Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 121 Where does my help come from?

Well, we’ve made it to the end of the summer holidays. We’re at the August Bank Holiday weekend. Now whether you’ve been all over the place, or never made it anywhere, this morning, I want to invite you to come with me on a journey. I hope you’ve got some suitable footwear, because there’ll be some walking and climbing involved, and at times the journey won’t be easy.

But don’t worry if you’re in your heels, or if you’re not feeling particularly energetic this morning. We’re going on a journey, but we’re not going to leave our seats. You see, today’s Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms written and sung on a journey. If you look at the title, the superscription, in tiny capital letters, you’ll see ‘A song of ascents.’ A song of going up - going up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. All together, there are fifteen of them - 120 through to 134.

The pilgrims are on a journey. They’re excited to be going up to Jerusalem, and yet, they know that the way isn’t easy. The journey can be a struggle. If you’re ascending, then you’ve got hills - mentioned in verse 1. Now, some people think that this is Zion’s hill, the hill that Jerusalem sits on - as we sang in our last hymn. If that’s the case, then there’s excitement and enthusiasm as the goal appears in sight.

But I think the hills are seen in a different light. Just think for a moment. If you’re making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you’re walking along, and up in front you see some hills. And you think, well, how am I going to manage that? It’s not like walking along a lovely smooth, level path. The way will get steep, it takes more effort, you’ll probably slow down. How am I going to get over those hills? And you never know the dangers that may lie ahead. Who could be watching, lying in wait? Will I make it to my journey’s end? How will I get through?

That’s why the question comes in the second half of verse 1. The two statements are connected. Looking to the hills raises the question, a big question, the important question. And it might well be the question that you’re asking yourself today. In this journey of life, what are the hills that lie ahead? What are the difficulties you can see rising before you, and you think, how am I going to get through this? Perhaps it’s exam results and a change of prospects. Maybe it’s a letter from the hospital, a diagnosis you weren’t expecting, and suddenly the hills rise before you. Maybe it’s a betrayal in your marriage, words of hate from someone you loved. The road ahead becomes rocky and rough; the hills rise before you, and you’re left asking the question:

‘I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?’ From where does my help come? Where can I find help?

How would you answer your question? How have you answered your question in the past? You see, people try to find help in all sorts of places, from all sorts of people. There is only one answer to the question. There is only one real source of help, for whatever hills we are facing. Look with me at verse 2:

‘My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’

In this answer, we’re told two things about the one who is our helper. The first is that he is the LORD - the capital letter Lord, that is, the covenant making, promise-keeping God. The God who has bound himself to his people by his promises - the God we can depend on. And as if that wasn’t enough, he is also the Lord ‘who made heaven and earth.’ This is a reminder that God made everything - that the particular hills that lay in front of the pilgrim were put there, formed and shaped by the Lord. He’s in control. What a comfort to know that the one we depend on made everything, knows everything, and keeps his promise to us.

In the rest of the Psalm, the ways in which the Lord helps us are spelled out in greater detail. And they’re summed up in one word, the word that’s repeated in nearly every verse. The word is...? Keep, or keeper.

Now we might think of a goalkeeper, someone who keeps the goal, who tries to keep the ball out of the net. Another picture is of the people standing outside Buckingham Palace with the red coats and the bearskin helmets - the guards. So let’s see how the Lord helps us by keeping us:

Firstly, in verse 3-4, by keeping your feet. ‘He will not let your foot be moved.’ That is, your steps will be firm and secure, not slipping and falling as you walk over the hills. And this is a 24-7 keeping - ‘he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ God watches over us and keeps us morning, noon and night. He never dozes, he never drifts off, he’s constantly caring for us.

That was one of the ways Elijah mocked the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel. Do you remember, when Elijah set up the confrontation with the priests of Baal - two sacrifices, and the God who answered by fire was really God? So the priests of Baal cry out from morning to noon, they cut themselves, they dance around, and nothing, no answer, no fire. So Elijah encourages them to shout a little louder - maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be wakened! Our God never sleeps.

What a great verse to remember during those long hours at night. Granny used to have a wee picture frame with the inscription ‘Give your worries to God each night, he’ll be up all night anyway’. The Lord is your helper, and will guard you through the night. Whatever time of the day or night we pray, or cry out to him, he hears, and answers.

But there’s more - he is also with us always. ‘The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.’

God isn’t distant, like a CCTV operator watching from a distance to keep you safe. Rather, the closeness is right there - on your right hand. Think of a personal bodyguard, someone right beside you, casting their shadow over you. There’ll be no harm from sunstroke or moonstroke - fears real or imagined.

The last two verses sum up the scope of the protection. You see, it’s not just for a moment or two - like Superman who hears a cry for help, comes to your aid, then has to fly off to the next crisis. No, the Lord’s keeping is forever, for all time and all eternity.

‘The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.’

What a promise to hold onto! Guarded and kept from now and for ever. So where does your help come from? How do your other options stack up against the Lord, who made heaven and earth? As the hymn Abide With Me puts it, ‘When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th August 2016.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Psalms 42 - 43 Thirsty for God

When was the last time you were thirsty? For me, it was when I sat down to write this sermon, started thinking about being thirsty, and suddenly, my mouth went dry, and all I could think of was a nice cup of tea or glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of thirsting and then you are thirsty, in the same way you think of yawning, and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? Hopefully you won’t all start yawning now!)

Just think of when you were thirsty. It might have been after a hard day’s work on the farm or in the garden. You might have been playing a game outside. Maybe you’ve been going round the shops getting things for going back to school, and then you need to get a drink. Being thirsty means you need water, because you don’t have it. That’s the picture in the opening verses of Psalm 42 - of a deer being thirsty, panting for flowing streams, thirsty after being chased.

Just as that deer is thirsty for water, in the same way, the writer of the Psalm is thirsty - but not for water. Rather, he is thirsty for God. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ If you’ve ever been thirsty for water, I wonder have you ever been thirsty for God?

If thirst for water is because you’re dry and don’t have it, then thirst for God is because we don’t have him, aren’t experiencing him. Have you ever had dry times in your faith? Have you ever felt that longing for God?

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - this being thirsty for God must only be for people who aren’t Christians. Only non-Christians would have this thirst, because they don’t know God, and so they’re searching, desperate, like a man lost in a desert, searching for water. But Psalms 42 & 43 are the experience of a believer. And even if you can’t get your head around that, even if you think that couldn’t be you, because your Christian life is always abounding, always joyful, listen up - you never know when you might need this word from the Lord. And if you do recognise yourself in this situation, you’re longing, thirsty for God, then let’s see how we can hold on in hope.

In these opening verses, the thirst is great; his need is deep. ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’ He’s thirsty for God, but his tears are his food. It’s as if he sits down to breakfast, and the tears flow from his eyes to his mouth. What’s for lunch? More tears. Dinner? Tears. And it’s made worse as other people ask, ‘Where is your God?’ Not once or twice, but all the time. And if it’s not bad enough, verse 4, he remembers when things were different:

‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng (the crowd) and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.’ He looks back and remembers how things used to be - he was one of the worship leaders; he was a musician, a singer, in the choir, in the thick of it, leading God’s people in praise. But now he’s far away, thirsting, longing for God.

Perhaps you look back to when things were different. You remember a time when you were involved in lots of things, and now you’re on the fringes, or even further away. You felt so near to God, but now, so distant. Where is he?

Up to now, the writer has been speaking to God. But now, he speaks to someone else. Not anyone around him. But himself. I wonder do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes - you see, whether we realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on. Whether it’s worries being recycled and repeated on and one; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling; or processing what someone said to you or about you; or psyching yourself up to get out of bed or make that awkward phonecall.

So here, the writer asks himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?’ And you think - you already know! You’ve already said why! But do you see how he gives himself a good talking to? ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ He turns the focus from himself and his own problems, and instead turns his focus on God. He’s preaching to himself, reminding himself of the gospel, encouraging himself based on God’s promises. (Just as we were encouraged to do last week to one another from Psalm 95/ Heb 3).

Sometimes, though, we might think that if we pray about something once, then it’ll all be sorted and solved instantly. But the Psalm continues. And in this second section, the pain almost seems to get worse. His soul is cast down, ‘therefore I remember you from...’ He feels distant from God. ‘from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.’ On the service sheet we have a map - Hermon is where the Jordan river begins up at the top, and down further is Jerusalem, about 120 miles away (further than here to Dublin). He’s separated from the temple, and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him; the enemy keeps oppressing him. their taunts are like a deadly wound. They keep asking, ‘Where is your God?’ What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is so distant.

And it’s even more painful because of how he describes God. He’s the LORD who commands his steadfast love by day; the God of his life whose song is with him. God is ‘my rock.’ Even these great and glorious things about God can seem like a burden, when God is silent and distant.

So once again, the writer talks to himself. Again, he asks why he’s cast down. Again he tells himself to hope in God, that one day he will praise him, because he is ‘my salvation and my God.’ Don’t give up, even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Keep talking to yourself. Hold on in there!

When we get to the third section, in Psalm 43, the cry becomes even more desperate. Here the call is for vindication - for God to act and defend his cause. If you were accused of doing something wrong, then someone came forward and showed that you hadn’t done anything wrong, then you would be vindicated. You would be in the clear.

The writer wants God to intervene and demonstrate his power. You see, even in the darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him and God seems distant, he still continues to call to God. It’s the very nature of this Psalm, isn’t it, a cry to God?

In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 43, the writer calls for resolution: ‘Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy his thirst. He asks for God’s light and truth to lead him and bring him, and cause him to praise. It’s precisely what he needs - light for the path (being so far away), and truth (surrounded by the enemy’s lies).

It’s what we need as well - whether we’re far from God because we’ve never really known God before, and we’re still wandering far from him; or whether we’ve been a Christian for a long time, and yet, things have slipped, we’ve found ourselves far away, lost our joy. What we need us for God to send his light and truth - or rather, the one who is the light of the world, the one who is the way and the truth and the life - Jesus, the one who brings us near to God, brings us into God’s family and causes us to worship.

And as these Psalms finish, there comes the chorus again. As he continues to pray, so he continues to talk to himself as well. He repeats the exact same words, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need - we hold on to a promise, to a commitment, like a dog with a bone, not letting go, holding on for dear life.

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. It’s as we do this that we find that hope, which brings us to praise him, our salvation and our God.

Our thirst for God is only satisfied when we come to the one who says in John 7 ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st August 2016.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 95 - Worship and a Warning

A few years ago, I went on a stag do to do some go karting. As you can imagine, when fifteen fellas get together, there’s plenty of competition, lots of chat about who’s going to win. When the races started, I was more like someone out for a Sunday afternoon drive compared to some of the boy racers - some had even brought their own helmets and gear. But the thing that stood out that day was the time before the racing started. We were gathered in a wee room, and the owner gave us a short talk. First of all, he welcomed us and told us to have fun, but then came the second thing - the warnings. We watched a safety video, and had to sign the disclaimer, that if we were injured it would be our own fault. Welcome and warning, side-by-side.

It’s what we find in Psalm 95, in these very familiar words. There’s a welcome - a call to worship; and a warning, and you can’t have one without the other. So let’s dive in, to see how the welcome of worship of the warning of worship sit together. And first, the welcome.

I wonder if you’ve ever received a summons to serve on a jury? The letter arrives in the post, and you are obliged to turn up on the day, whether you want to or not. Is that how the opening words of verses 1 and 6 come across? ‘Oh come’. Here’s a summons, you have to do this, you have to come along to worship, whether you want to or not? Now, maybe some Sunday mornings it might feel like a struggle to get up, and you could think of a million and one other places to be. But that’s not the sense of the call to worship.

It’s more like a wedding invitation, a joyful welcome to come along, to be a part of something exciting, to be caught up in celebration. Oh come! And what is it we come to? Well, in Psalm 95 we have what I think of as a row of lettuces. You know that I’m not much of a gardener. The only thing I can grow is weeds. If I needed lettuce for salad sandwiches, I would buy it in the shop. But some of you are gardeners; you might even have a row of lettuces growing (if it’s the time of year for them - I don’t even know!). Do you see the row of lettuces here in Psalm 95? ‘Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!’

There’s our row of lettuces. And there’s another mini row in verse 6 - ‘let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’ Here’s the welcome to worship, as we come together to worship. In these words we’re not speaking to God, our eyes aren’t on heaven as such; our eyes are all around us, urging and encouraging one another to sing, to make a joyful noise, to give thanks.

It’s like the team sports in the Olympics, as each member supports and cheers on the rest of the team. The rugby sevens teams seem to come together for a hands in the centre kind of cheer before they go out to play the match. We’re to be doing the same - encouraging those around us as we sing out; or being encouraged when we don’t find it easy.

Now why would we want to come together to worship? Why should we praise with loud singing? We’re given the reason in verses 3-5. Do you see the ‘for’ at the start of verse 3? Here’s why: ‘For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.’ As we encourage one another to worship, we recognise who God is - he is the great God, the God of gods, if you like. In fact, he’s the only God.

When Psalm 95 was written, the nations all around believed there were lots of gods and goddesses, each localised, each one in charge of something in particular. There would be the god of a mountain; of the sea; of a piece of land. Up on the north coast, there’s an example of this sort of pagan thinking. High above Magilligan Point, on the Bishop’s Road, stands a statue of ManannĂ¡n mac Lir. That was the statue that was cut down last year, but now replaced. He was believed to be the Celtic god of the sea, so if you were going on a sea journey, you would sacrifice to him, to keep him onside.

But Psalm 95 cuts through all that. The LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. And here’s why (v4): ‘In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.’ Our God rules over all, because he made everything, and holds it in his hands. Here’s the reason why we encourage one another to sing and make joyful noise!

Perhaps you came today feeling as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. As we sing, praise and give thanks to our God, we’re reminded that we don’t need to carry the weight of the world - our God holds it in his hands. He’s in control. He doesn’t need a hand to hold it - he can do it all by himself.

Now in verse 6, the pattern repeats - another welcome to worship, as we speak to and encourage one another to worship, followed by the reason why. But notice that this time round it’s quieter. In fact, there’s no noise at all, unless you count a creaky hip or the wee sigh as you get down... ‘Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’

You see, worship isn’t just loud singing. Worship is also bowing and kneeling before the LORD - recognising him as our God; submitting to him. And we do this together, urging one another to bow. Why would we surrender to him, bow before him, come humbly to him? Again, we have the reason, the ‘for’ - ‘For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’

Even though God is great and glorious, reigning over all he has made, even so, he is not distant. He is our God, our shepherd king as we thought about last week - again with this picture of his people and his sheep. He holds the world in his hand, and we are the sheep of his hand. He holds us as well.

So we have the call, the welcome to worship, and the reason why. But then suddenly, at the end of verse 7, we have the warning - a warning we still need to hear. You see, it’s not enough to worship. It’s not enough to be noisy and loud and then merrily go our way. As we worship, in singing and in bowing, we must also be listening, ready to hear and obey.

‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ The warning for the people of God still stands for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear - that even when we’re worshipping, we could still fall away, if our hearts become hard, if we refuse to listen and obey.

We’re presented with a case study from the history of God’s people. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, freedom from slavery, salvation through the Passover Lamb, escape through the Red Sea, where they arrived in the wilderness. It was here that disaster struck. The very same people who had trusted in the Passover suddenly refused to listen. Their hearts wanted to be back in Egypt, back in slavery. They feared for their lives because of a lack of water. They questioned whether God was really with them (Ex 17:7).

These were the people who had sung the songs of salvation; who were on the way to the promised land, guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, yet they refused to listen, refused to trust God any more. They (v8) hardened their hearts.

Maybe you’ve seen this in a child. Their mum tells them to do something, and they say ‘no.’ And nothing will change their minds, not bribes, or threats. If you’re the parent, you only want what is best for them, but they just can’t or won’t see it. That’s how it was with God’s people. They hardened their hearts. They wouldn’t listen. And so, despite having seen evidence of God’s goodness and saving power up close and personal, they turned away, they have not known my ways.

We’re told that God loathed that generation. They were barred from the land of promise, the promised rest of the land of Israel. For forty years they would wander in the wilderness until that whole generation had died out (except for Joshua and Caleb).

Now you might be thinking, what has that got to do with us? That was thousands of years ago, far, far away. But the writer to the Hebrews in our second reading makes clear that the warning still stands, and all because of that word ‘today.’ Today, if we hear God’s voice, we can enter into that promised rest, a rest from labour, a rest that comes by trusting the promise.

And how do we make sure that we’ll receive the promise and enter that rest? It’s what we’ve seen in Psalm 95, and explained in Hebrews 3:12-13:
‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’

Exhort one another. Encourage one another. Do it together - the welcome of worship, as we urge one another to worship our great God in loud singing and in humble submission. It’s so important that we are here for one another, not just for ourselves and what we get out of our time together. It’s why our prayer diary for today is to ‘look for opportunities to encourage others as we meet to worship.’ If each of us are on the look out to encourage everyone else, then all of us will encourage and be encouraged. Perhaps before you leave your pew, you can pray for the people around you, in front, beside or behind. Perhaps you can chat over coffee about something more than the weather - find out how you can pray for someone this week, what’s been going on with them, and then catch up next week to see how your prayers have been answered - what an encouragement to praise that would be!

We need each other. We can’t do it on our own. It’s why we’re called into the church, the family of God, the people of his pasture. We welcome one another to worship - singing to our great God; and bowing before our shepherd King. And this applies every week, but even more so today - today, if you hear his voice, if you are prompted to play your part, to step up, or speak up, or sing up, or pray up, then don’t harden your hearts. Don’t turn away. Enter his rest. Receive his grace. Submit to his word, as we seek to do that together.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mysterious Mussenden

Most Saturday nights when I was growing up, we had our dinner in The Wellington House in Dromore. More commonly known as McFadden's, it was the place to get good food. (Incidentally, it's now up for sale, if you'd like to invest in Dromore). In the back lounge, there were a series of pictures of famous places in Northern Ireland - far away, exotic places I only knew through the picture in McFadden's - Carrickfergus Castle, Derry's walls, and there might have been others. The one that really stood out, though, was the Mussenden Temple.

Many's a time I looked at the picture, wondering about the strange shaped building on the cliff edge, having never seen it in the flesh. I didn't even know where it was, or how you could get to it. All I knew was what I saw in the picture.

The Mussenden Temple stands on the cliff edge of the Downhill Demesne, the palace, now ruined, built by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and the Bishop of Derry. The Temple itself was intended to be a library, named after his niece, Frideswide Bruce, who married Daniel Mussenden. Completed in 1783, and now in the hands of the National Trust, Mussenden Temple continues to inspire visitors - visible from all around, and also providing amazing views - it's well worth a visit.

Here are a selection of photos I've taken featuring the temple in some shape or form.

Dramatic clifftop location.

Looking out through the window onto Downhill Beach.

The train track from Coleraine to Londonderry runs beneath Mussenden Temple.

Watching over Castlerock Beach.

The door is open.

As seen from Downhill Beach.

Golden hour.

Train approaching.

Train entering the tunnel.

Push the button - forced perspective!

Mysterious Mussenden has me mesmerised!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 23 The Lord's My Shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd. These are probably the most famous words in the whole Bible. That one, simple, little phrase speaks volumes about the relationship we can have with God. And that one, simple, little phrase is the one that is used at most funerals - either said or sung. But this is more than just a funeral day psalm - this is an everyday psalm, one that we can come back to day after day.

Just consider exactly what David is saying when he says The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD (in capital letters) is the covenant name of God. It was the name that was given at the burning bush, as Moses met with the living God. It means ‘I am that I am’. The God who is, the I AM, the God of the universe. And David says that this all-mighty, all-powerful God is a shepherd. No, he goes further, and says that this Lord is ‘my’ shepherd.

I must confess that I don’t know much about shepherding and sheep. I know that they’re nice to look at as you drive along the road, and I know that lambs taste nice, but that’s about as far as it goes. If you’d asked me, I might have thought that being a shepherd was all about cuddling fluffy sheep. I wouldn’t have a notion about how to be a real life shepherd. But David knew what it was all about.

Do you remember whenever King Saul had rejected God, and so God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the new king? He comes to Bethlehem, to the home of Jesse, and after seven sons, all of whom look like fine fellows, Saul asks if there are any other sons? Just one, but he’s out minding the sheep, not even thought of. The youngest son was made to look after the sheep, such was the lot of the poor shepherd.

And yet David, the shepherd boy, says that the Lord is his shepherd. And because the Lord is his shepherd, he has three words of testimony - three benefits of knowing the Lord as his shepherd. Let’s look at them in turn.

The first one comes in the very first verse. And this was always one that puzzled me when I was wee. You see, we’d sing the Scottish metrical version we’ve just sung, and it left me wondering why you wouldn’t want the Lord to be your shepherd? ‘The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want.’ But that’s not what David is saying here! It’s not that he doesn’t want the shepherd Lord; it’s that when the Lord is your shepherd, you’ll not be in want - a very different thing altogether! As our first hymn version put it: ‘I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.’

When the LORD is your shepherd, then you can say ‘I shall not want.’ This is a word of provision - every need taken care of. Just look at how each line begins in verses 2&3 - ‘He’. Here’s how the Lord provides, as he does all these shepherding things for his sheep: He makes me lie down in green pastures - there is rest here. He leads me beside still waters - there is refreshment here. He restores my soul - there is restoration here. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The shepherd takes care of the sheep, in leading them in the right way, to get the things they need at the right time. Have you experienced this provision of the Lord? Have you been able to look back and see how the Lord has ordered things along the way? Will you trust that he will continue to provide for you?

The first thing that David can say is ‘I shall not want.’ But that doesn’t mean that everything is always easy and straightforward. You see, as we follow the paths of righteousness, we can find ourselves in the valley of deep darkness, a scary, shady place, where dangers can lurk.

And we might be tempted to think that we’re left to our own devices when we’re passing through the valley. The Lord might have been with us in the green pastures and by the still waters, but what about here, in the valley? And look at how the valley is described - the shadow of death. Are we all alone when we come under death’s shadow as we mourn for loved ones? Will we be abandoned when we enter that valley ourselves?

Once again, David can speak out, and declare that there is blessing for the one who knows the shepherd. Do you see what he says in verse 4? ‘I will fear no evil.’ There might well be things to be afraid of, but David will not fear. And why is that? Well, look how he continues. ‘For you are with me.’

Notice that he moves from speaking about the Lord as ‘he’ (v2-3), to now ‘you’ (v4&5). He’s emphasising the nearness of the Lord who is with him. It’s a bit like walking home at night. You want someone with you, someone who will scare off anyone tempted to attack you. But look at what it is in particular that brings comfort. When you think of things to comfort you, you might think of a child’s teddy bear, or a comfort blanket, something nice and cuddly to cling to - but that’s not what brings comfort here, in the valley. Do you see what it is?

‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The rod was the shepherd’s attacking / defensive weapon. And David knew how to use it in his shepherding days. In 1 Samuel 17, as David prepares to fight against Goliath, he says this: ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.’ The rod was for protection. And the staff - think of a bishop’s crook - was for correction, for keeping the sheep in line.

Even in the darkest days, we do not need to fear any evil, when the Lord is our shepherd, and we have his protection.

The final benefit that comes from having the Lord as our shepherd - after provision and protection - is promise. We can have a sure and secure future. Along the way, the Lord prepares a table, to give us strength for the journey, a table in the presence of our enemies. He makes it possible for us to make it home - food, oil, an overflowing cup. At college, one of the tricks to play was to pour out the water at the dinner table, and to fill the glasses to the very, very brim, so that if you didn’t have a steady hand, you’d end up getting soaked. But this speaks of more than enough, plentiful supply.

But more than that, we have the promise of verse 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The commentators suggest that this isn’t a casual following, but more like a chasing - if you can imagine goodness and mercy like two sheepdogs snapping at your heels, keeping you going, guiding you every day of your life.

To where? Well, the Psalm comes to the final word, this word of promise: ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ The wandering days are over. We’ll be at home with the Lord. And not just for a day or two, but for ever. Holidays are great. You’re somewhere nice, you can have a good time, but then comes the last night, the last morning, and you’re back on the plane or back in the car and they’re over, just like that. The promise is that we are at home with the Lord for ever. Always. Never ending.

Psalm 23 speaks to us of provision - ‘I shall not want’; protection - ‘I will fear no evil’; and promise - ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord.’ David the shepherd boy knew that the Lord was his shepherd. But we see each of these themes so much clearer as we follow the Lord Jesus, who declares in John 10 ‘I am the good shepherd.’

Jesus the good shepherd provides - ‘I came they they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10). Jesus the good shepherd protects - ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:15). Jesus the good shepherd makes a promise - ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (Jn 10:28).

These blessings of provision, protection, and promise are for those who can confidently say, ‘The Lord is MY shepherd.’ As you come to his table today, come in confidence as you remind yourself of his blessings. Listen to his voice, calling you, keeping you close, as he leads you to his eternal home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.