We must not fear

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon that I was due to preach at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex, on March 22nd 2020. Since all churches in the UK were closed as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, this didn’t happen. I instead recorded this at my home. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Photo by Daniel Burka at Unsplash.com

What a week.

What a month.

What a year.

It’s only March and yet 2020 already seems to have found its place in the history books.

A few weeks ago I thought that place would be by virtue of Brexit.

But then along came Coronavirus. COVID-19.

Now we live in fear.

Fear of contracting the virus.

Fear of being ill.

Fear of dying.

Fear of not finding food to eat.

Fear of losing our jobs.

Fear of losing our homes.

Fear of losing loved ones.

It all looks rather bleak, really doesn’t it?

Coronavirus has undeniably impacted on just about every aspect of our lives.

Many of us are working from home.

Schools are closed.

Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, leisure centres, gyms, all closed.

No food in the supermarkets.

No meeting up with friends.

Holidays cancelled.

Weddings postponed.

Churches closed.

It’s only natural to be worried. To be concerned. To be upset.

But you know what, these issues are only temporary.

It hurts right now.

It’s difficult.

It might last a while.

But it’s only temporary.

As Christians, of course, we place our hope in a bright future, an eternal future with God in heaven.

And, as Christians, we have a God who cares for us right now. In the midst of all our difficulties.

We can place our faith and put our trust into a Shepherd God – a God who loves us, who provides for us, and who guides and protects us.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, we’ll be reflecting on Psalm 23, and considering how this ancient poem might speak to us today, in the midst of this awful crisis.

If you have access to a Bible or a Bible app, it would be helpful to have Psalm 23 open in front of you.

As we begin, though, let us pray:

Loving Heavenly Father. Thank you for your word. Thank you for the Psalms, that still resonate with us so vividly all these thousands of years later. We thank you in particular for Psalm 23, and the image it provides, of a Shepherd God. We ask that you would be with us now as we study and reflect on these words together. And as David wrote in Psalm 19, may these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

It started off with loo roll, didn’t it? I suppose it was a couple of weeks ago now. People started panic buying loo roll, for no discernible reason.

What started off with loo roll soon became a bigger issue though.

The supermarkets ran out of paracetamol.

Then they ran out of pasta.

Then rice.

Then tinned food.

Then frozen food.

Then on Wednesday, having worked late, I went to Waitrose to pick up something for my supper, and the shelves were bare.

I crossed the road to Sainsbury’s, and the picture was the same.

Last weekend I made a trip to Tesco in Burgess Hill. The shelves were pretty much empty. And I saw people literally crying in the aisles.

What are we doing?

How can people be so selfish?

I guess it’s borne out of a genuine fear that people won’t be able to feed themselves, or their families.

I guess the situation arises because people are terrified.

So they take matters into their own hands, and buy up what they can, when they can.

Psalm 23 suggests that we do not need to put our trust in supermarket supply chains, or rationing, or the good sense of our fellow shoppers.

Psalm 23 suggests that we would be much better placing our trust in God.

We should place our trust in God because as Christians, we have a God who provides for all our needs. We do not need to panic. We do not need to be anxious.

David begins this Psalm by declaring, The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

David was, of course, a shepherd himself. He knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. David’s sheep were completely dependent on him to provide him with all that they needed to survive.

Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.

David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. God provides his people with all we need.

David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

David understood that God is nor a miserly provider, but the most generous of benefactors.

At the time David was writing, it was common for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.

David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people, but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.

David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.

If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we do not need to worry about whether we will be able to buy pasta, or paracetamol, or loo roll. Because if we place our trust in God, if we make him the shepherd of our lives, then we will lack nothing.

We will get through this global crisis.

We just need to place our trust in God.

We need to become the sheep to his shepherd.

We should similarly rejoice that God’s goodness and love are always with us. We should be thankful to him for the bountiful provision that he lavishes upon us. Rather than worrying about what we haven’t got, we should give thanks for all that we do have, and share generously.

Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Reflecting on our gratitude to God will help us to place our current troubles into context, and life will feel much more positive.

What’s more, our gratitude, particularly in these difficult times, will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as a powerful witness to all whom we encounter, that we place our trust not in the supply lines of fickle supermarkets, but in God, our shepherd, the creator of the universe.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance?

Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Claire and I got married nearly ten years ago. It’s astonishing how fast the last decade has gone! It’s our wedding anniversary this summer. To celebrate we have booked for the two of us to return to the hotel where we spent our honeymoon. It’s called Hotel Verbano, and it’s situated on a tiny island in Lake Maggiore in Italy. It’s a really idyllic location, and we have been looking forward to a few nights away for months.

Now, of course, our trip away looks incredibly unlikely.

Maybe we’ll be able to spend our eleventh wedding anniversary on the island instead.

We’ll have to look elsewhere for our rest this summer. Somewhere closer to home.

If things continue as they are, I think we’ll need a rest by the summer. With Coronavirus having such an impact on the whole world, on our entire lives, I think we’ll all need rest and relaxation before too much longer.

Of course, if we wish to find perfect rest, we should look not to holidays, which can be snatched away from us at a moment’s notice, or to trips to the theatre, which can be closed down without warning, or even trips to coffee shops with friends, which can be cruelly snatched away before you can even get your order out.

True rest, as David knows, is to be found through a relationship with God.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of true peace. He says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.

David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.

If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.

The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that refreshes his soul, as he wrote in verse three. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour,

Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said, “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.

It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.

What if this is one of those moments?

We’ve found our diaries cleared, our plans thwarted, and our lives refocused on our own homes.

Perhaps this is God making us lie down in green pastures.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to slow down, to pause, to reflect.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to spend time with our families, to develop our relationships.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to study his word, to pray, to deepen our relationship with him.

I’m not for one moment saying that God has sent the Coronavirus. I’m not saying that God is responsible for this situation. But we don’t have to look too far in the Bible, or even in our own lives, to see that God works through bad situations to accomplish good.

Paul writes in Romans 8, “we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Perhaps instead of dwelling on the obvious and significant unpleasantness of this global pandemic, we can look for the good lurking within it.

I felt really quite low yesterday morning, but then I went to the woods with my two children, and we ran around in the sun, chased each other, played hide and seek, and had a really lovely time. Over the next few weeks, and possibly months, there might be many other opportunities like this, as we find ourselves, as a result of circumstances, spending much more time together.

What a blessing!

What a joy!

It’s at times of crisis that we particularly need to place our faith and our confidence in God. Perhaps in the coming days, weeks and months, as we find ourselves wrestling with stressful, difficult and uncertain situations, we need more than ever to ensure that we find time just to stop. To lie down in those metaphorical green pastures. To pause beside those quiet waters. To be quiet. And to allow God to refresh our souls.

David trusted that God would refresh his soul, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and to refresh our souls, and say, “the Lord is our shepherd?”

When I left the school where I work on Friday afternoon, it felt very strange. We should be at school next week, but for obvious reasons, we will be Remote Teaching, so I packed away my classroom as if for the Easter holiday. Saying farewell to friends and colleagues was quite emotional. You see I have no idea when I will be returning to school. Actually, I’ve applied for another job, so I don’t even know if I will return to my current school at all. At the same time, with the cloud of Coronavirus, sickness, and potentially even death hanging over us all, I couldn’t be sure that my colleagues would be safe, would be well, would be okay.

I got quite emotional actually.

Ultimately, of course, we have to trust in God. We have to put our lives into his hands, and allow him to guide us.

None of us knows what is before us. Now more than ever.

None of us knows what the future holds. Now more than ever.

But God does.

And David understood this.

David sings, “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

David believed that God would guide him through his life, showing him the direction that he should take.

If we allow God into our lives, he will guide us along the right paths too, guide us through our lives.

But how do we know what the right paths are? How do we know where he is guiding us?

The key to understand this verse comes right at the end of verse three. David says that God guides him along the right paths – for his name’s sake.

The right paths through our lives are those that bring glory to the name of God.

When we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments.

If we factor these commandments into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, them God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse four, “even though I walk through the darkest valley.”

For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

I don’t know about you, but to me the present situation seems pretty dark. When I look around me, when I read the news, when I watch television and listen to the radio, the world at present seems in a pretty dark valley.

We are in a time of great uncertainty. Nothing seems secure anymore. The very foundations of our lives feel as if they are shaking beneath our feet. We’re clinging on to any semblance of normality, any source of comfort we can find, to avoid being thrown over.

But we must not fear.

We should not fear.

Why?

Because God is with us.

He is guiding us.

And he will protect us.

He will guide us with his staff. Like a good shepherd, he will prod us in the right direction. If we listen for his voice, he will not allow us to take the wrong turning.

He will protect us from the enemy. He is equipped with a rod to protect us against anything that the enemy might throw at us.

And he will comfort us.

When we find ourselves facing danger or uncertainty, he will comfort us with the reassurance that his right paths have a destination.

That destination is eternal life.

David put his life on the line for his sheep. He battled wild animals to keep them safe.

In Jesus we have a perfect shepherd, who not only put his life on the line for us, but gave his life up for us.

He went to the cross and took on himself the punishment that should have been ours.

But death could not hold him, and three days later, he rose from the grave, and later ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of his father.

One day he will return again, and he will lead all those who love him on the final part of our journey, to eternal life with him in God’s new creation.

And that’s what we must hold onto when the going gets tough. When life gets so difficult that we cannot see the way forward.

One day all the difficulties we face now, the sickness, the viruses, and death itself will disappear, having been beaten once and for all by our shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.

David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but it is an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I hope that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives.

I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, more than ever before, we could really benefit from trusting in God’s provision, restoration, protection and guidance.

So as everyone around you loses their heads, keep yours.

Put your trust in Jesus.

Hold onto him.

He’s got you.

And he will lead you through this current, momentary crisis.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, Thank you for the words of David in Psalm 23. Thank you that in Jesus we have a good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for us. Thank you, father, that you provide for us so generously. Help us to place our trust in your provision. Thank you that you refresh our souls. Help us to find rest in you. And thank you that you guide and protect us. Help us to follow you. And as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, help us to find opportunities to show your love and generosity to those around us. Help us to find the blessings within the difficulties. And ultimately, we pray, Heavenly Father, that you will lead us through our present difficulties, through this dark valley, and into the green pastures and quiet waters that lie beyond. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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