extension of the body
– the same is true of the shepherd’s staff — the touch is personal, but doesn’t always feel that way

Our challenge is to experience the universe as God’s staff
– Simone Weil has illustrated this idea in a couple of beautiful quotes that I find myself turning to frequently

Let the whole universe be for me, in relation to my body, what the stick of a blind man is in relation to his hand. His sensibility is really no longer in his hand but at the end of the stick. An apprenticeship is necessary.
To change the relationship between ourselves and the world in the same way as, through apprenticeship, the workman changes the relationship between himself and the tool.
The relationship between the body and the tool changes during apprenticeship. We have to change the relationship between our body and the world.
We do not become detached, we change our attachment. We must attach ourselves to the all.
We have to feel the universe through each sensation. What does it matter then whether it be pleasure or pain? If our hand is shaken by a beloved friend when we meet again after al long separation, what does it matter that he squeezes it hard and hurts us?
And in another place:
The world is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.

It is when we turn our attention to contemplating God in this present moment that we begin to experience the universe as his staff
– it is both a separation and a link in which we begin to feel God’s touch as personal and direct
– it is one thing to have this knowledge, but it is another to allow God bring it to our awareness
• it is when we become aware that we truly find hope and comfort

CONC: I think it’s important that we get this straight

We can find comfort thinking about the rod and staff
– but the line reads, “Your rod and staff”
– we appreciate the means God uses to work in our lives, but we don’t want to be preoccupied with them
• we want to work our way through them, get beyond them move on to the One whose hand holds the rod and staff
• so, again, that is why wait on God in silent prayer — to make certain our souls are connected to him
– the rod and staff are only symbols — apart from God, they provide no comfort of themselves

We may feel alone in the dark, but we’re not
– by three deep breaths, we can pause and create a space
• a space to notice where we are situated in the world
• a space to listen to the world, to our bodies, and to the word
• and then, in that space, find our way through the world to the Good Shepherd who promised never to leave or forsake us

One Comment

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  1. Melody Bacon / May 29 2012

    Thanks for offering such profound insights into this well-loved psalm. The image of the universe as God’s guiding rod is particularly meaningful.

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