Magazine article The Christian Century

Sheep on the Run. (Living by the Word)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sheep on the Run. (Living by the Word)

Article excerpt

Sunday, March 10

Psalm 23

THE 23RD PSALM has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is wise to remember the nature of the Jews' history with God.

They were a people who were called Israel, which means, "those who have struggled with God." They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most important, they struggled for their faith in God.

The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. And they were too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return to worship, where this story was told and retold.

So it is not surprising that so many of the psalms describe the churning, disruptive experience of being lost and found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back. It is all a part of the pathos of people who got scared and lost their way, and of the high drama of a God who searches to find his lost sheep.

This means that the last thing we ought to be doing is rushing to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is OK. We're drawn to the images of green pastures, still waters and an overflowing cup because we strive for equilibrium, security and abundance. We don't particularly care for the highs and lows of Israel's history, the people's insatiable thirst on long desert journeys, or their maddening love affair with God. It all sounds a bit reckless.

Besides, most of us can make it to the green pastures on our own. Of course, they are never quite green enough, but that only makes us work harder to be our own saviors. And more terrified that we will never pull it off.

Have you ever been really scared? Maybe it took a disease to scare you, a notice that your job had been eliminated, a phone call from the police late at night, or a letter on a kitchen counter that said, "I'm not coming back." We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear, but as a pastor I've seen that most people react to fear by running like crazy. It doesn't matter where they run or what they try next. …

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