Before my years in ministry I was a journalist, a person who essentially gets paid for being nosey. I was a hired snoop because people have an innate need to satisfy their curiosity and their drive to know what’s going on. During World War I the Associated Press had a distinguished foreign correspondent named Vern Haugland. He was “imbedded” in combat situations long before it became a familiar term in the first Gulf War. During heavy fighting in the Far East Haugland bailed out of a crippled bomber. For 47 days he wandered through the jungles and mountains. His body was covered with ulcers and sores. He lost nearly half of his total body weight. Finally, one day he stumbled out of the jungle into civilization. After the war he was decorated by the famous U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and presented with the Silver Star for Gallantry. He was hailed as a hero, a real survivor.
In 1992 Haugland published a book about his test of endurance. When writing of his adventure Haugland said he was sustained by one thing. He constantly repeated, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Haugland said that although he was lost, he knew God was there and that back home friends and family were praying for him. He said, “I knew God was my Shepherd.” He gave this, in his own words, as the secret to his survival:
It was amazing how it worked. I would be at the point of complete exhaustion and ready to give up and just fall down and die. I felt I could not lift even one foot in front of the other any longer to hold onto the struggle of life. Then I would say, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” And it would happen! God would provide. I would look, and there – just within my reach on the next step – would be edible berries or chewable grass. Just beyond the next tree, I would stumble onto a little stream of pure water. And thus God sustained me and kept me going.
What’s so amazing about Psalm 23? Here’s what it says:
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads 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 You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever."
Isn’t it absolutely amazing that the words of a shepherd boy 3,000 years ago can have such a profound effect on a person? Millions of people have drawn immediate consolation and strength from these verses. It adorns the cover of countless bulletins, posters, cards and books. It is still the topic of sermons and a funeral without it just doesn’t seem the same. I suppose many of us can quote it by heart. I know people who live a long distance from the gates of the kingdom, but let a severe pain grip them or a catastrophe lurk at their door and the 23rd Psalm becomes their instant words.
It is the fifth verse that I want to focus specifically on this morning. What an ironic verse. It demands attention. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” The scene is dinner with those who pursue and hate me. Ever eat at a hostile table. That’s the time you need finger foods. Don’t let that crowd have access to forks and knives.
David’s theme is refuge in the midst of danger. Running and fighting are the activities we associate with engaging the enemy. The heat of battle is no time to sit down to eat. David’s enemies are present, but God sets a table. We cannot grasp the significance of this verse in our time or in our country, but in other places and other times it has rich meaning. Perhaps we have all enjoyed God’s provisions when we had nothing.
The story is told of a wonderful, elderly, Christian lady. She had very little money and lived in a rundown house, but she was always praising the Lord. Her only problem was with the old man who lived next door. He was always trying to prove to her that there was no God. One day, as the old man was walking by her house, he noticed the woman through an open window. She was kneeling down in prayer, so he crept over to the window to see if he could hear. She was praying, “Lord, you’ve always given me what I’ve needed.” She prayed. “And now you know that I don’t have any money, and I’m completely out of groceries, and I won’t get another check for a week.” She continued, “Somehow, Lord, can you get me some groceries?”
The man had heard all he needed. He crept away from the window and ran down to the grocery store. He bought milk, bread, and lunchmeat. He ran back to the woman’s house carrying the groceries. He set the bag down on by her door, rang the doorbell, and hid beside the house. You can imagine how the woman reacted to seeing the bag of groceries. She threw her hands over head and began praising the Lord. “Thank you Jesus,” she shouted. “I was without food and you provided the groceries.” (It’s here the verse fits about the table prepared in the midst of enemies.) About that time the old man jumped out and said, “I’ve got you now.” She was too busy shouting “thank you” to Jesus to pay any attention. “I told you there was no God,” the old man said, “It wasn’t Jesus who gave you those groceries it was me.” “It’s a miracle!” the woman said. “Jesus got me these groceries and made the devil pay for them!”
David understood the customs of his time and he understood what it was like to be a wanted man, one who had a price on his head. Read his full story and you will find he lived among his enemies as he fled from King Saul’s wrath. He spent long hours in the Cave of Abdullam. He lived in disguise among those who would have killed him if they knew his identity. He also knew that the Mosaic code contained a law that a murder, premeditated or not, could be avenged by the “avenger of blood.” It was perhaps David’s experience to watch someone run for their life across the barren hills near Bethlehem. The sweet singer of Israel perhaps saw a fugitive with his pursuer close behind him reach the tent and grab a rope. The pursuer would stop dead in his tracks because his target had reached sanctuary. Inside David’s tent he would be David’s ward and no pursuer could enter and take revenge. At David’s table this man had found refuge for hospitality was a solemn commitment.
This is the picture Psalm 23 leads us to see. Who or what is your enemy? Who hounds you and dogs your every step? Death and hell stalks the human race! Evil forces with deadly intent reach out to grasp you? We live, at times on the edge of terminal illness. We narrowly escape injury or death. Life can literally hang by a thread. Pretty lures with concealed hooks are cast before our eyes. High bids are made for us inside the church. Outside the church people are bound and blinded and held in captivity until death releases them to their enemy.
Everyone needs a tent to run to and for us it is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is our refuge and our security. At the cross I am safe from the hostility of this world. At the cross, the enemy stops cold. He cannot invade the sanctuary created by the blood of Jesus Christ. I recall as a boy that Christians used to have an old phrase when evil would raise its gory head and make a bid for our souls. We would “plead the blood.” Under pressure it was always (and still is) a cry for refuge: “Lord, cover me afresh with the blood of Calvary for no foe can harm me here.” I’ve heard it in some of your public prayers. I recall going to a home before I was a pastor where a man struggled against powers of darkness that held him as a slave. After intense and prevailing prayer the heavy yoke of bondage was broken and a released prisoner wept for three hours as the Lord cleansed him. Our hymnology speaks to our experience. I see it through the verse of a hymn:
I see the new creation rise, I hear the speaking blood;
It speaks, my thankful heart replies, Cleans’d neath its precious flood.
The Lord prepared a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies as we observed Communion last week. As the first Lord’s Supper was held Jesus’ betrayal was unfolding and a contingent of armed soldiers were en route to arrest the Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane. For all of that nothing unclean draws near the Communion Table. On the table there is bread, the symbol of Christ’s broken body. It bears witness that by brokenness, we are made whole. It lifts an eternal sacrifice to eclipse the good deeds of humans and it serves notice that the Lamb of God without blemish was slain. On that table there is wine. Its color reminds us that blood was spilt to remove the stain of sin. The Communion Cup reminds me a New Testament has been sealed. That liquid that passes my lips tells me God has sent refreshment to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam. Christ is perfect in His brokenness; the sacrifice of Christ is the beginning of a banquet for the soul.
The table that God sets is well set. The one who sits there finds the Lord to be a gracious host. There is a welcome at the Lord’s place. He leads His sheep to green pastures and beside still waters. Jesus had to chastise a poor host that there was not even a drop of oil to anoint Him when He arrived as a guest. God has a welcome for us. “There is room at the cross for you.” There is plenty at the table of the Lord. A wealthy lady named Mrs. Willencot was very frugal (some would say “cheap”). When her husband died, she asked the newspaper how much it would cost for a death notice. “Two dollars for every five words.” “Can I pay for just two words?” she asked. “Willencot dead.” “No, two dollars is the minimum. You still have three words.” Mrs. Willencot thought a moment. “Willencot dead: Cadillac for sale.” David tells us that at the table of the Lord, in the presence of enemies, our cup can overflow. If we find we are empty, is it possible we’ve overturned the cup? If people could only accept what Christ has done for them they would be free of the snares and the devices of the devil. They would flee to the cross for at the cross there is “goodness and mercy”.
Listen well to this:
- At the cross the enemy who drags the sins of your past bows in defeat. At the cross sin is forgiven and the devil is driven from your door. When he comes knocking with what you used to be tell him your sins are gone in the words Paul offered to the Romans (8): 1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.
- At the cross God announced that the fiery darts of the enemy could be extinguished. Too many people offer the devil target practice and when we leave the cross, we’re easy targets.
A reporter was interviewing an old man on his 100th birthday. “What are you most proud of?” he asked. “Well, “ said the man, “I don't have an enemy in the world.” “What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!” said the reporter. “Yep,” added the centenarian, “outlived every last one of them.” Let me tell you the truth of something. The cross outlives, outlasts and outperforms them all. No wonder as Paul looked at life through the glory of the cross, he cried out: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57 NIV)
- At the cross death stung the Great Shepherd. Most everyone knows that when a bee stings it leaves its stinger in our flesh and it will never sting again. Jesus rose from the grave and even death became subject to Him. One of these days our change will come. Sanctuary and refuge doesn’t end with death: you will stand on streets of gold free from your pursuers and the predators and everything else that has ever threatened your life. The final verse of Psalm 23 will be a reality: “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Let me close with this account. Ugandan bishop Festo Kivengere was known as the Billy Graham of Africa and has written about the Idi Amin years and in particular the 1973 execution by firing squad of three men from his diocese: “February 10 began as a sad day for us in Kabale. People were commanded to come to the stadium and witness the execution. Death permeated the atmosphere. A silent crowd of about three thousand was there to watch. I had permission from the authorities to speak to the men before they died, and two of my fellow ministers were with me. They brought the men in a truck and unloaded them. They were handcuffed and their feet were chained. The firing squad stood at attention.
“As we walked into the center of the stadium, I was wondering what to say. How do you give the gospel to doomed men who are probably seething with rage? We approached them from behind, and as they turned to look at us, what a sight! Their faces were all alight with an unmistakable glow and radiance. Before we could say anything, one of them burst out: ‘Bishop, thank you for coming! I wanted to tell you. The day I was arrested, in my prison cell, I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart. He came in and forgave me all my sins! Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God! Please tell my wife and children that I am going to be with Jesus. Ask them to accept him into their lives as I did.’
“The other two men told similar stories, excitedly raising their hands, which rattled their handcuffs. I felt that what I needed to do was to talk to the soldiers, not to the condemned. So I translated what the men had said into a language the soldiers understood. The military men were standing there with guns cocked and bewilderment on their faces. They were so dumbfounded that they forgot to put the hoods over the men's faces!
The three faced the firing squad standing close together. They looked toward the people and began to wave, handcuffs and all. The people waved back. Then shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus. We stood in front of them, our own hearts throbbing with joy, mingled with tears. It was a day never to be forgotten. Though dead, the men spoke loudly to all of Kigezi District and beyond, so that there was an upsurge of life in Christ, which challenges death and defeats it. The next Sunday, I was preaching to a huge crowd in the hometown of one of the executed men. Again, the feel of death was over the congregation. But when I gave them the testimony of their man, and how he died, there erupted a great song of praise to Jesus! Many turned to the Lord there.”
Why? How is it possible? Like Vern Haugland fighting for his life in the jungle, we need something or Someone to keep us going. It is the Lord is our Shepherd! The psalmist “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” The Good Shepherd makes it possible for us to sit at a good table, even when we are in a bad place!