Date: December 31, 2019
Festival: New Year’s Eve
Text: Psalm 23(:1-3, 5-6)
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #733 O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Exegetical Statement: In this psalm, the psalmist uses “shepherd” as an intimate, personal metaphor for Yahweh. As the Shepherd, God does what any good shepherd would do for his flock: He guides them to green pastures and still waters for refreshment—a metaphor of spiritual refreshment. The green pastures can allude to God’s house, the church, where we find Sabbath rest, wherein we find the still waters of Baptism to restore our souls to Him. This is the “path of righteousness,” or the right path, He leads His flock on (with eschatological significance as well). The psalmist then moves to a deeper metaphor of intimacy with the preparation of a supper table. In the Old Testament world, this was done to finalise a covenant between two parties. This covenant is fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper where Jesus says, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). This Sabbath rest in the Word and still waters and table of the Sacraments are God’s goodness and mercy that follow us all the days of our life. As we come to the Lord’s house here on earth to find comfort and rest, so we shall dwell in the eschatological house of the Lord for all eternity according to His covenantal promise.
Focus Statement: God’s goodness and mercy are with you into the New Year in His Word and Sacraments.
Function Statement: That my hearers will trust in God’s goodness and mercy given to them in the Word and Sacraments.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I know what you might be thinking, “Psalm 23? You’re preaching on death on New Year’s Eve?” It might be a risky move to preach this text on New Year’s Eve, but we won’t be reflecting on verse 4 today. So, get the image of “the valley of the shadow of death” out of your head for now and save it for another date. Verse 4 is certainly integral to the entirety of the psalm, but this won’t be our focus for tonight. Instead, let’s focus on the “brighter” metaphors: green pastures, still waters, the path of righteousness, and a supper table.
Malady of the New Year
Imagine a shepherd guiding his flock of sheep in one of the dry, hilly deserts of Israel. You don’t need to have gone to Israel to picture this; we all know what a desert looks like. Imagine any American desert and place in it a lot of hills surrounded by mountains and you have the wilderness of Israel. Through these portions of dry, brown, dusty hills and rocky terrains of the wilderness of Israel, shepherd would guide their sheep; and the sheep trust their shepherd. They follow him and his staff like a beacon of hope to place a place filled with green pastures to feed on and still waters to drink from.
Now imagine if they strayed from their shepherd and found themselves lost in a barren crevice. What would be their fate? They would soon perish. “How did we get here,” they might wonder. “How did our path lead us here? Oh, I know! It’s the shepherd’s fault!”
This is how we often think of the end of the year. At the end of every year, many of the reflections I hear from people usually go something like, “This year was so bad… This year destroyed me… How did I get here? How did I get to this point?” We reflect on the past year and all we see are the bad experiences we faced. We see only the rocky terrain in this wilderness of life and wonder how we have gotten to this point of despair or stress in our lives. Perhaps we even think, “How could God lead me here? How could God let all these bad things happen to me?”
And what do we do to answer this question? We think God is the problem and move to rely on ourselves. So, we make New Year’s resolutions to be a better person—to “be a better version of myself.” While these resolutions can be good for self-discipline, the danger is always to trust in ourselves rather than God. The running joke is that we spend the first one or two weeks of January at the gym before we spend the remaining weeks at the local bar.
We seldom fulfil our New Year’s resolutions, and when we don’t, we feel worse about ourselves than we did at the end of the previous year. Or maybe we actually do keep the resolution we made but it didn’t have the outcome we expected—it didn’t help us feel any better about ourselves. Or if it did, it didn’t last long. Then at the end of the New Year, we groan about how bad the year was again and also blame God again, making another resolution, and the cycle repeats.
And maybe you did have a bad year. Maybe a friend or loved one passed away this year. Maybe your health is declining with age. Maybe you’ve been in between jobs. Maybe you’ve had trouble finding a job. Maybe you’re struggling financially. Maybe depression is becoming too heavy of a burden for you to bear. Maybe addiction has mastered your will too strongly.
Maybe you cannot help but see the rocky terrain this year has brought into your life, recalling all those times you’ve stumbled and fallen.
Gospel into the New Year
Maybe this year has been a bad year for you, but you’re here, aren’t you? By “here” I don’t mean, “You woke up and you’re alive today,” which is certainly a blessing from God Himself. By “here” I mean: You are here at the Lord’s house where you receive His Word and Sacraments—where you receive His covenantal promise. Or maybe you didn’t have a bad year, but you’re still here, and thanks be to God for that!
Because you have a Shepherd who leads you to green pastures and beside still waters. He brings you here to His house week in and week out. Through the wilderness of each week, He guides you through work, school, troubles, and stresses to bring you here to His house where you can lie down and rest in the pasture of God’s Word, the still waters of your Baptism, and come to the table of the Lord’s Supper.
About two years ago in January in my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Israel for college credit. I’ll never forget one of the sites there: it was an unlikely oasis in the middle of the desert called En Gedi.
That might not sound familiar to you, but you know what it is. It’s the oasis where God led David to hide from King Saul, and where David first spared Saul’s life. To get there, we had to go through one of the deserts. Now, we got to take the bus, but they didn’t have buses in those days!
When you get there, there’s still some barrenness at the bottom of the oasis with some acacia trees with big thorns this big (which, by the way, were the thorns they crowned Jesus with). It took about 30 minutes to hike up around 700 feet in elevation to get to the area they believed David was, going through desert-like cavernous tunnels and cliffs. The closer we got to the top, the more you could tell the oasis was near. And let me tell you, once we got there, the sight was worth it!
We got there and there were these green pastures hanging on the walls, a tall waterfall pouring down with a pool of still waters beside it. And at the waterfall was a little rainbow, the sign of God’s covenantal promise to all creation that He would never destroy it by flood again.
Such is life with our Shepherd through the wilderness of each week. The path may be rough and hard, but each week He brings you here to the green pastures to feed on His Word, hearing and remembering His promise for you; resting in the calm waters of the promise in your Baptism, and coming before the table of the Lord’s Supper where Christ welcomes you into His family. He has led you here every week this year, and because your Shepherd is a God who does not change, this will not change into the New Year.
It is here in His Word and Sacraments where Jesus’ words are fulfilled for you, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” [Matthew 11:28-30].
And where you are right now is precisely where Christ’s gracious invitation of rest is given to you in His Word and Sacraments. Surely, then we can say with the psalmist on this eve of the New Year that God’s “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” This is true for you now and shall continue tomorrow upon the dawn of the New Year. And all this is for you so that at the end of the path of righteousness in which God is leading you every year, you shall behold His glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” [John 1:14].
The path of righteousness is hard and rough, but God promises you the sight at the end will be worth it! At the end of this path is the sight of the New Jerusalem—God’s eternal house—in which lies the still waters of the River of Life running through the green pastures with the Tree of Life planted therein [Revelation 22:1-2], and in which you shall partake in the Heavenly Banquet with all the saints, unfathomable rainbow-like colours protruding from God’s throne throughout His entire new creation.
And God Himself is shepherding you to the green pastures and still waters of the new creation through His Word and Sacraments in the here and now, continuing tomorrow and forevermore. Amen.