By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 30, 2023
Psalm 23:1–6 (ESV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Today we contemplate on a Psalm once again. I remind you that Psalms are both songs and prayers. And as we engage with these words, they should be hymns of praise as well as the deepest cries of our hears. Today we have read one of the most popular of all the Psalms. Even those that have never attended meetings for worship, have probably heard the words of this Psalm. Usually, we hear this Psalm read at memorial services, and I know that this passage is carved into the stone at my sister’s grave. They are words of comfort.
Like many things that have become familiar, we often forget how or why they have taken that place. We hear things like, “I have fallen out of love with someone.” What does this mean? It means that they have become familiar, common. And we no longer actively pursue the things that are common, and we become distracted. We do not fall out of love, something else has changed. Either our relationship was built on something other than love, or we are bored. And I would venture to say those that get bored built their relationship on something other than love.
At times words of scripture become familiar. We can quote them by rote, and we may know the words, but we tend to neglect them because they have become routine and thus, we become bored. We might put them in a box somewhere and bring them out for a special occasion, but even at those times we may not really think about what lies just beneath the surface. That is often the case with the twenty third Psalm. One commentator that I read while I was in study this week said this about this Psalm, “The challenge in this regard is the fact that Psalm 23 has become…an American Secular Icon, and it is almost exclusively associated with a particular contemporary setting: the funeral service. To be sure it is appropriate that Psalm 23 be read and heard in the midst of death and dying. It may be more important, however, that this psalm be read and heard as a psalm about living.”
We have become familiar with this Psalm, is what that commentator is saying. We have relegated it to be used in certain places and for certain times, and because of this we are missing the deeper calling within the words. Yes, it is a comfort for those in grief, I myself have used it in that context both as one who morns and as one presiding over a service. But is it more?
“The Lord is my Shepherd.” This is a Psalm attributed to David. David, his youth, tended his father’s sheep as a shepherd. Usually when we think of these verses that is the image we see. We see a young boy sitting on a bolder, holding his lyre and as he is mindlessly watching the sheep, he strums the strings and comes up with these words. But shepherds were often used as a metaphor for a king in ancient times. Just as a shepherd leads the sheep, as king leads the people. This kind of gives us a different perspective of that jeer we often hear calling people sheep. It is in many ways true and has been from ancient times.
“I shall not want.” Many people have agued that a more accurate translation for this phrase would have been, “I shall lack nothing.” Have we stopped to consider the implications of those words? God is the king, and those that are within his scope of influence, do not lack. I do not know about you but there are a few things that I believe I lack. This is, in many ways, a testimony of where my attention is. I want things to such a degree that it distracts me.
David continues, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” This is imagery from the sheep herd, but it has importance. When we think of the word make, it can bring in an idea of exerted force in some way. When David says, “he makes me lie down,” he is writing with a sense of cause. He causes me to lie down, and he then explains why this happens as he continues by saying, “in green pastures.”
Most of you know that I grew up on a farm. And I often get a bit homesick for the farm because city life tends to make me feel confined or crowded. While I worked on the farm, we raised cattle. Cattle are by no means equivalent to sheep, but there are some similarities because they eat the same things. In the winter we must bring bales of hay to feed cattle, because we move them closer together to protect them from the harsh winter weather. Every day I would go out in the cold, bundled up so much that I could barely move, and I would have to take hay to the animals. They were grateful, just so you are aware. Often the giant bull would come up and rub against me before he went to eat, but as the temperatures began to rise and the grass began to turn green again, it became increasingly more difficult to contain the cattle. They wanted the grass not the dry bales of hay. When the pastures began to grow again, we would move the cattle from their winter pens and let them roam once again in the pastures. And they would run to the green grass. The moment they reached that fresh growth they would immediately stop and begin eating. They would collide with each other in their hurried pursuit just to get their fill, and they would eat as if they had been starving.
This is the image that David is portraying with these words, the sheep have gorged themselves on the fresh green grass and like I do after a big Thanksgiving Day meal, they stretch out their recently filled bellies and they take a nap. The shepherd causes them to lie down because he has guided them to a feast. And they can rest because they lack nothing. When the grass is not green, these animals will continue to walk and eat as they walk. They will walk all day long, always eating along the way. But they lack nothing the grass is green so they eat and can lie down where they are, with the assurance that when they get up there will be more to eat.
“He leads me beside still waters.” Again, this is in reference to sheep. I do not care much for sheep. When I was growing up it always seemed that those people that had sheep were always having to do something to keep the sheep from getting into trouble. And they would get into trouble because they would put their heads down and eat. Each step they took was a step to their next bite, if you left them to their own devices they would eat until they were completely lost. But the next problem is water. Cattle will drink from just about anything that is wet, sheep get scared. The water must be still for a sheep to drink. This means that if the only water source was a flowing stream, a shepherd would have to divert the water to slow the flow before the sheep would go close. Both the phrases; the green pastures and the still waters are giving us a glimpse to the character of God as a shepherd and the state of fulfillment those that seek God can obtain.
“He restores my soul.” Last week, in the 116th Psalm, we read, “Return o my soul to your rest.” This is the same sense that this phrase has. When we consider the word soul, we often think of it as the part of our existence that continues after death. Soul is much more than that. It is our being. Our true self. David is saying, “He restore my true self, my real identity.” And when he speaks of restores, it in many ways is like the word return. The word, “restore,” is also connected to the concept of repent and return, but in this sense, it goes a bit beyond a turning. When we embark on this return, we have restoration or renewal. Our true self is reinvigorated and enlivened. He restores our true self, our true being.
How often do we go through life feeling unknown? While at pastor’s retreat, one of the exercises we were encouraged to participate in was to identify the lie we live in, that prevents us from the rest and re-creation that God is calling us to in Sabbath. That lie is preventing us to reveal our true self. This is not an easy exercise to participate in when you are surrounded by people you respect and want to impress. As I sat with these fellow pastors, and in my case, I was in a group with one of our yearly meeting superintendents, I listened to what they had to say, and we were supposed to pray for them to overcome that area in their life so that they could rest. But then all the eyes looked to me. What was my catch? What was my hang up? I often struggle with what many describe as imposter syndrome. I do not feel as if I should be in the place that I am. I do not feel as if I am adequate and that because of my inadequacies I am becoming a hindrance. That is why I spoke so much last week about seeing beyond our emotions, because I do feel those things, but that is not the truth. I am where God has called me to be, I do not always understand why but even in my deepest bouts with my own self-doubt, I know that I am where I am supposed to be. I cannot even imagine myself anywhere else.
“He restores my soul.” He renews our true identities. He reveals in some cases, who we truly are. We might go through life feeling unknown, but then we come to a place where we just fit. I hope that our Meeting is one of those places. The people around us encourage and empower us. And when we are in that place, we know we are accepted. That is the restoration of our soul. And it is there that we find our rest in the green pastures. But oddly we do not just lie around. Eventually we get back up and we are moved into action. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
The word we translate as “leads,” is used eighteen times in the Psalms and it means guidance and direction. When we rest in the presence of God, he restores and renews our true being, and as he renews us, he then guides us in life. We come in distracted and confused, and after we rest in that place the confusion melts just a bit more and we can begin to discern a way forward. This is where the path comes in. This word means conduct or way. It points to wisdom or instruction in a manner of activity. We are led in a direction. We gain or discern how we should deal with whatever we are facing. We are lead in the path of righteousness.
Righteousness is the adherence to what is required according to a standard. In other places within scripture the word used here also points to victory, truth, honesty and justice. In most cases it is being correct in the situation we find ourselves in. This is not just being right in my own eyes, but just to all. David is telling us, as we listen to God, as we are led by him into those places content rest of plenty. We are restored and renewed. We get a glimpse of who we truly are, our essential being. And as we rest with God, he speaks to us, he guides us, he shows us the way. And that way, that mode of conduct is not for our own gain, but justice. He led us there because that is who God is, and our true self bears that image.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This phrase is probably why this psalm is most often used for funerals, and for me is where I often leave it. We are led to paths of righteousness, when we are in that place of rest and restoration, but we do not stay there. We get discernment and we are expected to then move. That is why David begins to walk here. To walk is to move forward along that path, it is putting what we know into action. We spend some time in the green pastures but then we move out into the world again. The valley in geographical terms is a depression between ridges. But could there be valleys in life? Could part of our struggle be that we live in depression, or that the struggles we face appear to be mountains encircling us on all sides? “Even though I walk through the valley,” David says, “of the shadow of death.” This phrase in Hebrew is used eighteen times although it is not always translated as the shadow of death. Ten of those occurrences are found in the book of Job. I do not know if you are aware of the book of Job, but it is about a man that lost everything. The sense of this word is not death, but gloom. It is a darkness, a deep darkness, a deep or large area of dark shadow cast by an object. We often think of this as death, but it is not it is a gloom, a darkness that is cast over us by something seemingly beyond our control. It is our struggle, the thing or things that keep us from becoming and living our authentic being.
Which brings us to evil. Fear is dread or to be afraid or scared. When David says, “I will fear no evil,” it means even though I am living within a depression of deep darkness or gloom I will not be frightened. And then something interesting happens. I am not frightened because the Shepherd is there. His rod comes along side rendering that which I dread invalid. And David does this with an interesting linguistic anomaly. The symbols used to form the word evil, and shepherd look similar with one exception. The word, shepherd, has a rod and staff standing next to the word for evil. That which was once evil, no longer exists because it has been swallowed up by the shepherd.
That is just fun, but there is more to it than that. The rod and staff are both tools used by a shepherd. But the rod can also be seen as a scepter of a king, and in some cases the same word is used to represent a tribe. We often look at this psalm as being personal, but it is communal. A shepherd does not only tend one sheep but has a flock. We might be led by the shepherd, but that individual is leading more than one “I,” the shepherd leads us. I mentioned before that a shepherd was often a metaphor used to describe ancient kings as well. When we look at this in terms of a flock instead of an individual sheep, we can see that the shepherd could be leading a nation or tribe also. We are comforted not just by the tools, but by the community and the flock that the tool is used to protect. And in this sense comfort is more than just an alleviation of sorrow or distress. It is a sense of consistency or home. It is that place where we can be known and get to know others.
This communal aspect continues as David then goes into the third verse of this song. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is an interesting phrase. The word before means in front of, in the presence of, or facing. The shepherd is preparing a table, or he is spreading out a feast in front of our faces. But then David says, “in the presence of my enemies.” We do not struggle with the word enemies; we know who they are. They are those people who treat us with hostility, who attack us physically or verbally and hate us. We have these people all around us. They are in other nations at times, but they are also in our places of work, and sometimes they might even be within our own homes. The interesting thing is God is preparing a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The word presence is like the word before. It is also in front of, but the difference is opposite to.
This creates in our minds an image. I am sitting at a table. And sitting opposite me is that person that despises me, and I, myself am not fond of either. Between us is a feast. Both friend and enemy are present in that green pasture where the sheep lie down in comfort. Friends and enemies are gathered at this table. What do we do? We eat, we share a meal, we break bread together. There is something powerful in the sharing of a meal. If we want to look at it scientifically, you will find that as we eat, our bodies release chemicals that give us pleasure. This is important because our stomachs stretch as we fill it with food, and this stretching without those chemicals would cause pain. But eating is not painful, in fact it is one of the things I enjoy the most. Relationally something happens when we eat as well. When these chemicals are entering our bloodstream and being carried throughout our bodies, they also enter our brains. When these chemicals enter our brains, we tend to look at those eating with us as sharing in that pleasure. And those that we share pleasure with tend to develop a closer relational bond with them.
God places us at the table with our enemies. He is challenging us to walk through that valley of the shadow of death and look our fear in the eyes. He is showing us what he sees. That enemy, that person we may hate is equally loved by God. And from their perspective we are the ones sitting opposite.
Jesus took the bread at the table, and he broke it and gave thanks, and he said to his disciples this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In our various traditions we see this as the institution of a religious sacrament, or a means of grace. We eat with our God. But there is more to that scene, it is a meal and at that table is Jesus’ betrayer. And Jesus gave his enemy bread. We should share meals with others, because in that meal we begin to see those around us in a different light. We eat, we talk, we laugh, and we become something more. Those that eat together become friends, and friends become family. David speaks of this change in the Psalm when he says, “He anoints my head with oil.”
The anointing is a ceremonial practice. It is a symbol of the spirit residing with an individual and an acceptance within the community. When we think of Jesus, most of us will follow that name with Christ. This is not Jesus’ last name, which I though as a child, but it means anointed in Greek, and in Hebrew it would be messiah. Priest and kings were anointed. And at times regular individuals were anointed in other ceremonies. The anointing was usually done with oil and this oil was part of the cultic rituals within the temple. Jesus though was not anointed with oil, instead his anointing was with water. Again, this anointing became enshrined in religious practice and tradition, and it too has become familiar. Baptism or the Christian anointing is a symbol of acceptance and companionship. The anointing joins former enemies as friends. And when enemies become friends the resources that were once spent in conflict are reallocated. David says, “he anoints my head with oil and my cup overflows.” Last week we mentioned the cup of salvation. I mentioned that cup could also mean vessel and that salvation could be victory, and that we become the vessels of victory. Cup does mean vessel and it can also mean purse. “My purse overflows,” that is an image I like. When we stop fighting, when our enemies become friends and companions, we join in a place of peace. Peace promotes abundance. Peace promotes charity and generosity. We cannot give if we are not at peace, because we are living in fear of want. But if we remove the fear, when we see beyond the emotions surrounding enmity we recognize once again that we have all we need and generosity becomes the norm, and our purse overflows.
We often live in the shadows of our struggles. We often live under the darkness of fear. We wander through this world wishing we were known, and in that wondering we wish we knew ourselves. David in his prayer is calling us to something more. He is calling us to God. He is calling us to a life and lifestyle where we have peace and rest. Where we can face our fears and have the tools to face them. He is calling us to live.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David is calling us, and God is calling us. Goodness and mercy are attributes that help define God. They are words that he uses to describe himself, and follow does not exactly fully represent the fullness of what is being said. Pursue or chase is more accurate. God is chasing us, pursuing us with goodness and mercy. He like a shepherd is redirecting our sheepish minds away from following our teeth and guiding us back into the fold. And it is in that fold, in that community that God wishes us to dwell. It is his house, the green pastures of Eden. Paradise. This is not just a place in the great here after, but it is a place we can be here even in the shadows of death. But will we find comfort there? Will we find peace across the table of our enemies. Will we be anointed and changed? Will we realize we have all we need in Christ and recognize that even in our poverty we have abundance? Will we dwell?
To Donate to Willow Creek Friends Church Click here:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 23, 2023
Psalm 116 (ESV)
1 I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” 5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. 6 The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. 7 Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. 8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; 9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. 10 I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted”; 11 I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.” 12 What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, 14 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. 15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. 16 O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. 17 I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!
There are times in my life where I just do not have words. There are days where the stresses that I face are so great that I do not knowledge of where to even start. I am sure most of us have been in a place like that. I have often spoken of my journey of faith. I try to be transparent and honest as I describe my emotions and struggles in faith. I do this because I am not perfect, and I do not want any of you to place me higher than I should be. I am human just like everyone else, and I often fail.
The day I held my first son in my arms, I had a revelation. I suddenly understood the love that God had for me, because I felt that kind of love for that bright eyed, squirming little guy. But there was a problem. How was I going to raise a son, when I was still a child myself? I did not have the words. I did not have the knowledge. And after twenty-four years of being a parent, I still struggle.
From that initial revelation, and subsequent calling into ministry, which I spoke about a few weeks ago, I have grown significantly. I found acceptance, I found love, I have a family, and I have a community that encourages me and that I can encourage as well. Life is good.
I say this, but that does not mean my life has been free of struggle. Far from it. There have been many days, months even where I have been at a loss for words. There were weeks where I had trouble eating and sleeping because of the situations that faced my family. I wanted to cry out to God for assistance and deliverance, yet when I knelt to pray the only thing that emerged from my mouth were groans.
This is where the words of the Psalms come in. Most of us from free church traditions do not utilize written prayers, but there is a place for them. That is what the psalms are. They are prayers and songs. And when it comes to worship, our songs should be prayers. In those times of deep distress, often the only things that come to mind are songs that have provided comfort or encouragement. When Albert was a baby and would wake up in the middle of the night, like most parents I would sing songs to him. But the choice of songs is often different. For Albert, the songs that came to mind were hymns. One was a Christmas hymn, “What Child is This?” I do not know why that song, but he liked it. The second was a song that a friend from the Meeting I grew up in would often request, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.” Weird songs I know, but if you listen to the lyrics of rock a bye baby, my hymns are not quite as scary.
The Psalms are like those hymns, and prayers we lean on in times of great stress. They help us retrieve our own words once again and direct us back to the place God wants and needs us to be. Often when I cannot sleep due to the stress I have faced; I let my bible app read the psalms to me and I join in the prays of David until I find rest.
Today we are reflecting on a Psalm. “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” This is one of the greatest thanksgiving Psalms. Some of my Orthodox friends that I met while I was in Ukraine, and some of the ones that I went to school with at Friends University would tell me that in their traditions there is a Psalm to be read for everything. And they would carry a booklet with them so they could easily pray the proper Psalm for any situation they would face. I believe that the words of the Psalms will help us find our voice in prayer. They give us comfort and strength, but do we listen to what they are saying?
This Psalmist, I will say he for the writer, not because it must be a man, but because many of the Psalms are attributed to David. He praises God, he expresses love for the Lord. This is interesting because although we often think of the Psalms expressing love for God, very few formally express that kind of intimacy. This tells us something. We can be intimate with God. Other Psalms express anger and sorrow, these too are emotions that we can freely express to God. God is big enough to handle our emotions and he is willing to listen.
This Psalmist loves the Lord because he feels as if God listens to him. We often feel as if prayer is something, we must perfect. Some might say I do not know how to pray, and that is ok. Prayer is difficult at times because we do not know what to say, but prayer is a conversation. At times a conversation is difficult and at other times when we are close to someone we converse freely. The same can be said about prayer. It is hard at times, but once we begin and get used to speaking and listening it becomes easier. The Psalmist loves God because God listens and responds.
Why do we feel the need to speak to God? This is probably the one thing that separates those of faith from those who do not profess faith. The Psalmist says, “The snares of death encompass me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Death in most cases is regarded as separation from life, but it can be more. Death can also be a power or force, and it can even refer to a place. This is where Sheol comes in. Sheol is most often regarded as a place, usually it is described physically as in being buried in the ground, but it can also refer to a spiritual place. The spiritual place most would equate to hell. But what if death and Sheol could be an emotional place? Those that suffer from depression might sense the darkness of death or Sheol. I imagine that those that are living in the various war zones around the world; in Ukraine, Sudan and other places in Africa, and even those that are within extreme poverty might feel as if they are currently living in hell.
The Psalmist says that the snares of death encompass me. The term snare most often refers to a cord or rope. In various survival classes and books, I have participated in we use snares to trap small animals for food. Unfortunately, I did not learn much from those classes and books, so the extent of my snaring ability usually revolves around getting chicken from the store. There is another way to look at snare, it can also represent a band of people. This paints an increasingly vivid picture of the emotional state of the Psalmist. He is in a state where the power or the personification of death is encircling him, slowly and steadily closing in. Pangs, which is usually associated with pain, in this sense could also represent psychological distress. The pangs of Sheol, the distress of complete failure is closing in, and this man, this woman because most of us could put ourselves in the place of the psalmist, feels as if all hope is lost. They are surrounded, there is no way out, no hope, they are utterly powerless.
It is from that place of complete hopelessness that the psalmist has a change. “I called on the name of the Lord” he says. I want us to sit with the psalmist here. I know the pangs of Sheol. I know the darkness of encircling death. I know it not in a physical sense, but I have been there emotionally. I have been in that place many times. It is from that darkness, that hopelessness, that the psalmist calls out. The phrase, “I call”, means to summon, invoke, invite or proclaim. In the state of hopelessness, when there is nothing left, the psalmist makes a proclamation that the only hope is for God to deliver. And he says, “O Lord, please, deliver my soul!”
Too often we regard the concept of soul only in a spiritual sense. It is that part of us that will continue to exist beyond the veil of time as we experience it. That is not always what soul means. In the Psalms the word translated as soul in this verse is used 144 times in various senses. One of the senses is your neck or throat. We might use the phrase, “sticking our neck out,” this is in a very real sense referencing a vulnerability that may lead to adverse consequences. But in this chapter the sense of the word soul does not reference out inner spiritual being, but life and breath. When the psalmist says Lord please deliver my soul, he is saying save my life, free me from deaths noose.
There is now a shift in the emotions of the psalm. “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our god is merciful.” He is now expressing the core character of God. He is reminding us of who God is and why it is important to invoke his name in our lives. “The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.” I sat on the concept of simple as I studied this week. It is the simple that provided the initial direction to my study. The sense of this word is naïve, foolish, inexpert, even to the point of being developmentally disabled. And I hate this. It does not sit well with me that the Psalmist would regard faith in such a manner. But then there is another sense to the word, open-mindedness.
When I was in school being open-minded was the buzz word, it meant that you were willing to try new things and explore new concepts. And like social justice today it became a political talking point, one side was open minded and the other was closed. But what open-minded means in this sense is that you are aware of your limitations. It means that the Lord will preserve or protect those that are unable. God protects the innocent that lack the wisdom, or the knowledge to protect themselves. It means that God will meet us where we are, in our weakness and become our strength. This is not a willful ignorance or rejection of wisdom, but an admission of inability and vulnerability. It is a confession of powerlessness and a plea for assistance and direction. The psalmist in his simplicity is aware that at this moment he does not have the ability, the knowledge, or the strength to overcome the snares of death. And as I reflected on this, I was reminded of the statement that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” There will always be those among us that are in the very place this psalmist find himself. How will we approach them? How will we encourage those around us that feel vulnerable and powerless?
“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” I began my study with simple, but once I wrapped my head around that, the next phrase that grabbed my attention was return to your rest. This is partly because I spent much of this week at the pastor’s sabbath retreat, where rest and re-creation were the focus. Return turn back. The word for repent also emerges from this root word, but usually repent is in reference to a turning away from sin. The sense of return is to go or come back to a place, condition, or activity where one has been before. Turn around and go back. And rest in this case means a place where rest can occur, or a state of mind where we can be at ease. Interestingly, the same word is used the book of Ruth as a place of security within marriage. Boaz was rest for Ruth. The Psalmist is saying, turn back to that place where you once had comfort and security. Repent of the battles and seek a place of peace. Return to a place where we can ease our troubled state of mind.
Which leads us to, “the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” This is a phrase of repayment or to give compensation for action. It can be both positive and negative, but when the word bountifully is used with the word dealt it gives us a positive sense. The psalmist is telling us if we return to that place of rest, we will gain good things. This is where it takes a bit of a twist as well. “has dealt bountifully” can also mean to complete, wean, do to or show. We might receive good things when we return to that place of rest, but it is also a place where we can gain maturity. It can mean that when we go back to those restful places, we can gain wisdom and education, it is in those places we learn how to handle the snares of death that we are struggling with. It is not a place of weakness, but a place of reengagement.
As the psalmist sits in this place of rest, he reflects. “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Delivered is an interesting word. We often think of it as rescue, but it can also mean to draw off. When a predator is attacking its prey, something like a juvenile animal or cub, the parent or mamma bear will often draw off the predator. They create a diversion so that the prey can escape. Jesus in his life, crucifixion, and burial dose this for us. He drew the attention of the personification of death from us and placed it on himself.
He draws death away from life. He dries our eyes from tears. He steadies our feet from stumbling. All these point to maturity or rejuvenation. Those that call on God in the place of struggle, will find with and through him the ability to walk confidently, they can see clearly and have a restored life force. Instead of being consumed by the darkness we have vigor.
He embraces that life with God. And he again reflects on the life before. He says, “I believed.” There are three levels of belief. The first is knowledge of or and opening to and idea. We know the concept of something, but that is just it. It does not affect your life. The second level of belief is trust. This is putting that knowledge into practice. I have the concept of swimming and not I am going to wade into the pool. The third level of belief is entrusting. You lean into it or give yourself over to it. We entrust our body on a chair when we relax and allow our full weight to rest on it. “I believed, even when I spoke.” The belief the psalmist remembers is not in God, but he is reflecting on the fear that was once surrounding him. Fear leads to death and suffering. He recognizes that he was resting in or believing in the fear as he says, “I am greatly afflicted.” He continues, “I say in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars.’”
Alarm give us the key to his reflection, because alarm is fear or panic. He recognizes that he was leaning into the fear the panic of the situation. And this alarm caused him to make a statement. “All mankind are liars.” In our emotional response to the stresses that we face we often cannot perceive things rationally. He is not stating that all men are liars, but in his ignorance and lack of expertise, as the alarm grips his soul, he believes an exaggeration. All is rarely all, this is a lie that alarmist push us to believe. And in his panic, while the anguish of the snare of death encircles him, his alarmist mind says, “All mankind are liars.” No one can be trusted, everyone speaks falsehood, he is alone. If we rest in the fear, we are alone with no one to trust. When we look beyond the fear, when we gain wisdom from God, we will begin to see through the lies our emotions tell and we can begin to recognize the truth.
What is the truth the Psalmist want us to see? It goes back to verse eight. “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” He once believed a lie, but now he is leaning into the hope of God. He leans into it and he has experienced the benefits. He has experienced the release from deaths grip and the pangs of Sheol no longer hinder him. Now he reflects on his deliverance. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” What can I give? How can I properly repay God for the hop that he has given?
“I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” The cup is a vessel, and salvation refers in this case to victory. The victorious vessel in this case is the psalmist himself. He will carry himself as a sign to those around of the hope he has found in God. And he will, “call on the name of the Lord.” This time the call is not an incantation or plea, but a proclamation of praise.
We repay God for the victory he provides in us, by taking the life he provides through Christ, onto ourselves. We wear the cup. We become the vessel of victory, and we pay our vows to the Lord by living the life he calls us to in front of all people. We embody that of God and reflect it in everything we do.
Now again this song, this prayer of thanksgiving gets a bit weird. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” The psalm began by speaking of the fear of death, and now the psalmist is saying death is precious to God. What does this mean? Is this individual now accepting his fate? No, in the next verse he speaks of being a servant, and a son of God’s maidservant. The death that is precious in the sight of the Lord is the death to self. It is the relinquishing our own will so that we can be bound to the will of God. We die to our own selfish desires and give every aspect of who we are to serve God. Why is this important? It all goes back to the fall of humankind.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God set the initial course of the world, and he placed our first parent in the garden that he established as his throne and temple. He gave us a command to go out into all the world to bring it into submission or extend the garden and as payment for our work he gave us the fruit from all the trees but one, the tree of knowledge. But while they worked a serpent came to speak to them, this was not a snake as we so often believe, but a shining one, a spiritual being that was supposed to be a servant of the Most High God. This serpent deceived our first parents and set us all on a path where we struggle. Trying to figure out on our own what direction to go, what is right and what is wrong. And while we struggle, God continues to call us to return to the place of rest, the place we were created to dwell. He calls us back to the refuge where he will walk with us and provide the wisdom we desire. When the psalmist says, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” he means precious is that turning. Precious are those righteous people that recognize the separation we have from God. A separation that leaves us vulnerable to the pangs of Sheol.
The Psalmist praises God, he sings thanksgiving to his Lord because he recognized that without God he was lost and vulnerable. Without God he was living at the whims of everyone else in the world seeking to do what they perceive is right in their own eyes, and this selfishness of humanity became a threat to our very existence. Death surrounded him, the struggle, the anxiety, the depression was slowly squeezing in and choking out his very will to live. He was lost and alone, and in that moment, he cries out to God, and God met him in his weakness. God entered that weakness and became his strength. God transformed the psalmist into a vessel of victory.
We all struggle at times. Maybe some of us more than others. Maybe our struggle is of our own design and maybe it is a circumstance beyond our control. As we face these struggles, I pray that we will call on the name of the Lord. That we will recognize that we are not alone, that there is a community here whose desire is that God will give you victor, and we have a God that preserves us all.
To Donate to Willow Creek Friends Church Click here:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 9, 2023
Jeremiah 31:1–6 (ESV)
1 “At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.” 2 Thus says the Lord: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. 5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit. 6 For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’”
Two thousand years ago, a man was born. He was born to a woman who was barren and to a father who was a priest. His father, while serving in the temple, was visited by an angel proclaiming the birth of a son. This man did not believe the angel and as a result he was struck deaf and dumb for nine months, until the baby that his wife carried was born and named John. Everyone in the land knew of this story. They knew because the priest emerged from the temple that day and was unable to bless the nation. The people of Judah watched as this man grew, and when he left the temple and wondered in the wilderness, they took notice.
Two thousand years ago, that same angel made another visit. This time the messenger of God spoke to a young woman. This young woman was engaged to, but not yet married to a righteous man named Joseph. She was told that she would also bear a son, and that this son would be the cause of the rising and the fall of many in Israel. This young woman rightfully wondered at what was said because she was not yet married and had never been with a man. She wondered and yet she responded, let it be as you have said.
Again, this messenger visited a man. This time the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. Joseph was a decent man, and yet when he heard that his future wife was with child he was concerned. This was a time and place where children out of wedlock were not widely accepted, it was so taboo in this culture that Joseph held this girl’s life in his hands. Yet because he was a decent man, he decided that he would divorce her quietly. He would annul the engagement, to protect his honor. But when the angel visited him in his dream, he was told that Mary’s child was of divine origin. Joseph woke from that dream changed, and proceeded forward, embracing the opportunity God had given.
Two thousand years ago some people believed the impossible. A barren woman giving birth in her advanced years. A young woman, a virgin becoming pregnant and bore a son. A good man was willing to take the shame of society to raise a child of questionable origin. Every aspect of the stories we read in scripture seem impossible.
The man born of the barren woman grew. He went out into the wilderness and began to preach. He cried in that desolate countryside, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.” And people came from across Roman Palestine to listen. People began to wonder if maybe this man was the one. They wondered if John could be the Messiah they were longing for. John responded with a confident no. “I baptize you with water, but he who comes after me, whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, He will baptize with the Spirit and fire.”
The people listened to John. They listened because he had a family that they respected. His father was a priest, and his mother gave birth miraculously. They believed the wondrous story, even though it seemed a bit farfetched, because John stood before them. His dad was unable to speak for nine months and his mother was of advanced age to be giving birth. They wanted John to be something more, but John refused. He stood out in the wilderness and he proclaimed the religious leaders to be a brood of vipers. John often reflects the message of the prophets.
There is a constant cycle within the history of Israel. One of the first sermons I presented here at Willow Creek reflected on these cycles. I spent hours looking up each name of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. While I did this a theme began to emerge. The names cycled through praise of God, praise of the world, praise of technology, and praise of war. Then the names began to focus on a depressed state of being, names that cried out to God for help, and eventually returned with praises to God. Names carry a meaning. We may not always realize what we are saying to the world when we give a child a name, but they do hold meaning. Often the name that we have or give reflects our current state of mind and where our focus resides. When it comes to names, the culture surrounding scripture believed that names held power. They believed that the name given to an individual prophesied over that individual’s life.
Eve means life and she became the mother of all people. Adam means son of earth. Abram means exalted father, and God changed his name to Abraham which means father of a multitude or nations. Moses means savior, or delivered from the water and he became the savior of a nation and guided Israel through the Red Sea. And his sister Myriam means beloved of the sea. We could go through each name in scripture if we wanted, but I believe we are getting the point, but let us go back to John, God is gracious. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He cried in the wilderness, repent for the kingdom of God is near. Repent for God is gracious.
Our names carry meaning. My full name in some instances can mean ruler called by God to warn. My surname, like many comes from a family occupation and oddly I guess my family of Quaker pacifists is descended from military leaders that spent their time in towers to alert of impending invasions. But when we take a step back it holds a different message, a leader called by God to speak. One might make a case that I lived into my name, although this was not always my path.
I have spoken often about my own journey of faith. I grew up in the Friends Church. I came from a long line of faithful followers of Christ from the Friends tradition. And my great great grandmother was a recorded Friends minister. I can look back through the generations and see a constant line of faith. Not all people can speak of this. When I was a teenager, I did not care. I did not want faith, I wanted knowledge. I spent years studying, I wanted to be an astronaut but when I realized that being born deaf would limit my ability to achieve that dream, I began looking to other places, and landed on crop science. The science behind genetic engineering was just emerging when I was in high school and I saw the great benefits in it. I know that this can be a divisive topic but stay with me. I wanted to use the knowledge I had, the intelligence I had to help feed the world by becoming a genetic engineer. I did not worry about faith, because I wanted knowledge and science. I attended worship with my family but for me at the time, it was culture.
This all changed around Halloween in 1997, my little sister died in a car accident. This left my mind, heart, and spirit spiraling out of control. On the outside people thought I was handling the loss well, but my inner life was a mess. In my grief I turned, I sought relief in the pleasures of the flesh and shortly after I was an unmarried father of a child. When I looked into the blue eyes of this boy just minutes old, it was as if twenty years of sermons and bible studies came rushing through my mind, and all at once understood love.
The next year I found myself on a plane flying to Ukraine, where I joined a group of college students teaching conversational American English classes and sharing my faith. While I was in Ukraine, God began to call me to ministry. A few months after returning, I sat in my pickup eating lunch and listening to a sermon on the radio, and in that message the pastor read about the conversation Jesus had with Peter shortly after the resurrection. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these.
When my sister died my life spun, when my oldest son was born the spinning stopped and God revealed His Love to me, when that pastor read those verses, a rush again occurred in my mind. It was as if Jesus was asking me if I loved wheat, sorghum, or corn more than him. And my answer was that I loved God more. That brought me to Kansas City. I came here searching. I wanted to follow God, yet I believed that I was not truly acceptable because of my past.
I came to this very Meeting. You did not judge my past, instead you encouraged me. You allowed me to lead a bible study among the young adults, and this was instrumental in the journey that took me into ministry. I then moved to southern Kansas, and pastored for seven years, and in 2010 my family came back to Kansas City again to minister here at Willow Creek. The place that encouraged my initial calling.
I share this because our lives are filled with cycles. History is filled with cycles. We move through life at times we feel extremely close to God and at other times we are a complete mess. If we rely on ourselves only, this will always lead to our own destruction. We as humans can justify any action, and we can also be derailed by actions.
Jeremiah, the Lord Exalts, was a prophet in Judah. His name of course has meaning, but he lived in a time and place where God was not exactly first in the minds of the people. His ministry largely focused on the pending destruction of Jerusalem. He constantly called them adulterous people, likening them to a wife that was unfaithful to her husband, or a rebellious son that refused to follow the wisdom of his father. John the Baptist and Jeremiah would probably have been friends had they not lived thousands of years apart.
Jeremiah cried out to the people that if they did not turn from the present course, they would find themselves in a dire situation, and his prophecies were fulfilled. The northern kingdom fell to Assyria, and for centuries the southern kingdom allied itself with this vicious nation as a vasal state. They remained independent but only in name. Eventually when Assyria’s strength failed, another nation exerted military might over the region and as the people rebelled against this nation, Babylon, their king entered the holy city and destroyed the very structure that defined the nation’s identity, the temple.
While Judah lived under Assyrian direction, they followed the faith of their overlords. As that power diminished, the king of Judah reestablished the worship of the Most High God. This gave rise to a religious nationalism. They praised God with words but did not follow with their hearts. They worshiped the temple and not the God that took residence in that temple.
This is a story that cycles throughout the recorded history within the pages of scripture. The son of the earth and the mother of life turned from God when their desire for wisdom became greater than the desire for a relationship with God. Then the daughters of men brought pleasure to the sons of God and tradition would say the sons of God gave them forbidden knowledge. Knowledge of war, magic, lust, and manipulation. They used this knowledge, and it threatened the very earth to the point God had to preserve it through a flood. The cycles of praise to God, praise of the earth, praise of humanity, praise of technology, praise of war, despair, cries to God for deliverance, and returning to praise of God. They cycle continues and Judah was amid this cycle, they returned, but not fully. They worshiped the works of human hand instead of God. They were caught in praise for technology and this praise led them to war and destruction.
Yet as Jeremiah spoke of the destruction, he looked beyond. Again, he says. “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, o virgin Israel. Again, you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria’ the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit.”
Jeremiah is not just saying that Judah will return but all twelve tribes. Even the ten tribes lost in Assyrian carnage, will be brought back to fellowship with God.
The word, Again, is used three times in this poetic oracle. We do not always see this simple word as holding importance, but in this instance it does. It is a word of repeat, or extension, it is a word of redemption and renewal. Judah again returned to the land. For four centuries Judah lived in the land, for four hundred years the people of God returned from exile and again inhabited the land of promise. But there is a problem. Judah is not all the tribes, the southern kingdom only represented two of the twelve. The exile remains for the majority of Israel. It remains even to this day because the ten tribes were dispersed among the nations. The ten tribes were dissolved into nations, yet the term again applies.
Jesus was born of a virgin two thousand years ago. He was born into a time and place and everything about his birth was culturally questionable. John’s family was honored and Jesus was questioned. The people of Judah were focused not on the heart but appearances. And John saw that in them when he called them a brood of vipers. They very much reflected the people of Judah during the time of Jeremiah. John watched as Jesus approached and said, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
Jesus was rejected by the faithful among the culture. Everything about him and his ministry threatened the stability of the established culture. They focused on themselves, their traditions, their manners, and customs. They looked at their own establishment and technologies of various sorts instead of the heart of the nation. John called them a brood of vipers. Jesus was rejected because it was better for one to die than to lose the nation. We cycle through this again and again.
Jesus was rejected, he faced an unjust judgement of false accusations, he suffered under the tyranny of ideology, was executed, and was buried. He faced all this with and for us. We are also treated with injustice, at times. Occasionally we can be caught up in ideology instead of humanity. There are moments where we demonize an individual, as we celebrate the nation. Often, we are with the people condemning Jesus. We too are caught in the cycle.
Yet Jesus came and lived among us. He ate with the sinners. He touched the untouchables. He spoke to those who were unaccepted. Even the Greeks and the Syrians came to speak to him, and Jesus welcomed them. Jesus welcomed the nations, and the nations found grace in the wilderness. Judah remains in spiritual exile because the ten lost tribes have yet returned. They are lost, but through Jesus they are found. Jesus came to reverse the curse and stop the cycle. He showed us what true life with God is, as he lived his life. Jesus then provided the means of that life for us, through his death.
We often focus on the death. It was his death that provided atonement for the sins of the world. The hymns we sing often carry the refrain, “we are washed in the blood.” This is not incorrect, but incomplete. Jesus died with and for us. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, that the wage of sin is death. Jesus, the one sinless man, bore those wages even though he did not deserve nor earn it. We all will eventually die. It is a somber reality, but it is true. We inherited death from our first parents the son of the earth and the mother of life. Yet Jesus is with us even in death, he was buried in a tomb separated from the living. But the story does not end there.
Again! Again, we can have life with God. Again, we can have joy. Again, our sorrows will be turned to merrymaking. Again!
“At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel,” He is the God of the lost and the found, the scattered and those that remain. “And they shall be my people.” Jerimiah told Judah that they would be separated from the land of promise that they would face Spiritual death, but…again. Again God will build. Again God will restore innocence and hope. Again!
Jesus the child born in questionable circumstances, grew to be a man rejected by his very people, crucified and left in a cold stone tomb. A man that lived a life loving the very people that would eventually kill him. He laid buried, yet God said again. On the third day Jesus emerged from the tomb, and in doing so he ripped the keys from the grip of death and hades. And as he did this, he reversed the destruction caused by the folly of mankind.
I stand here today proclaiming life after death, because I believe the seemingly impossible story. I believe because I have experienced the sorrow, rejection, and the wages of sin. I proclaim this impossible story, because I have experienced Again! I am not the man I was twenty-three years ago, because God has taken all that I have experienced and rebuilt and reformed it for something else. He has fulfilled in me the prophecy of my own name and has given me a new direction. I am a leader called by God to proclaim the impossible story of hope. I am called to encourage us all to become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. I like each of you am touched by the hope of Jesus. The hope of Again!
To Donate to Willow Creek Friends Church Click here:
To donate directly to Pastor Warner click here: