Usually when I preach, it’s the Hebrew Scripture or Gospel readings that draw me in quickly, that plant a seed which turns into a landscape that structures the way I see the other passages. Rarely do I feel that kind of pull to the Psalm. And yet, this week it’s the Psalm that has captured my imagination and attention, burying itself deep in my mind and my heart. It could be that the anxieties of the week – the stress of changing lifestyles, ways of gathering and being social, managing fear and worry about the unforeseen consequences of what we’re facing, and walking with those who are experiencing grief from the sudden loss of a loved one – that in these circumstances the Psalm provides a sense of familiarity and calm that seems somewhat reliable.
There is something comforting in times of distress about the image of God allowing us to rest in lush pastures, to drink deep from still waters, reviving our souls and guiding us along right paths. These images have the power to quell the fear and anxiety produced by the dangers and uncertainties that surround us. I wonder if there is a hint of why this is so in the structure of the song itself. As one commentator points out, there are 26 words before and after the phrase “for you are with me.”
This phrase, then, is the central declaration of the psalm, the emphatic point and foundation of the psalmist’s declaration of trust. The promise of comfort and abundance in the face of their enemies is believed because there is a visceral experience of God’s presence. And what’s more, this is not simply a static or stagnant presence. The translators of the psalm in our prayer book miss something of the immediacy and urgency of verse 6 as it reads in the original language. When we read “surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,” what would be more accurate would be to read, “surely your goodness and mercy pursues me all the days of my life.”
As Christians, we have a deep theological sense of God’s presence developed most acutely through our understanding of Incarnation. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. What this psalm opens up to us is a picture of God not simple with us as some kind of bystander in the midst of our grief, uncertainty, or fear. But a God who pursues us even, and especially, when our circumstances leave us feeling isolated and alone.
Many of us are having to learn new ways of doing life right now – as individuals, as households, as employees and employers. Some of us are already feeling the strain of this new normal financially, mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Some of us are feeling powerless to do anything and others are feeling overwhelmed with decisions we never thought we’d bear the responsibility to make. And yet, these circumstances present us with as much of an opportunity as they do a challenge – an opportunity to open ourselves to the pursuing presence of God, the divine presence that promises us comfort, renewal, and satisfaction. Even when we walk in the darkest of shadows, God continues to pursue us; even when we feel as if we have reached our breaking point, God’s goodness and mercy pursue us. There is no depth we can fall to that God will not be able to seek after us, to catch us in loving and compassionate arms and hold us in grace and mercy.
Whatever you face this week that causes you distress, fear, or grief, I pray that you will open yourself to this divine pursuit and allow God to refresh and revive you with divine comfort and peace.