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  • Mariah Martin

Counting Sheep

Psalm 23


Have you ever had the experience when you, for some reason, say a word over and over and over again and somehow the word sounds really weird? Like it loses it’s meaning?

Well I googled this sensation to see if this was a thing, and it is! The psychological name for it is: semantic saturation.


This is a fancy way of saying that the repetition of a word makes your brain confused. The syllables and sounds that used to make sense don’t any more. This also happens if you inspect or over-analyze something. Like a painter who is obsessing over a detail in her picture, until she steps back to see the entire thing. The brain cell that fires in response to reading a word simply gets tired from firing over and over again.


The reason I bring this up is because I think that this sensation can happen to us with well-known bible stories or verses.How many of you were, let’s be honest, forced to memorize Psalm 23?


Memorization takes repetition, and perhaps this beautiful passage has lost its meaning from over-use. Psalm 23 is like a cockroach. It refuses to die.


It has weathered years of people passing it along orally, then it was in written form, and has remained relatively the same for thousands of years. And it is still relevant!


This reference may not make sense to all of you, but for those of you who know the band Panic! at the Disco, think of Psalm 23 like Panic! at the Disco. It was as relevant when I was in middle school as it is now. Culture has refused to shut the door on Brendon Urie all this time.


Back to the psalm, if we get too close to it, we might take for granted the details and beautiful imagery that dance throughout this psalm. So lets take a fresh look, shall we?


The first verse, translated in the NRSV as, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” could also be translated as, “I shall lack nothing.” Said another way, “Because I have everything I need, I don’t want anything else.” Some commentators have said that this first verse is the climax of the psalm, or maybe the thesis.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Period.


The rest is simply digging deeper into what this statement means.How would our society be different if we all actually took this to heart? It would be the death of capitalism…but that is another sermon, for another day.


Verse 2: He makes me lie down in green pastures. Before we continue on to this verse, I would like to paint a picture for you about what the environment is like that this psalmist was describing.


It is hard for us to truly imagine this psalm coming to life in our world today because not many of us spend our free time hanging out with sheep. According to commentaries, and my sister’s description of what she experienced when she went on her study abroad term in the Middle East, the climate is dry and dessert-like. They get rain only a few months out of the year. Without much rainfall, the sun just cooks the ground with relentless heat during the summer.


According to Gene Rice, “…the harshness of the landscape is occasionally relieved by ‘hollows as gentle and lovely as those ravines are terrible where water bubbles up and runs gently between grassy banks through the open shade of trees.’”[1]


My sister said that these type of oases do exist, in fact she went with her group to visit one of them, but they are incredibly hard to find. Only the best shepherds knew where to find these little havens amidst the deathly and dangerous dessert-like climate.


So when the psalmist talks in verse 3 about leading the sheep to green pastures and still waters, he is describing a shepherd who knows how to lead their sheep to these little spaces of oasis, where the sheep can rest from the heat, eat fresh grass and drink from still water.


In Hebrew the “still water” is literally translated as, “waters of rest.”[2] Additionally, water that moves quickly might scare the sheep, and they will refuse to drink from it. So the shepherd would need to search for still waters.[3]


Verse 3: He restores my soul. The Hebrew word for soul is “Nephesh,”which is what God breathed into Adam, God’s first creation. Nephesh is the breath of life, it is what animates us, what makes and keeps us alive. Michelle Hershberger described nephesh as the “you of you,” it is the fingerprint of the Divine within each one of you. It is the core of who you are, the part of you that only God knows.


So when the verse says, “he restores my soul,” the psalmist is saying that God—this good shepherd, gives us a place to catch our breath, an oasis that returns us to ourselves, to God-in-us.


Also, fun fact about sheep. Sheep are like cows, their digestive systems are slow moving, so when they eat grass, they need to digest it by chewing and chewing and chewing…also known as chewing their cud.


But when they do this they enter into this semi-conscious state.[4] It’s like they are hypnotized, or in a trance from their chewing. This is when they are at their most vulnerable.

It is kind of like we are when you are about to fall asleep, or have just woken up. You are by no means alert and ready to fend off danger. So the shepherds needed to find a grassy and safe space for the sheep to eat and lie down to do their sheep hypnosis thing. But getting to these safe spaces was no walk in the park.


Verse 3b: "He leads me in the right paths for his name’s sake." Because of the nature of God, because of who God is, God will continue to steer us onto the path of right relationship. The path that will be the most life-giving.


Verse 4: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me."

Most might have memorized the line this way: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil."


My sister says that the whole of Israel is mostly hilly. The valleys that this verse is referring to cut through and divide the hilly terrain. When Sierra was there among those hills, she saw horizontal lines carved into their sides.At first she thought that they were patterns of erosion, but then she learned that these were sheep paths formed from thousands of years

and thousands of sheep creating walkways as they travel from place to place on the hills.


According to one commentator, “Often sheep are forced between steep narrow valleys (where there are) large boulders that cast deep shadows.”[5]In these shadows predators lie in wait. Therefor these shadows literally become shadows of death.


4b: "Your rod and staff, they comfort me." A shepherd uses the rod to protect against predators, the staff to guide the sheep and steer them away from danger.


Verse 5: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." The psalmist has seemingly switched from a shepherding metaphor to one of hospitality. However, while anointing a head with oil might point to the duties of the host for the guest, shepherds have pointed out that they will pour oil over the head of sheep to prevent flies from laying eggs in their noses and mouths. If they don’t do this, the fly larvae could literally drive the sheep crazy, making them thrash their head around or hit their heads against trees or the ground, attempting to rid themselves of the flies and horrible irritation.[6] When the seasons change and the flies come, the sheep become incredibly agitated and fearful. Oil is their only respite.


Verse 6: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." A better translation would be, “Surely goodness and mercy will pursue or chase me.” Usually the word used for pursue has a violent or dangerous implication. Here, though, this pursuit is one of God’s, “active, even frantic, attempt to reach us with the gift of life...”[7]


6b: "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." This line is often thought of as an assurance of the eternal life we Christians will have access to after we die. We will live with God for eternity. However if you stop and think about this line, from a sheep’s perspective, this might not be so hopeful and inspirational.


What happens to the lambs or sheep that are led to the temple? The temple is the end of their days; it is where they are sacrificed. So, if we are the sheep, is the temple a place where we are no longer, or the place where we will spend eternity?


Sheep are killed so that the shepherd can live; yet Jesus came and called himself the Good Shepherd.[8] The Good Shepherd does not abandon the sheep when danger is present. The Good Shepherd lays down its life for the sheep. And that’s what Jesus did. He reversed the roles.


When we come to the gospels, we aren’t the sheep anymore, Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb. Then in Revelation we see Jesus as the lamb that was slain, but is still standing.[9]


But what does this mean for us today? We don’t spend much time with sheep or shepherds…or in temples where sacrifices are made. When was the last time you were in a dark valley? Or had flies up your nose?


These facts and insights about this psalm are interesting, they help us see deeper into the world of Psalm 23, but all of this means nothing if it doesn’t impact our lives here and now.


Evil is here, alive and well. And I won’t speak for you all, but I do fear it. What do we do if we feel as though we live in the darkest shadow? And it’s true, I have all I need. This doesn’t stop from continuing to acquire what I want… But I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t choose to be born to a middle-class, white (read: privileged) family who can put food on the table.

My cup surely does overflow.

What about those who don’t have what they need? Let alone what they want?What about those who have empty tables and empty cups? I am tempted to end my sermon here. There are no satisfying answers to these questions. These are uncomfortable, impossible realities that we must face.


Yet, I feel compelled to share where I see hope in the face of hopelessness. I am called to speak the Good News where I see it. And I do see it. But maybe not in the same way that this psalm is normally used to give hope and security.


While most see this psalm as hope for life after death, as one commentator says, “This psalm gives us hope for the here and now, hope for life before death.”[10]This psalm never promises that there will be no darkness, no evil, or no enemies. In fact, it bluntly acknowledges the visceral, true faces of evil and danger that we encounter in this lifetime.


Yet this psalm promises that even in the darkness, in the presence of evil, while we are sitting right next to our enemies, God is present. I think part of our difficulty with sin, with evil, with tragedy, is that our suffering is so great that we are blinded to God’s presence.


It’s like when you are about to get a migraine and spots appear in your vision. The blindness is an unsettling warning that extreme pain will soon follow. We can’t look for God when we are gutted by pain. We need others to see for us.


Yet I think that the even bigger obstacle to seeing God in our pain than our blindness is the fact that we have placed the presence of God in a neat box. We recognize God in the moments that defy explanation.


Like when my mom miraculously found her lost hearing aid. We feel God in goose bumps. And in kindness. But generally we think of God as far away, occasionally reaching down a hand to intervene when God wants to.


I think we could benefit if we stretched our expectations for how and when God shows up. What if God was much closer? What if heaven, the house of the Lord, wasn’t in the sky, or just in the future, but all around us, right now?


If we are to fight the crushing tide of loneliness, fear, self-hatred, and despair, then we must learn to see in the dark. We have to look for God in the very middle of tragedy. This is hard. What kind of God lives in war, allows for illness, or can be found in the depths of depression? One way to do this is to look for the helpers.


Listen to this quote from the beloved Mister Rogers:

“You know my mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be a really bad catastrophe…she would say always look for the helpers, there will always be helpers, just on the sidelines…rescue teams, medical people, anybody coming into a place where there is tragedy….because if you look for the helpers you will know that there is hope.”[11]

Maybe God is in the helpers.


On Tuesday of last week, three days before the last day of school in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, while students in Ms. Harper’s English classroom were watching “The Princess Bride” a classmate walked in and pulled out a gun saying, “Don’t you move.”


In that moment Kendrick Castillo, a teenager fascinated by cars and engineering, lunged to stop the gunman, and was shot and killed. Eight other students were wounded in the shooting, carried out by two fellow students.


Kendrick Castillo’s automatic, self-sacrificial actions gave other students a precious few seconds of cover to dive under their desk or rush the gunman. A cluster of boys then tackled the gunman, allowing others to flee the classroom.[12]

Can you imagine? I want to put this out here right now, I am not here to discuss gun control. I am here to bear witness to a boy whose instinct was to throw himself in the way of danger to protect his friends. No one should ever be put in this situation, let alone a teenage boy with so many years ahead of him.

So much unfulfilled potential.

This is the darkest valley.


Kendrick literally sat at the same table, in the same classroom, with the boy who ended his life. But Kendrick didn’t have a shepherd to protect him from this evil.


He will never have the opportunity to follow his right path.

Where were goodness and mercy when he needed them the most?


I am left to wonder if maybe Kendrick wasn’t the lamb. Maybe Kendrick was the shepherd. Maybe he was the goodness and mercy that his friends and teachers needed. Jesus, the slain but standing lamb, the Good Shepherd, is no longer with us in bodily form.

So we have to look for his face in the faces of others.


Kendrick was the light in the darkest shadow. In him I see a helper.

In people like him I see hope.

In him I see the face of God.


So when you can’t sleep because you are plagued by worry, by fear for the fate of our sin-riddled world, when you can’t see through the darkest valley, look for the helpers.


Count on the hope that there will always be those willing to enter into the shadow.

Count on the hope that cracks through the darkness, to let the light in.


When you can’t sleep, try counting sheep, because it is where you find the sheep that you will surely find the Good Shepherd.

Amen.


[1] An Exposition of Psalm 23

Gene Rice


[2] The Harper Collins Study Bible pg. 750


[3] http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/culture_manners_shepherd.html


[4] Psalm 23 in the Age of the Wolf

Knut M. Heim


[5] Psalm 23 in the Age of the Wolf

Knut M. Heim


[6] http://www.keithhunt.com/Shep10.html


[7] Preaching the Psalms: Psalm 23

Fourth Sunday in Lent

J. Clinton McCann, Jr

Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri


[8] John 10:11-18


[9] Revelation 5:6


[10] Psalm 23 in the Age of the Wolf

Knut M. Heim


[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LGHtc_D328


[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/08/us/colorado-shooting-victims.html


Works Consulted:


“An Exposition of Psalm 23: EBSCOhost.” Accessed May 10, 2019. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=7a770317-0dc9-4f84-b2fd-83a10673ef7d%40sdc-v-sessmgr02.

“Commentary on Psalm 23 by J. Clinton McCann.” Accessed May 7, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=578.

“Commentary on Psalm 23 by Shauna Hannan.” Accessed May 7, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1631.

McCann, J Clinton Jr. “Preaching the Psalms: Psalm 23, Fourth Sunday in Lent.” Journal for Preachers 31, no. 2 (2008): 43–48.

“Psalm 23: A Remix: EBSCOhost.” Accessed May 10, 2019. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=3b878e58-83ca-4b3a-8575-0bba0519abec%40sdc-v-sessmgr06.

“Psalm 23 in the Age of the Wolf: Many People Today Find the Famous Psalm Tr...: EBSCOhost.” Accessed May 9, 2019. http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=93f2a2df-5cb8-4ae3-b661-af1180d1eb20%40pdc-v-sessmgr01.

“Psalm 23: Symbolism and Structure,” Ron Tappy. Westmont College. Santa Barbara, CA.

Pyper, Hugh S. “The Triumph of the Lamb: Psalm 23 and Textual Fitness.” Biblical Interpretation 9, no. 4 (2001): 384–92.

Image from: https://mammothcomfort.com/cant-sleep-heres-why-counting-sheep-may-not-be-the-answer/


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