• Steve Johnson

Psalm 23, Christmas in Revelation and a 'Tree' to Decorate

Updated: Mar 25

How amazing to find that Psalm 23 was one of the lectionary texts this week! This passage is descriptive of so many of the places we are living right now. I’m guessing there aren’t many of us who feel like

we are living beside still waters right now. Everything calm and easy, life is good and everything’s alright for you today? Probably not. OK, how many of you are laying down in green pastures? Not there either? No, I suppose there are other parts of this Psalm that are more descriptive of our current situation.

How many of you feel like you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death today, or you’ve been through that valley this week? You’re just barely makin’ it, your scared or lonely or tired or worn out? You’ve been stressed and maybe confused or frustrated by the difficulties and even cruelties of life in the real world? How many of you feel as if you’ve sat down to dinner with the enemy this week? Or every time you think things are starting to straighten out, your enemy is there to knock you back down again, you hear more bad news or a new threat has been revealed?

This Psalm is so realistic, so vivid and earthy, it is a clear reminder that David lived right in the middle of the real world. One minute he was skipping along in the hills around his house, herding sheep and writing songs and strumming his harp and occasionally slingin’ rocks at lions and tigers and bears, oh my!, and then the next minute he’s picked and anointed to be the next king and then he’s fighting a giant and then his own king gets jealous of him and throws his spear at David and then David because a fugitive and the King, Saul, chases him through the wilderness for the next twenty chapters of the bible! David definitely lived in the real world. His green pastures and valleys of death may have looked slightly different than ours, but they were definitely real!

That’s the attraction of this Psalm for many of us - the “realness” or sense of reality we sense when we read it. We all face difficulties. We are real people, and we all walk through valleys. So, what does this passage say by way of encouragement for us? Why do we turn to this passage in times of mourning our sadness, and how should it comfort us? Before we go much further, I want to tell you another real story, a story that tells us about living life in the real world.

This is a strange retelling of a story that you are very familiar with - this is Christmas in March, and our story is the Revelation version of the Christmas story! There once was a beautiful lady who was in the pangs of childbirth, and suddenly a dragon, snarling, spitting, enraged and enlivened with hate, appeared and stood before the expectant mother, ready to devour her unborn child. The lady gave birth to a little, tiny, fragile baby, a boy who, according to the story, was born to rule. The dragon was jealous of this baby boy’s destiny to rule and thought that he would snatch this baby up and destroy him so that he, the dragon could rule instead. But the baby was swept up to heaven by God before the dragon could destroy him. So the dragon decided the next best thing would be to destroy the woman, who gave birth to the baby, and he began to chase her through the wilderness, where she had run to hide from the dragon. As he was chasing her, she grew wings like an eagle, and he couldn’t catch her. And then, a great river shot out of his mouth and he thought he would drown her, but the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river, and the woman got away!

The dragon was very angry at the woman, so, because he couldn’t catch her or the child to whom she had just given birth, he decided to go off and make war against the rest of the woman’s children. What a great story! I took it almost straight off the pages of Revelation 12. In this story, John is trying to encourage the early church, all of whom are being persecuted by the Roman government under Nero. John is painting a picture for them of the world that they live in. He, like David, understood reality, and he painted this world of reality in stark, graphic images. David tells us about streams and valleys and we can think of places that we’ve been and feelings that we’ve felt. John tells his churches about this incredible story of an angry dragon that wants to rule the world and about a woman giving birth to this innocent little child who is destined to rule and we can almost see the incredibly powerful dragon hovering over this defenseless child with his horrible wings wafting the air. We can almost taste fear as we smell his sulfury breath and see his evil yellow eyes! And we just know that this poor baby is a gonner. But that’s not the way it happens. This hulking dragon is foiled at every turn and the baby gets away. The mother, who in Revelation symbolizes for us the Twelve tribes of Israel, and in bigger picture symbolizes for us the history of the chosen people of God, gets away because she takes up the wings of an eagle, reminding us of Isaiah’s promise that God’s people will mount up on wings like eagle’s, they will renew their strength, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint! And following this incredible picture of a woman sprouting wings, we see the dragon spit a river and we think again “Oh boy, she’s a gonner!” But then, the earth opens its mouth and swallows the river, and she gets away! Kind of like when the people of God were running from Pharoah’s army and the Red sea opened before them and they walked out on dry land, then swallowed up the army of Pharoah as they followed them into the dry sea bed! Kinda like when God’s people had been in the wilderness and the prepared to enter the promised land and the river Jordan just stacked up and waited for them to pass! And the woman gets away. And now the angry dragon turns his attention to the other children of the woman. Guess who that is? Well, according to Revelation 12:17, “it is those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” That’s us, right?

So, let’s see if we can summarize. A giant, angry, power-hungry dragon is going to battle a defenseless, newborn baby for control of the planet, winner is the ruler of the world. And the baby wins? And then, this same dragon begins to chase a woman who has just given birth through the desert, and she gets away? Is that right?

Let’s go back to David. Israel has a king in Saul who is the biggest, strongest, fastest, handsomest man in the kingdom, and yet Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, decides that he needs to anoint David, this little tiny shepherd boy, as the next king, while Saul is still alive? Then, David, this little tiny shepherd boy goes into battle against a giant that all the other soldiers in the kingdom, including Saul, are scared of, and he wins? Then, because Saul is jealous of David, he tries to pin him to the wall with his spear, then begins to chase David through the wilderness with all his armies, and David gets away? Is that right?

So, what do we see in these stories that has anything to do with us? Well, I’m gonna leave that up to you to decide for the most part. But I do want us to go back to Psalm 23 for just a minute. I’d like you to notice two things about this text. First, whether the author is describing a cool stream or a beautiful green pasture or a scary, dangerous mountain valley, there is one thing these places have in common. God is there. And for David, as for us, when we go through them, we are being LED by our great, loving shepherd, God himself. We are never alone. We are never defenseless or abandoned! The same God who snatched up the defenseless baby from the jaws of an angry, power-hungry dragon is leading us through the valley of the shadow of death. The same God who helped the woman escape in the desert and delivered David from Saul is hosting us at the dinner table of our enemies.

This leads us to the second important thing we need to recognize in this text. Did you notice that it switches metaphors on us? Through the whole Psalm we’ve been seen the Shepherd leading us, and then, all of a sudden, in vs. 5, without warning, God goes from being the shepherd to the host of a great banquet. Now, this shift is difficult to understand unless we keep one picture, one ancient custom in mind. It was customary for the conquering king in a great battle to bring the losing king, the vanquished king, back to his palace for a victory dinner, at which the vanquished king would sit at the feet of the conquering king, a sign of his lose and humiliation.

You know, I think we may see this same action in our story of the dragon as well. In Revelation 12:7-9 we hear the description of a colossal battle: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” The great dragon was thrown down, thrown out of heaven. But, I think before this happened, there was a banquet, don’t you? And I think at this banquet, a little baby, grown to be a man, the Son of God himself, sits on the Throne, the conquering King, and the dragon, bedraggled and defeated, humiliated and beaten, sits at the feet of Jesus, our Savior, at the victory dinner!

Today, as you huddle in your homes, waiting out the storm of the coronavirus that rages all around you, I want you to remember these images, I need you to cling to these truths. If God can claim victory over these incredibly powerful enemies, tall kings and powerful red dragons, by using little shepherd boys and newborn babies and postpartum mothers, surely, if you will let him, he will lead you in paths of righteousness and victory for His names sake through these days of danger and difficulty, and you will dine with your King with your enemies at your feet.

Now, go decorate that Ps. 23 Christmas Tree!

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Heather K. Barclay & Justin Leonard