By Michael Milton
Monday, November 01, 2004
Thanksgiving is a time that marks the beginning of a very special holiday season. It seems that it comes earlier each year. Or is that our age? One thing is clear: the holiday season causes us all to think about the things that matter most. We think of family, of friends, of hopes and dreams. We think about our deepest longings. We might even think about our deepest needs.
It is not wrong to think about our needs. What gets us in trouble is where we go to get our needs met. So often, family gatherings are tense times. One of the reasons is that we come to the gatherings with bad memories of how this or that person did not meet our needs. An adult son can't help but look up at the dad who is offering thanks. He sees the busy workaholic father who missed the Boy Scout badge presentation. An aging woman works alongside her daughter-in-law in the kitchen, beneath the smiles and helpful hands, is a heart that is bitter over the perception that the daughter-in-law's insecurity has divided the aging woman from her son. And so it goes. Houses brimming with apparently thankful people, but who are filled with disappointment and unmet needs.
The problem is, God wants us to take our deepest needs to Him. The hope is, when our needs are met by God, we can deal with each other with more mercy, more grace, and more forgiveness.
So what do we do? Where do we go? I offer you what I think is the perfect prescription for peace this holiday season:
From the opening of David's unforgettable line, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." the believer or seeker is led to see how this God of David's provides for the deepest needs of those who will believe.
HE PROVIDES FOR OUR PHYSICAL NEEDS
"He makes me to lie down in greed pastures, He leads me besides still waters."
David's classic Psalm is written in a familiar setting: the pastoral and serene setting of a shepherd's field. David knew this setting well, of course. The shepherd's pasture was the place where God met with David. It is the place where David's soul broke forth in composition of songs and heart felt praise. It was far from the cold stones of a formal temple. But it was far greater than any temple, any cathedral. When things went badly for David, when kings threw spears at him, when a son rose up against him, when his own sins robbed him of precious opportunity to do good and enjoy blessing, David went back to the pasture. What did he focus on? David focused on how God met the most basic of needs: physical needs. This is the God who gives green pastures, and still waters. Both are needed for healthy sheep. Sheep need good green grass to give them the nutrients they need. They need still water, because they can't or won't drink rushing water. In the pasture of God, He meets the most basic of needs.
Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." We are to look to God for our physical needs. Our food, our health, our housing, our basic life's necessities are provided by God.
David would write,
"I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread."
So Jesus tells us:
"Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on."
But then he asks the questions:
"Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?"
David's Psalm causes us to see God provides more than just physical needs:
HE PROVIDES FOR OUR SPIRITUAL NEEDS
"He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
One author wrote, "We are truly indefatigable in providing for the needs of the body, but we starve the soul."
David writes about this:
"Hungry and thirsty, Their soul fainted in them."
"For He satisfies the longing soul, And fills the hungry soul with goodness."
Abraham Joshua Heshel, an old Jewish theologian, before he died, reflected on his life and told the person with him, "I only asked for wonder and He gave it..." The soul longs for wonder. Much of the religious searching that is going on in our world today is simply the human soul in search of wonder. They have come to understand that life must be more than McDonalds and 401ks and expensive vacations. They are seeking for wonder. And thus these searchers go to extraordinary lengths to fill their hungry hearts and their thirsty souls with what they call "spirituality." Go to any bookstore and you will find an entire section devoted to "spirituality." Much of it has nothing to do with the God of David. The spirituality of this world is predictable. It is known. It is tame. Because it is a pseudo-spirituality made by man, sometimes quite ingenious, and quite creative, but still man-made. The problem is it lacks "wonder." The problem is, it lacks the wideness, the unfathomable riches of God in Christ, which is the wonder we are all looking for. In Kansas, where it can get real dry sometimes, the way you water a tree is by putting a hose at the base of the tree, and just saturating that tree for an hour or so. And that is what God invites us to do with our souls: To saturate the very roots of our lives with the wonder of Jesus Christ.
"He restores my soul." He brings dried out souls to life. He gives nutrients for growth. He gives rest for the weary and hope for the hopeless and comfort for the grieving, and sweetness for those embittered.
But David shows in this wonderful Psalm that God provides guidance to righteousness. Ultimately the naked soul of sinful man needs covering. We need righteousness. St. Paul taught:
"for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
Righteousness is that essential goodness, wholeness, and perfection which the soul desires. In the face of our own sin, though, the soul is frustrated. We try to produce our own righteousness to fill this basic human need. We call it religion. But it never produces the joy of the soul because ultimately we are unable to keep the rules of our own religion. When we come to that sort of poverty of spirit, though, Jesus says we are blessed. We are blessed because when we give up on religion, we are then ready to receive Him. Paul teaches:
"But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for as wisdom from God-and righteousness and sanctification and redemption"
1 Corinthians 1:30
I invite each of you tonight to receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ, if you have never done so, by turning to Him by faith. By confessing that you are spiritually bankrupt. To confess that you are thirsty for righteousness which you cannot manufacture, and to confess Jesus as the righteousness of God, is to begin to be filled, to have your soul's thirst quenched.
He restores our souls. He leads us into paths of righteousness.
God meets physical and spiritual needs for those sojourning through this life. But, what good is that if that is all there is? But there is more.
HE PROVIDES FOR OUR ETERNAL NEEDS
"Yea, those 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 day of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
David faced what each of us face: the dark shadow of death. The valleys of life that feel like death. The mystery of evil in the presence of a good and sovereign God. The unpredictable twists and turns of the pathways of life. The prospect that one day we will die. But David in this Psalm is proclaiming a God who is a Good Shepherd; a Good Shepherd who guides us with the rod and the staff into comfort. A Good Shepherd who will stand up for His sheep even in the presence of an Accuser, an enemy. A Good Shepherd who will anoint, that is heal our wounds.
Doesn't this sound like our Lord? He is the Good Shepherd. He told us,
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me."
And the gentle shepherd leads us all the way home.
AND ALL OF THIS CHANGES OUR LIVES
At the end of the Psalm David exalts in the life of a believer. A believer, who has all of his or her needs met in God, has a new heart and an eternal home.
"My cup runs over."
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me 11 the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
God meets our every need and in meeting our needs, He changes our lives. We are given joy for sadness. We are given a shelter for our lives in the place of a wandering nomadic existence apart from God.
THANKING GOD FOR THE NEEDS
So by the end of the Psalm, we see that the need actually leads us to the Lord. Our desires when dealt with according to God's Word lead us to Christ. Our hopes and our dreams, our longings and our human aspirations for meaning, happiness, hope and comfort lead us to the God of all comfort.
John Donne, the great seventeenth century Preacher-Poet of St. Paul's in London, prayed:
"O God, never suffer us to think that we can stand by ourselves, and not need Thee."
Our needs are known to God. They are important to God. And they are given to us by God to lead us to Him.
And in coming to Him, we may say with David, "I shall not want."
Michael A. Milton is Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, TN.