The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fourth Sunday of Lent + March 26, 2017

Bible Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23


I’m going to begin this morning by thinking about the first of today’s readings. But I know that you all just heard a rather long gospel reading, and your memory banks may have been maxed out by that.  So let’s remember back to that first reading together: back in ancient Israel, in the days of the nation’s very first king, the Lord had decided that king, Saul, was no longer God’s chosen king of Israel, and so the Lord told the prophet Samuel to go and anoint the next king. Samuel was not a fan of his new divine assignment; God was sending Samuel to commit treason against the king — the same king Samuel had anointed himself not very long ago. “How can I go?” he asked God, “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” But “Samuel did what the Lord commanded,” in spite of his own fears.

The famous Psalm 23 — known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm” — had of course not been written yet when Samuel set off on his mission. According to tradition the young shepherd boy that Samuel would anoint that day would write that psalm years later, when he was known as King David. Still, I wonder if Samuel prayed something very similar to Psalm 23 as he travelled to Jesse’s home to commit treason for the Lord.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures,

And leads me beside still waters.

Of course the Lord was not leading Samuel beside still waters; the Lord was taking Samuel into very dangerous territory, into white water rapids full of sharp rocks.

You restore my soul, O Lord,

And guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.

But was this really the “right pathway”? Setting up a new person to be king, potentially stirring up rebellion, dividing the allegiance of the people?

I’m sure Samuel had a lot of questions for God, and a lot of doubt and fear. Still he moved forward, following God, trusting God even when it must have seemed crazy. On his journey to Jesse’s home Samuel must have been thinking back over all the times God had already been his good and faithful shepherd: God had caused Samuel to be born to Hannah, who had been unable to have children (1 Sam. 1). God had called Samuel by name to be a prophet and leader of God’s people (1 Sam. 3). God had led the Israelite army to victory against the Philistines, and Samuel had been there serving as their priest (1 Sam. 7). And perhaps Samuel thought back on all God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel: leading them out of slavery in Egypt; leading them into the promised land. These memories could have served as reminders, as a foundation to support Samuel’s faith in a difficult, trying moment.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord has been my shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Looking back on God’s faithfulness would have helped Samuel to see God being faithful to him in his present moment. He would have remembered that the same God who had been with him and his people for so long, who had guided them and protected them, was there with him on that strange and dangerous journey to anoint a new king. He would have had faith that God would still be with him after the journey and the anointing, come what may.

Of course I don’t know what Samuel actually prayed or thought on his way to Jesse’s home. But whatever his prayer was, it helped keep him moving forward through a time of doubt and fear.

I think people (myself included) tend to look back on prophets and saints and other “special” people of God and assume that somehow they were more certain than us “regular” people. They were more sure of God’s guidance; they had a greater sense of clarity; they had miraculously less doubt and fear and confusion. It’s especially easy to assume that for stories like Samuel’s, where the biblical accounts seem to tell us that Samuel and God were exchanging audible words, that God was speaking loudly and clearly to Samuel in a way in which we long to hear from God.

But many of the people we hold up as special saints admitted feeling doubt and fear and frustration, admitted feeling like God was silent or maybe even absent.

Many of us admire the pastor and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the faithful life he lived. He chose to stay in Germany during Hitler’s reign there, though he could have stayed in the U.S. or England or any number of safer places. He spoke out publicly against Nazi takeover of the church. When the Nazis suppressed the church that spoke out against them, Bonhoeffer worked underground to train students of the faith. He worked as a spy. After he was caught, he spent a year and half in prison, where he ministered to the other prisoners and continued his writing. He was executed along with fellow conspirators. The story of Bonhoeffer’s death, passed on by a physician who had been an eyewitness, sounds like something out of an ancient book of saints:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.[1]

Bonhoeffer is a renowned example of inspiring faith and action in the midst of terrible times. But Bonhoeffer’s outward faith emerged from a storm of inner struggle and doubt. While imprisoned, he wrote this poem about the difference between how other people saw him and how he experienced his own life:

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

 

Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

 

Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

 

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

 

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.[2]

Bonhoeffer, like other remarkable saints, experienced the feelings familiar to us: loneliness, helplessness, fear, second-guessing. But still he and the other saints threw themselves on God: remembering God’s faithfulness to their ancestors in the faith, remembering God’s past faithfulness to them, they opened their eyes to find God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times. Praying until they trusted more, praying in a way that kept them walking with God and trying to be part of God’s work in world.

Bonhoeffer wrote these words as part of a prayer for himself and other prisoners:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you; I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me…Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am. You know all man’s troubles; you abide with me when all men fail me…Lord, I hear your call and follow; help me…O Holy Spirit, give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice…Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.[3]  

(You can read the full prayer here.)

 When we gather for worship, one of the things we do is call to mind God’s faithfulness to our ancestors in the faith. We do this when we read the Bible, when we sing hymns, when we give thanks for our baptism, and when we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember in order to give thanks to God, but we also remember so we can hear that God’s faithfulness continues down through the generations and into our own lives. We remember so that our eyes will be opened to see God’s faithfulness to us now.

When you go through your own hard times, practice remembering God’s faithfulness to you and to others. Call to mind your favorite Bible stories or verses. Remember how God has worked in the lives of those you love. Remember the ways you have experienced God at work in your own life. Remind yourself of who God is, and then in prayer practice trusting God, even in the times it feels hard to do so. Maybe through that practice, you will come to see the goodness of God even in those hard times.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord is our shepherd.

The Lord will be our shepherd.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

L23-Goodshepherd-medium

Painting of the “Good Shepherd” found in a catacomb in Rome; from the mid-third century. (Source: Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition)


[1] Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Quoted in the Wikipedia article “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972). pp. 347-348.

[3]Bonhoeffer, 139-141.

Advertisements

The Angel Gabriel: the Power of the Message

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Wednesday in Advent + December 16, 2016

Readings: Daniel 9:17-23a; Luke 1:5-20

The angel Gabriel is mentioned by name in four stories in our Bible: two in Daniel, and two in Luke. We just heard one Gabriel story from each of these books. We will hear the most familiar story about Gabriel during worship this Sunday: the Annunciation, when Gabriel appears to the young virgin Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God, to be the mother of Immanuel, God-with-us (Lk. 1:26-38).

And here’s my fun fact for the evening: in Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and Joseph is just mentioned in passing as Mary’s fiancee. In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’s birth begins more suddenly, without an angel’s warning: “Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph quite reasonably comes to the conclusion that Mary has been with another man, and decides to call off the marriage. It is at this point that an angel comes to announce what God is doing; this unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him to stay with Mary, and explains that she is carrying the Son of God (Matt. 1:18-25). Mary is not visited by angel in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel.

But anyway, back to Gabriel. The very first time that Gabriel appears in our Bible is in the book of Daniel, just a chapter before the story I read to you a few minutes ago. Daniel has just had a crazy vision involving a goat and a ram whose horns get broken and regrow. One of the horns grows so tall, it grabs the stars and throws them to earth and tramples on them. Needless to stay, Daniel is pretty confused, and he’s trying to figure out what all this means. At that moment someone “having the appearance of a man” is suddenly standing before him. And Daniel hears a voice say, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision” (Dan. 8).

Those are the very first words spoken about this angel: “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.” And to help people understand what God is saying and doing is Gabriel’s role in each of his appearances in our Bible. He appears to Daniel, to Zechariah, and to Mary, and he helps each of them to understand what God is doing and what it means for the world. He delivers and makes clear God’s messages.

This is why Gabriel is considered to be the patron of many professions involved in delivering messages and making sure they are clear: telecommunication workers, radio broadcasters, postal workers, ambassadors, clergy, and even stamp collectors.

Gabriel’s name is an interesting choice for the role he plays as the consummate messenger. In the Bible a person’s name often tells us something about their character. The name Abraham comes from the Hebrew word for “father,” and he is the father of the Jewish people. The book of Genesis tells us that the name Jacob means “heel-grabber,” a metaphor for the sneaky way Jacob gets ahead in the world throughout his life (Gen. 25:26). The angel Raphael’s name means “God heals” and refers to Raphael’s works of healing, which we heard something about last Wednesday (in the story of Tobit). Gabriel tells Mary to name her child “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is Yeshua — a form of the name given to the Old Testament figure we know as Joshua, who led Israel into the promised land. Jesus also means “he saves” or “God saves.”

The name Gabriel means something like “God is my strength.”

It struck me this this name was not given to the angel we know as Michael, even though he is the one most obviously associated with strength. Michael is a warrior-angel, the leader of God’s armies, the defender of Israel. In art he is often dressed in armor and standing on top of a dragon he is just about to slay. But the name “Michael” does not refer to might or skill in battle; Michael means, “who is like God?” — maybe a reference to how the God on behalf of whom Michael fights is powerful beyond all human power.

Instead it is Gabriel the messenger whose name points to the strength that comes from God. Which made me wonder: why? Could there be a connection? Here’s the wild speculation I’ve come up with:

There are lots of kinds of strength, from the strength needed to move a couch to the strength needed to get out of bed when you’d really rather tap out for the day. Underlying all the different kinds of strength is the strength of faith, trust, confidence, hope. The warrior is strengthened by his faith in the cause he fights for. The hospital patient is strengthened by the love of family and the hope of getting better.

Messages from God strengthen us by boosting our faith and our hope. This must be part of the reason why we are always seeking messages from God and seeking to make sure we understand the messages we have been given. We seek to know what God is doing, what God is saying to us, in order that we have more confidence in the way we are living our lives. We worship, we pray, we read the scriptures and tell their stories, looking for hope and for guidance to strengthen us along our journeys. When we hear from God, we are strengthened for love and service.

The angel Gabriel strengthens people by bringing them words from God and helping them to understand. We see this in the examples of Daniel and Zechariah.

Daniel’s powerful visions often make him faint: he falls to the ground, weak and trembling (ex. Dan. 10:8), and then a being having the “appearance of a man” appears to help him understand the message of the vision and to strengthen him. This being is not always called an angel and not always called Gabriel, but I think it is Gabriel returning to help Daniel over and over.

At one point Daniel says to this being, “I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” He is weak, he can’t go on. But the angel touches him and says: “Do not fear greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!” And Daniel says “When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me” (Dan. 10:15-19). The angel’s message of love and protection strengthens Daniel.

In tonight’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we saw Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, in states that society might call weak. They are both very, very old — and they have no children, no heirs to carry on their legacy. For Elizabeth especially this was a source of pain: to be unable to have children can be a very painful thing on a personal level, but in the ancient times barrenness was a mark of social shame on a woman.

The angel Gabriel brings the couple the message that now, in their old age, they will have a child, and that child help turn the hearts of their people back to God. This message strengthens the couple, revives them, gives them renewed purpose. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Lk. 1:25). She is lifted up both emotionally and socially. She is made stronger.

Even more than that, Zechariah and Elizabeth are strengthened by the bigger message: the messiah is coming, and they will get to see him come (Lk. 1:67-79).

We continue to find strength in these messages of Gabriel. God pays attention. God speaks to us — and speaks not to the powerful, but to the lowly: to Zechariah and Elizabeth, too old to have children; to Mary, young and poor. Gabriel’s messages continue to give us faith and hope, because at their core they are a reminder: God is with us, and God is our strength.