I am thinking that this year our overall theme might be “Experiencing God”.
Sometimes we talk about the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Knowing about God simply means knowing some of the theory. A complete heathen could know about God. Knowing God is completely different. It means having a relationship with God. Most of us would probably say that we have a relationship with God. At some point we chose to put our faith in Jesus; we pray, we read the Bible, we meet with other Christians. We have a relationship with God. We know God.
Some of us might have made New Year resolutions because we want to deepen that relationship with God. Our prayer life isn’t what we would really like it to be; our Bible reading isn’t very regular or very satisfying or whatever. That desire to know God better is a great thing. I applaud it and if I can do anything to help you, please let me know.
But the Hebrew word “to know” is much deeper. To know means to know from personal experience. Consider the difference between a new graduate from a military academy and a veteran soldier. The graduate might know all about warfare. He might have been the top of his class. But he hasn’t experienced war. But the soldier who has experienced it understands war in a very much deeper way.
So, for a Jew to say, “I know God” means “The knowledge I have of God I have gained from experience of God. This is the God I know in my own personal experience.” So you could perhaps say to a Jew, “How do you know God is loving?” and he/she would be able to go beyond quoting scriptures about the love of God. He/she would be able to tell you of his/her experience of God’s love.
Imagine someone asked you to tell of your experience of God’s love. Could you tell stories of having experienced God’s love? Or God’s provision? Or of answered prayers? What if someone asked you to tell him about the Jesus you know – not repeat biblical information but tell about your experience of Jesus?
It is reasonable, is it not, that someone could enquire about the reality of what we say we believe? You say that God answer’s prayers. Does He really? Give me some recent examples. Show me that what you say works in real life. Or is it just theory? Our experience of God is important to our credibility when we say we know God.
I think too the most important question after someone has been to worship is not were they warmly welcomed? Was the music good? Was the sermon interesting? The most important questions is: Did they encounter God? Did they experience God? Those other questions are important. We should be nice to people who come, but ultimately the question is: Did they come into the presence of God?
But it is important, first and foremost, because God intends our relationship with Him to be one in which we experience Him.
Let’s do some brainstorming. Tell me all the ways you can think of that people experienced God in the Bible. Fill in the blank: In the Bible God _______ people. And, if you can, give me an example.
- spoke e.g. burning bush
- defeated enemies e.g. Goliath
- punished/wrath e.g. Sodom & Gomorrah
- healed e.g. Naaman
- showed mercy, compassion, love e.g. Ninevah
- guides e.g. pillar of fire
- forgave e.g. David’s adultery
- taught e.g. Ten Commandments
- required obedience e.g. Ten Commandments
- provided e.g. manna
- empowered/gifts of the Spirit e.g. Elijah
- blessed/answered prayer e.g. Hannah
A related question: In what ways did people experience Jesus?
- healed e.g. 10 lepers
- delivered e.g. Legion
- was compassionate e.g. Samaritan woman
- taught e.g. Sermon of the Mount
- preached e.g. Sermon on the Mount
- was angry e.g. in the temple
- made God and God’s Kingdom visible e.g. Transfiguration, feeding of 5000
- served e.g. washed the disciples’ feet
- provided e.g. wedding wine.
What is your response when you look at those examples? Would you like to have that sort of relationship with God? Does it happen today? What do you think of those people who talk as if God is always talking to them? Can we realistically expect to experience God on a daily basis?
We will need to consider those questions and others but, for the moment, let us consider Psalm 23.
When David thinks about his relationship with the Lord what image does He choose? What is God like? The Lord is my shepherd. We will look at the psalm but what does that image convey? It is surely an image of presence. The shepherd spends his days with the sheep. The sheep doesn’t experience the shepherd only every few months or years. This is a daily relationship.
It is an image of care. It is an image of gentleness and strength. The shepherds cares for the sheep and looks after them in all sorts of ways – providing for them; protecting them, leading them. Sheep are somewhat helpless. They have a reputation for being a bit stupid. They are largely defenceless against predators such as wolves or bears. They are dependent on the shepherd. Without him they are very vulnerable.
The flip side of that is that the shepherd is superior to the sheep in the sense that the shepherd is the leader; the sheep are the followers. The shepherd is in charge. He makes the decisions. And yet, his decisions are motivated by his love for, and care of, the sheep.
That is the type of relationship David says he has with God. The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is with me daily. He loves me and cares for me, protecting me and providing for me. He leads. I follow. But he leads in ways that are good for me. He loves me.
It is a very short psalm but David itemises some ways in which the Lord is His shepherd.
I lack nothing. That speaks of God’s provision… in all areas. I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. Chris and I spent a week camping at Moke Lake, near Queenstown. One day we drove up to Glenorchy and Paradise. I have memories of visiting Paradise in 1974 with my parents and sisters – memories of lying in lush green grass surrounded by daisies and cows, with a blue sky and golden sun overhead and mountains all around. It genuinely felt like Paradise.
If we think of God being a tough slave-driver, this image seems completely different. God gives me rest in pleasant places with all that I need. I am not driven; my shepherd gives me peace and contentment.
He leads me beside still waters. That is a similar image. He knows my needs and He leads me to where I can drink.
He refreshes my soul. No doubt David sometimes felt battered and bruised, exhausted, drained, helpless, hopeless. But the Lord restored him; built him up again; re-created Him. This is God’s healing; making whole, making strong. Busyness can leave us feeling depleted. Failure can mean we feel defeated. Rejection wounds us. All sorts of things undermine our wellbeing but God makes me strong again.
He guides me along the right paths for His name sake. Guidance. The shepherd shows the best way. The Lord guides me. The Lord helps me make decisions. There is a right path. God knows what is right and God is concerned that His sheep follow the path of righteousness. But He doesn’t leave the sheep struggling to know what is right. The Lord guides His sheep.
For His name sake. Think of the shame you feel when a Christian is on the news for doing something quite unchristian. God’s reputation suffers. God is mocked. However, when people follow God’s leading and walk in righteousness, God is honoured.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Sometimes life is extremely hard. David talks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. He is in a valley. The shadow of death falls on him.
But what does he say of his shepherd? Even in those circumstances, he fears no evil. Why? Because God is with him. This speaks of the companionship of God; the presence of God; the comfort of God, even in dark times.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. The shepherd carried a shorter stick (the rod) and a long staff. They were his power and could be used to fight off attacking wolves, prod the wandering sheep, rescue the sheep in trouble, or disciplining the rebellious sheep. Knowing that His God had power and could protect him was a comfort to David. Even the discipline of a loving God was a good thing if David was straying. Knowing that the shepherd loved him enough to correct him was a comfort. His shepherd was well-equipped to deal with every situation and so David was at peace.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Sheep don’t eat at tables! The image changes at this point from God the shepherd to God the welcoming host. Even though he is surrounded by enemies, God is preparing a celebration. Life can be difficult now but God controls the future. God will not be defeated. His people might suffer in the short-term but in the long-term, justice will prevail. God’s people will celebrate.
You anoint my head with oil. Guests were welcomed by having their heads anointed. It was a sign of extravagant welcome from the host and a sign of love. But anointing was also a sign of blessing or of being chosen and appointed to a task. I am not sure when David wrote this psalm. We might think of his earlier life when he was a shepherd out in the hills with his sheep but maybe he wrote it later, when he was king, simply using that image of the shepherd. The priests were anointed with oil. Kings were anointed with oil as a way of indicating God’s choosing and God’s equipping for the task.
So there is the picture of God welcoming us with extravagant joy but also David says that God has chosen Him. God has called him His own and has given him His blessing and equipped him for the role he has been called to. And God has chosen all of His people to be co-workers with Him in His Kingdom work.
My cup overflows. I have more than I need. I am abundantly blessed. At the beginning David said he lacked nothing. In fact, he has more than he needs because he has a generous shepherd and host.
Surely goodness and love with follow me all the days of my life. That says something about the nature of God. David’s experience tells him that the shepherd (who is also the host) is good and loving. But it also says something about the faithfulness of God. God will not change. God will not abandon him. David is confident of God’s faithful, caring presence that will never fail. His past experience of God convinces him that God is good and that God is trustworthy.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Everything in the psalm has been about David’s present, everyday experience of God. But to cap it off, there is also the promise of dwelling with Him forever.
Does it not seem that David is describing an everyday relationship with God? He saw God as the shepherd who provided, gave peace and contentment, healed and restored, guided, was a real, comforting presence in dark times and who acted in power to protect, aid and correct. This shepherd would right wrongs; would act justly. He chooses and empowers. He gives more than we need. He is good and loving and has promised to be with us always. All that and there is heaven.
Can we read this psalm and say, “That is my experience. The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.”? Could we tell stories that illustrate each of these points? What is your experience of God?
I suspect that there is no reason why we cannot experience God like the characters in the Bible did and I’d like to go on a journey to explore that. That has implications for our worship; for our mission; for our daily lives at work, at home, wherever. I am not sure where this might take us but does experiencing God interest you? Can we help each other to do that?