The Sermon is called “Comforter” and uses Psalm 23 as Scripture. Ch David Little looks at Psalms as letters/poetry/songs between the Creator and humans, and asks the questions of relation: How long has it been you were blessed in relationship by correspondence? More succinctly, how long has it been since you wrote a letter/email/text/emoji – or had one written to you? Psalm 23 is beautiful and the Scripture that is most pulled out the of Bible; why is it that it comforts people?
Psalm 23 – The Comforter
NAMC Worship Service 08232020
The Written Word
Oral speaking used to be preferred in the ancient times, but now written language is considered worthy of merit. In the ancient times – and in the 1st century A.D. or C.E., to be sure – oral communication was thought of as pure, while written was only secondary. The East was first to have printing presses, with woodblock print around 220 C.E. and movable print around 1040 C.E. The Diamond Sūtra is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sūtra from the 'Perfection of Wisdom' genre, and is thought to be the first document from a printing press that dated around 868 C.E. The Islamic world had print about the 9th or 10th century CE., too. Interestingly, however, the Quran wasn’t printed at first because of Islamic doctrine that prohibited printing. The Golden Age of Islam (between the 9th and 15th Century C.E.) saw printing of texts - including passages from the Quran and Hadith - by adopting the Chinese craft of paper making. As the technology grew in the West - especially the Western printing press in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg (which printed the Gutenberg Bible) - it became the opposite. The Western printing press gave rise to The Renaissance and eventually spread throughout the world. In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg's invention to be the most important of the second millennium. The print was and is now the gold standard.
A Love Letter
Have you ever thought back to the days of youth? Now I may be dating myself, but growing up in the 70’s and 80’s – especially as you grew to youth – you wanted a love letter. Any love letter mattered, but it was especially meaningful if it was from someone you loved. I still remember letters from a girl I had a crush on… they were almost magical or wondrous. Just the time and energy to write one means that someone had meaning in their lives – if only for a moment.
Love letters date from ancient times to the present. While it may be texts or emails or emoji’s now, in the past they were handwritten, and even coded. You know, so only you and your loved one could know what secrets you were talking about in your letters!
I looked up love letters on the internet, and there are actually top 10s or 15s from history, fictional literature, celebrities, and others. An example from ancient history is a letter written from Rukimini to Krishna that appears in the Bhagavata Purana. In this Hindu scripture, Rukimini eloquently expresses his affection for Krishna.
Oh Most Beautiful One of all the Worlds, I heard about Your qualities. For all who listen and whom You have entered through the openings of their ears, You thus remove the distress of their bodies. To those who have eyes, the sight of Your beauty constitutes the complete fulfillment of their life’s purpose. Therefore I have without any shame devoted my mind to You Acyuta!
The relational feeling that is known as love is universal, and timeless. It is spiritual – or at least emotional – too. The letters from someone dear can change your heart, your position, your view, and your actions.
Relations between humans are what I call horizontal – meaning they travel from human being to human being (or on earth). But some of us have vertical relationships, too, whether they are Creator God, Gods, or even ancestors. Let’s look at the Psalms for a moment.
The Psalms are a love letter between originally His chosen people and YHWH. The Psalms are located in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Historical data has shown that the Psalms were used by the Israelites for poetry, hymns and songs in their praise and worship to YHWH. Christians have used them for that and more, as Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) brought in the Protestant Age and has made reading the Bible one of the stalwarts of Protestants living life relationally to God. The Baptist view is that the Bible is the Word of God – but only a partial word to show people His identity, will, and have relationships with humans. This is the “truth” of scripture.
The Psalms that we have today were compiled about 200 B.C.E., after the Israelites returned from exile, built the Second Temple, but before the coming of Christ. The editor was clearly different from the psalter, however, because the Psalms were written by different psalters for 1,000 years. Of the five “books” of the Psalms, book I-III were fixed before the second century B.C.E. We will be looking a Psalm 23, in the 1st book of Psalms. It is important to note that the ancient Babylonians have prayers and psalms, the difference is the theological distinctiveness of the Hebrew psalms – which I say is a relationship with the Creator. The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all believe that they came from God (although Islam believes it came down with human mistakes in the Hebrew Bible and the Holy Bible).
If you look carefully at the Hebrew Psalms/Hymns/Songs, you will find that the 150 Psalms are expressions of love, frustration, anger, hope, justice, compassion, mercy, to name a few. 73 are attributed to David, as is the one I have chosen for today.
Most say Psalm 23 is a Davidic psalm. This psalm is the most quoted scripture from the Bible. It is given at funerals, sermons, devotional time, for the military (especially those deployed), and songs (as you hear throughout this service). It brings comfort to those who need it. It says, in brief (or BLUF – bottom line up front) that God is good, merciful, comes to you all the time (especially in time of crisis), and is relational.
Let’s go to the Word of the Lord.
Psalm 23 English Standard Version (ESV)
The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness[b]
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[c]
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[d] goodness and mercy[e] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell[f] in the house of the Lord
Psalm 23:2 Hebrew beside waters of rest
Psalm 23:3 Or in right paths
Psalm 23:4 Or the valley of deep darkness
Psalm 23:6 Or Only
Psalm 23:6 Or steadfast love
Psalm 23:6 Or shall return to dwell
Psalm 23:6 Hebrew for length of days
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It is amazing how many I, my, you’ s and your’ s are within the 6 verses of the 23rd Psalm. That speaks to the relational part – the personal nature of David’s relationship with God. Yet, he also speaks to YHWH (some call Him Jehovah), a very personal letter from David to YHWH and from YHWH to David, if you like relational conversation.
On the comforting side, this was a society of agriculture and livestock, and so sheep is the analogy to start off with. God provides for the Israelites, or David. He provides food, rest, water, and guides them. Even when evil comes in the shadow of the valley of death, God is there, bringing with Him strength, comfort, and abundant blessing. YHWH even puts oil over the reader’s head (which in Israel – anointing - is a relational blessing. Remember young David getting anointed by Samuel to be the next king?). David says that surely goodness and mercy shall travel with him, and he will be at home with YHWH for the length of his days. The Israelites did not have a concept of forever like most of us do today.
God is there always to walk with, protect, care for with sustenance, guide, and comfort David, the Israelites, maybe Abrahamic religions, Christians, and for my part everyone who is in relationship with God.
Dag Hammarskjöld story
What does that look like?
Dag Hammarskjöld who lived from 1905-1961, was the prime minister of Sweden, a member of the Hague Tribunal, the governor of Uppland, and chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation – to give a few of his titles. In a brief piece written for a radio program in 1953, Dag Hammarskjöld spoke of the influence of his parents:
“From generations of soldiers and government on my father’s side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country – or humanity. This service required a sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions. From scholars and clergymen on my mother’s side, I inherited a belief that, in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equals as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God.”
A Renaissance man, Dag’s life was selfless in just about every way. He was an athlete, an artist, had degrees that included History, Law, and 2 degrees in Economics, and was involved politically. In fact, he was the first to coin the phrase “planned economy” and drafted legislation that formed what others would call the “welfare state.” He devoted 31 years of his life to Swedish financial affairs, Swedish foreign relations, and global international affairs.
Mr. Hammarskjöld represented Sweden as a delegate to the United Nations in 1949 and again from 1951 to 1953. He was elected Secretary-General of the UN in 1953 and re-elected in 1957. As Secretary-General, he developed a plan of “preventive diplomacy” and set up the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the first ever by an international organization.
It was in doing his job with the UN that he died. It was in Africa, having been put in charge of the UNEF as commander of operations in the newly liberated Congo. Upon learning that Katanga troops had been fighting with noncombatant forces of the UN, he left by air - to hopefully secure a cease-fire – with the President of Katanga. Unfortunately, he and fifteen others did not arrive there, as their plane went down near the border between Katanga and North Rhodesia.
His journal Markings was published in 1963 after his death, and revealed the inner man and his views. The written word was always part of Dag’s perspective of life. In Dorothy V. Jones’s article, "The Example of Dag Hammarskjöld: Style and Effectiveness at the UN," written in 1994, she points out that Hammarskjöld viewed his work not simply as a political role but as a religious calling. Jones reports:
On his travels around the world Hammarskjöld always took three items with him. These items were found in his briefcase that was recovered after the plane crash that took his life in September 1961: a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms and a copy of the United Nations Charter.
Hammarskjöld apparently understood—quite accurately—that the book of Psalms presents nothing short of God's claim upon the whole world and that it articulates God's will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations. The letters/hymns/songs of the Psalter and the Creator had an amazing impact on Dag and – by virtue of his selfless giving - the world.
Bring it to the Community
Last week Ch Mike took you through Lamentations, and it was good to lament such times as these, in order that we might move forward.
I also want to be in the moment, though, knowing that the things we do have import to us and others, and the relations we have can make a difference as light in the darkness. Let the Psalms be an example for us today.
The horizontal and vertical is what makes sense to me. Jesus said there are two commandments that all the law and prophets follow: love God and love each other. So, the psalter of Psalm 23 talked about the vertical more eloquently than I could.
Through this talk, we have seen where – on the horizontal - relational humans communicate in letters, and people are loved, comforted, and encouraged. You saw – on the vertical - with Dag Hammarskjöld that it can change a life and be a rock that he leans on when the times got tough or he was involved in some struggle.
So, Have you ever written to someone you love and care about? Have you ever wanted to?
Have you ever wished you got a letter from someone? Do you have time, in this pandemic, to sit down and write a letter; type a letter; type an email; a text? Do you have time to relate?
Maybe we are where writing is the norm, but maybe some of you are in a postmodern era where oral is more precious than written… so have you called someone you feel deeply about? Have you FaceTime them or zoomed them to relate to them? Have you ever sat – with personal distancing – with someone and poured your heart to them – had them pour their hearts to you?
In this pandemic, where people are distant from others in ways that we’ve never been, wouldn’t it be worth a try?
Now, you know why Psalm 23 is the most known of the whole Bible. It is a song between the Creator and humans, that speaks of the relationship, goodness, and mercy – or love. Wherever you are, whether it’s a peaceful day in the grass by a lake, or deep in the dark, where evil lurks, God’s there – right by you. And there are 149 other songs or poetry to read and feel loved. Oh, and you will love the Creator while you read silently or sing to the rooftops… and in that connection, you will find peace; Peace that you can bring to the world in relationship.