Background. The last verse of Psalm 23 is a ringing statement of faith! “Surely” the Psalmist writes. Goodness and mercy- some versions read goodness and love, but both reflect back to the central concept of God’s caring for us. This rare imagery of God as a shepherd has resonated with Jews and Christians for thousands of years. As we read on in the Psalms about the awesome and frightening power of God, we need to remember that this is part of that story as well. It provides a balance and, like the blind men and the elephant, gives us another piece of God to touch.
Reading Psalm 23:6 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.
Reflection. Who is the Psalmist talking to? This Psalm is not addressed to God as a prayer- or to others- there are no “you”s in here. Obviously, the Psalmist meant for this to be read by others, but when you read it is referring to “me” and “I”. Perhaps this is overthinking it, but could this be something meant to be said to yourself, a confirmation and statement of belief? Even when it may be more of a hope than a faith, it is a statement of our dearest wish from our God. Try reading it out loud so you hear the words spoken by you for you.
Background I was reading about the Hebrew version of Psalm 23 (www.theisraelbible) drawn to the intriguing title “Since when do sheep sit at a table?” It isn’t unusual to have a poet use more than one analogy for the same thing, but in the second part of Psalm 23, it can be argued that there is an analogy for a different thing. Sheep are passively receiving the care of the shepherd. But in today’s reading there is at transition from us being sheep protected by God, to sitting at a table. The table is prepared “before” our enemies using a Hebrew word “in front of” with the connotation of opposition- as in to stand before a Judge or to stand up before your enemies. And the word translated as “anointed” is not the Hebrew word for anointed used elsewhere, but more of a cleansing or healing. So one way to think of this is that we have matured from a from passive role with God to being prepared and given all we need and to stand before our enemies- to go to battle for God.
Reading Psalm 23:4-5 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. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Reflection. Remember, we can have different perspectives on the Psalms without being wrong. How do you see this part of the Psalm? Does it resonate with you as being a peace and protected? At rest and comforted? Or do you see it as being promised that we have been given all we need, and more, to go forth and bring God’s will? What seems like a bigger truth in your life- or does it change?
Background. Go with me on this- it winds but there is a point….What is the point of the words of the Psalms? Certainly, to communicate meaning, but is that all? Words also have a music, an ability to evoke feelings beyond the meaning. Particularly for the Psalms that were poetry and often even word puzzles-like acrostics. But most of us will never hear them as written. We don’t hear the carefully chosen words, often chosen for their sound as well as their meaning. Maybe I can find a reading of the Psalms in old Hebrew listen to in class, but the sound will still be disconnected from the connotations of the words. Other poet scholars have tried to translate the meaning and the poetry into Greek and from there Latin and from there English, like some poetry form of the game “telephone” still hoping that the writer’s voice can be heard. There have been some misconceptions and confusions added which we will talk about examples later, but perhaps they just are a different version of a new truth. Robert Frost once was asked what he meant in the poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and he said that he wrote it, it was our job to figure out what it means. We bring to the Psalms our own internal connection to the Holy Spirit- each finding our own truth that can be different and not wrong. Together we get a richer view of the Word.
Reading Psalm 23: 1-3 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Reflection This is the first part of the Psalm 23 about being cared for and following the Lord. I use the familiar King James version here because we are used to this modern interpretation (1000s of years and two languages removed from the original). Tomorrow we will see how looking at the Hebrew can help us see something we may have missed in the English. But I do love the way this sounds and the meaning shines. Yet think also about the words- what do they mean to you? What do you hear and feel. Lorna in our class sent me something today about the use of want here that I think makes this point, and perhaps encourages us all to “unpack” the language. She said “I shall not WANT…”Want” is a synonym of “lack.” Saying “I shall not want” is similar to saying “I shall not lack” or “I shall not be in need” or “I shall not be lacking anything.” As an exercise- pick for yourself any word in these three verses and “unpack” it- what are the meanings that strike you?
First off, we will have Sunday School this week, even though we have a 11AM joint service. We will meet before service at 10AM in the library.
Background. This week we tackle perhaps the best-known Psalm to Christians- Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd. It actually is a very unusual Psalm in two ways. First, there are many common images of God in the Psalms, but a shepherd is not one of them! It is in two other Psalms (28:19 and 80:1), neither which really explore explicit the role of the shepherd like this one. Additionally, this is a very individual Psalm compared to most which see God in context to his relationship to their community now and in the past. This creates a very intimate caring Psalm about God’s relationship to just one sheep. Not as part of a flock, but as just one sheep protected and guided by one God.
Reading Psalm 23: We will read parts later, but today read your favorite version intact (it is only 6 verses)
Reflection This Psalm is associated with funerals, perhaps because we think of death as so scary- a valley of darkness, and especially want to think of God with us. Or perhaps to acknowledge the role of God in the whole life of a person, as we did with Rosalie last weekend. But this Psalm isn’t about the past or the future, but about now. Do you feel God is shepherding you? Do you feel worthy of that attention of something as unimaginable as God? We don’t know many shepherds. What modern equivalent might there be for shepherd?
Background There are two halves to Psalm 1. There are only 6 verses- the first three are the fate of the blessed, the second 3 are the fate of the wicked. In this one Psalm we have a distillation of a main theme in the Bible and in our relationship with God. In the end it is about justice and fairness and both halves of this can be problematic. Yesterday, we thought about blessed always “prosper”. Today, we read the wicked will be destroyed. Are the wicked destroyed? What is “destruction” in God’s (not our) eyes? Does the idea in John of living in the light versus living in darkness help us rethink about prospering and destruction?
Reading Psalm 1: 4-6
Focus Verse Psalm 1:6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Reflection: We want justice! We want the ‘bad guys’ to suffer and the ‘good guys’ to ride off into the sunset. Many of the Psalmists will lift their fists to the sky demanding justice, or praise God for his punishment of the wicked. This is an honest feeling and God hears it. But how does he respond? What did Jesus say? Was the suffering of the wicked something he gloated over or even wanted? The critical thing is that the Psalmist take this urge for justice and gives it to God, the recognition being it is God’s job. Are you wishing for justice? Does it eat at you to see someone ‘getting away with it’? If you pray that to God, what do you think he says back?
Hello and welcome to the beginning of our Adult Sunday
School on Psalms. We will meet after
church on Sunday (11:30 to 12:30) and everyone is welcome- whether you did
these readings or not, and whether you have come before or not. This is true for every week! As before, we are sending out these emails
pretty broadly, because sometimes people like them even if they aren’t
regularly coming to the class. However,
if you don’t want to get them, just respond to this email and let me know. It
doesn’t affect whether you get the regular church email.
This week we will talk about the beginning of Psalms- Psalm
1. It is actually one I memorized the
beginning of long ago as a sort of calming centering prayer. This book of Psalms was made to support worship,
like our hymnal. So as part of worship-
they are a conversation between people and God, but perhaps franker and on
topics we don’t have in our standard worship, more on that later. But it is important to remember that these
Psalms are mainly words of people reaching to God, and not the words of God
speaking back. We see what they are
feeling and their perspective on what is going on. This is important as we examine our own
feelings and perspectives towards God, but we don’t have to agree with the
Psalmist’s feelings as “right” or ours.
They are marvelously honest though, and through them we can perhaps
become more honest with God too.
Reading Psalms 1:1-3
Focus Verse 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield
their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do,
This verse is referring to those who delight is in the word
of God and it is central to their lives.
This loving image of nurture and fruitfulness is similar to many we will
encounter in the Psalms. But do we
believe it? Is it too simple? Don’t good people with God in the center of
their lives still suffer? Perhaps the
Psalmist really thought everyone that worships God prospers in all they do, but
it seems unlikely for any person that has any life experience. What could the Psalmist have meant? What does
it mean to prosper and flourish?
(To hear it from Linus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs )
Background. Now we reach revelation of Christmas night. The second half of the story read by Linus. There is a stark contrast of ordinary and glorious here. The angel, then angels and a heavenly choir- imagine what that would sound like. The glory of the Christ child as well, but in a manger born as a humble poor baby. And those shepherds, smelling of sheep, but the first called by God to be witnesses. This is all very deliberate and the fodder of many wonderful sermons. Don’t let the familiarity of the story stop you from hearing and appreciating its lessons.
Focus Verse Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Mary hears the stories from the shepherds of what they were told by the angels. How overwhelming it must have been! We aren’t told she is confident or wise or completely at peace. We aren’t told that she sees the plan and is comfortable with it. Mary knows it all is important, and she treasures the words- stores them away- and she thinks about it all- pondering. This can be a comfort for us as well who don’t totally understand what it all means. Who feel we are still pondering. As long as we keep treasuring the words and pondering them in our hearts, we are with God as Mary was.
Background: This is the version of the Christmas story that was made famous by Charlie Brown’s Christmas. It still seems profoundly simple. (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs and listen again). There isn’t any editorializing or prophesy. There isn’t any putting it into context or explaining. Somehow that makes it more important. Read it again. Read it out loud. Listen to Linus.
Focus Verse Luke 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
This young brave girl, the confused but faithful Joseph, the long road riding pregnant to the little town, the concerned lost couple relegated to delivering this precious child in a manger with animals around. The story would be profound even if it was about any child, every child. But this is God himself coming to be with us. Perhaps this is why Luke kept it straightforward. Read it again and remember it was written for you.
Background: Today’s reading is a bit longer, but it is of a piece. Mary has left, so the focus is back on Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth delivers her child, who will become John the Baptist. After 9 months of being muted by his doubt, now Zechariah acknowledges the truth and the Angels message when he writes down that John will be the name of his son. He again can speak, and like Mary, breaks into a song-like praise and thanksgiving. Note that unlike Mary, Zechariah’s praise is not really from a personal perspective, but as a senior member in the Jewish culture. He sings praise for the completion of the promise given to Israel. He begins what his son will carry on, telling people what is coming.
Focus Verse Luke 1:78-79 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
What more could we wish for Christmas? What more could be we grateful for? Tender mercy from a God that brings light. And in that light, we can see our way to peace. There may be darkness in our lives, but we don’t need to say there. That is something to be thankful for.
Background: Mary rushes to Elizabeth and we don’t know why. Perhaps she was excited to hear her cousin who was barren was with child. Perhaps she wanted to be with someone who would believe her about the miracles that were happening to them. One thing we do know is that Elizabeth was overjoyed to see Mary and recognizes her as the mother of the savior. While the baby who will be John the Baptist jumps for joy as well. Mary responds with a now famous prayer that has been but into many songs. This “magnificat” is an inspired expression of her gratitude and wonder. How doese this young girl can have such wisdom to see past the socially dangerous situation she is in and the overwhelming message that she is carrying the savior. She sees the glory of God in it all. God works through Mary and we can listen to her words and hear how we can understand ourselves as part of God’s plan.
Reading: Luke 1:39-56
Focus Verse: Luke 1: 46-47: And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
While this sounds beautiful-but what does it mean to have one’s soul magnify the Lord. There is actually some discussion on what it means. We think of magnification like a microscope, but those weren’t invented yet. It could mean that like it amplifies- her soul is filled with God’s song, or it could mean bringing God closer. Listen to the whole phrase and hear the joy in this young girl’s voice, her soul sees the magnitude of the Lord and the joy of having this God be her savior. Amidst a confusion time, Mary holds tight to her God and gratitude.