Monday, 23 March 2020

The shepherd king: Lent 4 Morning Worship

There will be no Sunday services in church for the time being, BUT there will be links to the podcasts of morning and evening worship each week - check back the church website on Sunday morning for the links.

Morning Worship Podcast        Morning Worship Service sheet
Evensong Podcast                    Evensong Service sheet
                                                      I've discovered you can't listen to the podcast and look at the service sheet at the same time. I have sorted out a fix, which I will apply to next week's podcast! Sorry about that. In the meantime, you'll need to print out the service sheet, or just listen along!

The church is still open every day at the moment for private prayer so do pop in if you can.

To join in with the daily prayer of the Church of England go to the  website here,
For a simpler form of daily prayer in times of need, check out my page here, or there is a downloadable version of these prayers and the simple order of service here.

Well, these are strange times, and no mistake. I don’t think any of us could have imagined, even a few weeks ago, that we’d be worshipping like this. But mercifully, God isn’t limited by place or time, and, thanks to the marvels of technology, we can still gather, even if it is remotely. In fact, it might even catch on. After all, you can come to this service in your pyjamas if you want to. I’ll never know! You don’t even have to get out of bed for it!

But it is strange, and unsettling dealing with this current crisis. Everyone I’ve spoken to this week has been worried. Some are worried about their own health, or that of family members. Others about their income, suddenly reduced or cut off completely, in the case of those who are self-employed. Some are worried about what they’ll do to occupy their children, or occupy themselves. If you are feeling scared, fed up, frustrated, angry, exhausted, at a loss to know what to do, you aren’t alone.

That’s why I thought it was important that we did what we could to encourage each other, and part of that is hearing, and saying, the familiar words we always say in church, the things that remind us that God is still here, with us wherever we are,. That’s why it matters that we continue to hear and ponder God’s word, too, those stories that nourish us and make us think.

Today’s Bible story was about the first appearance of  the person who’d  one day become King David, the greatest king in the Old Testament. But he’s not a king at this stage. In fact, he nearly gets forgotten about, like some ancient Cinderella who almost misses trying on the glass slipper at all.

The prophet Samuel comes to a little town called Bethlehem – a familiar name to us now, but just an obscure little hill-town, then,  a short distance from Jerusalem. He’s been sent by God to a Bethlehemite called Jesse. Why Jesse? We’re not told. It doesn’t sound as if he is especially holy or devout, but God knows something Jesse doesn’t, sees something Jesse doesn’t, that one of his sons will one day be king in place of the weak king Saul.

Samuel is almost as much in the dark about this as Jesse is.  He knows that one of these boys is the next ruler, but he doesn’t know which one. He naturally assumes it will be the eldest, especially as he is big and strong, but God tells him no. God  “doesn’t look on the outward appearance” , he says, but on the heart, and Eliab doesn’t have what it takes to be a king. Neither does Abinadab, or Shammah, or any other of the seven grown up sons of Jesse. “ Are these all the sons you have?” asks Samuel, at which point Jesse remembers David, little David, the youngest, who’d been sent out, as children often were, to look after the sheep, and probably get out from under everyone else’s feet. David is duly called for, perhaps resentfully, perhaps with bemusement. What has all this grown up stuff got to do with him, his family must be thinking?
But he is the one, the one whom God is calling, the one whom Samuel anoints.

Anointing was widely used in ancient Israel, as a sign of welcome, as a prayer for healing, and as a way of setting people aside for a special job, as priests or as kings. Samuel doesn’t explain what this particular anointing is for. He just anoints David, and then he leaves. I wonder what  Jesse and his family - and David himself – make of this, what they think has happened? It’s not till much later, long after that business with Goliath, the Philistine giant David kills, that it becomes clear that he’s to be the new king, who’ll replace the rather hopeless King Saul.

What was it that God saw in David, I wonder, which made him the right man for the job?  He wasn’t perfect, that’s for sure. When he was king the power sometimes went to his head, as it tends to do, including on one notorious occasion when he had an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military leaders, which started a disastrous chain of events that resulted in him arranging the murder of her husband. The child he’d conceived with her died too. It was a mess of monumental proportions. But when David was confronted with his guilt, he acknowledged it, changed and made amends. David wasn’t perfect. No one is. But he had an underlying strength of character rooted in a commitment to God which he could never walk away from.

He knew where his strength came from. It wasn’t his to own or control. It came from God. That gave him courage – not the sort of gung-ho disregard for consequences which springs from the need to look heroic, but the courage that runs deep, that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of emotion, that isn’t the result of the need to be admired. He had the kind of courage which comes from knowing we are rooted and anchored in something beyond ourselves, greater than ourselves, which alone can sustain us whatever has happened, whatever is happening, whatever will happen.

For David, that courage was rooted in God, nourished by the experiences he’d had as a shepherd boy. When he said to King Saul that he would take on Goliath, and was ridiculed for it – a small boy! he didn’t stand a chance! – his response was that he’d faced worse than that on the mountainsides, where wild animals roamed, as he tended his sheep. He looked King Saul in the eye, and told him, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine”. 1 Sam 17.37. And when Goliath was equally dismissive of him he said, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” 1 Sam 17.45. It’s not his own strength he’s trusting in, but God’s, and that sense of trust never completely deserts him, however off track he sometimes strays.

The psalm I read this morning is traditionally attributed to David, though whether he really wrote it is anyone’s guess. It’s the psalm of someone who knows about shepherding, though and it expresses the same sort of faith he had, the steady awareness that whatever we are going through, God is going through it with us. It’s a psalm about our journey through life, through the landscapes we all come to sooner or later. We don’t have to be shepherds to understand that. It talks about the landscapes we all know; the green pastures and still waters, the places where we feed and rest;
the paths of righteousness, the times when we have to try to work out what is right to do, and do it;
the valley of the shadow of death, the frightening, lonely times that come to us all, when it feels as if it all over.

But at the end of the psalm, it describes the place of welcome, where the table is spread and the feast is prepared, where we discover that the God who’s travelled with us has also gone ahead of us to make everything ready. It’s a place where we can find joy and peace, even “in the presence of those who trouble us”, the situations that we can’t resolve.

Whether it was written by David or not, it sounds like the kind of thing he could have composed, because it’s full of that deep-rooted awareness of the presence of God which he’d learned on the mountainsides, and drew on as he faced the challenges of kingship – sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always knowing that God was with him.

That’s a great thought for these strange times, when we’re all muddling through, trying to do the right thing in circumstances where there are no easy answers. These readings tell us that we’re not called to be superhuman. We are just called to be the children of God we already are, to know that we are his people, sustained and encouraged by him. We don’t have to do the impossible, and we can’t anyway – it’s not called impossible for nothing. We just need to remember who the shepherd is, and follow his voice, trusting that day by day, as we try to love and care for those around us – and ourselves - God will give us what we need to do so.


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