Use Psalm 23 For Sleeping and Waking

by | Mar 21, 2020 | Sermons

Use Psalm 23 for stillness and peace.

Use Psalm 23 to arrive beside still waters even amid the turbulence of life.

Since we do not gather in church these days to reduce risks of coronavirus infection, I offer this sermon to augment worship at home in solitude or with your family. Psalm 23 is one of the Revised Common Lectionary texts for March 22, 2020. I delivered this sermon 12 years ago at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (Psalm 23).

More than any other, Psalm 23 lives beyond the pages of the Bible and in our daily lives.  Many of us learned it as children in Sunday School.  We see it framed in calligraphy or needlepoint in our homes or those of neighbors, family, and friends.  We cherish this psalm above all.

Among other reasons to love Psalm 23, we find it useful.  It comforts us with its simple, lyrical sound and its images of green pastures, still waters, a dinner fit for royalty, a soothing scalp massage, a VIP suite permanently reserved at God’s own palatial mansion.  When we need comfort in a fitful night, many of us recite this psalm over and over until it overtakes our worries and eases us to sleep.

Use it for sleep.  Sleep after all requires faith.  It takes trust in a power greater than ourselves, a power that cares. We let consciousness go and lie there in perfect vulnerability in the darkest third of each daily cycle.  What better entry into that daily sacred ritual of faith than this psalm of trust?

Yet, Psalm 23 also has great practical power for the waking two thirds of each day, and for those active hours I doubt many of us use it to its fullest potential.  Sometimes I suspect that its familiarity there on the kitchen wall may make us blind to it, dumb to its challenge, removed from its reach.

Like the deer at Berry College where I work who are more accustomed than most to humans, we let this and many other Bible passages just so near, then we run.  We run for good reason because when a Bible passage grabs us it may soothe us, but it also may shake us.  It forms us like a potter shaping clay.  Like any other creature, we recoil from such power, the threat of such change.

We can choose to risk letting this psalm that comforts us also challenge us.  We can let this psalm that helps us sleep also wake us up and make us new.  If you do not want Psalm 23 to do that, recite it under your breath, but do not think about it much. Enjoy the reverie of resting in green pastures.  But God calls you to let the psalm grab you and form you. For in the end it offers a fullness of life greater than dreams and a deepness of peace greater than sleep.

The LORD is my shepherd.

More than a sea’s parting or a flaming chariot swooping a prophet into heaven or an itinerant peasant healing the blind, God’s care for us is a miracle.  God does not have to care. It strains credulity to imagine why the One who separated light from darkness, engineered natural intricacies like photosynthesis, and generally constructed order out of chaos would bother with us selfish, distractible, quixotic human beings.

Some philosophers made brilliant attempts to prove the existence of a supreme being. Yet, none came close to making a case for the existence of a supreme being who cares.  Nature, in which the fittest survive at the expense of the weak, does not offer unequivocal witness to a caring creator.

The ancient pagans of Greece and Rome conjured up gods like our celebrities, beautiful and powerful fools who care for the little people if it suits them, but not usually.  When they first encountered Jews with their belief that the LORD was their shepherd, they must have thought the claim fantastic.

Yet, as we let the Bible open our eyes and let fellowship with friends of faith open our ears, we miraculously encounter the LORD as our shepherd, and we resonate with the claim that God cares.  Philosophers, scientists, and story tellers can try as they might to introduce us to God or to dismiss God altogether, but we meet God through encounter, not argument.

Most often we experience God in the still small voices but occasionally in thunderbolts, and either way we come away knowing better than ever before that we are loved. So we declare,

I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

In an economy driven by multi-billion dollar businesses bent on convincing us that we want now what we lived happily without yesterday – a faster computer, a bigger house, a ride on a big boat in the Mediterranean – can we believe this psalm?  It makes the economically subversive claim that all we really want is the rest God gives us right here in the park, the back yard, wherever we find silence enough to abide in God’s care.  We have a hard time knowing what we want, so we easily allow advertisements and the enthusiasms of the day guide us.  But the LORD is our shepherd.

God leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.

This psalm not only speaks of resting, but of movement, of venturing out, of taking risks.  Like Israel on exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, God leads us home and provides what we need along the way, and each of our lives recapitulate that story.  To tell it, we have to name the powers that enslaved us before God led us out, the temptations and anxieties that sent us down wrong paths before the shepherd found us, the clouds in our view that both concealed God and pointed us in the direction toward which God leads us, the manna with which God fed us, and the guidance God gave for loving even unlovely fellow travelers.
Notice too that like the exodus in the wilderness, following God’s way may lead through “the darkest valley,” a place of desolation, depression, grief, disorientation.  If you find yourself there, it doesn’t necessarily mean you took a wrong turn.  God may lead us to green pastures and still waters, but God also leads us through dark valleys.

Often enough it really looks easier to just be a slave rather than risk the journey, so we accept the sustenance and shelter of another master.  Our possessions, portfolios, and social status will gladly take care of us that way.  Detachment from such masters and following God can take us through perilous wilds before we reach our destinations.

But we also find ourselves in the dark valley along with all other mortals with or without faith, moving through life with its necessary losses and inevitable tragedies.  In either case, we suffer, and a life without suffering is probably not a life.  We may fear suffering, but we fear no evil as long as we remember that God is with us.  For evil is separation from God, and the LORD, our shepherd, will not leave us lost.  “I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Who are these enemies?  They chide the host for treating us as honored guests, as beloved children.  While our enemies often enough appear as other people, they more often speak from within, voices of pride or insecurity asking God, “Who am I to get such treatment when others have been so much more responsible and productive?   Let me earn your loving care.  Don’t you think I would have more dignity if you let me earn this special treatment?   Make me a saint or hero or winner in this world first before you lavish love on me.  Or better yet, don’t bother. I’ll earn it while you take care of people who need you more than I do.  Save the oil and stick the feast in the fridge.  We’ll have the party when I’m more worthy of it.”

Nevertheless, for all it says, Psalm 23 comes down to one beautiful and vivid statement of the Bible’s most important truth: God loves you.  If we really take the time and energy to thoroughly search our souls, we find that you and I desire and need God’s love more than anything.  The One God who created heaven and earth wants nothing more than for us to receive it.

Yet, in brokenness and disorientation, we run from it.  We want it on our terms.  The enemy at the table may be ourselves.  But whether the enemy comes from within or without, the enemy will not win the race for our souls.  God will.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Even in the darkest valley, the LORD who never had to love us pursues us.  Even when life’s blessings seem like crumbs, they come from an abundance that we will know in full.

God loves you and wants you home.  You can dwell with him today, any moment you choose, for the mere desire for God takes you there.  You not only dwell in the house of the LORD at some distant mysterious time after death, but now just by turning your heart to God because God is always after you.

The LORD is my shepherd,
whose grace is sufficient for me.
Why, he makes my lay down in green pastures –,
he leads me beside still waters –
he restores my soul.
He leads me down right paths for his name’s sake;
yes, and even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil…
for my LORD, you are with me,
your rod and your staff comfort me.
You even prepare a table for me
in the presence of my enemies:
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows!
Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Use Psalm 23 to sleep, to make it through surgery, to calm your worries.  Use this psalm to awaken in silence as by still waters and to keep that peace on your journey.  Use this psalm for strength and consolation in the dark valley.  Use this psalm to quiet your enemies.  Use this psalm to accept God’s love.  Let God use it to form your soul until you cannot help rejoicing over God as God rejoices over you.

Related Posts

Overcoming Obstacles to Receiving and Responding to God’s Love
Calling Out the Inner Enemy
Knowing God Whom You Cannot Prove
The Merton Prayer


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