Goodness and Mercy, Psalm 23, Psalm 51:1-12
(video below)

When I served as pastor of Thalia United Methodist Church in Virginia Beach, my father would visit from Roanoke.  This was in the previous millennium before GPS.  On one occasion when my father was planning to visit, I gave him directions on how to drive to the church.  Go north on I-81, then east on I-64.  Take the bypass around Richmond.  Be careful when you go past Williamsburg and get close to Newport News because the traffic will pick up.  Go through the tunnel in Hampton and in about 7 to 8 miles you will see signs for the 264 bypass to Virginia Beach.  Get on the bypass and go to exit 17B which will lead to Independence Boulevard.  Go to the third traffic signal and turn right on Virginia Beach Boulevard.   Go down Virginia Beach Boulevard about a mile and the church will be on the right.  After giving my father these directions, I then said, “Call me when you get lost.”

When setting out on a journey, it is important to have directions that guide us on correct paths.  It is also important to know who to call upon when we get lost.

We are traveling through the season of Lent, a time when Christians set out on a journey of faith as we confess that we have gotten lost in our brokenness.  It is a time when we call upon Jesus as we follow our Savior to Calvary.  To help us on our journey of confession, I invite us to hear from two Psalms attributed to David whose life journey took him from being a shepherd boy to becoming the king of Israel.

The first psalm I invite us to hear is Psalm 23.

23 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; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 is often read at funerals as a statement of faith in God in the reality of death.  While this is an important aspect of the words of this psalm, it is important to realize that this psalm is also a statement of faith in God in the reality of living.  Christians believe life is a journey of faith lived with trust in God   We agree with David that God watches over us like a shepherd watching over sheep because of our faith in Jesus as our shepherd.

It is our faith that God gives direction to our living by leading us in the path of righteousness.  We believe that it is God who provides strength for our living in the present even when the journey becomes difficult and the shadows of life are cast over us.

George Matheson, a pastor, author, and hymn writer who went blind at the age of 20 put the words of the 23rd Psalm into perspective as words of a living faith as he reflected on his journey of faith:

My God, I have never thanked Thee for my thorns.  I have thanked Thee a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns.  I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross: but I have never thought of my cross as itself a present glory.  Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn.  Shew me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain.  Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.

As George Matheson encountered the challenges of his life, he grew to understand that faith in God is a statement of faith that gives present direction to our living.  Even when we get lost on the journey, it is our belief that God will seek out after us like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep.  In the sixth verse of the 23rd Psalm David states his faith in how God searches for us and gives present direction to our living.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

At first sight, the words of this verse may seem to be comforting reminders of how God gently leads us through the challenges of our living, but this verse is far different from first sight.  The word for follow in Hebrew is Radaph   It is a verb that means to pursue.  Chad Bird defines radaph in this way.

In verse 6, we read, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb for “follow” is radaph. But the translation of this Hebrew verb as “follow” is far too weak and bloodless.  Radaph means to chase after, to pursue. The goodness and mercy of God do not follow us like a good little puppy dog, trailing along behind us. Rather, they gallop after us like a celestial stallion. As in the famous poem by Francis Thompson, the Lord’s goodness and mercy chase us down labyrinthine paths like the Hound of Heaven. They stay hot on our heels. The divine love and grace of our shepherd radaph us all the way to heaven’s gate and into the arms of our waiting Father.
We are pursued by mercy. We are chased by grace. We are not merely followed.  They stay hot on our heels.

Forty Minutes in the Old Testament, 1517 Christ For You, Chad Bird, July 27, 2019,

It is in this understanding of God’s relentless pursuit of goodness and mercy that I invite us to hear the first 12 verses of the 51st Psalm written by David after he had become the King of Israel.  The shepherd who wrote about God’s goodness and mercy following him all the days of his life in the 23rd Psalm had gotten lost.  His absolute power as the King of Israel had absolutely corrupted him.  He had taken a path that led him away from God’s presence.

Walking the wrong path, David had taken Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the commander of his army, to himself and she was expecting.  David’s final solution to his journey down the wrong path was to have Uriah face death as he was placed in the thickest part of battle.  David thought he had gotten away with his scheme until he was confronted by Nathan the prophet.  I Samuel 12 tells of the encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David:

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

 11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

 13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, God was pursuing David.  Living in the reality of radaph, God’s relentless pursuit of goodness and mercy¸ David prayed the following words of confession:

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

In his prayer of confession in Psalm 51, David acknowledges what he has written in Psalm 23.  God, the shepherd of life, has pursued him even when he chose the wrong path and gotten lost.  God alone, the shepherd of life, has the power to restore the joy of salvation.  I invite you to hear from Chad Bird again regarding what David experienced and what we experience when we get lost on our journey in life:

Lost sheep don’t bring them themselves home; their shepherd does. So not only does the Lord lead us in green pastures, down righteous paths, and beside quiet waters. When we stray and get lost, he repents us, he restores us. He lays us on his shoulders and carries us home, rejoicing.

We are traveling through the season of Lent, a journey when followers of Jesus confess that we have gotten lost on the journey.  A time when we call upon the Good Shepherd to have mercy upon us.  A time when we follow Jesus on the path of goodness and mercy.  A journey that leads us to the relentless pursuit of Calvary and our salvation in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

March 21, 2021

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