Way back in the year 2000 there was a movie entitled, “What Women Want.” I don’t know how many people saw it, but enough people must have seen it to warrant a remake because in 2019 there was a sequel of sorts entitled “What Men Want.” This morning I am going to fold those two titles into one and tell you “What People Want,” or, more specifically, “What Religious People Want,” especially, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, because Psalm 23 is claimed by all three major faiths.
According to the most beloved Psalm in the Bible, people want several things.
We want “No want!” The Psalmist begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” According to Abraham Maslow, our most basic needs are physiological needs, including food, clothing, and shelter. All those needs are covered in Psalm 23, and Jesus may have had it in mind when he spoke to his disciples saying:
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
Today you and I are blessed to be among the richest, best-fed people in the history of the world. We seldom miss a meal, never really go hungry, and are surprised when we can see the bottom of our freezer. Others have not been so fortunate. In the 1920s and 1930s, the farmers of Ukraine were asked to give up the lands they had worked for generations and move to the collective farms established as a part of the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans. They often worked the same land they had always farmed, but all the food—and I mean all the food went to the collective. Thousands of men, women, and children were sent to prison for ten years or killed for holding back even a few pounds of grain. Ukraine has been the breadbasket of Russia the way Kansas and Nebraska make up the breadbasket of the United States. That is just one reason that Putin wants Ukraine. We ought to be concerned with the war in Ukraine for many reasons. One that stands out is that the world’s food supply has been severely hurt by it—and shortages are ahead for many. I am pleased that our little church has now given almost $9,000.00 to the Board of World Mission for the relief of Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic and in Germany. We may be called upon to do more.
We want pleasant a home and security. The Psalm declares, “he makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” In Mark 8, Jesus said that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. In Mark 10, Jesus told his disciples that those who left behind houses and families or lands for his sake, would receive them back one hundredfold in this life, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. In saying this, Jesus is describing the life his disciples will have as traveling preachers. Proverbs 18:16 declares, “Our gift makes room for us.” Jesus knew that countless people would open their homes and families to his disciples, at least temporarily, because the disciples would bring the good news Jesus died for our sins and rose again to give us a future and a hope.
For me, one of the great joys of ministry is the way that I have been welcomed into countless homes to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. Last week our first covered dish dinner in almost two years reminded me how sharing a meal with someone changes our relationship with them. No wonder table fellowship is so important in the New Testament, no wonder Jesus told his disciples to remember him with a special meal of bread and wine, and no wonder Jesus often becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread.
We want a second chance, perhaps many times over. Verse 3 says that the Shepherd “restores my (our) soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness.”
In our Bible, the soul is the life force, and it can be broken. Sometimes the soul is broken because it follows the heart. The heart can be broken by unrequited love, as when a man loves a woman who does not love him back. Or it can be broken by the needs of others, as when we see someone in a wheelchair begging on the street. The late Tom Carruth was at one time the editor of the “The Upper Room,” which is the Methodist equivalent of our “Moravian Daily Text.” I once had a chance to examine Dr. Carruth’s Bible. On the flyleaf he had written, “O, Lord, break my heart for the things that break your heart.” That prayer is a plea for compassion and understanding.
The soul can also be broken by sin and failure. Oswald Chambers said, “It is not so much that we break the laws of God, as that we break ourselves upon the laws of God.” Thankfully, what we break, God can fix. In his book, Psychology, Religion and Healing, Leslie Weatherhead wrote that “Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world.” I once shared an elevator at Forsyth Hospital with a man wearing a badge that identified him as a psychiatrist. I said, “I just read that forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world. What would you say to that?” His face lit up with enthusiasm as he said, “Yes, that’s it; forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world, but just you try and get one of my patience to forgive themselves.” I said to myself, that is something I would never do; but I would remind people that Jesus Christ is the great physician who can heal a soul and a life broken by sin. Some people need a second chance. Some people need another chance. God offers both. In Matthew 18, Peter came to Jesus and asked, “How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me, ‘Seven times?’”, Jesus responded, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” In effect, Jesus is telling Peter to forgive his brothers and sisters as long as they ask. Jesus would not ask this of Peter, or me, or you if he did not know that God was equally forgiving. As our Easter Morning Liturgy declares, “In this Christian Church God daily and abundantly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”
We want our souls to be restored, but we also want good directions. The good Shepherd “leads us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” We want to know God’s will and God’s will takes two forms. What happens to us and what happens through us.
I long ago decided to give God credit for all the good things in my life, things like faith, hope and love, and family and friends. I think the bad things just happen. Not long ago, a recently widowed woman stopped me and said, “My husband was a good man. He died much too young. Why did he have to die—why do bad things happen to good people?” I said, “I would look no further than the fact that he was human.” In 1st Peter 4:1 we read, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought.” If Christ suffered in his humanity, it should not surprise us if we suffer in our humanity.
Of course, there is more to the will of God than what happens to us. It is also a matter of what happens through us, and that is a matter of choice. Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it.” God wants us to take “the right(eous) fork.” Most of the time, we know exactly the fork to take and the path to follow, it is just a question of whether we have the courage to take it.
We want to be fear-proof. Verse 4 declares, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.” I almost hate to admit it, but when I was a boy, I was a bundle of fears. When I was seven years old, mom and dad took me tent camping in the Great Smokey Mountains. We had an old wall tent so thin that you could see through it. At night I lay awake for fear that one of the big black bears wandering around the campground would tear into our tent and gobble me up. When I was eight years old, we went tent camping at Oregon Inlet. First, I was afraid of riding the ferry. After that, I was okay until the sky clouded over, and the wind started to blow. Then I was afraid of a hurricane. One night we spent the night in dad’s old 1953 Plymouth Station Wagon. The most fearful two weeks of my life came in October of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Every student in my 8th-grade class at Philo Jr. High was afraid that Russia was going to drop a bomb on us, after all Winston-Salem was the home of Western Electric, who made parts of our missiles. The teacher showed us how to hide under our desks and cover our faces. The desks were flimsy, and we were in a room where the outside wall was made of glass, so the teacher’s instruction meant little. In those days, I trusted my parents completely, especially my mother. I asked her if she was afraid. She said, “No,” that she had outgrown her fears because most of the things that she was afraid of never come to pass at all. Later I compared my mother’s words to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who said, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death but the valiant taste of death but once.” Christians have an advantage because the God shepherded is with us, and his rod and staff comfort us.
We want to be a winner and reap the winner’s reward. Verse 5 declares, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In Psalm 23 King David imagines his enemies watching as God anoints his head with oil and overfills his cup with the very best wine. I have no doubt David is remembering the day that Samuel came and anointed him to be king over Israel, and I have no doubt David is remembering the many times God gave victories, over lions and bears, as he tended his sheep, over the treachery of Saul, and in battle, too. David was a type of Christ, the Son of God. The New Testament says that we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s son.” We are all “kings and priests to God.” This means that God holds a crown over our heads and asks us to grow into it. The baptism we shared this morning reminds us that as we grow God anoints us with water, and with oil, and his Holy Spirit.
Finally, we all want a happy future, in this world and the next. Verse 6 declares, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” Most of us prefer the translation that reads, “and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Six centuries before the birth of Christ, Solon was the wise ruler of Athens, the man who established democracy in that city. Following his retirement from public life, Solon went on a world tour, and as part of his travels, he stopped in at Lydia to see King Croesus. The great historian Herodotus recounts how Croesus showed Solon his riches and asked him whom he considered the happiest of men. Solon named three men who were all dead. He steadfastly refused to call Croesus happy on the ground that misfortunes might lie between him and his grave. Croesus dismissed Solon as a fool and immediately started plotting against Persia. It was not long before Croesus had to lead his army against the hosts of King Cyrus. There was a great battle and Croesus was either killed outright or disappeared into captivity, as a common slave. It makes no difference; his happiness was over.
As Christians, our happy future is not dependent upon the events of our life and death but is based upon the promise of Jesus that:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.