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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 04/03/2011

And so we come to the best known of all the psalms, maybe the best known six verses in the whole Bible.  But I dare not preach on the 23rd Psalm for fear of ruining it for you.  I’m always reminded of Mark Twain talking about how fascinated he was with the Mississippi River and with the skill it took to navigate boats down the river.  He decided he wanted to learn how to do it, how to read the currents and winds, the various hazards and other peculiarities of the Mississippi, so he did.  What he found though was that in doing so, while he had learned a useful skill, he had lost his sense of mystery about the river, and he knew that having lost it, he could never get it back.

I don’t want to do that to you because there is something of a mystery about the 23rd Psalm and the ability of this psalm to provide comfort and reassurance to all kinds of people, even those who may not be terribly religious.  That comfort and reassurance has nothing to do with close analysis and interpretation; something else is at work and it’s best to leave it be, so that’s what I’m going to do, other than to say a couple of things. 

First of all, I’ll bet that many of you hang on to the King James Version of this psalm with all the thou’s and eth’s.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me,” and so forth.  That’s the version I learned when I was a kid it and my guess is that’s how many of you learned it as well.  In my opinion, you really can’t improve on it; other versions just don’t sound quite right.

This is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, it dates back to 1611 and for the most part we don’t use it much these days.  Other translations have appeared that are truer to the original Greek and Hebrew.  Some translations use more contemporary language in an effort to make the Bible more accessible to modern readers and there is nothing wrong with any of that; it’s good actually and whether it’s for interpretive work or just for general reading, mostly we prefer these newer translations. 

But there is also something to say for the elevated language of the King James.  It adds an element of dignity and grandeur and majesty to the text which can serve as a way to set the words of scripture apart, a way to say that these words are different just as much of what we do in worship is different.  When you come here it’s not the same as going to a show and when the lessons are read it’s not the same as reading quotes from Oprah’s most recent choice for her book club, not that she doesn’t make some good choices; but the words of scripture carry a different weight and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that once in awhile.  Anyway, a brief defense of the King James Version.

King James is not the original language of the Bible though even though it’s what Charlton Heston spoke in all the biblical epics he appeared in.  Hebrew of course is the original language of the Old Testament, the original language of the 23rd Psalm and there’s an interesting feature concerning the Hebrew of this psalm.  It’s a feature that may be totally insignificant and irrelevant, or maybe not. 

That feature is that the words translated, “For thou art with me” come at the exact center of this psalm.  In Hebrew there are 26 words before that phrase and 26 words after it.  Does that mean anything?  I can’t say for sure; there is mystery about the composition of many of the psalms and you can’t know for sure what the intent of any given author might have been, but such structural features are sometimes significant; they sometimes do contribute to the intended meaning. 

It could be that for the psalmist, even with all the other beautiful and comforting imagery present, those are the words that lie at the heart of it.  Actually it doesn’t really matter whether or not that was the psalmist’s intent, because “For thou art with me” does lie at the heart of our faith.  Those words make it personal; they make it relational.  Further evidence of the relational aspect of this psalm is that from that point on it moves into direct conversation; in the King James this is where you get all the “thou’s” and “thy’s.”  “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, etc.” In the 26 words before “for thou art with me” the psalmist was talking about God; in the last 26 he’s talking to God; it’s a relationship.

That’s worth celebrating, which at first seems wrong during Lent.  We don’t celebrate Lent after all, we observe it.  But the Fourth Sunday in Lent is sometimes known as Laetare Sunday, laetare meaning rejoice in Latin with that being the first word in one of the prayers of the day in the Latin Mass.  Part of the intent for this Sunday was to provide encouragement to persevere in observing the remaining days of Lent.  So maybe it’s OK to celebrate a little today on Laetare Sunday, to celebrate the relationship, to celebrate “for thou art with me.”

Along that line there is a degree of un-Lenten playfulness if you will in today’s lessons, the first lesson and the gospel anyway.  It’s playfulness that helps to highlight the nature of the relationship we might celebrate today as the main character in each of the lessons, David in the first lesson and the man born blind in the gospel, could wind up saying, “For thou art with me??”

The first lesson is the story of the selection of the shepherd boy David to be the next king of Israel.  Actually though David isn’t really the main character here, Samuel is and Samuel doesn’t want to go and anoint a new king.  Samuel was kind of the house prophet/advisor to the king.  He was afraid that if Saul, the current king for whom he is supposed to working, finds out that he’s been sent to anoint a new king, he’ll kill him; Saul was known to have a bit of a temper.  The Lord however says to Samuel, “What’s your problem?  Lie a little.  Just say you’ve come to offer a sacrifice.”  So Samuel goes to Jesse, David’s father, who wasn’t thrilled to see him because he was afraid that Samuel was still working for Saul and it seems that everyone was afraid of Saul.  But Samuel tells his lie and the rest of the story is more familiar.

All of Jesse’s sons are paraded by Samuel who assumes that the most physically impressive must be the next king; after all Saul’s primary attribute in being selected as king was that he was tall.  But it turns out that little David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, brought in from tending the sheep, is the one to be anointed, a surprise to everyone, perhaps leaving Samuel to say, “Thou art with him??” and David, “Thou art with me??”  Are you sure you got this right?

The story of the man born blind also has its humorous, playful aspects.  It starts with a serious theological question, serious for the time anyway, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” because the assumption was that it had to be someone’s fault.  Jesus dismisses that line of thinking and proceeds to heal the man then disappears offstage for awhile and that’s when the fun starts.

You get various groups of people, the neighbors, the Pharisees, other Jews coming and going trying to figure out what has happened because it’s hard for them to believe it.  Some think it’s not really the guy they’ve seen sitting there begging for years, it must just be someone who looks like him.  Some decide that he must have never really blind to begin with but that he’d been faking all that time.  The Pharisees, in their wisdom, decide that maybe Jesus really did heal the man but it doesn’t count because he did it on the Sabbath when no work was to be done.  The man’s parents are questioned but they just say “Keep us out of this; ask him, he’s old enough.”  And the man himself just says, “All I know is that I was blind, and now I can see.”  Having become resigned to his condition of blindness, he too finds it rather hard to believe, in effect saying, “Thou art with me??”

That is at the center of our faith.  Our own Lenten confession and reflection and repentance may lead us to the same kind of questioning as we look more honestly at ourselves knowing that we don’t deserve God’s presence with us. “Thou art with me?”  But it’s true.  Thou art with me is true.

The six verses of the 23rd Psalm have a unique way of making this truth real.  That’s worth celebrating!  Whatever version you use, it’s worth celebrating, even during Lent.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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