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What Will You Do With Jesus
August 28, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 27:15-23

We're working our way through the 23rd Psalm, taking about three phrases each Sunday, under the general title of “Relax in the Lord”. Today we reach the verses in which the word enemies occurs, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Many people are disturbed by the idea of enemies. Here we have a pastoral scene of a shepherd taking care of sheep. It is very beautiful, calm, peaceful. We’re emphasizing the care of God, the protection of God, and then suddenly enemies are inserted, an intrusion. 

Enemies appear in many of the psalms and sometimes many people are disturbed or they're confused. They don't quite know what to do with the enemies. A psalmist will be talking, praising God, thanking God, rejoicing in God and in God's salvation, and then suddenly, he lashes out against enemies. This disturbs some people. In fact, as you go through the Responsive Readings in the back of the hymnal, most of which are out of the Psalms, and compare them with the original, you will find that many of the enemy verses have been taken out. They've removed them. It embarrassed them—the idea that we should lash out at enemies— but in removing enemies from the psalms, removing enemies from our prayers and our concerns, tends to lead us into a fantasy world. 

The harsh real world in which you and I live day by day has enemies. There are enemies out to get us. There are enemies who attack us in our daily living. Enemies are very real and viable. The concept of enemies was very important in the Bible. God was asked to deliver them from their enemies. So putting the enemies back in, recognizing the fact that this world is basically not friendly, leads us to a more realistic faith. The world is basically not friendly to you and me. Whether we're trying to achieve health, success, trying to serve God, seeking to the best kind of people we can be, there are enemies that are unfriendly and hostile. 

Sheep had many enemies. There were poisonous plants that grew among the grass so that the good shepherd had to precede the sheep into the green pastures to remove the plants that would harm them. In recent times, there was an article of a shepherd who lost 300 sheep in that country because he failed to remove the poisonous weeds. There were enemies. Wild animals attacked the sheep. 

But the term also means more than natural enemies that oppose the sheep. When the word “enemies” is used in the psalms, it referred also to national enemies and one's personal enemies, to individuals who are out to get you. But usually the term enemies referred to a mythological monster—symbolically the forces of evil, the forces of chaos. God created the world, according to Genesis, out of chaos. God established order in the midst of chaos, and God's creativity day by day is holding order in the midst of chaos. Chaos surrounds us and whenever it can, intrudes, invades and destroys the creation. All of you who like to garden know that's true. You turn your back on your garden for a short time and you see what chaos has done. Chaos is on every hand and it's one of the realities of life. The process of building up, the process of making something good and beautiful in your life or in your garden or in your business is long, slow, arduous, tedious. But the process of tearing down, of destroying is fast and rampant.  

“Enemy” also refers to death. Often in the Old Testament, life and death are contrasted. All that would destroy life, that inhibits life and interferes with life is called death. To be on guard against death is to watch out for one's enemies. Death as an enemy was referred to even in the New Testament. In the New Testament lesson, which was read this morning, Paul wrote, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Christ conquered the last enemy of death. In the 23rd Psalm, some translations say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Other translations, like the Good News Bible says “the deepest darkness”. When a shepherd could not lead his sheep from one pasture to another on the mountain top, he had to take them down into a ravine, a craggy, rocky, deep, gloomy, dark ravine to get them to another path, another pasture. This was a very harsh and cruel countryside in which he had to lead the sheep through the valley. Valley isn't a very adequate translation—a rocky, gloomy ravine is a better translation. 

And down in this deep area, 500 feet below sea level, it was hot. Down in this ravine were animals—bears, leopards, cobra snakes. There were animals who attacked the sheep on every hand. Also down in this ravine, there were bandits who ambushed travelers. Bandits, when they were hungry, would snatch a few sheep for their food. It is interesting how they captured the sheep. Sheep are very fearful of death. So a bandit would take a carcass of an animal—sheep or a leopard—and throw it in the midst of the flock. The sheep being terrified of death, would out of fright run in all directions which made it very easy for the bandit to pluck one or two. 

Through this valley of the shadow of death, this enemy, the shepherd led the sheep. Beware not to confuse the rod and the staff as enemies. The psalmist quickly asserts that the shepherd's rod and the shepherd’s staff offer comfort. The shepherd carried the rod to protect, to ward off the animals from the sheep. The rod is the shepherd’s way of protecting. And the shepherd carried the staff to help the sheep. When a sheep strayed away from the flock, or when it got too near the edge of a precipice, when it got in a dangerous area, the shepherd would put out the staff, insert it between the hind legs, turn it, put the crook around one leg and pull him back into the herd. Now that was probably painful. It probably hurt. It probably angered the sheep, if he's smart enough to know enough to get angry! But it was for his own good. It was for his own discipline. Many times when we are disciplined, we must not call that an enemy, but realize it's for our own good. Pain, suffering is for our own good. We can find meaning in it. Sometimes when we are made to lie down because we've been abusing our bodies, it's a painful, suffering time, but it's a discipline for our own good. The shepherd hurts the sheep in order to save it.

Back to the enemies. What are our enemies today? Certainly death is still an enemy. Certainly death causes fear in us as it did with ancient people. Death can be named an enemy. But, also enemies are all that which attack us, bring chaos into our lives, inhibit and prevent us from relaxing in the Lord. Enemies prevent us from being nourished, from doing our best performance. Enemies are all those things attributed to modern life that attack and tear us down like nervousness, worrying, fear, being upset, getting over-involved and over-invested in things so that our energy is going down some futile path that doesn't lead anywhere. It's not productive to get all worked up, upset and getting ulcers. Worrying, anxieties, pressures on us today can be called enemies— all that attacks us and tries to keep us from being who God created us to be— like guilt. People are twisted and tied up in knots of guilt. Oh, if I'd only said that, or if I'd never said that, or if I'd only done such and such, or if I'd not done such and such. People tied up with guilt, shyness, or inhibitions prevents them from being the kind of people God made them to be. When we go off on the paths of unrighteousness, when we stray off the path with greed or pride, or whatever motivations, and ambitions that bring chaos rather than God's glory is an enemy. 

What do we do when the enemy comes? What did the psalmist say? The Psalmist said, “You (that is the Lord) prepares a table in the presence of my enemies. Just think of that image. There's some controversy over what that image meant. Some people say it meant the shepherd leading the sheep into the pasture, going before the sheep, removing the poisonous weeds, driving off the animals, watching, looking for the snakes. And after the shepherd had prepared the pasture, then the sheep could feast in the presence of his enemies. 

Other people interpret this as saying that the author has now switched to a new image—the host entertaining a stranger. It was a hard and fast rule of the nomadic desert life that when a stranger came to you, you fed the stranger, you cared for the stranger and you protected the stranger. In fact, even a fugitive fleeing from enemies, fleeing from authority or whoever, if he came to your tent, asked for a meal, asked for protection, you would take him in and feed him. No one could intrude into the sanctuary of that tent. No one could invade the tent, he was under the protection of the host. Literally, a fugitive could eat the meal in the presence of his enemies who could only watch, who could not touch him. 

I like that image. The Lord prepares a table, a banquet for you. You sit down at the table heavily laden with all good things to eat. Your cup is constantly replenished. In fact, it runs over. Enjoy the meal. Relax at the banquet. We have friends who differentiate between eating and dining. Eating is what we do most of the time. We gobble it up to get to wherever we want to go. But when they go to a restaurant, they say to the waiter or waitress. “We want to dine,” and dining means eating for two hours. Dining means savoring the food, talking, relaxing, enjoying, being nourished spiritually as well as physically. The enemies are over there. They can't touch you. Put them over there. Objectify all of them. Whatever upsets you, whatever tears you down, whatever makes you worried, upset and nervous, put it over there. They cannot touch you. Objectify them, name them as Jesus named the demons. When Jesus named the demons, they fled. To name them was to bring them out in the open. That they couldn't handle.

Name what was bothers you. Name it, bring it out in the open. Let the light of God shine on it. Objectify it and set it over there. Enjoy the feast. The host protects you in the presence of the enemies. God prepares the table. And secondly, when the enemies come, when we reach this part of the psalm, the author suddenly uses the second person and not the third. Up to this point, the psalmist used the third person. He talked about the shepherd, the Lord or “he”. But now, when he goes through the valley of the shadow of death, when he meets a crisis, suddenly he switches to the second person. He says, “You are with me. You prepare a table.” God becomes personal. Someone over there in the third person now comes to be very personal. In the conflict with enemies, in the struggle with hostile forces, in the midst of crisis, he found God to be a “you”. He found God to be personal, close, real, loving, dynamic and able to protect, to care, to prepare the table. The result? 

I will fear no evil. I will not fear. I will not be afraid for you are with me. Hang up the enemies. Let them sit over there while you feast, while you rejoice in the care of the host, fearing nothing, not even the enemies. Not even death.

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris