I was reading the other day that all the conversations we will have with each other will serve one of four purposes. Allow me a moment to explain.
We will have social conversations with one another. The purpose of a social conversation is simply to enjoy each other’s company, such as conversation we might have while sharing a meal. And so, we try to keep the conversation pleasant, and we follow the unwritten rule of social conversation which is to say nothing offensive. We simply want to enjoy the moment.
We have task-centered conversations in which people gather to pool their talents to accomplish some specific activity or project. We have task-centered conversations such as we might have in the workplace where assignments are discussed, agreed upon, and deadlines set.
We also have informational conversations in which the purpose is to give and receive information. An example of an informational meeting would be that we attend a class and are taught something and we ask questions on that topic to learn. Informational conversations provide us with the building blocks that allow us to make changes. Without instruction we are unable to change our present circumstances into something better. Some sermons are informational conversations because they equip us with what we need to know to make good choices in our life. Some sermons are not informational at all, they tend to be social conversations in which the preacher tries very hard not to say anything offensive to anyone. A conversational sermon is not a good sermon because one only needs to speak of Jesus in a public setting to realize that the message of the cross is offensive to many people. So, to speak about Jesus is no longer a social conversation. A sermon spoken without the possibility of offending someone is not worth delivering. Preachers must preach a message of content that they might expect someone to be offended simply because information was shared about Jesus that they did not want to hear.
So we have three types of conversations so far, social conversations in which we are pleasant, task-centered conversations in which we are trying to organize ourselves to do work, and informational conversations in which we are being equipped to make changes. The fourth type of conversation we will have with one another is a spiritual formation conversation. A spiritually centered conversation is one whose purpose is to celebrate the presence of God in our lives. A spiritually centered conversation is a freeing conversation because from it we come to realize what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through our lives. In such conversations, we feel a release from whatever constrains us, whether it is fear, anxiousness, discouragement, apathy, or confusion. A spiritually focused conversation energizes us to make ourselves available to do what God wants us to do. Spiritually centered conversations make us aware of God stirring us up within for greater purposes than socializing, tasks, and education. We are being changed into the likeness of Christ. When you celebrate God’s presence and you realize that holiness dwells in your soul, a tension develops within you between where you are now and where you now long to be. Spiritually centered conversations are rare, too rare. We need more preaching that leads us in spiritually centered conversations, and we need more conversations between each other that stirs the fire within us.
It is important for us to understand our conversations have a purpose to them and we have an opportunity and a responsibility to determine which type of conversation we should be having whether those conversations are social, task-centered, informational, or spiritually focused. And as we think about our conversations with each other and the purpose they serve, we must also realize that God wants a conversation with us. God’s conversation with us comes principally from His Word, the Bible.
Let’s think about the Bible for a moment. What sort of conversation is the Bible? I do not think the Bible is a social conversation. The Bible offends too many people. There are too many conversations about unpleasant topics like sin and hell for the Bible to be a social conversation. It does not seem to be a task-centered conversation. While there are some dos and don’ts in the Bible, we are left free to agree to do them or not. There is certainly a case to be made that the Bible is an informational conversation. Paul even says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And Paul is right, Scripture is useful for informational conversations to equip us. But I have met far too many people who treat the Bible as something to be studied as though one was studying history of the ancient peoples or literature. Those who treat Scripture, God’s Word, as just an educational resource has the foundational building blocks necessary for a spiritually centered life, but if they stop there, that the Bible is an educational tool alone, they never live the life the Bible encourages.
The purpose of God’s Word then must be for God to have a spiritual formation conversation with each of us. God’s Word is giving to us and should be read by us with excitement to see how and where God is present in our lives and how God is releasing us, freeing us, giving us tension as to where we are and where He wants us, and now we, want to be. The Word of God should stir us up – that is its purpose. The whole of gospel of Jesus Christ was to stir people up and to see that God was present among them. Yes, of course, what Jesus had to say was informative but if we left what Jesus said as a lecture, we would have missed the entirety of what God was doing in and through Jesus.
So today, I would like us to explore God’s Word, to see in part the informational elements to it, but more importantly to focus on the spiritual formation conversation God is having with us through the Bible. And I thought it might be useful to have such a conversation with a piece of Scripture that most people would know or at least heard before whether they were a believer or were here seeking. And that conversation from God is Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 consists of beautiful words that have been spoken on occasions grand and small, in public and private, in joy and in sadness. We have spoken of this psalm several times in our worship services, including today in our reading and in our hymns. Psalm 23 begins with the gentle opening words, “1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3). The words are soft and comforting. The words speak about a God whom the psalmist has become acquainted. God is not unknown to the psalmist. The psalmist likened God to a shepherd who was good at tending his sheep making sure to lead the sheep where they would find enough to eat and drink. There is little tension in what the psalmist said. The conversational tone is somewhat informational and educational bordering and may at first appearance seem like a social conversation because there is nothing in the psalmist words that are offensive or provocative. We find the opening to this psalm quiet and serene.
But something happens in the verse that follows, something hard and dangerous. There is a tension that overshadows the serenity of the scene painted in the first three verses. The psalmist writes, “4 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” (Psalm 23:4). The quiet waters and green pastures are replaced by a valley, deep and dark, with a narrow trail where it feels like death is all around. Evil has replaced the serenity and the psalmist looks for protection not for some God that he had heard about but from a God that He knows personally. A God that he now longer speaks about as “the Lord,” “My shepherd,” and “He” but the psalmist speaks to this God directly as “You,” saying “You are with me.” This God whom the psalmist once had heard of and spoke about is now a God whom he sees and knows.
The psalmist change in perspective parallel those of the Biblical character Job. Job we learn was a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Job was wealthy and had many children. Job was living in the land of green pastures and still waters. Job was a careful man who offered sacrifices to God in the hopes that doing so God would continue his days and the days of his family in comfort and peace. This is how Job imagined God, a God who blessed those who bless Him.
Then in a single, horrible day, Job wealthy was stolen, and his children died in a thunderous storm. Job was, of course, devastated. Job had left the green pastures and still waters and had entered the valley of the shadow of death. It was in that valley that God and Job had a conversation. It was not a social conversation, or a task-centered conversation, nor was it an informational conversation, though Job learned a great deal. Instead, the conversation God had with Job was spiritually formulative, it was transformational, and stirred Job in ways he never had been. When that conversation between God and Job ended, Job said, “5 My ears had heard of you (God) but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). Job no longer spoke about a God he had heard about but spoke to the God he now had seen personally and profoundly.
Job and the psalmist each had a transformative experience in which the journey through the valley of the shadow of death made them aware of the presence of God and God desire for them creating a freeing tension within them. In that tension, with a spiritual conversation stirring his heart, the psalmist saw God with fresh eyes and the psalmist saw his own circumstances quite differently. The psalmist wrote, “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:5-6). The psalmist saw God less as a shepherd and more as a savior.
Why did the psalmist change his perspective on God and change from talking about God to talking to God? The change came in the valley of the shadow of death. Whose death was it that the psalmist experienced in that valley? It certainly was not the death of the psalmist because the psalmist emerged from the valley. Was it the death of someone the psalmist loved, like the case of Job when his children died? It certainly could have been the death of a loved one through which the psalmist came to realize that God was present guiding each step of the way. It is certainly true that we will not get through grief from the death of a loved one without God.
But I think though there is another possibility the psalmist is alluding to the valley of the shadow of death. And that possibility gives rise to a deeper understanding of God. I think we should consider that in that valley of the shadow of death, the psalmist foresaw a death that transformed him from one who had heard about God to one who had seen God. That death stirred up the psalmist in such a way as to desire a personal relationship with a God above all other things in life. The death was the most profound death he could imagine, in fact, it was an unimaginable death.
I believe the death that the psalmist saw was the death the shepherd willingly endured for righteousness’ sake and for the sake of the sheep. Why might that be so? The death of Psalm 23 was perhaps described for us in Psalm 22, just one psalm earlier. The psalmist described the death this way.
A man stood accused and sentenced to death. In that man’s own words he said, “6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’ 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. 17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:6-8, 14-18). The psalmist is describing the crucifixion of a man but not just any man, but a man who would be anointed by God. This man we would come to know later as Jesus Christ. Before his death said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11) and “Jesus said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’” (Luke 24:44). In being witness to this death, a death that led to the salvation of the soul, the psalmist was transformed. The psalmist having witnessed this death of the shepherd was profoundly changed and expressed the gift of salvation coming from the valley this way: “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:5-6). That is psalmist way of describing salvation brought to him after the death.
The psalmist had had a conversation with God. Not one that was social, or task-centered, or informational. The psalmist talked to God and in doing so had a spiritually centered conversation that changed his life. It changed the psalmist life because the psalmist no longer spoke about the God, he had heard of, but he began speaking to the God he had now seen. A God who would himself taste death so that the psalmist could live.
The description of the death the psalmist saw was repeated for us in the Gospels of Jesus Christ. Luke wrote, “33 When they [the soldiers] came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him [Jesus, piercing his hands and feet] there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they [the soldiers] divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him [Jesus]. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One. 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he [Jesus] breathed his last. 47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’” (Luke 23:33-35, 44-47).
In Jesus’ own words, He said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning! I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49-50). Jesus upon the cross accomplished his mission for, “The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, for God had appointed Jesus to bring the Good News to the poor. God had sent Jesus to proclaim that the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18).
God through the accomplished work of Jesus Christ walked through the valley of the shadow of death for us. In doing so, Jesus has released us, freed us, given us tension as to where we are and where He wants us, and now we, want to be. This is the spiritual conversation God is having with us in the psalms and the gospels. This is the Word of God that stirs us up – that is its purpose. The whole of gospel of Jesus Christ is to stir us up to see the God we may only had only heard about.
The psalmist did not let what had been stirred up in him by letting the experience pass by. The psalmist was changed by experiencing God. We must not let what the psalmist foresaw, and what Jesus experienced for you settle quietly within your soul as a though the story of Jesus is one of green pastures and quiet waters. Instead, be transformed by it and enter the conversation with God as one that is intended to spiritually transform your being such that you desire God more than anything else in this world. Amen and Amen.