January 27, 2008
Relying on God
Psalm 23

The opening paragraph of a story, speech or sermon is crucial. This paragraph, more than any other, has the power either to engage people and draw them into the story, or dampen their interest and raise thoughts of alternative uses of their free time. Do you remember how our core values begin? “Experiencing God’s love and grace: We value the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.” When a group of us fashioned our core values nine years ago now, we all agreed to begin here—with God’s grace.

But the closing paragraph is no less important. This paragraph is the last opportunity to tie up loose ends and drive home the dominant point. So how do our core values conclude? With God, once again. In between, there is a great deal said about worshiping, believing, following, gathering, witnessing, serving, peace-making and living—a great deal, in other words, about us and what we are called to do. But everything about the Christian life begins and ends with God. Everything about us is nothing but wishful thinking if we are left to our own competencies and resources. “Relying on God,” the final core value begins. “We confess our dependence on God for everything, and seek to deepen our intimacy with him by living prayerfully.”

This final core value has proven to be, however, the most difficult for me to conceptualize. It sounds simple enough, of course. Surely none of us would question the importance of relying on God—it is a foundational conviction in virtually every Christian tradition. We’ve got to rely on God. But in reality, what does it mean, particularly for those of us who live in a place and time when we seem to rely on anything and everything but God?

In the ancient world, for example, relying on the gods was taken for granted. Mountain shrines, altars, and sacrifices all give evidence to the fact that ancient people typically viewed the gods as the primary channel through which their needs were met. They called on the gods for virtually everything—rain, deliverance from their enemies, healing, and guidance. There were recitations and rituals to cover the myriad of needs that life might bring—people called out to the gods.

But things are in many ways different today. If we are sick, we visit the doctor or take medication. If we are hungry, we go to the store or grab a bite at Wendy’s. If we get cold, we turn up the heat. If rain is short, we irrigate. If we are uncertain of where to go or what to do, we search the internet. And if we are lonely, we turn on the T.V. and watch reality shows. Sometimes it seems as though there is something available to fix whatever ails us or supply whatever we need. So pervasive is this tendency to rely on modern advances that Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great preacher at Riverside Church in New York City a few decades ago, paraphrased the opening line of the 23rd Psalm in this way: “Science is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What, really, does it mean for us, individually and congregationally, to rely on God? Ironically, it is in fact Psalm 23 that most helpfully addresses this question.

Psalm 23, as you well know, depicts the care of a shepherd for his otherwise helpless sheep. The psalm divides into two major sections. Verses 1-4 describe the precarious and sometimes difficult journey that the shepherd and his sheep travel together as they wonder about the Palestinian desert or wilderness. Shepherds rarely brought their sheep into the fertile valleys and gentle plains where farmers planted crops, and towns and cities grew. Shepherds and their sheep remained on the rough, barren fringes. Verses 5-6 describe the destination at which the shepherd and sheep will arrive once their journey ends. In that sense, the Psalm graphically depicts the two phases that all of us go through ourselves—the journey through life, and the destination that awaits us. In neither phase are the sheep capable of fending for themselves. Instead, they rely on their shepherd for things both present and beyond.

First, the journey. We call it “life.” It is not always easy, is it? With every step along the way, we are called to rely on God. We rely on our shepherd, first of all, to care for our deepest needs (v. 1). As I mentioned last Sunday, we are pulled both from within and from without to seek our meaning and satisfaction in anything and everything but God—things, careers, popularity. Such things, however, are in reality forgeries—substitutes for the real thing. They won’t satisfy us in any lasting sense, and our attachment to them can in fact be quite dangerous. There are, for example, various plants in the desert that look alarmingly similar. Some are tasty and perfectly safe to use in cooking—I’ve eaten several times in the wilderness in Palestine, and we’ve often cooked soup seasoned with plants growing in the area. Other plants that look much the same, however, are terribly poisonous. For the untrained eye, it is often very difficult to tell the difference. The shepherd, we read hear, has a trained eye, and when in his care, we want for nothing. When I take him at his word and avoid what he assures me is not good for me. When I walk away from a poisonous relationship and believe that in his timing he will address my needs for intimacy and love. When I live more simply, believing that cluttered lives and multitudes of stuff will not bring contentment to my soul. And when I as a result give more away instead of keeping it for myself, I am relying on God.

We rely on the shepherd to guide us to life-giving places (v. 2). So much of the desert—the fringe areas in which shepherding typically takes place—lacks noticeable markers to guide those unfamiliar with their surroundings. It can be easier to get lost in the desert than it is in some of our modern day housing developments in which every street looks like a carbon copy of the others. One path, if there even is one, might lead to a totally barren area, and another to a mirage. Green pastures and still waters are quite unusual in such regions. They are difficult to find. Sometimes even a seasoned shepherd spends considerable amounts of time surveying geographical areas in order to locate such places. Once he does, he leads the sheep there. When I listen to the voice of the shepherd and go where he leads me, I am relying on God.

This has certainly been the case in my own spiritual and vocational journey. I felt a call into some form of ministry from the moment I first became a Christian, but I didn’t know the details. As I followed the shepherd, however, that same call became clearer and richer. There were, of course, plenty of dry spots along the way, but I remain in awe at how blessed my life in the ministry has been—teaching and preaching in rural and urban settings, both here and abroad. God has been faithful in leading me to life-giving places.

We rely on the shepherd to bring refreshment to our weary souls (v. 3). Life in the desert is exhausting. The land is rocky and mountainous, so you’re often either climbing up hills or making your way over or around stones. Add heat to the mix—I had a family-size bottle of shampoo literally melt in my tent one summer when I was living in Jordan—and you can begin to imagine life on the fringes. You grow tired and weary, like we sometimes do traveling the courses of our everyday lives here. Sometimes you feel as though you have little or nothing left, don’t you? The kids need this, your spouse wants you to do that. The demands at work are on the rise, or a project you are involved in takes on a life of its own. As the cycle continues, you grow rather dry, parched even, and hardly know what to do.

I myself felt much this way just this past week. Deb and I got on a plane Monday morning and flew to Georgia, where we participated in a pastors’ conference on Epworth Island. I had no responsibilities of any kind at this conference, so I could just sit back and listen for once. I couldn’t believe how hungry and thirsty I was! I felt empty and wanted to soak up everything that was being said. As the conference progressed and I listened to Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor, I could sense God restoring my dry and weary soul.

And we rely on him to comfort us during otherwise frightening times (v. 4). In addition to the heat and shortage of food and water, there are various life-threatening dangers in the wilderness. There are, for example, certain living creatures in the desert—jackals, snakes, poisonous scorpions—that pose significant threats to the welfare of the sheep. There are also crevices and steep cliffs that one can fall off of if not completely careful. When I used to take students to Israel in a former lifetime, I had one non-negotiable rule whenever we hiked along certain paths in the wilderness: stay on the path! For at least a few miles along the trail that leads from the western edge of Jerusalem down to Jericho, the drop-off a few feet from the path is so severe that falling results in almost certain death. Only once did a student violate that rule, and I threatened to put him on a plane home if he was not back on the path in 30 seconds. The wilderness can be a dangerous, fearful place.

Our world today is for many a frightening one. We are told repeatedly that our national security is at risk. We read about terrorists and the rising threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of unstable governments. We hear about the ongoing effects of globalization on our economy and worry that China’s escalating role in the world market spells eventual economic doom for all of us. Social security will dry up. The investments we’ve made over the years will vanish. We’ll be left with nothing. And we live with the constant awareness that our bodies—and those of our loved ones—are fragile and dying. We fear sickness, loss, separation, and death. The shepherd is aware of the dangers and risks that lie before us. When I find strength and a sense of security, not in our military forces, not in my own financial investments, and not in my youthfulness and strength, but in God, I’m learning to rely.

In short, we rely on God, the shepherd, all along as we journey through life. For guidance, strength and comfort. Just because our stores are full of groceries and our hospitals stocked with trained physicians doesn’t mean that God has somehow become obsolete. What a scary, limited world view that would be—we only need God to take care of our physical needs. We don’t live by bread alone, someone far greater than I once said. We need God during every phase of life, and even beyond. Did you notice verses 5-6? At some point, the journey will end. Somewhere in the wilderness is a tent to which the shepherd will eventually lead the sheep.

As I mentioned a moment ago, I’ve eaten bread and soup out in the wilderness on several occasions. But, as good as those meals are, there is nothing like the dinner waiting up ahead at the tent. How do I begin to describe meals in the tent? Freshly baked pita, humus and other salads, rice, roasted chicken, dates, luscious oranges, baklava and other pastries, and tea and coffee. Oh, by the way, we don’t have to clean up! After all, the food is only a part of the festivities in the tent. After dinner, we gather around and listen to a master story-teller capture our imaginations with remarkable tales. We sing and laugh, free from the threats and struggles of the desert. Free from the rocks and hills, free from the snakes and scorpions, free from the cliffs and crevices. Free from the nagging questions, ethical dilemmas, wearisome habits, and broken relationships. When I recognize that the journey is only temporary—that this life is not all that there is—and that God will one day welcome me into his tent, serve me indescribable meals, and let me sit at the feet of the greatest story-teller of all time, I’m relying on him. I can’t find the tent on my own. I’m relying on God to take me home.

Relying on God throughout the journey. Relying on God to lead me to the tent. And what am I asked to do? Take off the old garments of self-determination and independence. Rip off the smelly shirts of fear, doubt and cold calculations. Stop just talking about trust and faith while huddling nervously behind in the fold. Follow the shepherd. Stay close to the shepherd. Move through life prayerfully. Listen to the shepherd’s voice. Pay attention to the shepherd’s instructions. Don’t run away from the flock. We’ll make it. The journey might be long and dangerous at times, but wait till you see the tent.