Nothing I Shall Want: 4th Sunday Easter
One pastor told the story of when he asked a group of people who could recite the entire 23rd Psalm. A few hands went up, but he was a little skeptical of the hand belonging to a four-year-old. He gave her a shot at it, though. She recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd. That’s all I want,” and proudly sat down.
I think that first line is a big part of why this psalm is among the most popular passages in the Bible. It’s really a stunning sort of statement, when you think about it, and that’s what makes it so compelling. And if you really do think about it, it’s incredibly challenging too. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Right on, he sure is. Nifty. “There is nothing I shall want.” Woah, hoss. You serious?
But we know it is serious, and that fascinates us, doesn’t it? The idea of really wanting nothing other than to have God as our Shepherd. We recite that phrase almost as though we’re trying it on for size. Wondering whether it could ever be true. Wondering what life would be like if it were true. And - if you’re like me - knowing that it’s not remotely true. “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
One of the world’s great religions was born when a man asked “why do we suffer?” and decided the answer was “because we desire.” Setting out to rise above desire, he became the Buddha. At least that’s one version… Buddhism is complicated like Christianity! I’m not trying to summarize Buddhism, I couldn’t. But I think there’s a deep insight at work in that link between suffering and desire. I think a similar insight is at work in David’s most famous Psalm, written hundreds of years before the Buddha in a very different part of the world. Find a way to rise up beyond any craving, any dissatisfaction, and won’t an enlightened Peace be sure to follow?
Is that what we find so compelling about saying “there is nothing I shall want?”
The rest of the Psalm is a sort of elaboration on the sufficiency, the satisfaction, the completeness of what God provides. David seems to be saying not so much “I don’t need anything” as “God gives me everything I need.” He’s not claiming to be free of desire, just that his desires are all more than fulfilled in his relationship with God.
As the Psalm continues, if you’re paying attention, it’s clear that David is not describing a life of untroubled bliss, where everything is wine and roses. Quite the opposite: he talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and about the presence of his enemies. Psalm 23 isn’t about a life free from troubles. It’s about a life of peace in the midst of troubles. It’s about the one place that peace can be found, in the providence of God.
And when David wants to describe that relationship, he remembers a simpler time, a time before he wore the crown, a time before he was hated and pursued, a time before he had blood on his hands. He remembers the boy he used to be, spending the days in the green hills around the house of Jesse, as a shepherd. He remembers the care he took of those sheep, the protection he gave them, the concern and guidance, and he writes, “The LORD is my Shepherd.” God takes care of me like that. He leads me to green pastures. He finds me still waters. He protects me with his rod and staff. To David, the former shepherd boy, these are not abstract images. He’s describing the daily reality of his life growing up.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in that spirit, to know that even when things are painful or terrifying, and even if the shepherd isn’t immediately in sight, you know he’s there? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
I can’t read this Psalm without thinking of how remarkably literally the words are fulfilled in our lives. If you’ve been Baptized, God has led you to the peaceful waters. If you’ve been Confirmed, he’s anointed your head with oil. If you’ve received the Eucharist, he’s set a table before you. If you’ve received the Anointing of the Sick, you’ve found Him with you in the valley of the shadow of death. If you’ve been to Reconciliation, he’s restored your soul and led you in the paths of righteousness. You’d think this was written by a Catholic describing the Sacraments!
But long before the Christian Sacraments, long before the coming of the Messiah, David knew the presence of the Shepherd. He knew that God provided all he really needed. And he knew that peace was found in being content, restful, satisfied in what was given. “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” I wonder if David was so holy when he wrote this that it was really true. I wonder if I’ll ever say those words and be able to claim they are really true.
Desire is not bad. Actually, it’s very, very good. We wouldn’t be human without it; we wouldn’t love, we wouldn’t strive, we wouldn’t seek God at all. Our problem isn’t that we desire too much, but that we desire too little. We desire little things like popularity and attractiveness and pleasure and wealth and power and so on, all these tyrannical little appetites consuming us when there is only one needful thing.
So even if we can’t honestly, completely claim these words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” we’ll keep saying them as a prayer, an aspiration. We’ll trust the Good Shepherd to lead us in life, so that maybe someday those words will be more true.
Remember your trip to the peaceful waters. Remember the anointing that is on your head. And come, now, to the table he sets before you.